Caleb Rogers: A Lotus in the Desert

Caleb Rogers lives in a spot that, while enviable at any time, seems especially so in the midst of a pandemic: a cabin of around 500 square feet, close to California’s Joshua Tree National Park. From his desert home he can see just three houses within a space of many miles, and of those three, two are abandoned.

He mentions his surroundings by way of illustrating why, beyond what he calls his addiction to the news, the pandemic has not affected him much. He sees his cat and does his work. Once or twice a week he drives to town to buy food, puts on a mask to go into the store and goes home. Once or twice a month, when making deliveries, he gets a glimpse of how the pandemic is affecting other people. He drives to Los Angeles to deliver a piece and sees the lines at the supermarket, “a line of 40 people waiting to get into Trader Joe’s, wearing their masks, and everyone’s on edge. We just don’t have that here [in Joshua Tree]. We have the wind. That’s the movement we have here. I feel like a tourist when I go into the city and have a peek at the way people are living. And all the shops that are closing! Rodeo Drive! I was in awe of all the boarded-up shop fronts. The city is really taking a hit. People seem to be so divided. Thank goodness I’m still working, I still have jobs. I’m really grateful.”

Born in 1974 on a small horse ranch near Albuquerque, New Mexico, Caleb grew up moving around a lot. His parents separated when he was 4. Because his mother, a writer, has always been “a bit of a gypsy,” Caleb and his sister often found themselves in a new school.

Sometimes they moved far afield. “What I remember about growing up,” he reflects, “was living in England. That was the first time I felt settled, the first time I recall seeing my mother happy where she was.” His mother had taken the family there for a holiday, then stayed four years, from the time Caleb was 10 to age 14. It was the longest time he’d spent living in a single place.

Caleb (right) with his sister and mother, probably at his
grandmother’s country house in Chappaqua, New York, circa 1980.

His mother’s love of travel rubbed off on him, and his own love of travel has had a deep influence on his work. By the time Caleb took up woodworking in his early 30s, he’d left junior college and hiked 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, moved to Guadalajara and hitchhiked to Guatemala. There he met a young woman from England. Smitten, he followed her back to London and eventually on to the cathedral city of Winchester.

As a practicing Buddhist, Caleb’s girlfriend had a butsudan, or Buddhist altar, in their home. Butsudans come in a variety of forms, from simple raised platforms to elaborately decorated cabinets. Despite its significance to its owner, the cheaply made object puzzled Caleb, who “thought it needed to be replaced….”

“It was more of a personal aesthetic,” he says – an aesthetic informed by the conviction that a piece’s form should express the values or ideals it represents. Inside the altar is a scroll that symbolizes the soul; it’s a focal point for meditation. “But her butsudan was particleboard veneered with walnut!” he explains. “Sweetheart,” he told her, “I get the practice, but please let me build you something better.”

Butsudan in poplar with asanoha (hemp leaf) motif.

“I see it everywhere,” he continues, referring to how cheaply most things today are made. “Part of my drive, to this day, is to strike that balance, to remind people of the importance of living with something that’s beautiful, that’s handmade. That really does drive me to get here to work every morning. I find that the quality of one’s life goes up, the fewer things one has and the more personal those things are. Most people have a lot of stuff; that takes up a lot of space. For myself, I find living with a few things that have been made by hand enriches my life. It makes life easier in so many ways. I don’t seem to need as much, to go out and buy something new. I get so much satisfaction from the things that I do have.”

Inner and outer doors of a tall butsudan in poplar and western red cedar.

But back to that first butsudan. Caleb knew nothing about woodworking when he decided to build it. He simply thought he could make something better. At the time, he was working in a pub; one of his customers was a woodworker. “He saw my doodles for the altar,” Caleb says, “and showed up the next day with a box of hand tools, everything I needed to get going in our spare bedroom. I picked up a pallet – there were always pallets at the back of the pub – and in a few days I was able to finish the butsudan that I had drawn up.” He calls that first piece “relatively crude” but is glad to know it’s still in use.

