Geoffrey Keating: The Journey of a 21st-Century Furniture Maker

Words: Seth Braverman

Photos: Abby Mortenson

Driving past the Nevada and Uintah intersection in Old North End last year, I spotted large, beautiful windows on the first floor of what appeared to be a retail space under renovation. “How odd,” I thought. “A retail space in a neighborhood.” My curiosity piqued, I pulled over and looked in to find not a renovation-in-process, but a finished woodshop. Spindle-back chairs, dovetailed writing desks, a bookcase. The tools I’d assumed were for standard construction were actually surrounded by pieces of walnut furniture, each in their various, unfinished stages. And beyond them, rows of raw walnut slabs, bandsaws, hand planes, chisels, all ordered and arranged with an attention to detail and flow. This was the shop of a true craftsman.

Peek in those same windows any given weekday and you’ll probably find Geoffrey Keating, owner of Keating Woodworks, creating gorgeous wood furniture from his first-story woodshop/second-story home. With just a floor in between, the proximity of his workspace and his living area puts a twist on “working from home.” Geoffrey can break upstairs for lunch and news updates during the day–his wife, Anna, has been tasked with keeping him connected to the world outside the woodshop–and he can steal back down for the occasional late-night shift after tucking in his son without feeling like he’s burning the midnight oil.

Leaving South Bend, Indiana, where Keating Woodworks began, Geoffrey and his wife chose Colorado Springs as their home in the summer of 2012. It was tempting to move closer to his clientele, meaning a move to New York City, but quality of life won out. Geoffrey tells me about the spatial woes of a fellow woodworker trying to make it within the confines of the big city: His workspace is on the second floor and is accessible only by elevator, so he has to cut down all his materials with a skilsaw on the sidewalk before taking them up to the shop. “There’s space [in Colorado Springs],” Geoffrey explains. “And it’s not as much a dog-eat-dog, sink-or-swim situation.”

A self-taught craftsman, Geoffrey says that he might not be where he is today without the advent of the internet. He’s a fifth-generation woodworker, and though the trade was ancestral, it was the World Wide Web that played midwife to his genesis as a furniture maker. Today’s access to online resources is a self-educator’s dream and one of the main reasons the DIY culture has flourished as it has. Of course, one must learn how to learn. With graduate degrees in theology from Yale and Notre Dame, Geoffrey had been on the professorship track, planning to teach college before finding himself on the long road to discovering not only a vocation around his love for working wood, but also a home within it.

I was recently invited past those large, beautiful windows and into Geoffrey’s space to talk shop and hear his story. A man as generous as he is intelligent, Geoffrey remained engaged and inviting–even as our interview continued well past its intended time.

What did your folks do for a living?

My dad was a phone repairman. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. My mom’s side of the family was a bunch of woodworkers. That’s kind of where I got the bug, I think.

How old were you when you became cognizant of woodworking as a possible vocation?

Not super young. It wasn’t like I was raised at their knee talking about it. I never did woodworking until I was older. My mom’s brother was still doing it. But it was mostly grandparents and great grandparents. They worked in Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, and built a bunch of country churches. They would bounce around and build a church, and then move to the next town. So there were all these pictures of stuff they’d done, and I was like “oh, that looks so cool to do,” especially as you get older and you kind of get it. I’d always thought it was pretty cool, but when I went off to college, to St Mary’s in Antonio for my undergrad, there was a religious brother there that had a shop and he built stuff, primarily for the school. When the church needed a new whatever, he’d build it. It was that connection with him and with my mom’s family.

What had you originally gone to school to study?

I started as a geology major. Then I switched to a theology minor as it was part of the school’s core curriculum, and afterward I taught high school theology for a while. I love teaching. It was a great experience being with the kids and also coaching basketball. But you don’t make much money and there’s detention duty and cafeteria duty and whatever else they need you to do. It was fun while I was young but wasn’t sustainable. So I thought I’d go to grad school; teach college. It’d be a similar experience only without some of the extracurricular requirements. I went on to grad school for a while and was going to be a professor. But woodworking had always been lingering in the back of my mind–for about 7 or 8 years.

Was there a leap you thought you’d have to take to go from the path you were on to what had only been the idea of “woodworking?”

A lot of it felt prohibitive with the cost of the equipment. I was a grad student. I didn’t have any money and I thought, “this is going to be tough.” Initially, I was just going to do it for fun. There was never a sense of it being a business. So I just started taking savings and money I earned on the side and buying a few tools here and there. I bought a bandsaw–-started making simple pieces with it–-and a bunch of hand tools. And I just kind of fell in love with it. Every single penny I got after that went to buying something else. And then friends started wanting stuff, like a medicine cabinet. It was this organic process. It was a long process. Five years ago I made the switch, but for a long time before that there was this sense that I really loved it but that it was just going to be a hobby.

Did you have any formal training or are you all self-taught?

Yeah, all self-taught. Sitting at the foot of the master was something I always wished I was able to do. I’ve been able to do that since, as a result of just getting into the business and getting to know helpful people. My uncle on my mom’s side was the only person who still carried on the legacy. I took a big kitchen job after I started doing it as a business, and he came up and we worked on that together. It was fun, learning stuff from him. But most of it was just books and internet and trial-and-error. It’s crazy, nowadays, with some of the “back to the land” mentality and how we don’t want to lose the printed page, but I wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for the internet. There’s so many resources. Even access to books. You go to the local library and they may have a couple, but you get online and you see every book ever written about anything.

