Furniture from scratch

Following in the trade of his grandfather, Easton craftsman creates fine pieces using natural resources and hand tools

In his workshop, Easton furniture maker Christopher Nassise uses a handmade shaving bench based on a design from the 17th century. In his workshop, Easton furniture maker Christopher Nassise uses a handmade shaving bench based on a design from the 17th century. (Photos By John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / May 26, 2011

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EASTON — When Christopher Nassise looks at the oak logs piled by the side of his driveway, he sees ladder-back chairs.

Visitors to the Green Workshop at the end of the driveway can watch him transform the logs into the chairs — using only hand tools. It takes him about a week to go from felled tree to furniture.

“I love being close to nature, splitting the pieces right from the log and working with the material from start to finish,’’ Nassise said. “And I think the product I produce is something people can connect with. They can experience the craftsmanship, see how the piece is put together.’’

His tiny, wood-heated workshop is a throwback of sorts — a place where furniture is made in decidedly low-tech fashion. But with its small carbon footprint and commitment to using local materials, the workshop is tuned in to the modern interest in environmentally friendly living. (Google the phrase “going green’’ and you’ll get more than 44 million hits.)

Appreciation for handcrafted furniture is part of that green sensibility, according to Miguel Gomez-Ibanez, president of the North Bennet Street School in Boston, where Nassise honed his craft.

“There are all kinds of indicators that say to me that people want to connect more personally with the things with which they surround themselves — coffee made to order, artisan bread — and Chris’s furniture taps into that,’’ Gomez-Ibanez said.

Nassise, 39, also reflects the growing number of “midcareer people looking for a change: professionals who are tired of sitting at a desk,’’ according to Nancy Jenner, director of communications for the professional crafts school.

Nassise, who grew up in Easton, left a career in publishing to pursue woodworking, a craft he had admired since childhood. His grandfather was a furniture maker, with a shop in Boston’s North End where he specialized in custom work and interiors for churches.

“We had lots of pieces in the house,’’ Nassise remembered. “There was a pencil post bed that was really beautiful and a big dining table where we always had holiday meals. He closed the business before I was old enough [to get involved], but just having his work around the house and knowing someone had made that with their own hands really fascinated me.’’

Nassise said his parents’ interest in history — birthdays were celebrated with visits to historical sites — helped steer him to traditional woodworking. But it was a temporary job with the Hingham Historical Society in 2004 — identifying old tools and demonstrating their use — that cemented his direction.

“I did a lot of work with power tools and it was very noisy, dangerous; it wasn’t a relaxing, healthy environment,’’ he said. “I love what I’m doing’’ now.

Nassise gets most of his wood from local landscaping businesses. A childhood friend with a tree service in Braintree is a major source of the red and white oak he uses most. “It’s trees that other people want removed, so it’s a form of recycling in a way,’’ he said.

“Finding any log is easy, finding a good log can be challenging,’’ he added. “It has to be straight and the grain has to be straight. [My friend] keeps an eye out for me.’’

Nassise splits the logs with a sledgehammer and wedges, then shapes the pieces with drawknives and chisels while sitting at a shaving bench based on a design from the 17th century.

He dries some of the wood in a homemade kiln powered by a light bulb, and moistens other pieces, so they can be bent, in a homemade steam box.

He assembles the parts — by hand, of course, and without any metal fasteners or screws — then uses cutting tools to get a smooth but textured surface, which he protects with natural finishes such as linseed oil, milk paint, and shellac.

Finally he weaves the chair’s seats, either with rush he gathers from his sister’s property in Maine, or hickory he strips from logs in the summer.

Both materials are stored in the rafters of his tidy workshop, which a previous owner used, fittingly, as an antique shop.

The place smells like oak and hickory and looks like a museum with its shelves of neatly arranged hand tools. Nassise makes some of the tools himself. Others are antiques or reproductions.

His handmade workbench takes up half the space in the workshop. The other side features samples of finished chairs set on pedestals.

He also makes wooden hayforks, corn brooms, and small boxes, as well as custom designs. He sells the pieces through his website ( and at local craft fairs. Prices range from $800 for a bent-back, red oak rocker to $28 for a corn broom.

Nassise and his wife, Suzanne, who works for a computer company, just had their first child, Julia. Suzanne has put in a request.

“I’ve commissioned a high chair,’’ she said.

Nassise will be at the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival at the Devotion School, 345 Harvard St., Brookline, on June 4 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A schedule of traditional woodworking classes Nassise is teaching can be found on the website.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at