A visit to Patrick Damiaens’ workshop in his home in Maaseik is a reassuring reminder that even in these days of mass-manufactured furniture, there is still a demand for the traditional skills of a master craftsman. Patrick is the only full-time ornamental wood carver and sculptor in Flanders, a unique position of which he is immensely proud. There are apparently a few part-timers and hobbyists, but no-one earns his living doing what Patrick does.
What he does is certainly impressive. His specialty is carving the decorations on Liège-style furniture. This is a style that arose in the 17th century. It’s characterised by delicately carved intricate decoration and drew Europe’s top carvers and cabinet makers to the Belgian city.
Patrick himself was educated at the Don Bosco Institute in Liège, where he studied ornamental wood carving for three years. That followed six years studying furniture making at the Sint-Jansberg College in Maaseik, Limburg province, which included a one-year wood carving course.
He works in close cooperation with four colleagues: a staircase maker, two cabinet makers and a furniture restorer, all of whom work independently. Between them they are responsible for turning planks of rough oak wood into stunning cupboards, chests of drawers, wardrobes, door frames, staircases, stereo cabinets and decorative panels.
In his workshop, Patrick explained to me the process involved. It starts with preparatory technical drawings, which can take a full month, since every decoration is unique and requires a totally new set of drawings. His first task is to make a rough sketch of the pattern, which might be based on an original item of furniture or be a Damiaens original, drawn in the Liège-style.
This is then presented to the customer, and, after any necessary amendments are made, the final drawing is done on tracing paper and pinned to the selected panel of wood. The design is then transferred onto the wood, which in most cases is French oak.
The next stage is the only time that Patrick uses a machine. He manipulates an electric milling machine to remove the bulk of the wood surrounding the design, after which the actual hand carving can begin. He uses a home-made scraper to remove the rough edges and excess wood missed by the milling machine, before bringing his vast collection of Swiss-made, razor-sharp carving chisels into action.
One reason Patrick never tires of his job is the variety of projects. Along with large items of furniture that take a year to complete, he carves and decorates a range of smaller pieces, such a coats of arms.
He also likes to set himself new carving challenges, such as working in the style of Grinling Gibbons, one of his heroes – a master wood carver from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He was born in Rotterdam but spent most of his career in England. Working mostly in lime wood, Gibbons is particularly well-known for his exquisite cascades of flowers, fruit and leaves, which were applied to furniture, walls and even chimneys. So detailed were his carvings that, in certain light, they look natural and life-like and have been likened to lacework.
And you definitely won’t find his beautiful wardrobes and cupboards in IKEA!