PLAINS - Bruce Shinn’s life is framed in wood. For most of his professional life, the Plains resident has worked in the woods, first as a state forester with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, then as a forestry consultant. These days, he spends most of his time building elaborate wooden artworks and beautiful custom furniture inside a large workshop behind his home.
It’s a labor of love, certainly. But it’s also an outgrowth of the natural tendencies of this lifelong woods-walker and self-described “scrounge.”
“I like to pick things up wherever I go,” says Shinn as he gazes at a twisted bunch of dried-out sagebrush on a shelf in his spacious and remarkably clean wood shop. “I’m kind of like a quilting lady, with all her scraps of everything. ... And once I’ve got it, I might as well put it to use.”
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The sagebrush, for example, figures prominently into one of his most recent creations, a three-dimensional depiction of what appears to be a tree trunk tangled round by leafy vines, set on a concave “canvas” shaped out of bubinga wood.
Look more closely, and the remarkable craftsmanship and surprising materials emerge. The trunk is actually an old piece of driftwood. The vines are sage branches. And the leaves? Carved, green-stained, wafer-thin pieces of movingui, a West African exotic wood.
It’s all the product of Shinn’s hands, with help from an array of specialized tools in his shop. Alongside the predictable table saws and clamps sit unusual units such as the large, heavy-gauge plastic bag attached to an air pump – a vacuum press, capable of creating a ton of pressure per square foot by sucking air out of the bag.
That tool is critical to Shinn’s aesthetic and work. Most of his artwork and furniture employs veneers of bubinga, zebrawood, and other exotics that he himself applies to common plywoods with the vacuum press.
“You could never find a board of zebrawood this wide, and if you did, it would be ridiculously expensive,” says Shinn as he pulls a large, square sheet of the striped, richly colored veneer from a paper package. “But you can press that onto a substrate and it looks like a solid board. I find doing my own veneers fascinating because you can find these highly figured woods that you wouldn’t be able to find in solid wood, and it’s more ecologically sound than solid pieces.”
Other people apparently find it fascinating as well. These days, despite having no retail presence for his furniture and only a couple of galleries in Whitefish and Spearfish, S.D., handling his artwork, Shinn keeps plenty busy creating custom furniture for clients across the country, most of whom find him via the Internet (www.montanawood.com).
Last week, the project at hand was a custom vanity, designed for a client in Washington, D.C., framed in mahogany, with quilted maple veneers on the top and the faces of the drawers.
“I’ve been in it long enough that I’m getting repeat business and a lot of word of mouth now,” says Shinn, who usually has about three months of work stacked up ahead of him. “I’ve been real lucky, I’ve been able to stay with the kind of furniture I like to do.”
For most clients, that doesn’t include kitchen cabinetry, a market that he figures is plenty saturated already. But inside his house, Shinn’s work lines the kitchen in the form of beautiful cabinets, some with faux ebony inlays, as well as a custom wood face on the refrigerator. In the adjoining breakfast room stands a gorgeous, glass-topped table with sleekly designed, curved legs and an ingenious wooden extension that encircles part of the glass tabletop, making room for several more at the table.
“Every design I do, I start with a clear idea,” he says. “Then it’s just a matter of refining it as I go along. With commissioned work especially, you need to have a pretty clear idea of all the steps and where you’re going, or else you end up working for minimum wage.”
In the past, Shinn used to take his furniture to regional art fairs, but that approach ultimately didn’t seem worth the trouble.
“Every day is like moving day when you’re a furniture-builder doing art fairs,” says Shinn.
But as he has lately gotten more into doing his smaller artworks, he’s once again thinking about hitting the road.
“My wife and I enjoy traveling, and these pieces are smaller so they’re easier to move around,” he says. “As I approach retirement, that seems like more practical way to show my work.”
But for now, Shinn remains sequestered in his wood shop, trying to catch up on orders, jumping on his mountain bike for a spin into the nearby hills whenever he starts feeling stressed.
“It’s a great place to be,” says Shinn. “I really feel fortunate ending up here doing what I do.”