Rothesay, New Brunswick furniture maker Melanie Hamilton on planting trees, female woodworkers and being shameless about self-promotion.
Q & A with Melanie Hamilton
How long have you been building furniture?
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
I make pieces using solid wood and other natural materials like paper cord, leather, felt and fabric. I gravitate to smaller projects like side tables, benches, chairs and coffee tables.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
I don’t wear an apron but I usually have a pencil keeping my hair up, a 4″ combination square in my back pocket and my Lee Valley cabinet maker’s measuring tape clipped to me somewhere. I should probably get an apron.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
There was a time when I would have said hand tools but I can’t live without power tools.
Solid wood or veneer?
Figured wood or straight grain?
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I have both.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Canadian-grown walnut, maple and ash. I love them all equally.
Least favourite wood?
Anything grown in a rainforest.
This cabinet was designed for Hamilton’s husband’s Scotch. It’s an asymmetrical design intended to give special bottles their own, smaller compartment. The envelope of this case is made using one continuous piece of solid Peruvian walnut. “Everyone told me it should be made using veneered plywood, but it’s been in our collection for 10 years and it’s fine,” Hamilton says. “It felt like every stage of the construction process was make or break.
East Adams Bench
This is the only production-type piece Hamilton builds. She designed and built the bench while attending Sheridan College, and has made many of them for clients of all stripes.
TAC (Total Allowable Catch)
“While living in Newfoundland I made this piece to send to Toronto for a festival,” Hamilton says. Total allowable catch is a prevalent term in Newfoundland and references limitation. “I was inspired by local traditions and terminology at that time. This bench only holds what you need—coat, hat, scarf, purse and keys—with a space for tall boots.”
Quotes from Melanie Hamilton
My studio takes up just over 1,000 square feet of my 120-year-old house. I always go for function over fancy and it’s served me well. After my nine-year-old son is delivered to school and the chickens are fed I pour myself a cup of coffee and deal with the backlog of emails. I’m in the workshop most days by 8:45 am. Every day is a race against the clock before I pick my son up.
I lived in Newfoundland for 12 years and I was inspired by local traditions and the landscape. When I lived in Toronto I was inspired by the work I was seeing in museums and galleries as well as the artists / makers. I’m currently working on a collection of furniture inspired by the women of the Bauhaus weaving studio.
I keep a sketch book on me at all times. Once I have a nugget of an idea, I bang together a mock-up using scrap. The mock-up is screwed together so I can easily adjust the parts to get the shape and proportions right. Next, I make an accurate 1/4 scale model.
Some of my favourite pieces are ones where something went horribly wrong, usually at the router table. I take a break and think of a salvage plan. In the end, the pieces are way more interesting and I’m usually happier with the new design.
I’m shameless about giving out business cards and engaging people in conversations about making.
I’m starting on a new path to research past female makers and artists for inspiration. It’s about finding a more authentic voice that comes from shared experiences, rather than being handed a model to emulate.
Heidi Earnshaw is at the top of my Canadian maker’s list. Globally, it’s Wendy Maruyama. Katie Hudnall is definitely someone to watch.
Form follows function. I get irritated by chairs no one wants to sit in or tables that you can’t fit your legs under.
Design comes first. If I see a beautiful piece of wood I can’t walk away from, I buy it but it usually becomes decoration in the workshop.
Viability has less to do with the career path and more to do with commitment. Making a living in any creative field is a labour-intensive endeavour, so the hourly wage is low. I doubt many craftspeople are getting rich but if you live simply and hustle, it’s possible to eke out a living.
The constant pushback I get from people who have a preconceived notion about what a furniture maker looks like is frustrating. Something as simple as buying knives for my planer will result in the same three questions: “You make furniture?” (Yes); “But who do you get to actually build it?” (Me); “With machines?” (Yes). I’ve come up against this attitude from both men and women.
I’m most proud of my “East Adams Bench.” It’s a piece I designed while at Sheridan College in 2012. The assignment was to draw inspiration from a piece from history. I chose the Barcelona bench, a modern design made from metal and leather upholstery by Mies Van Der Rohe.
Out of respect for the wood, I plant a tree on my property every time I sell a piece of furniture.