I don’t know what bothered me more: the hipster wanna-be furniture “artisans,” with their designer jeans cuffed just so, their carefully scuffed leather boots, their $300 flannel shirts, and their perfectly manscaped beards, or the corporation selling giant dining tables made with “sustainably harvested wood from Brazil and Indonesia.” I hated them both, and they were book-ending my booth at the Architectural Digest Show in New York.
As a furniture maker, I do a lot of art, design, and trade shows. And for the past few years, I’ve seen a tremendous number of independent furniture makers who are more interested in looking the part than in crafting fine furniture. With imprimaturs like “Made in Brooklyn,” they sell a good story, but not necessarily a good product.
On the other hand, there are the giant companies that purport to sell handcrafted furniture made from sustainably harvested woods. In truth, their wood often comes from forests that have been clear cut in places like Brazil and Indonesia and shipped to Mexico or India, where the furniture is assembled before being shipped back to the United States. And, more often than not, the furniture falls apart within a year.
These are some of my competitors, and it drives me insane. I’ve been a professional furniture maker for 18 years, and I take my craft seriously. I harvest my own lumber from my own property in Illinois, property that’s been in my family for four generations. I steward the land myself to ensure responsible and sustainable growth. I mill all my own boards, dry them in my kiln, and craft every piece of furniture by hand. I was a “green” craftsman long before being green was a marketing strategy, and before the slogan even existed. My designs emphasize the natural beauty of the wood, knots, live edges, and all. My coffee tables start at $2,750 and my dining tables start at $4,500. My signature tables, which are crafted with massive single slabs of sustainably harvested hardwoods, some as wide as 50″ and as long as 16′, sell for upwards of $25,000.
Not everyone can do what I do, and I know that. I am in an unusual and, to many, envious position with respect to furniture craftsmen. Not everyone can source, harvest, mill, and dry their own wood, and then craft only what inspires them. But I do. And I do it with as much integrity and authenticity as I can muster to furnish what to me is an exquisite balance between humility and pride. To me, this isn’t just some product that I sell. This isn’t just a business. This is my life. The pieces I craft and the way I craft them mean something to me. I am inspired by how and where the trees grew, by what I see when I cut into a log for the very first time. Every tree, every board, is different, and it always surprises me. These trees don’t just provide me with wood for my work, they fill my spirit and kindle my sense of radical awe at the beauty of the world. They are also part of my family and my history. And that beauty and that history drive my designs.
I would never sell something that wasn’t beautifully made, that couldn’t last a lifetime, that wasn’t crafted with sustainably harvested wood, or that wasn’t crafted by people paid a living wage (that would be me). I think that’s what bothers me so much when I look beyond my own booth at shows: the lack of integrity among furniture makers and mass-market sellers, and the consumers who patronize them. To these groups it’s just a trend or a product. To me, that attitude is a desecration of what true craft, the precious touch-skills that go with it, really is.
These days, with marketing buzzwords like authenticity, sustainability, and green craftsmanship being thrown around, it’s hard not to take it personally. I’ve always been green. It’s the cornerstone of my business, and it’s a difficult way to do business if you are really doing it as opposed to just pretending to do it. And it’s not just about being green. It’s about craftsmanship. It’s about putting your heart and soul into something that will last a lifetime, not something disposable that you’ll throw out in a year.
Where has the spirit and integrity of American craftsmanship gone, and what has chased it away? We can’t just blame the industry. Where is the integrity among consumers?
In large measure, it’s simple economics. The other day I was at a friend’s house when his wife walked in with a 48″-tall flat-packed bookcase that she had purchased from Walmart for $17.87. She sheepishly said, “Dave, I’d love to have had you build one for us, but we just can’t afford a David Stine bookcase. For eighteen bucks, I just couldn’t pass this up.” I was a little miffed, but I was absolutely disgusted with the plastic product she was able to assemble in mere minutes. I understand it, but I don’t like it. If I crafted a bookcase like that, it would be made of sustainably harvested, perfectly dried cherry, walnut, sycamore, or oak; it would be handcrafted with dovetails and mitered end joints; it would feature hardware purchased from an American manufacturer; it would feature an environmentally friendly hand-rubbed oil finish; it would take me two days; and it would cost $1,500 retail.
