Let’s start with the chair. I can’t get the image of the chair out of my head. An elegant, handmade, spindle-back chair with splendid lines and a finish smooth as satin. Snug as a saddle. Lovingly crafted from walnut and ash. A comfy, hardy, wood-grained work of art.
The chair is the only finished piece in Geoff Keating’s workshop. The workshop is in the close-coupled basement of his parent’s smallish South Bend home. A basement jammed with all manner of saws — big table saws and shiny hand saws — a joiner, drill and lathe and other power tools, a bounty of hand tools, snaky vacuum hoses and bags to collect sawdust. There are stacks and shelves and scraps of wood — red and black walnut, ash, poplar, cherry, oak, even pine — a blackboard and sketchbook, flasks of linseed oil and glue, vise grips, utility cords and wooden works in various stages of progress: rough cut, finely tooled, sanded, squared or honed into elements beginning to resemble legs, panels, crest rails, desktops and doors.
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And over in the corner is the chair. Just a simple chair.
It’s been a couple of hours since I left Keating ’00M.A. in his workspace, but I keep thinking about the chair. A thing of beauty. Silky to the touch, surprisingly comfortable to sit in.
“I wanted something that was light, delicate and airy,” Keating says of the chair he designed and built. “Something that wouldn’t dominate a space but would still command enough presence to be noticed. Something that would fit into smaller spaces, could serve as an accent chair in a living room but also as an everyday chair at a dining table. I wanted the person sitting in it to feel that the chair was hugging them. As soon as you sat in it, I wanted you to forget that it was light and delicate and instead to focus on the comfort and the feel of the wood.”
The chair is mostly black walnut, but combined with lighter-colored ash. “The colors complement one another,” he explains, with the ash softening walnut’s dark stare. “And the flexible strength of ash works well for spindles and legs.”
The ash, of course, originally came from a living, breathing tree, but most recently from the wood heap in Keating’s basement shop, that he milled and cut into “blanks” to be turned on the lathe and delicately, patiently hewn into spindles for the seat-back and legs.
The seat began as a 2-inch thick slab of American black walnut cut into three equal pieces and glued seamlessly into a seat blank. Keating drilled holes at appropriate angles through the seat blank for the four legs and eight spindles. He then carved out the seat shape on a band saw and slowly scooped and shaped the seat bottom for comfort and visual effect.
Then there’s the crest rail, with holes drilled at precise angles so the tops of the spindles that converge from different angles will meet at the correct orientation. Legs and spindles travel snugly through the walnut, and Keating slices a diametric “kerf” across each end, then drives a wedge into the slot to tightly secure the fitting. The seat, too, has to be exactly positioned to ensure sustained comfort.
Each element was carefully, repeatedly sanded and smoothed throughout the build, a four-day process with each task, each unique piece of wood presenting its own problems and challenges. Once completed, Keating did a final sanding and began applying a blend of natural oils — five coats over the next six days — to complete the chair’s fine, soft finish, each coat evenly applied, then drying, curing.
“If you ordered one chair and I had nothing else to do, it would still take 10 days to two weeks to complete it,” says Keating, adding, “Once complete, the chair is extremely durable. It is built to bend rather than break. That’s to say, there is a great deal of intentional flex to it, which — especially in the spindles — provides some of the comfort. When built correctly, it should last several generations.”
Such a simple chair.
It’s a chair, he says, that achieves “the balance that has to be drawn in trying to weigh the competing elements of the right visual aesthetic with structural integrity, and not compromising either.” Keating doesn’t build just chairs. He makes tables and beds, hutches, dressers and desks, even lamps, stools and big strapping cabinets (once necessitating the furniture maker to tear out the basement steps to remove it from his workshop). And that balance of grace and function is the aim of each piece.
Keating didn’t set out to be a furniture maker. The Amarillo, Texas, native almost ignored the DNA. Generations ago, the men on his mother’s side of the family were master builders and woodworkers. The specialty of the Keller clan was churches — small, country churches — erected all over east and west Texas, even into Arkansas, and not only the steepled buildings but the pews, pulpits and ornamental details. For most of his life the closest Geoff Keating came to that vocation was occasionally hanging out in his uncle’s workshop and looking at old photographs of ancestrally built churches.
Keating earned a master’s in theology from Notre Dame in 2000 and spent the next nine years as a doctoral student in theology, living the academic life as scholar and teacher. Over that time, however, he gradually came to suspect that he was not exactly being called to a career in the academy by the weighty texts or students he would teach.
He started dabbling in carpentry, making a few things on the side for himself. He realized he liked it, and that he was good at it. It seemed to come naturally. Colleagues and friends began asking him to make things for them. In fall 2006, he bought himself “a big cabinet saw, a furniture-maker’s saw, and a whole bunch of hand tools.”
Keating found a new appetite for books, but books that showed him how to make things out of wood. Even then, he says, when the how-to guides explained difficult joints and techniques and advised the apprentice not to get frustrated because it could take a long time to get this down, Keating found it all came naturally.
“It all just seemed very intuitive,” Keating says. “I don’t really have to sit and think about how the shapes go together. I don’t do a lot of measuring. I was always good at geometry.” He smiles. “I’ll do a rough sketch and start building. You kind of see it where it needs to line up, and feel like you need to cut here or cut there, and it all kind of comes together that way.”
