Studio furniture maker Cirvan Hamilton, from Dorset, Ontario, on living in a forest, shop class and the frustration of designing.
Q & A with Cirvan Hamilton
How long have you been building furniture?
I’ve been building furniture since 1999, and playing around since I was a kid. I build contemporary fine furniture.
Tell us something about your personal life.
Married with 2 daughters, 16 and 13. Moved to Muskoka in 1999. Bought a vacant acreage and over the last 17 years, with the help of friends and family, my wife and I have built a home, shop, studio, garden, pond, apiary, aviary, several outbuildings and a series of trails throughout the forest. I’m a vintage machine mechanic. Over the years we have amassed a 1949 Ford 8N tractor used for plowing snow, harvesting firewood, and the occasional trip to the neighbours; a 1959 MF35 Massey Ferguson with a forklift used for all our heavy lifting; a 1972 Honda CB350 and 1973 Honda CB500; four motorcycles used for fun; and most recently a new shop truck, a 1949 KB3 International pickup truck.
What are the three most important items in your shop apron?
In my apron you’ll find a 6″ rule, a Lee Valley apron plane and a pencil.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
A combination of the two.
Solid wood or veneer?
Straight or figured grain?
Lately leaning towards straight grain.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
10% vintage, 90% new.
Flowing Curves or Geometric Shapes?
Most recently geometric shapes to go along with the straight grain.
Least Favourite Wood?
Made for a local couple, this extra-wide walnut hall table has cocobolo drawer pulls and inlay. The top has cocobolo and maple banding around its perimeter, while the front apron features ebony stringing.
Hamilton's Douglas fir cabinet won the Craft Ontario Design award at the recent Muskoka Arts and Crafts Spring Members show. The quiet grain of the quarter-sawn Douglas fir provides no distraction for the purple heart and holly butterfly inlay. The brass pull on an interior drawer comes from a 1972 Honda motorcycle carburetor. The inlay on the door panel was completed first and the cabinet was designed around the door.
Butterfly cabinet detail
Quotes from Cirvan Hamilton
Stone Tree Studio is a dual studio. My wife, Elise Muller, is a stone carver and makes up the other half of the studio.
I am more of a late shift kind of guy. My day usually begins in the shop mid morning cleaning the mess I left the evening before. I use that cleaning time to plan my day and then work until all surfaces are covered and tools are spread everywhere, and start all over again the next day.
CBC Radio 2 is what I listen to while in the shop.
My favourite hand tool is a block plane. My favourite power tool is a band saw.
I get design inspiration from all around me. Other makers, old furniture in junk shops, even insects in the garden.
We live surrounded by mixed forest that produces some beautiful lumber. Going to local mills and wood auctions always inspires me to return to the shop.
I begin designs with an idea followed by very rough sketches and then straight to the band saw for quick mock ups.
By the time a piece is built I feel most design considerations have been worked out so they generally meet my expectations. After some time however, I can’t help but see a perceived improvement or embellishment that can be made on another version of the same piece.
I live in cottage country. I don’t need to see any more painted distressed “country furniture”.
There is a lot of large chunky furniture out there. I call it Flintstone furniture.
There is a lot more creative freedom in speculative pieces, but commissions pay the bills.
Most customers approach me with a general idea of what they want, and then I am in charge of solidifying the design. Once that is done we meet and decide on final details such as finish, inlay, or other embellishments.
Over the last 10 years my work has progressed from basic chunky designs to streamlined contemporary pieces with exotic inlays and surface treatments.
Bring shop class back to middle school.
I have always been a fan of Adrian Ferrazzutti’s “Luna Chair”.
Ron Barter from Rosewood Studio definitely has had a big influence on my work as a furniture maker. Dean Ungard, who I learned timber framing from early on in my time in Muskoka, also had a big influence on my career.
With the advent of CNC machines I feel big changes are on the way in terms of time savings.
I find design can be frustrating in the early stages until a clear idea comes forward, at which point it becomes invigorating.
I recently received an Ontario Craft Council design award for a small cabinet I built from Douglas fir. On the front are two small butterflies and some grass inlayed into the door panel. I came up with a new to me technique for cutting out the pieces of the butterflies involving hot glue and a chop saw that greatly increased the efficiency of creating all manner of inlays. Made my day!
With today’s throw-away culture I feel people are beginning to appreciate handmade objects due to their rarity, and as such custom furniture is becoming more desirable.