Woodworker Jerome Canning spends his summers making boats, each winter returning to his shop to work on the various furniture ideas floating through his head. But boats are never too far from his thoughts. It’s in his blood, really.
“My father was a mariner and a carpenter, a typical Newfoundland man,” he says. When his father went back to fishing, Jerome quit teaching to join him. Each winter they’d build boats, then he started making furniture.
“Between it all I became a woodworker,” he says. “I build cabinets, furniture, and I build boats.”
He read everything he could find, he studied furniture pieces to see how they were built, and he asked questions of other woodworkers, always learning. A naval architecture program in small craft design taught him the theory to pair with his practical knowledge, all of which he would put to use in his own projects.
“It wasn’t as a hobby – it was to make a living,” he says. “So anything you learn, you immediately apply.”
He still enjoys boat building, with a special interest in punts and small rowboats, but furniture allows him to express his creativity in a way that boatbuilding doesn’t.
“With boats – even though it’s high skilled – you’re building something that’s already shaped. There’s not a lot of variation. But when it comes to furniture you can be totally creative,” he says.
Furniture also gives him the opportunity to indulge his fondness for joinery. Many of his pieces use traditional joinery techniques, like mortise and tenon or dovetail joints, instead of screws and nails. He prefers to hand-cut his dovetails, rather than use a machine to cut them. Among woodworkers, a precise, well-made, handtool-cut dovetail joint is considered a sign of skill.
The combination of creativity and skill has earned him a reputation as a fine craftsman; the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador includes his furniture in exhibitions.
“The Craft Council is very important to me as the idea of supporting artisan work,” he says. “So in one sense, I’m an artisan.”
Jerome’s latest project, a chair inspired by fishermen’s netting needles, began like many others – by observing the world around him.
“That’s my influence – stuff you see around the sheds and the wharfs, and working stuff, too,” he says. “The needle is obviously a fisherman’s tool.”
And now the needle is something more, a functional piece of furniture. The needle shape is reflected in the high, pointed back of the chair, its proportions mirroring that of its inspiration, a much smaller netting needle.
“Look at that,” says Jerome, holding up a lobster pot netting needle, “it’s beautiful.”
Turning the idea of the chair into a physical object required a lot of work that, really, had nothing to do with furniture making. He measured, analyzed, and considered netting needles of all shapes and sizes, studying proportion and scale as he worked out why, exactly, the needles had an appealing shape.
With that sorted, he set about drawing the chair, the details and proportions worked out on paper at his drawing table under a window next to his dining table. Depending on the complexity of the piece, he’ll do detail drawings, as well as scale drawings and profiles and, sometimes, a scale model of the piece, before heading downstairs to his workshop.
On the day Home & Cabin visited his workshop, Jerome was nearing completion of his chair, with it dry fitted together on a table. Even at this stage, the design was being refined and revised, as he toyed with inlay placement and the exact positioning of the leg stretchers.
The chair back is made of spalted birch, the pointed top created by bending the wood to create a stronger back. Although it has the appearance of art, the chair is built to withstand years of use, with careful attention paid to structural issues of strength and rigidity.
The seat is spalted maple and the legs are maple, all from Newfoundland trees. An inlay on the back of the seat is a graphic representation of a fishing net, and coloured cord is strung into the chair legs.
The chair is studio furniture, a one-off piece that is both beautiful and functional, ready for everyday use but worthy of a gallery showing. And as a working craftsman, Jerome intends to sell the chair. As for his reasons for making fine furniture, his motivation is simple.
“Because it’s beautiful,” he says. “And I have a tendency to want to make something beautiful.”
This article was first published in the spring, 2015 print issue of Home & Cabin