Sometimes it’s still dark, the sun’s rays only a hopeful glimmer when Christian Hawn heads into the workshop. Rolling up the big metal door, a cup of tea in his hand, he moves through the cold, metal machines and past the piles of neatly stacked lumber.
Gleaming even in the low light, his newest piece stands at the back. It is an ‘occasional table,’ a name that refers to the versatility of the piece but trivialises the sophistication it exudes. It stands 31 inches tall, 36 inches wide, the wood a local cherry harvested in the Ottawa Valley. The table is finished — Hawn’s stamp is burnt into the underside of the wood. All that is left to do, is deliver the piece, which like everything else, Hawn does himself.
Handcrafted woodwork, such as Hawn’s has become a rare, almost lost craft. As budget, mass-produced furniture stores dominate the market, custom work has become increasingly coveted.
One might assume that the art of crafting furniture is passed down through a family, from father to child. But increasingly, the privileged are finding their way back to the noble craft, woodworking becoming a hobby for the retired or a luxurious alternative, as in Hawn’s case, to pushing paper.
Hawn worked for Ottawa’s Revenue Canada and for the good part of his life, woodworking had never crossed his mind. But being the romantic type, when Hawn reached his five-year-anniversary with his partner, he wanted to give the traditional gift of wood.
He chose to make a folding lawn-chair. It was pine, made from simple instructions and he built it in a friend’s garage. Something about the methodical work and his connection with the wood got to him. Hawn was hooked.
It was serendipitous that Hawn was between contracts when he fell in love with woodworking. He discovered a one-year full-time woodworking program in Almonte at Rosewood Studio. He applied and was accepted just before he was offered his next government contract. It wasn’t a particularly difficult choice.
After investing a couple years in working with others, he started Hawn Furniture in 2005, focusing specifically on custom one-of-a-kind furniture. Hawn understands why his clients choose a handcrafted piece.
“They’re buying a story,” he explains simply. “The piece is unusual and unique, and they become a part of the story — people enjoy that.”
Hawn develops a relationship with each of his customers. Usually they’ve heard about him by word of mouth, and perhaps taken a peek at his online portfolio. Once they’ve decided to go custom, the step-by-step process is methodical and detailed. Hawn meets with customers, going to their homes to see their space. Much needs to be taken into account — the surrounding furniture colours and style, the needs of the homemakers, their vision and their budget. He takes some time to design the piece, returning with his ideas and some wood samples.
“They’re paying me for my imagination, my style and my ability to make something in harmony with them and their environment. I naturally lean towards classic designs, but modernised and unusual. I like layers of interest so customers notice new aspects of the work down the line.”
Once the customers have agreed to a design, Hawn begins the building process, touching base with them about small details and inviting them into the workshop to see the work as it progresses.
“Most customers are really interested in the process, they like being a part of the narrative. Some don’t. Some say, ‘Just build it.’ So I do. But most care about it and enjoy discussing their furniture. They get to be excited about it, they know how things are going so there are no surprises.”
When the piece is done, Hawn signs it with a burnt stamp, creating in that moment, a new family heirloom. He hand-delivers it, placing it carefully in the space left open and waiting. It’s a satisfying feeling.
“That’s the one thing I really enjoy about this job. There’s something tangible that I can see. I don’t get tired of it.”