Canadian Woodworking

Karen McBride


Karen McBride on painting furniture, her lack of love for hand tools and her love for curves.

Maker: Karen McBride
Business: Woodkilton Studio
Location: Dunrobin, Ontario
Shop: 1000 sq. ft.
Education: BSc Eng., University of Guelph

Watch our video: Karen McBride

Q & A with Karen McBride

How long have you been building furniture?
20-plus years

What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
I am compelled to make furniture with sculptural forms and curves.

Tell us a couple of interesting things about your personal life
I restored a 1972 VW bus in 1986 when I was apprenticing as a mechanic. It’s my main vehicle in the summer months. I’m a vintage woodworking machinery junkie.

In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Pencil, lumber crayon, eraser.

Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
To quote Michael Fortune, “If it don’t plug in, it ain’t worth …” but I do own some wonderful hand tools that I would never be without.

Solid wood or veneer?
Veneer – the options are endless

Figured wood or straight-grain?
Figured wood.

Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
Sargent VBM.

Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Curves, curves, curves and more curves!

Favourite wood?
Love them all.

Least favourite wood?
Love them all, even MDF and particle board. They all have their uses.

Karen McBride

Karen McBride

Nonie’s Bed
The Karelian birch and walnut headboard is constructed from three independent 4' × 8' curved panels that serve to wrap the Karelian birch veneered headboard around the bed’s occupants. The headboard is canted back to make sitting in the bed as comfortable as sleeping.

Karen McBride bed

Stern Chair
This chair is a reproduction of a classic Danish chair. It was a commission for a client who needed two chairs to add to their original set of six rosewood chairs.

Karen McBride chair

Quotes from Karen McBride

My studio is a 200-year-old log house that I dismantled, moved and reassembled on our farm. The large machinerysits downstairs on the concrete pad that serves as the radiant floor heat source. My bench is upstairs as well as two small bandsaws, a scroll saw and a morticer. I do most of my finishing upstairs in a fold-away spray booth. It is a nicer building than our house – as it should be.

I live on a farm so there is always work to do first thing in the morning so I rarely get to the shop before 10 a.m. I like to work until 6:30 or 7 p.m. and then have dinner. I rarely work at night.

I was drawn to woodworking through my love of Canadian antiques, especially painted furniture. I suspect that is why I am not afraid to paint or stain wood.

My design process is sketch, mockup/ model, full-scale drawing, prototype, perfect, build.

I think every design falls short of my expectations. When you first imagine a piece the concept is so vague that it’s perfect. As you gradually take a concept and make it a reality you are forced to make compromises.

The urge to move away from the “current work” drives us to create new furniture forms – that’s a good thing. Nakashima and Krenov have covered the live-edge slab and cabinet on a stand so I think it’s time to move on.

Name an overused technique and I will design a unique piece of furniture, using that technique, that will make the technique look new and exciting.

Schools need better shop programs. Every school should have a shop and teach woodworking. Woodworking should also be tied to school art classes.

People misunderstand that building custom furniture is not the romantic profession it is made out to be. I don’t spend hours making nice curly shavings with my hand tools. I spend a good part of my day trying to work at peak efficiency to make a living.

I am drawn to sculptural furniture makers such as Marc Fish, Jere Osgoode, Joseph Walsh and Matthais Pliessing. I love the fluid lines and sculptural quality of their work. It is a joy to wonder, “How the hell did they do that?”

I will go anywhere to hear Michael Hosaluk speak about his work. He is a very creative man who speaks from the depth of his soul.

The nicest piece of furniture I’ve ever seen would be a toss-up between Marc Fish’s Nautilus table and Jere Osgood’s Dome Desk.

Michael Fortune has been my biggest influence. He taught me how to design furniture and how to run an efficient business. A lot of the techniques I use to build furniture are a result of what I learned from Michael. No other teacher packs as much information into a course as Michael does.

I am most proud of the Patience cabinet I created. It was inspired by the natural shape of the maple burl veneer pieces that grace the cabinet doors. It was a challenge to create bow front doors that pivot open around circular drawer fronts to reveal the interior of the piece. There are no right angles and few flat surfaces on the wall hung cabinet – I revel in that.

For me, the quintessential Canadian piece of furniture has to be the majestic Quebecois armoire. When I was a kid, my parents collected and refinished antiques for our house. The milk paint finishes and patinas on the old Quebec furniture are fabulous.

Karen McBride was profiled in August September 2016

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