Submitted by Lorne Eckersley
Nathan Schanzenbach’s latest endeavour, creating custom furniture from large, thick slabs of live edge hardwood, seems like it was destined to happen.
The Wynndel-based finishing carpenter has been working with wood, in one way or another, since his first job as a young man in Three Hills, Alta.
That job, with the now-defunct Beaver Lumber, “was my first exposure to woodworking,” he said in his workshop. “It was a really good introduction to woodworking. It was one older co-worker who got me hooked on building furniture.”
Schanzenbach was still in his teens when he built a 22-by-36-foot shop on his parents’ acreage.
“Then I started buying tools and building furniture, some of which we still use today.”
Eventually, he married and went to work for a log home start-up business in Rocky Mountain House. Later, he spent five years as a sawyer for a small family-run mill.
“We made everything from flooring to mouldings.”
He and Lana then moved to Quadra Island, B.C., so that he could work at his father-in-law’s construction business. For seven years he was a finishing carpenter, custom building high-end homes.
The couple and their two children, now eight and 13, next moved to Wynndel, which would put them closer to Nathan’s family. More than anything, he longed for a more balanced life, and to be self-employed.
“I had no plan to make furniture,” he smiled. “I was planning to work as a finishing carpenter in construction.”
First, though, he took a year off renovating their home. Then it was back to construction work on a project-to-project basis.
“I wanted to be home more, though, so I also started to pick up solid wood furniture that needed refinishing, then selling the pieces on buy and sell Facebook pages.
“I needed some furniture for our basement, and my style was to work with solid wood timbers, but not live edge slabs,” he said. (Live edge means that the wood’s surface is finished to be flat, but the edges are un-milled, providing a more rustic look and also, happily, creating less waste).
He began to build extra pieces to sell and then started working with live edge boards, which have gained popularity in the last decade.
“I like to focus on feature pieces, a style that isn’t always found in furniture stores,” he said.
In 2018 he stopped working off-site to devote his efforts to building up his own small business.
Schanzenbach uses mainly hardwoods from local suppliers that also bring in material from the east and west extremes of Canada and the U.S. Walnut is his favourite and, fortunately, it is also the wood most demanded by the marketplace.
“I love the character of the wood,” he said, pointing out the variations of colour, grain and “flaws” in some of the slabs in the shop that he uses for finishing pieces.
N.S Furniture Designs is not a high-tech operation but focuses on a handcrafted product. He uses a router sled to flatten large rough slabs, which are essentially vertical slices of trees, to a uniform thickness. The piece is then flipped over so the second side can be milled flat
Like Michelangelo and countless artisans, Schanzenbach’s first job is to determine what the material holds inside it. How to make the best use of each piece, he must decide.
Once the router-milled wood’s best use is selected, he starts by cutting the piece to size. Some pieces will be supported by table legs (he also makes sets of legs that allow customers to choose their own tabletop), others use what is known as waterfall support, in which the end leg (or legs) is simply an extension of the wood slab top, attached at a 45-degree angle.
He uses epoxy resin, clear or coloured, to fill cracks, pinholes and other voids in the wood’s surface, and then begins the labour-intensive process of multiple sandings, using progressively finer and finer sandpaper. He prefers to use satin oil-based finishes, which are brushed, rolled or wiped on. No spray booth is to be found.
While Schanzenbach keeps a selection of in-stock pieces, elegant in their simplicity, in a basement showroom, most of his sales are custom projects.
“I need to be able to show prospective customers how the finished projects look, but most often they prefer to order something specific to their own needs and wants. The showroom just lets them see the quality they can expect — it gives them some confidence in what I can do. People want a ‘wow’ factor! But mostly it’s about building a trusting relationship.”
For all the hours and labour that go into each finished piece of furniture, he insists that the work is part-time. He and Lana, who runs her own small home-based businesses, are determined to have a balanced life that allows them to enjoy their rural property, to garden and spend quality time with their children.
“Bringing nature’s beauty into your home,” is his goal, he said.
Examples of Schanzenbach’s work can be found on Facebook @NSfurnituredesigns. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 250-866-5652.