Trade Talk With Talented Woodworkers

Perfecting a Craft

From masters of mahogany to purveyors of pine, the Scenic City is rich with talented woodworkers. For many, the journey from rough timber to a polished piece is what it’s all about. The carves and chisels artfully executed by these craftsmen result in everything from bookshelves and bed frames to canoes and carousel animals – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

By Christina Cannon / Photography by Lanewood Studio

 

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Nathan Kolb

Boreal Woodworks

 

Can you describe your journey with woodworking?

I’ve always been drawn to create. By my mid-20s, I was working in IT and knew for my own sanity that I couldn’t spend the rest of my career working on computers. Instead, I chose to pursue something that allowed me to channel my creative energies and joined the first class of the Chattanooga Woodworking Academy. I went on to formally open my own furniture studio in 2019. 

 

What types of products do you make, and what is your style?

I work in most furniture forms, including tables, casework, mantels, doors, and built-ins. In an attempt to create less waste, I also turn my offcuts into usable home products like utensils, toys, cutting and serving boards, and wall art. I try to build for the way people live, so my designs gravitate toward clean lines and pragmatism. I tend to shy away from elements that add little to the function of the piece. 

 

Nathan Kolb working on woodworking project from sketch

 

What do you love about woodworking?

I enjoy the problem-solving required and the satisfaction of knowing that I produced something of worth, but the thing that drove me into woodworking was simply an admiration of the material itself – the smells, the colors, the history in the grain, the faceted faces after a cut. There are few things more satisfying than seeing the first coat of oil reveal the grain on a piece of well-sanded walnut. 

 

Which piece has been the most challenging and why?

My favorite piece was a custom gaming table I crafted for a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast. He wanted a beautiful dining table where the top could be removed to reveal a felt-lined interior for their game to be played on. We mounted a 50-inch television into the interior where a game board could be displayed. It had pull-out cup holders and a pull-out tray for the  “Dungeon Master.” The entire piece was crafted from solid cherry and was both the most challenging and my favorite to make. This was a table that wouldn’t be desirable to 99.5% of the population, but for this one person, it was exactly what he wanted. 

 

Nathan Kolb sanding and carving a table leg in his woodshop

 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Always be improving. Skills aren’t something that you attain and then own. They’re something you cultivate and maintain through practice and repetition. 

 

What do you want people to know about the craft?

There’s a lot of gatekeeping around what is “true woodworking,” but the world of woodworking contains everyone from a famous craftsman to the person sanding their first piece in their garage. Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re doing isn’t legitimate. As long as you’re building what you want and not losing any digits in the process, you’re doing it correctly. 

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Andrew Smith

Riser Burn Woodcrafts

 

Can you describe your journey with woodworking?

My journey began by taking a shop class in high school. The things I learned gave me the desire to do more. I went to college, and after graduating, I joined the Army. While deployed, I was injured and lost both my legs. After my injury, it was hard to figure out what to do next. I thought I was going to spend the next 20 years in the military, but the bomb changed that. Woodworking became an outlet for me to do something I loved, and it was therapeutic for me. Shortly after picking up woodworking again, I started building things for other people, and the business was born out of that. 

 

Andrew Smith holding a saw in his woodshop

 

What types of products do you make?

I started out building American flags and would ship them all over the country. As my shop grew, I started building more. I have primarily built smaller products – cutting and serving boards, wine displays, pens, signs, and various engraving projects. Lately, I have been setting aside more time to work on furniture projects, and I also have a passion project on the side where I’m building a strip canoe. 

 

What do you love about woodworking?

I love the satisfaction of finishing a project. There is something about taking a rough piece of wood and transforming it into something beautiful that people can appreciate. I also love that it is a constant learning process. Woodworking is something that you’re able to constantly challenge yourself with. As a father, I love that I can share this passion with my two sons, and being my own boss allows me to be there for my wife and kids. 

 

Which piece has been the most challenging to create and why?

I have been working on a historical reproduction of a Pennsylvania flintlock long rifle as a personal project. It’s a tedious project with a bunch of extremely precise measurements. I love it, though, because it gives me the opportunity to work with hand tools and do some carving. Hopefully, I end up with a really nice piece that will eventually become an heirloom. 

