By Jena Sauber
Dan Smith works in his wood shop at his St. Joseph home. The tool cabinet (pictured left) was featured in Fine Woodworking magazine.
Amid ceiling fans and overhead lights is suspended something less commonly found in a wood shop — a large, gleaming wooden canoe.
“The idea of building something that you can actually float on or sail, it’s just kind of a cool idea,” says Dan Smith of St. Joseph. “I started with a canoe. I then built a sailboat. Since then, I’ve built two other boats that are a little smaller than the sailboat.”
The boats are a few of dozens of pieces that Smith, an orthopedic surgeon, has made since starting his woodworking hobby as a high school student four decades ago. He works in his shop behind the home he and his wife, Robin Smith, share in St. Joseph, and gives many of his pieces to family and friends.
“This is sort of my sanctuary, sort of where I hide out on nights and weekends, especially when I’m on call,” Smith says. “I built this building 20 years ago, and it’s just absolutely where I find a lot of peace and where I enjoy my favorite hobby.”
As a high school student, Smith became interested in woodworking after reading an article about how to build a grandfather clock. He got permission to work on it in the school’s wood shop.
“I just kept on going from there,” Smith says. “I found out that I had a passion for it and I did it through college and medical school. Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve always had a shop.”
Since he started, he estimates he has built 50 to 60 pieces, including a coffee table, cabinets and three fireplace mantles for their home, along with pieces for the couple’s vacation home in Maine.
He sold one clock to help pay for medical school, but every other piece is on display in their home or has been given to family and friends, Smith says. The couple has two adult sons, Michael and Nick.
“I always have a project going,” Smith says. “I always have a queue of things I need to build, and I’m usually two or three projects behind. I’m not very fast. I don’t do anything in a hurry, but I always have something going on.”
He prefers working with walnut and mahogany, and tries to incorporate a bit of walnut from his dad’s farm into every piece.
“I think it’s the idea that you can create something, that you can build something from scratch that maybe nobody else has ever built before,” Smith says. “It’s just that feeling of creating that I think that everybody loves about woodworking, or painting, or some other artistic endeavor.”
Many of his pieces include intricate details and inlays.
“I think I just love the precision of that type of work. I guess I just keep trying. You don’t see all my failures. You only see the stuff that turns out OK. I do love the precision of good woodworking,” Smith says. “I just try different things. Whether it’s carving or building standard cabinets, I just enjoy that challenge.”
The motivation for the canoe came after years of woodworking experience, while he was traveling extensively with his father for medical care, Smith says. He found an article on how to build a canoe in a copy of Popular Mechanics magazine, read it out loud, and his father encouraged him to pursue it.
“I came back home and started building the canoe. He got to see it one time before he passed away,” Smith says. “I think it was kind of a therapeutic thing to do. My children were tiny at the time, and so I started getting them involved in woodworking. It was sort of a therapy thing for all of us.”
Eventually, Smith and his sons embarked on building their own sailboat, a project that took almost nine years. At the time, his sons were 8 and 12 years old, and he saw the experience as a learning opportunity, Smith says.
“I knew I couldn’t really shove it down their throats,” he says. “They don’t really get it in school anymore. I planned the project together, from the beginning. … By the time we’d finished eight years later, both boys were very confident with almost every tool in the shop and they learned a tremendous amount about boat building.”
The sailboat was built in St. Joseph, and is now stored in Maine where they sail it in the ocean over the summer.
“Taking the boat out of the building turned out to be as exciting as we thought it would be. I knew that the hardest first step would be the first 8 feet that I took the boat,” Smith says. “When we took it out the doors here, we had about an eighth of an inch of clearance on both sides.”
He has built two additional, smaller boats, both of which are stored in Maine. The experience of building boats was much different than any projects he’d done previously, Smith says.
“Most woodworking is built on a right angle. Everything is about precise angles. It has to have 45-degree cuts or 90-degree cuts and having precision in those cuts,” he says. “When you build a boat, you kind of throw those ideas out the window. You start building on a curve. If you have a flat area, you’ve made a mistake.”
‘My whole life’
For others looking to get into woodworking, Smith recommends starting small with quality tools and a solid plan. He has set up workshops in every home he’s had, including apartments and rentals, he says.
“Don’t build to be learning to build. Find a project you want. If you want a coffee table, design and build a coffee table,” he says. “Build stuff that you need in your home.”
Patience is key, Smith says.
“You have to accept the fact that you can’t get everything done that you want to get done the day you do it. You have to learn that when things go bad, you put it away, you go back inside and sleep on it, think about what you’ve made a mistake on, and then try to do better the next day,” he says. “It’s just very relaxing. You can lose yourself in woodworking.”
Smith, a member of the St. Joseph Woodworkers’ Guild, was recently featured in Fine Woodworking magazine for a tool cabinet he built and uses in his Maine workshop. He submitted a picture of the piece and was surprised when it was selected to be featured, Smith says.
“It’s just been fun that it would actually be included among what I think are some tremendous people,” he says. “I’ve gotten people from all over the country, actually all over the world, who have responded to my cabinet that was in there.”
He hopes to continue woodworking for as long as possible, Smith says.
“I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at just sitting around and drinking coffee. I have to have a project,” he says. “My goal is to do this as long as I can. I love the physical nature. I love the workout. I like creating. I hope to do it my whole life.”