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The Naked Table Project: Sustainable Furniture Bringing Communities Together

September 30, 2009

Most of us know that buying local, sustainable products is the ‘right’ thing to do, but rarely do people get to engage in the process of making these products from beginning to end. Charles Shackleton, co-founder of ShackletonThomas is changing that through the ‘naked table project‘ in Woodstock, Vermont. The project is designed to bring people together and to create connections to community and the environment through the experience of making a dining room table.

A table is very often the center of the home. It is where families and friends gather to eat, do homework, read the newspaper, talk about their day, or just connect with others. So, when Charles Shackleton was thinking about an object that would be functional and symbolic for this project, nothing seemed as fitting as a table.

image via Boston Globe

He began the ‘naked table project’ by inviting a group of local people to attend a weekend workshop to build their own table. The group spent a day each assembling their own table made from sustainably harvested sugar maples. The trees themselves were sourced from sustainably managed forest lots and were chosen by a local forester, Pat Bartlett. Then there was a field trip for the group to head out and plant their own sugar maple seedling and to take a photograph next to their tree. The GPS coordinates were taken, and the location marked on the base of the finished naked table so that future generations can always return to that exact location to see where the wood had come from.

Before the workshop attendees assembled their tables, Charles Shackleton found and worked with a local forester, logger, trucker, miller and finishing company. All of this was possible within a 20 mile radius. Once sugar maples were harvested, they were sawn and kiln dried at a local family farm.

image via ShackletonThomas

The wood was then machined and brought to the workshop where the Naked Tablemakers went about assembling the pieces. To finish the tables, Shackleton selected a product from Vermont Natural Coatings made in part of PolyWhey. The whey is a by-product of the dairy industry and acts as a low VOC bonding agent. The finish is healthier as it reduces off-gassing and it helps reduce waste by repurposing a by-product of cheese making.

Once the tables were put together, a local meal was held for all those involved in what Shackleton calls the ‘chain of custody’ from the logger to the families that will eat around the tables. They enjoyed a meal prepared almost exclusively of local foods. The finished tables were put end to end in Woodstock’s covered bridge, which stretched out 80 feet long. Everyone at the communal table had a hand in the making of those tables, and a story to share.

image via ShackletonThomas

Two workshops have been held, and a third is scheduled for mid-october complete with a celebratory local meal. Each table costs $650, most of which goes to production costs, but any additional proceeds benefit Sustainable Woodstock, a group promoting greater energy-efficiency, local food, and the local economy. Shackleton hopes that this model will expand to other products and will enable communities to be more engaged with where and how every day goods are produced.

The beauty of this project is that it can be adapted for virtually any community interested in producing local products and engaging people with their environment. It encourages responsibility from all involved parties, and creates a shared sense of joy in the process of making something from, for, and about the community.

To hear more about the project from Charles Shackleton, listen to an interview with Deborah Shapiro from the Edible Communities publication on Heritage Radio here

photographs by Jon Gilbert Fox, courtesy of ShackletonThomas.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    September 30, 2009 8:03 pm

    This is such a great idea! The slow food movement recognizes that locally grown and cooked food has a community value while reducing carbon emissions from transporting goods thousands of miles. This “Naked Table” project builds community as people build and finsh tables created from local wood, grown, chosen, handled and prepared by their neighbors. The final event is a shared meal prepared from local farms.

  2. January 27, 2010 4:35 am

    This is a moving project…Mr. Shackleton has met his stated purpose of community and environmental connections.

    It is nice that local materials were used, and money was put into the local economy. Several of the local companies mentioned also rely on income from non-local sources, it is still a complex global economy, relying on petroleum based transportation.

    I question this project’s actual sustainability. The unfactored overhead and labor costs to produce the tables came from participants who were willing to pay to build, and had the time to devote to the project made possible by other means. They are not depending on the table to pay their salary. I expect the tables were made possible in a warm, dry, well lit shop as well.

    How can we make this transition to a local economy where earnings and purchasing are balanced, a days labor equals a day expenses. Where local products are affordable to local people. This would require sacrifices few of us would be willing to make.

    As an example, I produced easels from local, sustainable wood in my VT shop. The wage from these (in batches of 12) was too little to live on and in the end more expensive than mail order easels from overseas. It has been too hard to compete with sustainable products for locals when imports are so much less expensive.

    Perhaps the solution is to make a high-end product, such as Mr. Shackleton. But how many local Vermonters can afford such a piece? What if everyone made their own furniture, would builders such as myself still make a living?

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