Furniture maker Steve Neil on Ikea, being a morning person and getting design inspiration from books.
Q & A with Steve Neil
How long have you been building furniture?
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Tables, cabinets, benches, beds.
If you were not a furniture maker what would you be?
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Pencil, 2″ combination square, 6″ ruler.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Both! Power tools for rough milling and hand tools for final finishing.
Solid wood or veneer?
Both! I use what’s appropriate.
Figured wood or straight grain?
Both! I use straight grained wood for legs, stretchers, door frames, etc., and figured wood for drawer fronts, door panels, table/bench tops, etc.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
Neither! I prefer Lie-Nielson hand planes over Veritas. I also have a number of handmade Krenov-style wooden planes that I use. My favorite smoothing plane is a Clifton #4. If I were only able to own one plane, it would be a Lie-Nielson No. 60-1⁄2 adjustable mouth block plane.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Least favourite wood?
Round Glass Coffee Table
Neil designed and built this bubinga table while attending Inside Passage School of Fine Woodworking. Bent laminations make up the stretchers and legs – the legs are also tapered. (Photo by Ingeborg Suzanne Hardman)
Sack Back Windsor Chair
In 2005, Neil built this chair while attending a week-long class with John Robinson, just north of Toronto. It was finished with two coats of red milk paint, followed by two coats of black milk paint. A light sanding revealed some red paint underneath the black, then three coats of an oil/varnish mixture were applied.
Pear Display Cabinet
Constructed predominantly of Swiss pear, this piece features a bubinga base and door pulls and an arbutus back panel. Neil’s main challenge while building this cabinet was creating the curved front and sides. The doors are also asymmetric, the left door wider than the right. The glass door panels are all of different widths, progressing from wide at the edges to narrow towards the center. (Photo by Ingeborg Suzanne Hardman)
Quotes from Steve Neil
My shop is located in a separate building beside our house. My workbench and all of the big power tools are all located on the main level. Most of my portable power tools are from Festool.
I’m a morning person. I do my best work in the morning with a cup of fresh coffee on the bench.
I get my design inspiration from books. When designing a new piece, I usually browse through some of the woodworking books in my library for ideas. I also look through my wood collection and get inspiration from some of the nice figured planks in my collection.
I sketch my design first using pencil and paper, and then build a full-size mockup. The mockup allows me to see the piece in three dimensions and play around with proportions. Over the years I’ve tried to learn to use SketchUp for the design process, but I always end up reverting to pencil and paper, in spite of the fact that I’m an engineer and quite proficient at using computers.
Three years ago, a number of woodworkers, including myself, in the Nanaimo region started the Mid-Island Woodworking Guild. We’re trying to promote woodworking in high schools, we have been donating wood to the local schools for use by the students in woodshop and are trying to get younger people involved in the guild.
People do not understand how much work goes into to making a fine handcrafted piece of furniture. They have gotten used to the prices charged by furniture stores like Ikea. If you try to sell a table for $2,000 that you might have spent 50 to 100 hours of time building, they compare that with a knock-down table from Ikea for $129 that comes in a box and that has to be assembled. There’s a world of difference in quality between an Ikea table that you have to assemble yourself and one produced by a custom furniture maker.
I first met Robert Van Norman when he was an instructor at Rosewood Studio in Almonte, Ontario. When Robert started the Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking in Roberts Creek, BC, I decided to attend and ended up spending two years under his tutelage. Robert’s work style and his mentor, James Krenov, have both really influenced the style and quality of my own work.
The most fulfilling part of building studio furniture is the quiet time in the shop using my hand planes to finish a surface and then applying the first coat of finish to the wood and watching the colours come alive.
I’m most proud of my Walnut Hall Table, which is a piece that I constructed when I was a student at Inside Passage. This cabinet is constructed using black walnut and curly maple. The front of the cabinet is curved with an asymmetric set of eight drawers. Since the front of the cabinet is curved, the fronts of the drawers are also curved, which made cutting the dovetails challenging.
I think Canada is becoming a more welcoming place to build studio furniture. People are gradually becoming aware of custom furniture and how good the quality is.