Bill Nash: The art of furniture


Since he was a child in Bennington, Vermont, Bill Nash has been working with wood, becoming a lifetime admirer of its color and texture, and the play of the grain in the light. Mr. Nash’s father was an amateur furniture-maker, building cabinets and furnishings at home.

It was in his father’s workshop that Mr. Nash discovered his love for woodworking.

“I can remember going out when I was very young and I would play with scraps of wood on his shop floor and I just kind of got into it in that way. I’ve just always been drawn to wood.”

A childhood pastime slowly grew into a career spanning decades. After graduating with a degree in business administration from California State University, Mr. Nash knew he didn’t want to work for corporate America but rather, with his hands.

Seated in the kitchen of his Vineyard Haven home at his handmade cherry table, the furniture-maker and woodworking artisan reflects on how he began a trade that became an art form.

After a few years working at various ski resorts and later in construction, he returned to Vermont and opened up his own small cabinetry shop in Bennington.

“Boy, it was very small,” he recalls, describing how he had to handle the pieces of lumber in the confining space: “I literally had to take lumber outdoors, turn it around, and bring it back in.”

Mr. Nash continued to hone both his craft and his chisels, learning what he liked and didn’t like and furthering his education on the art form all the while.

“I’m basically self-taught, though I’ve always thought the term is kind of a misnomer. I read a lot of books and I subscribe to a lot of very good magazines,” Mr. Nash says, adding that he learned much about the craft through repair work. “That’s a really good way to learn, repairing a piece of really well-made furniture.”

Over the years he developed his clean and elegant signature style, and eventually moved away from working with architects to doing his own art pieces and consignment work.

“There are furniture makers who do Chippendale furniture or Queen Anne [style]. I don’t do period furniture, or try to. A big influence for me was the arts and crafts movements and the Shakers,” Mr. Nash says, adding his style is also influenced by James Krenov, a Scandinavian woodworker who was renowned for his clean, simplistic lines and style.

“I try to avoid having a piece look busy or fussy. It’s funny, when a person comes in and looks at a piece of furniture and says ‘Wow, that looks really complicated,’ I think I’ve done something not quite right, because I don’t want my furniture to look busy. I’m more inclined to make it clean and simple and stay away from the fussy.”

With his well-behaved dog Boo by his side, Mr. Nash, who is in his early 60s, is dressed in a loose chambray shirt and blue jeans. He smiles easily and often as he talks, and even on a day away from his workshop, carries some of the tools of the trade: pencils and pens in his shirt pocket, tape measure and pocketknife clipped to his brown leather belt.

He sits surrounded by some of his favorite pieces: a wooden end table with hand-carved handles stained black that have been so meticulously carved they resembled cast iron. Nearby is a cabinet made of spalted maple, the entire front made from one piece of wood with an undulating dark brown grain contrasting the pale wood. Opening the cabinet reveals two small intricately chiseled drawers.

“I like chisels and I like cabinets with drawers in them,” he says. “I like the pecking away at the dovetails.”

Cherry and maple are some of Mr. Nash’s favorite woods, owing to their rich colors and workability.

“Cherry is really the premiere cabinet and furniture wood in the country. It is one of the easiest to work with; it responds well to cutting tools and takes an excellent finish.”

While some woodworking artists start directly with the wood, Mr. Nash prefers working from a sketch, then finding the wood that best fits his design. The piece evolves as it is shaped and crafted, as each layer that is removed further reveals its character.

“One of the big things is to really pay attention and follow the grain, and that can be a little disconcerting sometimes,” Mr. Nash says, recalling a pair of chairs whose entire grain direction changed with one sweep of the plane.

He is currently working on bending wood, using forms and a custom-built boiler. He also intends to explore blacksmithing and metal embellishment.

Mr. Nash seems to revel in his identity as an artist. His one-of-a-kind fine furniture and an assortment of lathe-turned hardwood vessels are displayed at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven.

Gallery owner Nancy Cramer says, “He has a discerning eye for detail and the technical expertise to interpret it into his art.”

Ms. Cramer continues, “Most people who come in are impressed with the conspicuous high quality of each piece — front and back — and the subtleties of his designs.”

Mr. Nash says: “I’m focusing more and more on what I want to do and that is the direction I want to be going — to be in a position where I’m doing the work that I really want to do. There is a lot more creativity in it, there is no getting around it…It is a lot of fun to simply take a piece of furniture and build what you want to do.”