Steven Kennard in Canning, Nova Scotia, on the creative process, his barn shop and our “throw-away” society.
Q & A with Steven Kennard
How long have you been building furniture?
About 45 years.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Custom. But mainly turned work, which are mostly boxes.
Tell us a couple of interesting things about your personal life.
I was born and brought up in England and started my working life as a musician and performance photographer. I have lived in the UK, France and now call Nova Scotia my home.
If you were not a furniture maker, what would you be?
A musician or photographer. But I am also a photographer.
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
A razor-sharp low-angle block plane, my QR Glaser woodturning tools and an antique bevel-edged chisel.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Hand, but each has its place.
Solid wood or veneer?
Solid wood mostly.
Figured wood or straight grain?
Depending on the application, I love nicely figured wood, but not where it competes with the form of what I’m making.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
I’m fascinated by both.
Photos by Steven Kennard
“The Box Came First”
Kennard donated this piece to the Professional Outreach Program auction at the American Association of Woodturner’s 2014 Symposium. Made of African blackwood, thuya burl, 24k gold gilding and egg shell, the piece is 6" high and represents the fragility of life.
“Hat in a Box”
Kennard made this piece for a travelling exhibition, which toured America for 2 ½ years. It’s made of snakewood, African blackwood and stainless steel.
Quotes from Steven Kennard
If I had a normal life all the time (and who of us does?) my daily routine would be to arrive in the studio in the morning. Not super early, as I get into my stride after a couple of cups of tea and coffee. My workday seems often to begin with having to deal with correspondence and paperwork, which I don’t particularly enjoy. It seems to dampen the day’s creativity. When I am working on a project I will often continue into the evening, even up until bedtime. I easily lose track of time. . I like to leave the studio with the next day’s work clearly in mind and the bench set up and ready. This leaves me excited about starting back on the project the following morning. I would hate to start my day’s work in a negative frame of mind by having to tidy up from the day before. Sometimes this same excitement wakes me through the night with new ideas. This is something I find amazing, after 45 years.
My hand tools are my favourite tools, and especially those inherited or given to me by talented craftspeople. I think of each of them every time I pick those tools up. I also love using tools that I bought and worked with when I was a boy. There is a lifetime’s association that I treasure with these and connections with past works. My new favourite machine is my Robust American Beauty lathe. I am thrilled every time I turn it on to begin work. My favourite processes involve developing new surface decoration for my turned boxes.
My inspiration comes from every single thing I look at. Often I will record patterns, or things that appeal to me in my photography, and then find these taking form in my turned work. An example of this is seen in a photograph I took in Germany of a person walking across a tram line (entitled “Off the Rails”). The road is a cobbled surface. The print hangs in my gallery and it was my wife who remarked that this texture and pattern were repeated in my boxes “Tread Softly” and “Tower” (I and II). I make a habit of scrutinizing everything I see and subconsciously burying these in the back of my mind to be pulled out and used in later designs.
I am obsessive about detail and finish. In my earliest years in my career I used to refinish pianos, using traditional French polishing methods. This requires great care and patience and has carried through in everything I do.
My box, “Lost Orchard” was influenced by the destruction of a local apple orchard that I had enjoyed photographing. If I wasn’t influenced by the places I lived in, then I wouldn’t be paying attention to my environment.
During the design process the designs are seen in my head in three dimensions, with occasional sketches to refine details.
I like to work closely with my customers to make sure I am combining my ideas with theirs in a way that is rewarding to us both. As far as my boxes go, I like to think that each box I make has a buyer somewhere. I just have to wait until the two of them are in the same place together at the same time. It’s satisfying to see it finally happen.
I get most of my business from reputation, word of mouth and my website. And publications such as this.
Form is paramount. For my boxes I often integrate some thuya burl, where the exterior of my boxes is nearly always black.
If you are experimenting constantly, it’s only natural that not everything turns out the way you imagined it would. Some things will always be better than others.
I don’t like big-box store furniture, which is meant to be thrown away in a year or two. I abhor the throw-away society we live in.
The most misunderstood part of building custom furniture is specifically, the cost of quality materials and the huge amount of time required to craft a quality piece of work. People are no longer educated to know how things are made. I am frequently asked how long it takes me to make a box. Of course the answer has to be “about 40 years.” I am often asked where I get the designs for the boxes I make. It seems to be beyond many people’s comprehension that I might come up with ideas on my own rather than going out and buying pattern books. I wonder who they think make up the pattern books.
Canada is possibly becoming a less welcoming place to build and sell custom furniture. Most of my buyers are not Canadian. Even the furniture project I recently finished was for an Englishman moving to Canada.
We can start educating the Canadian public by bringing back woodworking classes in schools. Try to change the concept that furniture should be thrown out every couple of years. We are pretty deeply entrenched in that throw-away society.
Some of my favourite wood turners are Hans Weissflog, Hayley Smith, Bill Hunter, Malcolm Zander and Michael Hosaluk. There are too many to mention. I love their innovation and originality.
Don’t worry about being original. Just do what comes from your heart. Then what you do will, quite naturally, be yours and be original.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.