Back to his roots

34_back_01David Stine has come full circle. He grew up on the family farm in Dow, Ill., graduated from Penn State, received his law degree from George Washington University, practiced law for one year, started making custom furniture and eventually moved back to Illinois to operate his one-man custom furniture shop. Along the way, he built furniture in high school, college and law school; helped run a nightclub in Washington D.C., got married and also worked six years as a full-time woodworker in the nation's capital. But in the end, Stine returned home to live in an 1871 farmhouse on 40 acres about a mile from where he grew up. His family owns about 1,000 acres in Dow, including 350 acres of sustainably managed woodlands.

The lawyer

Stine graduated from law school in the mid-1990s, passed the bar exam, practiced in Washington D.C., for a year and then quit. He would complete his law work by noon most days and become incredibly bored. Playing office politics wasn't his game and the whole environment drove him crazy. So why go through the three-year effort of attending law school and spend loads of money only to quit after such a short amount of time?

"The whole thing about law school for me was that it was a personal challenge," Stine explains. "I grew up here on the farm. We never had a lot of money. It was a big operation, but it wasn't like we were the Rockefellers. But it was always a big concern in our family on how you pass on the farm without destroying the farm with state taxes and stuff like that. I always found tax planning and real estate law interesting and so that was sort of a natural progression for me to go to law school.

34_back_02David Stine Woodworking

Owner: David Stine

Location: Dow, Ill.

Shop size: 3,600-sq.-ft barn; nearly completed new shop will be 1,800 sq. ft., and

eventually double in size

Family woodlands: about 350 acres

Full-time pro: 13 years

Previous job: Washington D.C. lawyer

Major event: Lost barn, antique machinery and two years worth of old-growth seasoned lumber in 2007 fire

Working in the city: “I would totally recommend that anyone who has any sort of manual skills move to a place like D.C., move to New York, because nobody knows how to do anything and they all have lots of money. They have good taste and they’re not afraid to pay for stuff they like.”

"I just love woodworking and I was taking a lot of jobs, making tables for people and sideboards, and I had a pretty nice shop setup in the garage where we were living. When I quit my job, I probably had six to eight months of work to do. So I was in pretty good condition."

From 1997 until 2002, Stine was a full-time woodworker. You name it - screen doors, sets of stairs, parts for boats, furniture - and he would build it. All of his wood came from the family forest and Stine only used wood from dead or dying trees.

"I had five core clients who would order one piece a year from me like a dining room table, sideboard or a dresser," he says. "I cut all my own wood down and people loved the idea that I was sustainably managing a forest. I would come out here (to Illinois) and saw for two or three weeks a year and I had a drying shed and I would just bring a truckload back at a time in a pickup. I wasn't a high-volume user of wood at that time like I have gotten to be now. I did tons of kitchen cabinets, tons of built-ins, custom moldings to match old-time moldings - anything. But I was doing woodworking, so I was happy. I even worked with a few contractors."

Three giants

While in Washington, the farm-boy-turned-lawyer-turned-custom-woodworker had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects. One client was a gardener from the State Department who had a number of early George Nakashima pieces that had completely fallen apart. Stine was able to restore them to nearly original condition and learn about Nakashima's building techniques.

35_back_03"I also did a ton of work for St. Albans, the boys' school at the National Cathedral. It's like a castle and is completely furnished with original Stickley pieces. About every week they would bring me another chair and another sofa and, you talk about a great education into how to build quality furniture, that guy did not scrimp on materials or construction. Full through mortise-and-tenons, beautiful-figured white oak, and it's been in use in a boy's school since the '20s and it just now needs repair - that's impressive."

He also was able to work on what he referred to as "the most awesome project ever." I. M. Pei, the Chinese-born American architect, known for his incredible building designs, actually did two or three residential commissions. One was on Calvert Street in Washington D.C., a house with three carport concrete vaulted areas.

"The whole building is like a box," says Stine. "They had all the original drawings and plans from the '50s when it was built and a guy who we knew told us the owner was doing a full restoration, taking it right back to the way it was built. He was having an [awful] time with his cabinetmakers, who were telling him 'You can't do this, you can't do that,' and all he wanted was plywood birch cabinets. So I did all the woodwork, all the millwork and all the doors for that restoration. And then a lot of jobs came from the architect of that job."

Home again

Stine and his wife, Stephanie, sold the restaurant and nightclub they partially owned, had their first child and decided they were both burned out from living in the city. Sensing they needed a change, they moved in 2002 back to David's hometown of Dow, which is about an hour northeast of St. Louis.

36_back_04When they arrived, they had no house, no shop and no work. They were fortunate to purchase an 1871 farmhouse on 40 acres, right near the family property.

"The first thing we did was pour a floor on what was an open hay and cattle barn, went into the woods and sawed all the flooring, and brought my tools back from D.C. Then we gutted the house. Fortunately, we had saved money and decided to take six months off."

Stine's house is surrounded by farmland owned by his uncles, who went to Illinois State and practiced conservation farming techniques. Stine was brought up in an environment where he was taught not to waste anything, and that is where and when he learned about sustainable forestry.

Family forest

The Stine family owns about 350 acres of heavily forested woodlands. Although it is not contiguous, most of it is only about a mile from the furniture maker's house. Most of the land hasn't been logged in Stine's lifetime. It originally was all pine forest that was logged in the early 1800s, so everything is second and third growth. There are several species of oaks - red, black, white, pin oak. But the king of Stine's woodlands is walnut - huge walnut.

"It's so easy to manage the woods because all I have to do is take dead and dying trees or trees that have been damaged by wind," he explains. "You can't believe how productive the woods are around here. I go walking in the woods all the time and there are trees I haven't even seen before. I try to keep a pretty good idea of what is out there. If I cut 70 trees a year, I would be surprised."