What were a couple books that you found helpful?

The first book I read was by Peter Korn. He teaches up in Maine at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. It’s called Woodworking Basics. It was machine set-up, how to use hand-tools, and simple things to build. I bought that book and flipped through and that’s where I started.

These days, if you have a nice camera you’re a photographer. If you have access to a woodshop, you’re a woodworker. With a wealth of resources we can sometimes feel a sense of entitlement. Have you seen the pitfalls of that?

That’s kind of part of the whole do-it-yourself movement. There’s all these really positive components to it but the downside is, it leads to people not taking the time to hone their skills and appreciate and honor the craft of whatever it is they’re doing. The bar gets lowered. It’s not like we’ll ever go off some cultural abyss as a result, but it just gets a little distressing sometimes. You don’t want to discourage people, you want to say “that’s great, that’s healthy, go out and do that and enjoy it.” But then you still want that distinction.

Do you find it a challenge to balance the slow, intentionality of handmade processes with the need for efficiency that keeps a business profitable?

When I first started out, it was much more of “I’m just going to buy these hand tools” and it was a fortunate accident–a lucky thing. That was all I could afford and I had this romanticized notion of it. I remember learning to cut dovetails for hours in the basement before I had a shop. Then you feel so comfortable doing it, and doing it quickly. It’s nice to have a fallback. I was able to work just on my hand tool skills and I don’t know if I ever would have done that otherwise. Once I realized “I have to sell this,” I knew taking all day to hand-mill one board wasn’t going to cut it. You get to the point where you tell yourself: I have to turn this around. You want it to be the same quality, so you’re not sacrificing quality. You’re trying to save time, basically. It’s just figuring out the quickest way to do it. That was one of the benefits of starting out just doing stuff by hand for fun.

You’re both a craftsman and a businessman. How has the balance been wearing both hats?

When I first started into it, I knew mentally “if this is going to be a business it has to be a business.” But you’re doing it because you love the woodworking. So now you have to force yourself to do this other thing, which I don’t mind, but it gets to be so time-consuming. The business side of things is important though. You have to have stuff people want to buy. But after that, it can be the most amazing stuff ever built, but if no one’s seeing it, it’ll just be sitting there. I feel like now, enough of a critical mass has been built where I don’t have to worry about getting my name out as much to get business coming in. It is a little stressful sometimes, dealing with this route compared to the 9-5 and knowing exactly when you’re going to get paid.

What did you think this was going to be like before you got into it and what was it really like?

 I thought it would be much more something like you see on a Bob Villa show where he’s going into some New England craftsman deal and they’re building in some giant breakfront that’s old Chippendale style, like furniture reproduction or something. Getting into it, it’s way less “perfect shavings with the hand plane” and way more pulling boards off, chopping them down, and trying to get panels glued together. I’ll try to take days every now and then to work on a new piece. I haven’t been able to do it in a while. Usually I try and work new pieces in as a commission, but then sometimes I’m like, “I just want to build a rocker and get it down; all the ergonomics of it in addition to getting something that looks nice.” I ended up messing around with the rocker off-and-on for six months, but I would take a day here or there and work on just that. It was always really nice. That’s probably more what I envisioned it would be like.

Have there been any advantages or disadvantages being in the Springs?

The Springs gets a bad rap, but I like it here. It’s a big enough town that there’s actually some stuff happening but it’s not a city. It lets you get away from all that other stuff and clear your head. I’ve gotten to know some of the guys who make furniture in Brooklyn, and it feels like a little bit of a rat race. They’re all competing against each other. A lot of them are making stuff that looks similar, and then there’s a million hipsters trying to get in and do the same thing. It’s like a New York mentality applied to slow food. It’s supposed to be handmade and be kind of a Zen thing. So it’s been nice to be able to get away and do my own thing and not think, “oh, what’re they building, what’s going on with them?” Having that low-key freedom makes for better pieces--opens up a lot of mental space to think about what you want to make instead of just getting through the day.

So space is an advantage?

Yeah, space from other people and just geographically. The view, the mountains, and living somewhere you can walk outside and see the snow on the Peak instead of just a really bad commute and a really tiny shop that you’re paying $4000 a month for. The quality of life with the family set-up is really nice; just step out and take a walk through the neighborhood. We’ll walk down to Wooglin’s and get a sandwich. Even Old Colorado City is just right there.

Having that space from what are traditionally considered the cultural epicenters, is there ever a sense that you’re missing out–in terms of economic opportunities or trends?

The internet makes up for a lot of that. It seems like wherever you move, you find your little group. That could be in New York. That could be in Colorado. Either way, there’s still good people. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on a scene. And staying on top of trends, it’s easy just to get online. John Updike lived in New York for a while and then he moved to Connecticut and he said, “It was taking away more from me than it was giving me. I needed the space. I was spending so much energy just living and getting through the day that I didn’t have enough left over to write.”

I really like it here--the geography, the scenery, the people.

(afterward)

While usually working with an East Coast clientele, Geoffrey’s been building inroads from his woodshop into the local community. Though he normally produces one piece at a time, he recently finished a large-scale commission from the Mountain Song Community School, which included populating the new Waldorf-inspired school with students’ chairs and desks, bookcases, hallway cubbies and tables.

www.geoffreykeating.com

1216 N Nevada Ave

Colorado Springs, CO 80903