After Caleb and his girlfriend broke up, he traveled some more. He taught English, music and art in China and wandered through Morocco, France and Spain. In 2012 he got married and moved to Peru with his wife, then back to China for another couple of years. “No matter where I was, however, I was always thinking about building my butsudans. Something about it seemed urgent to me.” So in 2014 Caleb and his wife returned to the United States and he decided to try making a living as a woodworker, specializing in butsudans. “It took a while before I got my first order,” he says, “but fortunately I’ve been working consistently ever since.”

He moved to Joshua Tree in 2017, when he and his wife separated. It was a way “to rehabilitate myself. [Being] somewhere where other people were not” made it a good place “to get my head straight.” He immersed himself in work. His shop is a rented garage about 20 minutes away from his home, also in the desert. The shop has no air conditioning. “It is hot,” he allows. “But I get very focused when I work, and whether it’s hot or cold, it all seems to blur together.”

Business, Wood, Joinery & Tools

Some commissions come through his website. Before the pandemic, he was doing a lot of work for clients in Europe. Now he works for clients in Los Angeles and closer to home, with most jobs coming by word of mouth. A few clients have become patrons, furnishing their homes with his work. Friends see it and place their own orders.

Tansu in pine and alder with chrysanthemum motif.

Every commission starts with a conversation, followed by numerous emails, and sometimes phone calls. He likes to see photos of the clients’ home, to get a feel for the space and their tastes; that helps with deciding on scale, lumber species and finishes. “My favorite commissions are the ones where my client feels they have a genuine problem which they want to solve,” he says. “I love the idea of organizing space, getting something tidied up.”

When first starting out, he worked in domestic woods. Poplar was readily available; for a while he used it almost exclusively, occasionally substituting alder. Recently he has been using oak and sapele, among other species. When teaching classes he uses pine. “I love the knots, the squirrelly nature of it, the smell.”

Freestanding partition with bending kumiko in poplar, alder and washi.

A distinguishing feature of Caleb’s work is the absence of nails and screws. “I like the challenge of designing things knowing that all the connections have to be in wood,” he says. When he does use hardware, as he did for a recent shoe cabinet, he prefers it to be traditional Japanese stuff. (One source is Hida Tool of Berkeley.) And all of his pieces are knockdown, built with traditional joinery, which he finds endlessly rewarding. “You take the classic mortise and tenon,” he suggests by way of example. “There are so many variations. One joint I use a lot is the dovetail that’s locked into place with either a through-tenon or a blind tenon. It’s very easy to put together, very easy to take apart. It seems to be very strong.” Furniture that can be broken down to flat parts has helped him get commissions from clients beyond Southern California. “At first [clients are] daunted, but some email me saying ‘That was so enjoyable!’”

An example of how Caleb uses a tenoned member with a wide shoulder to lock a sliding dovetail in place for a knockdown piece. Once the tenon is fully home, its rail tied into a larger puzzle of interconnected parts, it prevents the dovetail from being pulled out.
Detail of kumiko.

Caleb is self-taught. Returning to the woodworker who was his customer at the pub in England, he says, “We never built anything together. He just gave me some tools and magazines. Everything I’ve learned is something I’ve figured out – looking at furniture and wondering how it’s put together, how it could work. The tansu, for me, was always such a source of mystery: ‘How do you get a corner to go together like that?’ My love of joinery is a love of problem solving. I like joinery to be hidden as much as possible, a mystery, so you don’t see how the cabinet’s put together. It’s a personal thing. I tend to revisit the same joints over and over, to build the same forms, mostly Japanese-style tansus and butsudans.”

Tall entryway cabinet in alder and birch.

