By Brian D’Ambrosio
Greg Salvo speaks the language of wood easily. Like any good conversationalist, he listens as much as he talks.
Salvo’s woodwork incorporates a “live edge” technique, which refers to the retention of organic lines and unprocessed faults along the edge of a slab. This means that the rough, uneven table or furniture exterior that you see is not just raw and absolute but very much alive.
“Many woodworkers will kill the live edge,” Salvo said. “They will cut it off and throw it away, but I don’t do that to the live edge. I like to see what’s growing and how the edge of the wood is growing. It isn’t just a dead board or dead timber. It is the living cells of the trees – their structure, their identity.”
Woodworking is a profoundly spiritual business to Salvo, a serious matter of live and death. Because of his belief system, he makes a series of deliberate choices along the way when preparing or creating something, all predicated on listening to the desires of a particular piece.
“First, I need to determine what needs to stay and what needs to be cut off,” Salvo said. “I’m always reluctant to cut off any live edge or trim it off. I’m reluctant, even if it’s awkward, and maybe too awkward to be usable in a design. Nine out of 10 times, I’ll let the tree still show its skin in its natural form. From there I let it further tell me what it wants to be.”
Salvo is mindful of the implications of keeping a section of the wood in its natural state and allowing it to continually grow and live.
“The live edge poses some problems, and sometimes it creates a nightmare of sorts to make it functional,” Salvo said. “But it’s the extension of life. That’s powerful. That’s impactful.”
Similar to some prominent Celtic philosophers, Salvo believes that all trees have “heart” and “inner self” and “spirit.” Some of the more common spirit trees, he said, are cedar, maple, pine, oak, and cherry, to list but a few. Each divulges its own distinct strength and soul, he said.
A New Mexico native, Salvo graduated from high school in Santa Fe in 1972. After many decades working in Texas as an engineer, he opted to return to his hometown a few years ago. About then, he began experimenting with woodworking. constructing items such as end tables and kitchen utensils, as well as cutting boards and charcuterie boards. Most ended up as gifts to family and friends. Then a couple of casual requests rolled in, followed by a few formal orders, until it became a business.
Along the way, his granddaughter sanctioned him a bona fide “wood whisperer.” The term borrows from the commonly known “horse whisperer,” a person who commands a magical sway over a horse through listening and paying respectful attention. After his granddaughter applied the phrase to describe the soft, intuitive relationship Salvo has with wood, he embraced it.
Salvo firmly believes woodworking represents a continuance – not an end – of the life cycle; that trees have many living parts and wood is more than just merchandise or an item for consumption; that wood isn’t dead because it has been separated from the host tree.
“Truly, I want to let the tree and the wood live,” Salvo said. “I try to find a way to marry the wood to the processes of woodworking and find a way to let the wood live on.”
Salvo works with his wife, Maggie, who assists in the creative planning and puts the finishing touches on most of the productions. Currently, Salvo is working on a cutting board from a slab of mesquite, a piece that he says has been particularly loquacious.
“We had a conversation today,” he said. “(The board) was talking about his imperfections and not knowing how so many of them could collectively become so unique and pretty. We talked about being in the hands of a greater family of friends and that would highlight his imperfections to prominence. He pointed out that he was not a straight tree. Of course not, his family is mesquite…”
Salvo isn’t one to manipulate the wood or attempt to coerce it, generally waiting for the wood to consent before he creates anything from it. Sometimes a slab will remain untouched for months, even years, before he attempts the first step. He believes in giving the wood latitude and not getting too wrapped up in the final result (what he wants), but being more attuned to the process (what it wants).
“Along the way so many things happen to the wood,” Salvo said. “And you need to make sure it has room, room for contraction, expansion and re-direction. Every line and edge and part of the wood has meaning. You only need to listen and hear what each section is saying.”