Nathan Sterkenburg, from Medicine Hat, Alberts, talks about spruce, scale models and adding curves to his work.
Q & A with Nathan Sterkenburg
How long have you been building furniture?
I’ve always built stuff. First real piece of furniture was around 12 years ago, though; it was a crib for our first-born.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
I’m definitely drawn towards contemporary and mid-century design styles. Simple lines, simple grain, graceful curves, crisp geometry.
Tell us a couple interesting things about your personal life
Born and raised in the woods of northern Alberta, married with three kids, living in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
If you were not a furniture maker, what would you be?
As long as I can be creative and work with my hands, I’m happy.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Pencil, Olfa knife, tape measure.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
In theory, hand tools. In reality, power tools.
Solid wood or veneer?
Solid wood, sliced really thin sometimes.
Figured wood or straight grain?
Straight for sure.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
Vintage with a new blade.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Tough one. Spruce, maybe? It demands respect. There are so many good ones, though.
Least favourite wood?
Also spruce because it can be miserable.
Tripod Coffee Table
This was a quick project Sterkenburg built for himself as an escape from the perfectionism of our trade. He’d been getting tired of the need for everything to be absolutely flawless, and this build helped vent that frustration. Made of pine, the table is unfinished; Sterkenburg left all the checks and knots visible. (Photo by Sheena Zilinski)
With this kitchen renovation, the old kitchen wasn’t in bad shape, just very dated. Sterkenburg reused a lot of the existing cabinets and refinished the old doors. All that was needed were a few more cabinets and doors, some white oak floating shelves and the vent hood. (Photo by Roxy Grove)
Quotes from Nathan Sterkenburg
I run a small shop with one full-time employee and one part-time helper. We primarily build custom kitchens, cabinetry and architectural millwork, but we also take on furniture commissions as well as occasional pieces on spec.
I wake up around 6 a.m., get the kids fed, load up on coffee, then head over to my shop around 7. My employees come in around 8 so I get an hour to get organized and have some calm before the day starts. From 8 until 5 it’s a mad frenzy of dust and noise. On Fridays, I try and schedule light so we can clean the shop, sharpen some tools and have some beers.
I love the challenge of doing curved work, either bent laminations, bricking or steam bending. It’s always a good brain stretch.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. Online is a great source, as is nature. But even simple things like the way light creates shadow and texture that you can try and replicate on a piece.
My process with spec pieces is pretty free flowing. I start with a napkin sketch of an overall concept. I might try and draw key details a little more in depth. But then I just start building, usually with whatever wood I have on hand. I’m not fixed on certain dimensions or angles. Just the overall feel of the piece.
Stop studying, start making. You can only learn so much from books and YouTube.
Some customers need a lot of one-on-one hand holding throughout the process. Others just trust me completely and trust my judgment.
Most of my work comes through Instagram, Facebook and word of mouth.
Woodworking is not a cheap hobby. Even if schools bring back woodshops, the students will have no outlet to woodwork after school. Shops like mine need to apprentice the next generation. Co-work spaces are also a great place where young people can find an outlet for woodworking.
Throughout the whole process of learning woodworking I studied everything. I read every magazine I could get my hands on and bought every woodworking book I could afford.
For spec work I let the material I have on hand influence the design. With commissioned work it’s all about the design.
For design I mostly use pencil and paper. Full-scale drawings done on my workbench also help with finding angles and measurements. I’ve found scale models and prototypes a waste of time and money.
I really enjoyed making a very simple pine coffee table recently. I embraced imperfection during that build. There’s a Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi that celebrates the beauty of imperfection and aging gracefully, and I want this table to represent that.
I don’t think it’s healthy to have your identity rooted in what you create, because it’s very easy to let yourself down and feel like a failure.
Aspiring woodworkers should get paid to learn. Spend your early years working for someone who will teach you the basics. When you’ve learned all you can there, find another job to learn different skills. Or keep it as a hobby and don’t sweat the small stuff. Perfection is a sliding scale, so don’t worry if your early projects don’t come out how you think they should.