 

large clamps in Andrew Smith's woodshop

 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and let other people see what you are creating. It could eventually provide an opportunity for you to do something you love for a living.

 

Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share?

I love making stuff for my boys like a little keepsake box or a name puzzle. There is nothing better than watching their faces light up when I bring them something I made and hear them say, “You made that for me?”

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Bill Carney

Chattanooga Woodworking Academy

 

Can you describe your journey with woodworking?

My journey in becoming a professional woodworker started with helping my dad. As a youngster, I enjoyed the building process and had a natural talent for it. By the time I graduated high school, I could read prints and lay out a house. In college, one of my instructors was a master furniture maker who inspired me to look at a career in professional woodworking. There was a chronic need for woodshop teachers, and if I taught shop, I would have access to tools and a steady paycheck, which would allow me to save toward having my own shop. I worked hard, and as time passed, I was able to step out on my own. 

 

Bill Carney standing with some dressers he built

 

What types of products do you make?

I’ve built everything from cabinets, bookcases, windows, and doors to custom furniture. I once owned and operated a sawmill, but at this point in my career, I am concentrating on furniture.

 

How would you describe your style?

My style ranges from the elegant simplicity of shaker to the curves and carves of Chippendale. I can appreciate many styles, but my favorite is traditional early English and American furniture made of mahogany or walnut. 

 

What do you love about woodworking?

I like to figure out how to put the piece together. It’s a challenge, a thinking man’s game. I love to take rough lumber and turn it into a beautiful piece. That chance to create a masterpiece only happens once in a while, but striving for it is what makes the job worth it. It’s also satisfying to place a piece of furniture in someone’s life and know they will treasure it and pass it down.

 

What are some of your favorite pieces to make?

I love to make beds. It’s a piece of furniture that people will use their whole lives. I also like to make doors, especially front entries. A beautiful front door welcomes you into the home and defines its look. 

 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

My advice to beginning woodworkers is to try to narrow your choice to what pleases you. Be prepared to work hard and put in long hours. Be self-disciplined, read, research, and spend time away from work improving your knowledge. If you are not all in, find something you can be all in on. Do the best work you can, and build with the best materials. Reputation has to be earned.

 

Bill Carney carving a toy wooden truck

 

Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share?

The most memorable moments are giving away my work – toy trucks for kids in the hospital and building Poe’s Tavern in Soddy-Daisy to celebrate Hamilton County’s history.

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Rudd Montgomery

Push Hard Lumber Co.

 

Can you describe your journey with woodworking?

One of my early jobs was working at a small cabinet shop, and I was to sort out pieces of wood into different bins. All the wood looked the same to me, but I quickly started to see the differences in each species by listening to the cabinetmaker explain the color, grain, and hardness. After a year at this job, my wife and I moved back to Chattanooga, and I took a job building custom houses. I really loved working outside and using my hands, but one thing was missing. The wood was not right – I wanted real wood. I started working for an antique log home builder where I learned how to take perfect wood but also not-so-perfect wood and make it work for new construction. The four of us who worked together bought a sawmill, and I spent the next several years traveling the South and repurposing old barns. When my second child was born, I decided I wanted to be close to family, so in 1997, I used the name of my great-grandfather’s sawmill business he started in 1930, and Push Hard Lumber Co. was reborn. 

Wedge shaped hatchet on a pile of wood

 

What types of products do you make?

I started going to the Chattanooga Market decades ago, and there was always someone coming up to me asking if I could make a custom piece or fix one they already had. I listened to everyone and that has made me better. I now make just about whatever someone asks for, as long as my heart is in it. If my heart is not feeling it, I can’t do it. 

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made?

There have been so many favorite pieces, but one was a tree that a family brought to me after a tornado damaged their home several years ago. They had taken many family pictures in front of that tree, and we made a live-edge, book-matched table and benches to go into their newly rebuilt home.

Rudd Montgomery cutting a plank in his woodshop

 

Which piece has been the most challenging and why?

