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Raw materials: Scott Nehring

Scott Nehring has been called "the woodworking monk." No, he hasn't taken holy orders; but he certainly has a monk's single-minded devotion. His is the pursuit of absolute perfection in his craft -- something he freely admits can never be fully achieved. But he's getting as close as he can.  

When I first interviewed Nehring, he was putting the finishing touches on a desk that took him between seven and eight months to complete. On a single desk. All the work done by hand, up to 300 hours of work per month. He'd sold the desk to a regular client for $100,000. So I asked the obvious question: how can a desk be worth $100,000?  

The labor, the detail, it's all handmade. And the owner herself said this isn't a desk, it's a work of art. You could probably spend the next five years and find things on there you never saw. 

Everything is finished, there are dovetails inside of dovetails. The back of the drawer is just as good as the front, and everything is that way. And the not so modest part is that right there [pointing to his signature on the inside of the drawer] makes it worth $100,000.  

What kind of wood is it made of?

This is quilted mahogany, it's all log-matched. It's all solid wood, there's no veneers in this piece at all. The material budget alone is almost $15,000. 



It all comes from one log. All my furniture does. 

Which is how you get the, the surface look isn't the same everywhere, but there is a consistency and a uniformity to it.

When you get to this level, it's art. It's not furniture anymore. And people who know my work, they recognize in mine versus other people is that uniformity, that symmetry. It doesn't scream "Look at me!" Because it does have that uniformity. It's all coming from the same log, it has the same characteristics about it. 

But you're not looking for perfection in the wood. There are knots, a little smudgy spot here. 

That's a theme that runs through the piece. They're there, there's no way around them, so then I have to find ways to incorporate them. That flaw helps give it uniformity and uniqueness. You see those little tick marks repeating over and over again in the piece. 

And you use no metal fasteners or glue. 

No, it's all wood joined, interlocked. And if that joint needs glue to stay together, then it's a bad joint. It's an insurance policy, basically. 

You've joined pieces together with very intricate interlocking teeth, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. 

Some pieces of high-end furniture, the closer you get, the less impressed you are. I like my pieces to do exactly the opposite. It looks great when you walk in the room, but when you get over here and open this drawer, you're going to be even more impressed, not less impressed. And the thing of it is, too, if you take your average desk, it's good on one surface. My pieces are good inside, out, top, bottom, front, back, so it's basically four desks. Because the same amount of attention to detail is all the way around. 

You call it a work of art, but you expect it to be used. 

Absolutely. They better. [He laughs] 

I don' t think I'd want to set a cup of coffee on it. 

I would hope you would use a coaster. 


Well, yes, but I'd worry about spillage. 

To me, that just makes it that much tastier, when it's used. It's like an old pair of boots: the older they get, the better they get. Cheap boots, they don't go the distance, they never get that charm. 

You're hoping this will be an heirloom, lasting decades or even centuries. 

That's what we hope. And that's the way they are built.  Any time you use a screw, with every seasonal change, the wood gets tighter when it dries, and then when it takes on moisture it loosens. Every year, even on a microscopic level, that joint is getting looser. If it's wood-on-wood joinery, as this piece shrinks, so does this one. As this one expands, so does this one. So it stays in harmony. 

Other thing with cost: People who are buying this stuff, they're driving Porsches, Mercedes. In the life of this desk, how many $80,000 Mercedes or Porsches will they own? There's so much free money floating around, and people are trying to distinguish themselves, and a Mercedes or a Rolex won't do it anymore. Whereas money alone won't get you this desk. 

And look at the homes they are building today. I guarantee you that a two or three million dollar house, 30 years from now, won't be in the same condition as this desk. The part that bothers me the most is that I see what other woodworkers get for their work, and it tears the heart right out of my chest. I mean, there's absolutely no justice. But I paid my dues, and I still do. And I keep pushing. 


Nehring started his career as a more conventional sort of wood craftsman. Then, a potentially severe accident inspired him to follow a different path.  

Somebody was pressing me for a big order. And I was trying to make three in a day, when three in a week would have been good. And the edge of the board got stuck on the joiner fence, and I didn't have the guard on the joiner, and my hand went right in. The board stopped, and my hand kept moving. And it scooped the end off this finger, it was completely gone [the ring finger on his right hand]. Just scooped it out cleaner than anything. 

And I said to myself right then and there, because I didn't know if it would grow back, and I said there is no way that anyone is ever going to push me again. Because that person's life is not gonna change. I'm gonna lose something that I can never get back. It brings things into focus. That's when I stopped the numbering on my pieces and started over. I'm at, I think this is 92. So it's been 92 pieces since I cut the end of my finger off. It was about 10 or 12 years ago. 

So in ten years, you've produced 92 pieces. 

That I signed. And I only sign the stuff I'm really proud of. I've done things I haven't signed that were really good, but they were other people's designs or something, it didn't really carry a piece of me. There are 92 pieces that I feel represent me. The new me.  

And as it turned out, your finger came back just fine. 

You'd never know. It was all gone. It could have taken my finger, pulled in my whole hand. 

I went almost exclusively into hand tools after that.  

Email me at john [at] johnswalters [dot] com