Caleb still has the three Sheffield steel chisels he started out with, gifts from that customer at the pub. He has added a few power tools, such as a contractor-grade table saw for ripping; as a custom woodworker who lives primarily on commissions, he has to respect the time constraints imposed by sometimes-modest budgets. Select power tools help him find the balance between a client’s budget and the time he can afford to invest. Even so, he estimates about 80 percent of his work is done by hand, with Japanese handplanes (known as kannas), Japanese chisels and Japanese saws. “I love being able to cut on the pull stroke. All Japanese tools are designed to be used on the pull stroke, drawing the work in toward yourself, using your body as a clamp or a stop. It feels more intimate somehow,” he says. He appreciates the mobility granted by reliance on so few tools and attributes this preference for minimalism to his childhood – “a few tools in a box, get to a new place, unpack and get to work.”

In addition to commissioned work, Caleb teaches classes at his cabin. In his tansu-building class, students work outdoors, exclusively with hand tools, to build a complete cabinet in one week. “The idea behind it was to get people involved in woodworking,” he says. “People who have an interest in it but felt ‘I don’t have the space for it, I don’t have the tools.’” The class is designed to show them how much they can do with an improvised workshop, outdoors. Most students rent an Airbnb in Joshua Tree.

“One thing I enjoy about doing the classes when we’re outdoors and only using hand tools is moving with the rhythms of the day and the weather, and being quiet,” he says. “The name of my business is Esho Funi Butsudans. It’s the idea of the oneness of self and environment, of how inseparable the two are. When you’re working with your hands and building a piece of furniture, that line disappears. This thing I’m making is very much me. In building it, working with the wood, considering where the knots are, and how the wood may behave five years from now, it bleeds over into me. The two things are just the same. When the piece is finished, it has its own personality, its own character. To me that is…I can’t think of anything, short of having children. Sharing myself. Growing. It’s a therapeutic thing to do, to build something with your hands and return to it every day.”

Lighting

One of my favorite Caleb Rogers creations is not cabinet or an altar, but a light fixture. Floating in the dark, its undulating organic form calling a jellyfish to mind, it’s a delicate confection in tissue-covered reed.

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“I’ve always loved lighting, playing around with light. My mother designed sets for the theater for a time. She was brilliant at creating a mood using light.” He describes the process of making these lights: “I start bending the reeds and hot gluing [them] here and there. And then I’ll take tissue paper and white glue and cover the whole thing with tissue paper and put a light in it, and gradually layer that tissue paper until the quality of that light coming through is just right.”

One light he made for a client in Los Angeles was so large that he had to cut it in half to get it in his Nissan Sentra for delivery. To get a feel for the space and the kind of light he wanted to design, he’d spent a night on the sofa at his client’s house, staring up at the space in the ceiling where the client had said he wanted the lamp to be. It took Caleb six hours to stitch the light back together so that it looked just right.

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He tries to work quickly and prolifically, to keep his work affordable and the commissions coming in. “Before I start a piece, I build it in my head, maybe 100 times, before I pick up a tool, so that when I do start on a project, I know what I’m doing. I don’t take breaks; I don’t eat lunch.”

Asked how he prices his work, Caleb responds with a reflective question: “How do you price something? What are you willing to sacrifice in your life so you can do this [kind of work]? I keep my bills as low as possible. I don’t have any debt, I don’t have credit cards. I want to be able to do my work and keep my prices reasonable. I try not to think about what, on an hourly basis, I’m making. At first I was making butsudans for whatever someone could pay, just so I could keep working and put the photos on my website.” That generated more work. “I’ve been able to do this as my sole source of income for going on five years. So I’m very fortunate. I don’t have fixed prices. It has a lot to do with the client, what they can afford. I want to build the thing I have in my head and I don’t want to compromise just because I might have to work a little harder or a little longer for a little less money.”

He’s grateful to have a few clients he considers patrons, who commission dozens of pieces for their homes. “For somebody like me, it makes all the difference in the world. If you have money out there, there’s really nothing better you can do than supporting an artist you like.”

Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work” and “Kitchen Think”

You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.

Caleb Rogers lives in a spot that, while enviable at any time, seems especially so in the midst of a pandemic: a cabin of around 500 square feet, close to California’s Joshua Tree National Park. From his desert home he can see just three houses within a space of many miles, and of those three, two…Read MoreLittle Acorns: Profiles by Nancy HillerLost Art PressRead More

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