Carving wood into fine art

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He gave up a steady gig as a carpenter and sold his north-end Halifax home to pursue the craft of making fine furniture.


After nine months at a prestigious trade school in Scotland, Gary Staple will soon return to Halifax. And the Musquodoboit Harbour native plans to use his new-found skills as a springboard into the business of furniture design and instruction.


The 31-year-old wrapped up his studies last week at the Chippendale International School of Furniture, where he was recently named student of the year.


“It’s been a really intense go,” Staple said earlier this week from his home in the town of Haddington, East Lothian. “I’ve been working like mad.”


Staple’s career path took a turn about a year ago, after he’d been working as a carpenter for six years. Most recently, he was a partner in a local contracting company.


The budding furniture maker says he enjoyed the building trades and did get to do some creative work. But he wanted to expand his woodworking skills and move in a different direction.


“I could keep working in carpentry for the rest of my life. I just felt like this was the right thing to do,” he says. “It definitely was a very tough decision. But I think it was the right decision.”


He considered various furniture-making schools in North America and abroad before deciding on Chippendale. He was lured by the school’s reputation, as well as its location in the Scottish countryside, about 40 kilometres east of Edinburgh.


Named after 18th-century British craftsman Thomas Chippen-dale, the school only accepts about 20 students a year. They come from around the world and pay tuition of C$30,000.


To fund his studies and year abroad, Staple and fiancee Alice MacLean sold their home in the Hydrostone — a property the carpenter and his brother had spent four years restoring.


“We literally finished it as we were moving out,” Staple says with a laugh. “We never actually got to live in it finished.”


Instead, the Halifax man took his tools to Scotland and went back to school in October. Meanwhile, MacLean — a NSCAD University graduate — became Chippendale’s first artist-in-residence.


Besides mastering new skills and techniques, Staple’s program required him to build three pieces — one per term. The Halifax carpenter ended up with four custom works of furniture in his portfolio, as well as two guitars.


Chippendale principal Anselm Fraser says the Nova Scotian “took the place by storm” with his skill, dedication and business acumen.


“He’ll put the hours in and the furniture he’s made is absolutely beautiful,” Fraser says from the school, based in the village of Gifford.


Staple’s signature piece is a Japanese tea cabinet made of ebony and walnut, with a veneer of olive ash and rosewood. A traditional-looking piece from the outside, the interior features an exotic twist: an inlaid image of a Japanese cherry tree in blossom.


The craftsman says the design was inspired by the pink-blossomed trees that grow in the countryside around the 30-year-old school.


“In the spring, the cherry blossoms, they’re unreal,” he says. “They’re all over the place. It’s quite a sight.”


While enthusiastic about the school and its setting, Staple is almost matter of fact about winning top-student laurels, simply calling the award “quite an honour.”


The school’s principal, however, says the competition was stiff but the Halifax woodworker deserved the accolade.


“My impression of Gary is that he thinks something out, makes a plan, executes his plan and then gets his reward,” Fraser says. “He just thinks it all the way through. He’s an all-rounder.”


Even though Staple spent most of his time in the school’s workshop, he says the most important thing he learned was how to be a craftsmen and make a living at it.


He’s already set up his new venture, Gary Staple Fine Woodworking, and plans to establish a furniture school of his own. His aim is to start small with a workshop in Dartmouth that can be expanded as the business grows. He’ll continue to design custom furniture, and carpentry work will likely also be part of his business.


Fraser says it’s not easy being in the woodworking business, and students who are tend to be involved in various aspects of it.


He says his school is as much about incubating business as it is about teaching furniture making.


“What you have to do is diversify your skills,” the Chippendale principal says.


Now that he’s done that, Staple has no regrets about the decision to pursue another path and showcase his talent. His custom work, including the tea cabinet, will be on display at Halifax’s Argyle Fine Art in September. Staple also hopes to line up other exhibits in the coming months.


“The theme I was going (for) with a lot of my furniture is that when you engage it, it’s something surprising,” the furniture maker says of his work.


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