Dave Stine: The Art of Craftsmanship and Its Significance to This Master Woodworker
The small town of Dow, Illinois would be easy to miss unless a traveler were specifically aiming for it as a destination. It also happens to be the origin of a terrific noise on this Midwestern evening. Dave Stine, clad in a t-shirt and jeans held up by suspenders, emerges from the barn that houses his woodworking shop with a ruddy glow about him, revealing a large table saw to be the culprit of the noise. Tomorrow he will head into town to pick up a special safety stop for it, which prohibits the saw from cutting further upon detecting human flesh. “All the other woodworkers I know are missing fingers,” he laments, without sentiment.
Stine’s woodworking shop is a short walk from the family farmhouse, one of many dotting the cornfields and gentle knolls of Dow. The scene is so beautiful that it subverts the potential for cliché. Two stories high, the shop has every kind of tool and raw material imaginable: hundreds of handsaws, chainsaws, table saws, varnishes, nails, sanders, pencils, paper, right-angle squares, hammers, chisels … ad infinitum, all covered in sawdust, as though he somehow used every single tool in his possession today. The walls are lined with stacks upon stacks of giant slabs of wood that Stine and his one studio assistant, Eli Cronin, process in the sawmill next door. By some process of alchemy, he then transforms the raw materials into the furniture displayed on his website: sumptuous, shiny tables crafted from one slab of vertical or horizontally-sliced wood, benches, desks and popular pieces like the “Wrench Bench,” which incorporates actual wrenches into the piece as its legs.
The land where Stine sustainably harvests his own wood, chopping down timber that is ailing or dead, has been in his family for four generations. While narrating the phases of its vast acreage, he points to a plot of land a few miles away and explains that it used to be a dairy farm, where he grew up. An only child, his parents and extended family cared for the farm, livestock, and its seemingly endless necessity of work: cleaning, providing hay, managing waste, bottle-feeding calves. “We did everything on the farm, from repairing our own equipment to butchering meat and growing our vegetables,” he remembers, though not always fondly. “If you’ve ever milked cows, you know why I don’t. It is fucking hateful. Twice a day, every day, for the rest of your life. No one gives a shit about anything else because the cows need to be milked: you’re hungover, you’re sick, or your mom died. It doesn’t matter. The cows still need to be milked, twice a day, every day, from now until forever,” he says. The process took him three hours, morning and night, every day.
By the time he was in junior high, Stine was driving a combine and managing around 100 head of cattle. His 4H project involved animal husbandry, farming and land management. “A 4H project can be things like extemporaneous public speaking, public service, automotive lessons, welding, cooking, sewing, cleaning … things related to general living.” Now more than ever, he is routinely confronted with the division of city and country life. Along with his wife and two children, Stine splits his time between the farm and a house in Richmond Heights, Missouri, which gives his children the benefit of an award winning school district.
“Having children ruins your life completely. In every way,” he says. “You care about them so much that if something bad happens to one of them, you’re totally fucked.” Stine’s parents divorced while he was in college and his father moved to Florida, but his mother still lives nearby. He calls himself an only child, but he had a sister who was killed by a drunk driver when she was young. He remembers very little about it. “I was young too. I think she was nine, and I was around eight. We were at a family thing, and she was either on the sidewalk or the road. I don’t ask a lot of questions,” he says. “It’s not like it comes up a lot.” He has read about how many couples don’t recover after the loss of a child. “I was young enough that it didn’t really register. I think of it now that I have children more than I ever did before, because I can’t imagine if something happened to one of my kids. Another reason they ruin your life.”
Stine was initially exposed to the outskirts of woodworking while growing up on the farm. His father had dabbled in furniture building as a hobby, but it was his grandfather who became a pivotal mentor. They used to attend antique auctions together, where they’d find old furniture, repair it and resell it for a marginal profit. Stine would assist with the repairs once they found their salvageable treasures. It was here that he learned the basics of woodworking tools, types of wood, finishes, joints and more. While neither of his own children appear drawn to woodworking, Stine is deeply aware and vigilant of his teenage son and daughter’s interests: fashion, music and standing up for others, of which Stine is particularly proud. His son, who is currently 17, came out to his parents when he was 15.
“My only difficulty with it is I want my kid’s life to be as easy as possible,” says Stine. “Everything I just said about how they ruin your life is totally true. But you want your kids to have an easy path. You want everything to go their way, and you hate to see them in pain. You hate to see difficulties of any sort in your children’s way. And if you’re gay, it’s going to be harder. That’s just the way it is. Like if you’re black, or a woman.” While Stine has his beef with city living, he breathes a deep, grateful sigh of relief that the Clayton school his son attends has been accepting. “Nobody seems to care. If he were out here, he would be totally shamed, and it would be terrible. People would not be accepting whatsoever. No way, man. There are great people here, but that is not accepted in high school. It’s deer hunting and keggers.”
Years later when Stine was in law school at George Washington University, his grandfather gave him an assortment of hand tools and additional supplies. It was then, in an unlikely studio space, that Stine began churning out humidors and building the foundation for what would become the work of his life, and undoubtedly where he now spends most of his time. “My wife’s sister’s boyfriend at the time had a t-shirt printing business. He had rented this derelict warehouse in Don’t Go There, DC. It was 20,000 square feet and he was only using 5,000 square feet of it.”
Stine began using the remaining portion as his first studio. He also dug up several back issues of Woodworking Magazine and pored over each one. After three years of trudging his way through law school, Stine completed his degree and worked for a small firm managing client trusts, estate planning and wills. “So what happens to your shit after you die. That’s the basic tenet of what I did,” he describes, which he practiced for a total of one calendar year before quitting. “I don’t do well in that kind of environment. Almost everyone in my family, and almost everyone in my wife’s family, is self-employed. When I was growing up I thought, ‘Ok, that’s interesting.’ But now I think it’s just because we’re impossible to get along with. We all think we’re the smartest people in the room. We’re completely unemployable,” he says, laughing.
Stine worked at a diesel shop to pay his way through undergrad at Penn State, but maintaining a similar strategy to pay for graduate school proved to be both a challenge and an opportunity. He started by baking pies, pastries, cheesecakes and other baked goods to sell to local restaurants and coffee shops in DC, and eventually became inspired to build his first humidor out of wood. “Arnold Schwarzenegger was on the cover of Cigar Aficionado or something like that. It was the Big Swinging Dick ’80s,” says Stine. “I started building humidors on the side and selling them through Georgetown Tobacco. That was really the seed of David Stine Woodworking.” Now, sitting at a table in the house next door to his studio, he points up to a large, elegant humidor held together by a simple box joint, the first one he ever made. “I made one for myself so I could see whether or not I could make them for other people.”
Stine spent the first four years of his woodworking career in Washington DC, where he dealt with the growing pains of lacking space, and naturally kept coming back to Dow to harvest timber. He and his wife decided to move back, and today, chainsaw in hand, Stine cuts timber from the comfort of what is essentially his backyard. “I don’t think there was a defining moment or anything like that. Maybe when I quit law. But I was raised to be self-sufficient, to be inquisitive, and constantly learning. I assume other people are that way too.” His daily routine harkens back to his upbringing: manual labor, sunup to sundown. “These values really took root in me.”
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.