Focus is the wood, not the work.
Furniture builder John Steiner hopes his efforts look, above all, natural. "

Master furniture builder John Steiner wants his efforts to disappear into the woodwork.

"The best compliment you ever get is to have somebody say 'boy that's beautiful wood,'" he said. "That means the design is simple enough that they don't really notice - it's secondary to the beauty of the wood."

For the past 25 years, Steiner has been building fine furniture and cabinetry from his downstairs workshop on South Beach Drive. And he expects that most of the pieces he has made during that quarter century are still in use.

"If a piece is well made, it should be around for hundreds of years," he said. "That's why I like a simple, classical design. It will last for many generations, and through periods of design and fads." Steiner says his own designs have what he calls a maritime look - "very simple, but with some curves, like a well-fitted out boat," he said.

His work is influenced by the Shaker style, with lots of hand-cut joints. It's a look that has inspired famous furniture builders, Steiner said, rattling off names like Sam Maloof and George Nakashima.

Besides simplicity and quality wood, the other hallmark of Steiner's furniture is strength.

"My customers get a lot of interior joinery that they never see, he said. And I use heavy-duty hinges and hardware, like a TV slide that can hold 225 pounds. I want cabinet doors that kids can hang on."

Steiner works almost exclusively in hard woods like cherry, walnut and mahogany. Perhaps his favorite wood is a teak-like South Pacific hardwood he calls Merberu.

"I bought about seven thousand board feet of that years ago, he said, and I still have a lot left."

He builds an array of wooden furniture - chests of drawers, benches, coffee tables, dining room tables, book shelves and desks, for example. He will build to the client's design, or supply his own, but he says most of his pieces are design collaborations with the buyer.

Virtually everything he does is built to order.

"At one point, I was three to four years behind on orders, he said. Now I'm working six to eight months out."

Steiner can build many pieces in about a week, and has turned out as many as 30 pieces a year. That lets him be price-competitive with the top-of-the line store-bought furniture that uses real wood rather than veneer and particle board - what he calls an "apples to apples" comparison.

Steiner works each of the pieces of wood through a sequence of machines to plane off any curvature and create a bar of wood - a perfectly straight, flat piece, with surfaces making perfect right angles.

When he assembles his pieces, he takes into account the fact that the wood will swell in the higher humidity of a typical summer, and contract in the drier cool-weather air.

"You have to use oval-shaped screw-holes to allow for expansion," he said. "Otherwise, the piece will tear itself apart. Sometimes, you can hear the wood cracking."

The biggest drawback to building furniture all day every day is the tedium.

"You might start with a stack of wood four feet high, and make 500 passes before you're ready to glue, he said. It can get sort of boring."

To break up his day, he works in his backyard farm - a small salmon farm next door to the larger Global Aqua facility at the foot of Fort Ward Hill Road. Like a lot of farmers, he started by being somebody else's hired hand.

"For quite a few years, I was the lead diver for the farm next door," he said. "That was interesting. You'd get down to 75 feet, couldn't see your hand in front of your face, and say, 'now it's time to do a day's work.'"

The money was great, Steiner said, because there are always problems in such an operation.

His own farm was something of an accident. He leased his Rich Passage location to outside operators, but was persuaded by some friends and investors to take on for himself the task of raising and marketing salmon.

Another sidelight, which Steiner says has been profitable, is custom mill-work, making custom wood pieces for local homebuilders who want to work with an island artisan. He enjoys doing curved stairs for custom staircases, which he works into his schedule while concentrating on larger jobs.

"When you look for niches that need to be filled, that can really help you from a business standpoint," he said.