Burl Wood Bar

We found this amazing burl wood bar at a naval aviator’s estate sale. The wood reminds us of George Nakashima’s pieces. A gifted craftsman, Nakashima used matching burls, reversing them to create mirror images. Most of all, he loved natural slabs.

I want to believe we have a Nakashima, but the odds are not in our favor. Unfortunately, I can’t verify our burl wood bar because there are no maker’s marks. Even if this isn’t a genuine Nakashima, the craftsmanship that went into it is truly extraordinary.

Wood Burl Bar

George Nakashima, Woodworker

George Nakashima (1905-1990) stands as a premier craftsman of the 20th century. Born in the forested northwest U.S., in Spokane, Nakashima earned degrees in architecture from the University of Washington and MIT before exploring the world, living in France, Japan, and India.

He settled in Seattle in 1940 and married Marion, whom he met while in Japan. The bombing of Pearl Harbor forced Japanese Americans on the Pacific Coast into internment camps. George, Marion and 6-week old daughter Mira relocated to Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho.

Proving that hope can exist anywhere, George learned traditional Japanese woodworking skills from Gentaro (Gentauro) Hikogawa in Camp Minidoka, by using hand tools and joinery techniques. The Nakashima family left the internment camp in 1943 — unusual since the war continued another two years. A sponsor helped George, enabling the family to move to New Hope, Pennsylvania. They began to build.

Nakashima’s tables come at a premium price today, if you can find them. In his philosophy, the spirit of the tree guides the transformation of wood into an object that enhances people’s lives. Here’s a compelling video on George’s legacy:

Burl Wood

A burl is a tumor, a growth, in a tree’s grain. Hunski Hardwoods provides this information:

A  burl is a tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. It is usually found on the trunk, at the base of the tree, and sometimes underground in the form of a rounded outgrowth. It is caused by some kind of stress, such as injury, virus, fungus, insect infestation or mold growth. Burl wood is the wood that is harvested from that growth, and it holds hidden treasures of unusual design.burl woodburl wood

Burls result in a uniquely patterned wood, which is highly prized for its beauty. It is valued and sought after by artists, furniture makers and sculptors. Burl wood can be found in many tree species and is used in making furniture, different types of veneer, inlays, turning wood, gun stocks, music wood, and other household items. However, finding burls is rare.

Getting back to our burl wood bar, the front and top feature burl. A mirror image, like a Rorschach ink blot, appears on the front. It’s veneer. A solid burl walnut slab, however, rests on the top. The cut created a 2″ slab sculpted along the edges using recurves. This kind of line frequently appears in nature and complements the graining, swirling patterns visible on top and the raw edge.


After pulling our bar out of storage, a frustrated David discovered its walnut top showed evident damage — the polyurethane top coat had broken down. So, David undertook the labor-intensive and time-consuming job of stripping the bar top down to bare wood and refinishing it.

Wood Burl Bar
These next two photos provide details of the raw wood after stripping and sanding:

Burl Wood Bar
Stripped and Sanded Top: Example of Grain and Color of Wood

Burl Wood Bar

Here is the finished top:
Burl Wood Bar
The pattern of the grain flows like water. At certain angles the flat surface seems etched in three dimensions.

Burl Wood Bar

The front panel of the burl wood bar has the same effect. A close look at the mirror-image veneer reveals the outlines of three burled patterns that appear to be layered one on top of the other. This image draws the eye to the three-dimensional aviator insignia.

A cornerstone of Naturalism is the belief that humans become better in nature. The harmony of the natural world creates tranquility within ourselves. Studying this piece for hours allowed David to appreciate that truism, and after many hours of physical contact with the bare wood of the top, he found himself in a tranquil, Zen-like place.

The lines created by wood grain patterns affirm a harmonious connection to the trees that provided the raw materials for this wonderful sculpture. In a world of design where form follows function, George Nakashima believed the spirit of an individual slab of the wood led the woodworker to the design. This bar, properly maintained, will carry on the inner beauty of its trees for decades if not centuries.

Naval Aviator Insignia

Burl Wood Bar

Of course, we researched the insignia on the bar: Naval Aviator. The pilot probably commissioned a craftsman to make his bar and carve the insignia. Happily, our son Michael picked up a few photos at the aviator’s estate sale:

Naval Aviators
Text on back of photo: Vigilantes over the Bay of Naples, Italy with Mount Vesuvius in the background

Naval Aviators

The Naval Air Station (NAS) sits on the other side of the river from us, on the west side of Jacksonville. It doesn’t take a genius to speculate that our aviator served there and bought a home nearby.

Copper Foot Rail

Surprise! We thought we’d find a brass foot rail underneath all that tarnish. Nope. It turns out our bar is equipped with a sturdy copper rail. Since David immersed himself stripping and sanding, I got to scrub the tarnish off the rail. I donned rubber gloves and gathered up my lemons and salt.
Burl Wood Bar
Unfortunately, I scrubbed so vigorously that I undid some of my physical therapist’s success on my shoulder. I’m dealing with a torn rotator cuff. Therapist Erica had words with me on what I may and may not do.

David finished up the rail with Howard Brass and Cooper Polish. I had scrubbed the tarnish off, he told me, so all he had to do was put the shine back on the copper. He decided that using the Howards product would be easier and less time consuming than finishing up with a  natural product. That quick rub restored the brilliant cooper glow.

We hauled this piece to our booth at Avonlea Antiques and Design Gallery on Friday afternoon, in time for the evening Open House. Many appreciative folks stopped by to look at the bar and run their hands along the top. It’s a sensual experience.
Burl Wood Bar
Rarely, a piece of furniture comes into our lives and — because of the artistry in the making –finds a backdoor into our emotional self. This burl wood bar had that effect on David.

Thanks for stopping by. Remember, you can also find us on Facebook and Pinterest.

Ann Marie and David

2 Comments on Burl Wood Bar: George Nakashima’s Style

  1. Brenda Young
    December 17, 2016 at 12:48 am (5 years ago)

    Oh Anne Marie, what a beautiful piece that you guys were able to acquire and restore! I can just imagine the airforce cocktail parties and the stories this piece could tell. And I love the wood and artist history you included as well, burlwood is truly art in nature. Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful article and great refab at Friday’s Furniture Fix!

    • irisabbey
      December 19, 2016 at 8:38 pm (5 years ago)

      Brenda, we are so appreciative of your comments on our Burl Walnut Bar. David put so much work and love into it.


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