Stine also has a relationship with a couple local arborists and receives calls from people who have dead trees or blowdowns who give him the wood for free if he'll haul it away.

Much of Stine's furniture features the natural edge of the log. Assorted tables, benches and desks, some as thick as 4", showcase portions of the entire log.

36_back_05"I think I've been influenced by doing the logging myself and doing the sawing myself," he says. "When you see that come off the sawmill, it's done, I don't have to do anything else; it looks fantastic. Why would you impose your will on this piece of wood? It's a table top already.

"There are a lot of guys out there who are much better woodworkers than me. But here's the point: I've got some cool wood and I make some of the coolest stuff you've ever seen. I guess I've just started thinking about aesthetics, sort of like an artist and less like a farm boy. But I grew up on a farm and I'll never get away from that. Everything has to have utility in my family so, in my work, you just can't put some frilly thing on something because it is pretty. I recognize it is pretty and I also recognize the technical skill that is required, but I couldn't sleep at night if I was doing that type of stuff. That's just not me."

Up in smoke

Stine used an open-sided 100' x 100' pole barn to store his wood for drying. His uncles also kept between 100 and 150 round bails of hay in the same facility. Stine kept some old machinery in the barn along with two years worth of slabs he'd cut, which he estimates amounted to more than 100,000 bf. At about 6 a.m. one morning in July 2007, his phone rang.

"I got a call that the barn was on fire and the fire department was on the way over. We raced over and the thing was totally engulfed. It started from spontaneous combustion from the hay.

"I was underinsured by a ton, but I took what I got and bought a Nyle dry kiln. I think that was a good move because that has improved my lumber quality and improved my ability to control insects. Before that, all I did was air-dry five or six years before I would ever make a table out of something I cut. Now I can turn it around in four or five months."

Although the end result was a new kiln, Stine lost some incredible wood and had to return to the woods for an extended time to replenish the supply. He learned a difficult lesson and is sufficiently insured today.

Show circuit

Not too long after the fire, Stine decided it was time to push his business in an attempt to increase his income. Although he was doing OK, most of his business came by word of mouth and he wanted to find a way to get his work viewed by more potential buyers. He decided to start doing some furniture and craft shows.

"This year I'm doing 12 or 13 shows; it's going to be brutal. Last year I did seven or eight. I'm compiling information as I do these shows so I can cut it back next year to maybe four shows; shows that are good for me. So right now I'm just sucking it up and doing all these shows."

He's exhibiting in cities such as Milwaukee; Providence, R.I.; Baltimore; Park City, Utah; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Sun Valley, Idaho, and Chicago. Exhibiting at a dozen furniture shows involves a tremendous amount of preparation and traveling. It's also exhausting and expensive, and the results are unpredictable.

"Here's what's crazy, and maybe it is the same way for everyone: one guy and his wife walk into the Fine Furnishings Milwaukee Show and bought a $10,000 table. Had they not done that, it would have been a bust. One guy walks into the Fine Furnishings Providence Show two hours before the end of the show and buys one of my 'Wave Benches.' Since then, he's commissioned three more pieces and three more huge commissions are in the hopper. So that makes Providence my best show ever and if you had talked with me at noon on Sunday [the show's final day], I wouldn't have been very upbeat."

Stine's work can also be viewed in several galleries, including H. Groome in Southampton, N.Y., The Country Squire in Selinsgrove, Pa., Open Door Gallery in St. Louis and, from time to time, in Sawbridge Studios in Chicago.

The green thing

For someone who has been producing live-edge furniture for more than a dozen years, Stine admits he is somewhat annoyed that so many furniture makers are suddenly hopping on the green bandwagon. He acknowledges that may be a shortsighted way of looking at things, because he does believe "everyone should be doing the green thing." However, it does irk him.

Besides practicing sustainability by only using dead or dying trees, Stine has a homemade vegetable oil reprocessing facility to fuel his tractor and pickup. He spreads his sawdust and shavings on local fields, and heats his home, shop and hot water with waste wood.

He doesn't see any point in having his woods certified; he knows the land is sustainably managed.

"I'm green for the real world, not green for the paper world," he remarks.

Besides dozens of hand planes, spokeshaves and other hand tools, a Delta 10" Unisaw and Onsrud overhead router, most of Stine's machines are decades old including a 1950s Delta 10" table saw, an old mammoth no-name band saw, Hall and Brown lathe and mortiser, Donovan Harding 30" 444 planer, Craftsman planer/molder made by Belsaw Machinery Co., Yates-American 20" jointer, Bridgewood 16" belt sander, Cincinnati drill press and Greenlee 7-1/2-hp shaper. When he is cutting down trees, he uses Stihl chain saws and follows that up with a customized GB mill from Australia for cutting slabs.

Steady as he goes

Stine doesn't know what the future holds for him so, for the time being, he'll stay the course since his business continues to grow at a modest pace. His style will remain the same for now, but he admits that you never know how things might evolve. One thing is for certain: he loves his work.

"I'm so inspired by the natural wood itself. I just love the big stuff, the big slabs. I can't imagine a slab that was just too big. I think a lot of it has to do with it comes from the family forest and even the stuff that I get from the arborists and the fact that I'm doing it all myself. I get a real sense of satisfaction from that; I don't depend on anyone else. Everything from getting the log in our own woods, growing the wood, sawing the log, bringing it back to the shop, sawing it up into lumber, drying it, designing and building it.

"I do whatever I want all day long and I love it." n

Contact: Stine Woodworking, 16376 Bartlett Rd., Dow, IL 62022. Tel: 618-954-8636.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.