The piece of crap bookcase from Walmart was $17.87, only slightly more than what I pay my assistant per hour. It was particle board painted with who-knows-what toxic paint, and it was made in China. I can’t compete with that—never have, never will. My customer base knows that they can get a bookcase from Walmart, but they pay a premium for what my work represents, not least genuine and traditional American craftsmanship. I’ve spent a lifetime honing my skills, building my brand, and accepting that my work is not for everyone, that my work can never compete with Walmart, Ikea, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, and other purveyors of mass-produced furniture. It sometimes keeps me up at night, the hypocrisy of consumer rhetoric about buying local, being sustainable, and paying living wages, while at the same time shopping at Walmart instead of buying from your local, sustainable, craftsmen or store.
No one needs to hear another screed about the death of American manufacturing, the death of American craft, or about shoddy Chinese manufacturing. We all know the economics behind it and the various forms of dishonesty on all sides of it. I’d rather tell you about the good news: We’re seeing a real resurgence in American-made goods and American craftsmen. Now, when I go to shows there’s real competition from a handful of true craftsmen. (The hipsters are still around, sure; but they’ll be on to the next big thing soon…possibly beehives.) No, the real problem is that most people are now nothing more than consumers, and because of super cheap prices—for clothes, furniture, bikes, you name it—we’ve deepened the throwaway culture we pioneered back in the 1950s and 1960s. Then and even more now, people simply assume something will break or their taste will change and they can chuck the items out to the curb because they can run to Target or Ikea and grab something new for just a few dollars. That’s a mindset that perpetuates the idea that it’s silly to pay for quality, to pay living wages, to buy or support something that might last a lifetime and beyond. That’s the mostly unselfconscious reality that I’m up against. That’s what I fight every day in my work: the mass attitude that lasting value, real meaning in craftsmanship and what it represents in terms of an ethos of tradition, sustainability, and integrity essentially doesn’t matter. It’s not an easy fight and, yes, I do take it personally.
I was taught from a very young age to value hard work, to not waste anything, and to fix whatever we could. I was born in 1971 in Dow, Illinois, a tiny town in west-central Illinois, 35 miles north of St. Louis. I grew up on my family’s 1,000-acre dairy farm, with a huge extended family—my grandparents, uncles, aunts, parents, and cousins all lived either on the farm or within walking distance. We all worked together, milking cows, planting crops, putting up hay, detasseling corn, building barns, planting gardens, fixing fences, cutting firewood, repairing tractors, whatever needed to be done. And when I say we worked, I mean we worked. No one was off the hook. Everyone pitched in.
There was always more work to do than you’d ever get done, so you woke up in the morning and you did the daily chores first, and then you started to check things off the list that also needed to be done, whether it was barn repair or home maintenance or one of the tractors needed service or whatever it was. I come from a long line of extremely capable people: My grandparents, my parents, and my uncles were dead set on being self-sufficient, on knowing how to do everything themselves and not relying on other people. From a very young age, we were taught to take care of our things. We were taught to reuse, recycle, and repair. We were taught to take what you need and to leave something—indeed, more than just something—for the next generation.
When you grow up on a working farm, you learn to do everything because you pretty much have to learn it. It’s just a part of that life, a necessity. If you’re using a tractor to plow a field and the tractor breaks, you have to fix it. So you learn how to do it. If a window breaks in a storm, you learn how to reglaze it. If a cow’s in trouble, you help her give birth. Real farm life, at least the way I was raised, means being capable in a wide range of skills. We learned by doing. When I was a kid, I wasn’t off at camp; I was on the farm every day working and learning and being useful. I’m proud that I can wire a house, fix the plumbing, repair an engine, drive a truck, fix a flat, plant and harvest a garden, bake a pie (with homemade crust), sew curtains, repair a refrigerator, birth a calf, build a house, and, of course, build furniture.
I learned woodworking out of necessity. It was just one more thing that we learned to do at the farm. I worked alongside my grandfather and father, and we started with simple stuff: repairing fences and furniture. Learning how to repair furniture is a great way to see how it’s made and to learn what not to do and how you might do it differently. Together, my grandfather, father, and I built barns, outbuildings, and furniture. We would cut down trees from our own property and use that lumber to build and repair things. By the time I was 11, I was building my own bookcases. When I was in the eighth grade I took woodshop and the teacher was annoyed with me because I already knew how to use all the tools. When I refused to use the junk wood the school provided and instead brought my own beautiful cherry boards in, he sent me to the principal’s office. He told me I was “uppity.”