Keating continues: “I started to build things a lot quicker than I thought I could, and I started to really like some of the lines on the pieces I built, and other people did, too. That’s a very intuitive thing, but another reason it was so easy to distance myself from the schoolwork. I was good at it, and I really enjoyed it. I’d spend a full day in my studio making things, and at the end of the day would be surprised that it’d already be time to go.”
Soon, the hobby that had turned into a part-time venture to help pay off student loans became the mistress, begging from Keating 14-, 16-hour days seven days a week. After teaching in the spring of 2009, the Ph.D. candidate, who’d spent a decade in graduate school at Notre Dame, stepped out of academia. “I can still complete the program,” he says, and has till April 2012 to submit his dissertation. But he’s also got people waiting in line — eight or nine months out — for exquisitely made, high-end, expensive furniture pieces that will likely become family treasures, or more.
“There’s that perfect balance I would like to draw,” he says, “between doing pieces that are still functional, that you have in your house and use, but is also considered art. I still want to build things that people use. I mean, that’s part of the pleasure — that one of your tables is there every day.” But, he adds, “30 years down the road, it’d be nice for people to say, ‘Oh yes, that’s a Geoff Keating.’”
Meanwhile, Keating, 35, is in his cramped and cluttered shop, spinning a slender staff of wood on the lathe — sawdust and chips spewing into his face, flakes sprinkled through his hair. He is a man happy at work. He and his wife, Anna Nussbaum Keating ’06, are expecting their first child this spring. When he holds the piece up for inspection, I suggest he could make a fine baseball bat with that cudgel of ash and that lathe of his. But he evidently is not interested in making baseball bats. He has found his calling. That in itself is an achievement for a lifetime.
“There was this time before,” he says, “I wasn’t going anywhere, you know. I don’t think you need to get the job as CEO of a Fortune 500 company, be the president or anything like that, to make a ride. But I think if you’re doing something you enjoy, in some ways then it becomes its own reward, its own fulfillment. And I didn’t feel that way with the schooling stuff. So I was a little aimless and wandering, bouncing around a little bit.
“Now with this sense of direction and fulfillment, I’m more at peace with myself and my surroundings. I’m really lucky,” he says, “to have found out I can do this and then parlay it into something I do every day.”
Keating’s detour into furniture making might appear to be a real track-jump from his former path toward teaching, research and the nebulae of scholarly discourse. He’s a band of one. He works with hands and tools, transforming raw material into real, tangible, functional objects. And each piece of wood, he says, has its own personality traits, revealed in their natural grains, patterns, lines, knots and, often, quarrelsome blemishes and splits.
Prior to construction he sifts through his wood pile, hunting down candidates to be cut, planed and fashioned into his next project. “Maybe for a chair that gets smaller at the top,” he says, “I want something that has kind of a feminine feel, so you try to hold that idea of the feminine in your head and at the same time work with wood that brings its own issues to the table. You know, sometimes you’ll see a big plank and you’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s kind of a masculine guy,’ so you set it aside and use it for something else. So it’s not only how you shape it but also how you work with what you’ve got — what the wood is giving you, I guess. And that’s part of the beauty, too, of using something that’s natural.”
It may take a day or two to line up the right pieces of wood, to get the right grain, lines, colors and contrasts aligned. Books and hands-on experience divulge valuable lessons — what woods work well and in what ways, how they machine, meld and cut, what’s durable, what splits, what’s expensive, what plank is properly aged for a specific task. “And sometimes,” he says, “you see the boards and they’ll tell you where they want to go.”
Woodworking has its own intrinsic satisfactions, he says. “There’s this organic feeling and pleasurable tactile experience running your hand over the board,” Keating says. “One of the things that’s nice, but also really frustrating, is that it is organic and every board is different, with its own little, unique differences and problems. So even when you’re trying to make a set of chairs, every chair is different. But that’s what keeps it interesting.”
The difficulty and appeal of his work, says Keating, is also the problem-solving — reading the wood and tackling the intellectual puzzle of creating furniture. Keating credits his advanced education for tuning his analytical skills. “One thing I think the academy does best is to show how a problem needs to be solved, how to distill the right information from what you read, how you can figure your way through it, creatively and toward a solution. The academy teaches you how to do that.”
Making furniture, however talented the woodsmith, is an intellectual challenge, a constant stream of problems to be solved — “especially when you’re building a new piece,” he says, explaining, “How do I construct it so it’s sound, so someone can sit on it and still get the look I want? And you’re holding these things in your head and trying to get from the starting point to the finishing point with the shape still intact and structurally sound and working with the materials in a way they’re complementing the piece, not detracting from it.
“Even when you’re sanding, you’re concentrating on getting all the nicks and imperfections out, you’re hoping to reflect the light just right, you’re checking a split on the end, wondering if it’s going to hold, do I need to fill it. So there are many levels of problem-solving you’re working through to come up with the right solution in the end. And that’s an intellectually demanding thing.” And why he’s so tired at the end of the day.
“People, even my parents, ask me what I think about all day, do I listen to the radio. But there is a cerebral side to this,” he says. “I’m always in a state of focused attention. First of all, you’re trying not to cut your thumbs off. You’re always focused on that.”
And then there’s the flight of the imagination, the call to create, the making of art. “It’s very similar to the academy, too,” Keating explains, “in that you’re working out of a tradition. There’s all these basic joints you can use and, when I started, I thought there’s one way to build something. But there’s really a few basic building blocks you can use and after that everything’s open game; you can run with it in several directions.”
That’s where he is now, in his South Bend shop, investing his ample talents, building furniture, finding his voice, exploring his new directions and saying of his future, “I want to do my thing.”