The “Giving Tree” chair for the new Erlanger Children’s Hospital was challenging. We had a three-week time frame to make a huge throne-like chair out of a log. We had to do all the work on the floor because of its enormous size and shape, but it turned out beautifully.

wood pile

 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Listen and learn. Make mistakes and learn. Make more mistakes. Try anything that makes you happy.

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David Crewe

Sound Crewe Audio

Can you describe your journey with woodworking?

My father was an engineer and an accomplished artist who had a passion for woodworking and creating furniture. I, in turn, grew up in a woodshop that was in our basement. My father and I began building the shop that I currently work from in 1983. After a short stint at Auburn, I began working as an ironworker, millwright, welder, and mechanical engineer. In 2000, the stress of 14-hour days was beginning to take its toll, and I decided to try to make it as a furniture builder. In 2009, I co-founded my very first retail location, which is now known as Area 61 Gallery.

 

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those?

While I do still build furniture, stereo speakers have become somewhat of a passion. They allow me to combine engineering with woodworking. I built my first pair of speakers with little more than a clue as to what I was doing. All I knew was that I had a shape in mind for the enclosures. The shape has evolved through hundreds of drawings and many prototypes into the spherical shape I use now.  

 

David Crewe smiling and standing in his woodshop

 

How would you describe your style?

For me, it is where style reaches its pinnacle while still being functional. My favorite style of classic furniture to build is Queen Anne, but I can build any style of furniture, so my style is really whatever the client’s is when it comes to commissioned pieces. 

 

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made?

My favorite piece would have to be a Queen Anne ladies’ writing desk. I would love to find the time to build a full-size Queen Anne secretary.

 

Which piece has been the most challenging and why?

The speakers are certainly the most challenging thing I build. For the small desktop speakers, there are 108 separate individual processes to complete each pair.

 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Don’t expect to get paid for the time it takes to create a solid handcrafted piece – don’t convert it to an hourly wage. If it is your passion, enjoy the work, work hard, and hope you make the money to continue. 

 

What do you want people to know about the craft?

You don’t have to have all of the biggest, fanciest tools out there to work with wood. If you can’t do it with hand tools, you’ll probably only make a bigger scrap pile faster. 

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Larry Ridge

Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School

 

Can you describe your journey with woodworking?

I began woodworking when I was 14. My Sunday School teacher gave me a wood carving set, and I began carving small birds out of any scrap wood I could find. Years later, I sold my first piece, and it was quite a thrill to know that someone liked my carving enough to pay for it. Joining the newly formed Chattanooga Woodcarver Club allowed me to meet other carvers and hone my skills by carving ducks and birds of prey. It was at the club that I met Bud Ellis, who had started the Horsin’ Around Carousel Carving School to build a carousel for Chattanooga. Bud was looking for someone to carve a goat for the carousel, and I jumped at the chance. Later, I was honored when Bud asked me to take over the school so he could retire. 

 

Larry Ridge with his son and grandson working together at Horsin' Around Carousel Carving School

 

How would you describe your style?

I extend the boundaries of realism using fantasy and illusion to create something unique that is recognizable, but requires a person to observe and think to enjoy the total experience.

 

assorted chisels

 

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made?

My favorite piece would be Sir William, which was my first carousel animal that I made to be placed on the Coolidge Park Carousel. The ability to be involved in this once-in-a-lifetime project, plus the doors that were opened by carving Sir William, has had a major impact on my life. Knowing that Sir William could still be around a hundred years from now for my great-great-grandchildren to ride on gives an extra purpose for my work.

 

Do you have any memorable moments from a project you’re willing to share?

One of the most memorable moments is getting to work with my son, Jason Ridge, and grandson, Luke Ridge, on a project where we worked together to create a carousel animal that will last for generations to come. It has also allowed us to start a family legacy of shared experiences and bonding over what was such a unique project. 

 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

I think it is especially important to learn the mechanics of your craft. Being creative and artistic will not go very far without the tools and techniques required to implement your concept. Having a strong foundation that will enable you to create and prosper allows your mind to expand to a point not limited by your physical abilities.

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