From leap of faith to award-winning furniture

By MYERS REECE

People pick up hobbies. Maybe golf or gardening, or any number of activities to fill in the gaps of your work schedule and give yourself a personal challenge. You may even become proficient enough in woodworking to make a barstool or two to show off at dinner parties. The stools might wobble a little, but you call them funky and pretend the wobble was intentional. And besides, you’re not a professional, so you get a pass, right?

But Steve Henneford takes a different approach to hobbies, a perfectionist’s approach. He picks up hobbies and then runs with them – he runs so far with them, in fact, that he ends up with things like a new home and new career. His barstools don’t wobble.

Henneford, a Lakeside gymnastics teacher and self-taught woodworker, was awarded a top prize this fall at the well-regarded Western Design Conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo. At September’s conference, Henneford tied for first place in the best woodworking artist category on the strength of his “Chaise Lounge” rocking chair. The previous year he was recognized for his “Cowboy Rocker.” He opened his furniture business, Henneford Fine Furniture, in 2011.

Henneford, who doesn’t have a professional carpentry or construction background, built his beautiful Flathead Lake home himself, and he crafted from scratch the wood accouterments within: lovely mahogany and alder doors, and equally attractive mahogany stairs and cabinets. So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when he announced to his wife a few years ago that he was going to become a serious furniture builder. Yet, it still was kind of a surprise.

“I came home one day and said, ‘I know what I want to do with the rest of my life – I want to build rocking chairs,’” Henneford says. “She said, ‘Okay.’ I hadn’t built one yet.”

Considering that his winning piece in Jackson Hole was a rocking chair, one of three types of rockers he makes, he’s clearly come a long way in a short time. He’s come far enough that he feels comfortable devoting himself full-time to his woodworking business. He recently sold Flathead Gymnastics Academy in Kalispell, which he has owned and operated with his wife for 22 years. The Hennefords will still teach there, but he will spend most of his time building furniture in the woodshop he built, attached to the house he built.

“This is what I’m going to do now,” he says. “It’s fun to create things.”

Henneford’s work is both art and craft. Perhaps it could be called artistic craftsmanship or, as he describes it, “functional art.” You could put one of his chairs or stools on display at your house, but they’re meant to be used. They’re not awkward, clunky masses of wood taking up space in the living room. By design and execution, they’re sleek and extremely comfortable.

“We all have furniture,” he says. “Might as well make it pretty and comfortable.”

Describing his process, Henneford says he carefully considers contours, depth, lumbar and shape to ensure maximum comfort and durability, while maintaining the gorgeous flowing lines that give the pieces their curvy, silky form with smoothly rounded pivot points. Rocking chairs, he says, require “a lot of physics.” The furniture’s polished surface has a texture that fits with the overall theme of sleekness – you won’t find many hard or abrupt edges.

“Most things don’t come at 90 degrees in nature,” he says. “I wanted to make something that wasn’t square. I like to make it flow a little more naturally.”

His first piece was a three-legged chair made out of African bubinga wood. Today he makes various kinds of chairs, stools and tables with an assortment of woods, including walnut, maple, African rosewood, cherry, mahogany – “whatever people want.” Some are available in sets and others as customized individual pieces. One collector has nine or 10 pieces while other customers have just one. The furniture runs anywhere from $150 for a lazy Susan to $12,000 for a rocker.

Henneford builds in the spirit and style of the late Sam Maloof, the legendary woodworker who was known for his sleek designs and interlocking joints that connect the separate parts of an individual piece of furniture. Henneford also uses interlocking joints, which, through his handcrafted tongue-and-groove design, could probably hold together a chair for awhile, though glue and reinforcement screws ensure that the chair stays together over the course of lifetimes.

“Mechanically, it’s super strong,” he says.

Cowboy Rocker

Steve Henneford’s “Cowboy Rocker.”

In his shop, Henneford has an assortment of machines and tools, all with specific purposes in the furniture-making process. After he cuts the shapes of different parts to his liking, the intricate hand-tool process begins. He uses a handheld metal rasp for shaping. Then he sands the shaped wood with 600 grit sandpaper down to a “very smooth” surface. With the rasping tool marks gone, he rubs the wood with oil, gives it a wet sanding, buffs it with a very fine steel wool cloth and applies a coat of wax. Altogether, it may take months to finish one chair. The Chaise Lounge rocker that won at the Western Design Conference has buffalo hide on the seat and backrest.

“It’s pretty amazing what you can do with hand tools,” he says.

Henneford is applying for juried shows in California, Arizona and Colorado. He has also donated his work to various causes, including a Lakeside holiday raffle. With his gymnastics academy sold and his woodworking business taking off, Henneford is watching everything come together only a few short years after he announced to his wife that rocking chairs would lead the way into their new future. Now, he’s going to see just how far he can run with it.

Henneford can be found online at www.hennefordfinefurniture.com