The lessons I was taught have stayed with me all my life: That things have value. That you buy the best you can afford and you take care of it. That you steward the land and leave it, improved if you can, for the next generation. That useful things are not disposable; they have meaning and value through the people who made them, and should therefore be treated with respect. This was a very traditional, self-sufficient way of living, as opposed to what we are doing now in society, which is extreme specialization, where we do (if we’re lucky) one thing very well, but we don’t know how to do very much of anything else.
I didn’t realize or appreciate that I had grown up differently until I got to college, at Penn State. I grew up in a farming community where all my friends lived and worked on farms, or knew people who did. We all hunted and did 4-H and FFH and showed steers at the county fair. But when I got to college and met city and suburban kids, it was eye opening. What do you mean you can’t fix a flat? What do you mean you don’t know how to pluck a chicken or butcher a hog? Or bake a cake? Or sew a button? What do you mean you don’t know the difference between hay and straw? It wasn’t until college that I realized I had grown up so differently. I was the odd one. But I was a big hit at least in the sense that I was capable. I could fix everyone’s cars and bake cookies.
After I graduated from Penn State I moved to Washington, DC, in 1994 to attend George Washington University Law School. My goal was to become a trust and estates attorney and return to the family farm, where I would hang a lawyer’s shingle and help out at the farm, maybe even get into local politics (though a semester-long internship in Senator Dick Durbin’s office cured me of that fever). When I moved to DC all the furniture I brought with me I had built myself—a bed, dresser, table, coffee table, and bookcases. I started school, met great new people, and had a great time. I never understood why people flipped out over the work load. Having grown up on the farm, it was a luxury for me to sit in class and then do the assignments. I finished my work before anyone, so I had free time on my hands. During the first break from school I went back to the farm, gathered some tools and wood, brought them back, and set up a woodshop in a friend’s warehouse. I’d go to my woodshop on weekends and in the evenings and build little things, boxes and the like, and give them to friends. It was a great creative outlet. I had to do more with my hands than just turn pages.
Very soon people were commissioning me to build things: humidors (the cigar craze was in full swing), cutting boards, little tables. This led to repair work, which lead to millwork, which led to more furniture work. Business just snowballed to the point where, in 1995 during my second year of law school, I founded Stine Woodworking. Within two years I was married with a house in Mt. Pleasant, working full-time in Bethesda at a trusts-and-estates firm, and working nights and weekends at Stine Woodworking. DC was a great place to do business. People had money and they weren’t afraid to spend it. My wife co-owned a bar, a nightclub, and a restaurant with her sister, and I did all the woodwork and maintenance for her places.
In 1998, I quit practicing law and devoted myself full-time to making furniture. I incorporated in DC and became a professional woodworker. That was my passion, that was where my heart and soul were, and still are. In 2002 we moved back to Dow, where we bought a forty-acre farm near my family’s farm. I renovated our 1871 farmhouse and built a woodshop, studio, sawmill, kiln, seasoning sheds, and a few outbuildings. I see my extended family every day. And I get to do what I love.
These days I try to spend as much time in the woods as I do in my shop. Stewardship and sustainability aren’t just buzzwords for me; they’ve always been the pillars of my business. My stewardship is very hands off. What I do with our forests is basically nothing. I take the dead and dying trees, and I keep an eye out to make sure that invasive species aren’t coming in. But generally, I just let the forest be a forest. I don’t go in and manage it heavily for growth and potential. I apply a very light touch, and because of that I get very large trees in the usual woods like cherry, walnut, and oak, and in the unusual ones that you don’t typically find in furniture making, like sycamore, poplar, osage orange, and hackberry.
Every tree I take out of the forest is a conversation. If it’s blown over in a storm and is dead, should I leave it to become habitat for animals? If there is a giant, dying tree surrounded by other smaller trees, should I take it down now so that it doesn’t destroy all the new growth around it when it does fall down? I think about every tree I see. I don’t see dollar signs; I see the cycle of life, and the potential to make use of something. That’s the key to my craft: making something beautiful and useful out of a beautiful tree that has lived its life.
My philosophy, again, is you don’t mow it all down and plant whatever’s the most valuable, you take what nature gives you, and you steward that. As a great side benefit, a lot of my cousins and friends are hunters, so when you have a naturally occurring forest with many different species of trees at different stages of growth, you get great habitat for deer and turkey and rabbits and raccoons and birds and for other animals they hunt. It’s a natural forest, very similar to what it might have been 150 or 200 years ago. It’s extraordinary, and I am very proud of that.
