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Sawdust Memories

by Catherine Warmerdam
Photography by Steven Tiller

For this furniture artisan, every slab of wood has a story.

LOOKING BACK, IT SEEMS INEVITABLE that Sacramento furniture maker Steven Tiller would pursue a career working with his hands. “My family has all been carpenters or blue-collar workers,” says Tiller, who grew up in Nevada City. “My father was a mechanic. My brother is a 30-year veteran carpenter. My grandfather was a carpenter. So it’s kind of in the blood.”

Tiller always had a fascination with architecture and design. In high school, he gave up his foreign language class in order to take two courses in architecture. He worked in the construction field after graduation, teaching himself carpentry and fine woodworking through, he says, “a lot of trial and error.” Some of the woodworking tools he uses today belonged to his grandfather.

Steven Tiller

Steven Tiller at work in his studio, which is located in a downtown Sacramento warehouse he shares with other artisans.

Tiller was a general contractor in 2009 when the construction industry tanked and his business was forced to close. Fate and pluck moved him in a new direction. “I decided I didn’t want to do soul-sucking odd jobs, and that’s when I started the furniture company,” explains Tiller, who launched Reclamation Art + Furniture in 2011. “I have been fortunate that it has gained momentum and that I can keep putting out good work.”

Good work, indeed. Tiller’s furniture, which he builds in his downtown Sacramento workshop, is sought after by interior designers and clients who commission one-of-a-kind tables, benches and dressers. His work can be seen at some of Sacramento’s hot-spot bars and restaurants, including Paragary’s, Hock Farm and Block Butcher Bar. Tiller’s eye-catching conference tables are the centerpiece of several high-powered office spaces around town. He also invented an elegant indoor cycle storage system called Bike Valet, which has attracted buyers from around the world.

Tiller’s furniture pieces are borne of a marriage between serendipity and skill—the good fortune of discovering the perfect slab, perhaps one with some exquisite imperfection, paired with the artistic vision and patience to coax it, over many hours, into a piece of functional art.

L-shaped Desk

Tiller specializes in custom-made pieces like this oversized L-shaped desk made from reclaimed white oak from a dismantled barn.

“I enjoy the process of creating something from nothing, that visualization process,” says Tiller. “We’re creative creatures as humans, so to be able to take something from completely raw material to a totally different form is pretty inspiring.”

Although every object Tiller creates is unique, his body of work shares a common aesthetic: clean, unembellished lines and a warm yet restrained approach that allows the wood to speak for itself. While Tiller designs every piece himself, he frequently outsources the metalwork (for table bases and legs) to local craftsmen.

Tiller works with several kinds of woods (Douglas fir, camphor, redwood), but his heart belongs to walnut, specifically the Claro and Bastogne varieties. “The walnut that grows here is specific to this region,” he says. “It’s got this intense, beautiful, rich color to it, and no log is the same.”

Every piece of furniture Tiller creates starts with the right piece of wood. He sources much of his material from local sawyers who harvest urban salvage trees, mill the material, dry it and sell it to furniture makers. Tiller has a form on his website for people who have a felled tree to donate. He’s even constructed a table made from stable doors salvaged from San Quentin State Prison.

Streamlined Coffee Table

This streamlined coffee table was crafted from urban-harvested American walnut. The base is oxidized black steel tubing.

Every slab, it would seem, has a story. “I think the story is part of why things are marketable the way they are,” says Tiller. “A lot of people are going back to the idea of wanting to know who’s making their stuff, so when there’s a story and a person attached to it, there’s a certain group of people who appreciate that.”

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