That pride—in my abilities as a craftsman, in my stewardship of the forests, in my work ethic, and my traditions—informs my work in the most meaningful way. I think what I do and the way I do it is important. I am not so naive as to think everyone can or should do what I do. I even admit that some of what I do is a little crazy. It really isn’t necessary to cut down your own trees and mill and dry the boards yourself, and then use tools—most of which are from the 19th century—to handcraft furniture, then go out and sell it yourself. Surely there are easier ways to run a business?
Yes, there are. But even if you don’t do any of the crazy things I do, it is still possible to have integrity in your work. You may not be crafting $10,000 dining tables, but no matter what you do, you can still seek authenticity and responsibility, a little more craftsmanship and care in what you do. Maybe just as important, you can aim for less hypocrisy and more thoughtfulness in what you buy as a consumer. The way I do business and the way the Big Box Boys do business is apples and oranges. My business plan is to make a few $10,000 items a month. Their plan is to make 10,000, $1 items an hour. And they do that by cutting the fat wherever they can, so their manufacturing is overseas, all their timber is sourced overseas, and they have no interest in sustainability or the integrity of their product, which is vastly cheaper, in every sense, than mine. And then their stuff falls apart. Think about the pre-abstract definition of the word integrity and it becomes pretty obvious why it does that: The OED says, “The condition of having no part or element taken away; undivided or unbroken; material wholeness, completeness, entirety; soundness.” Can’t we as consumers take a lesson from this? If we buy things that embody the opposite of the definition of integrity, we’re not only buying junk, we’re rewarding a whole skein of human behaviors that are junky. Who thinks we can escape the long-term consequences of that?
There’s a market for the cheap stuff, obviously, and there will always be one as long as short-term ways of thinking and seeing dominate real vision. But consumers might change their behavior if they were better educated about the true cost of things and how they were made. There have been inroads lately in certain industries, like clothing and agriculture, and the same lessons could be applied to the furniture industry. It’s simple: When you come to me and a table is $10,000, I can tell you exactly why that table costs that much. I can honestly tell you that the price is supporting a local craftsman to have a livable, decent life. Or do you want to support the shareholders of XYZ Corporation, who are likely exploiting forests and people half a world away and who need the U.S. military to keep shipping lanes open for their products? What’s the real cost of that table you get from China, and not just the cost in money?
My work isn’t for everyone. It’s an investment, yes, and it’s a style that’s not right for everyone. But my work appeals to those who value the ideals of traditional life and craft, who understand that I’m not just producing some disposable commodity that gets punched out in a few hours. It’s individual work with individual clients to give them the best possible product, a piece with real, lasting value. They get a piece of nature, a piece of me, a piece of themselves, too and, yes, a piece of America and American history as it is happening. It’s got my soul in it. Everybody can feel good about it. No one has to make any excuses for buying my furniture.
At the end of the day, despite the hipsters and the calculating corporations, I guess what upsets me the most about my industry and the situation we find ourselves in is that most people are just not being honest with themselves. It’s willful blindness. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past several years, you know where that cheap bookcase or laptop or jacket or pair of shoes came from, and you know the circumstances of its manufacture and why it’s so cheap. You know it’s crap but you might buy it anyway because it’s cheap, it’s easy, and, maybe most important for most people, you can get it right now.
Maybe what’s really missing in people, and not just consumers but most makers, too, is that drive, that spirit, that ethos that made America great which turns on an understanding of how things are actually made and the cycles, both natural and intellectual, that inform that work.
Genuine craftsmanship is not just about touch skills, not about just that one province of “how.” It’s also about the tools and how they are made, about the raw materials and how they are acquired, handled, and shaped. It’s about the processes of learning and refining skills through the generations across time and across communities of craftsmen in the present time. The more a person knows about all these aspects of “how” something useful is made, the more appreciation there can be for the final product. When most people are ignorant about all this and, worse, feel no sense of curiosity about it, cheapness becomes the default drive of the entire civilization. It infects everything, not just the businesses that make useful physical things. That, I fear, is what is becoming of us. It makes me sad, and it makes me worry for my family’s future. But really, what can one very old-fashioned, slightly crazy woodworker do?