A hands-on look behind the beautiful woodwork of Michael McDunn Studios.
“People think that you can just grab any old chunk of wood and make a table out of it. But some pieces of wood never should be a table. They should be chopped up and thrown in the fire,” quips woodworker Michael McDunn.
A celebrated master at his craft, McDunn first picked up the craft in 1974 and hasn’t looked back. “I’d always been interested in woodworking, and basically anything to do with my hands,” reflects the artisan, who started out whittling little figures that he sold in the gift shop at the Greenville County Museum of Art before taking a job building displays, framing, and pedestals for the museum. Meanwhile, his interest in the art of finely designed furniture continued to grow.
“I started making stools, natural-edge coffee tables, and lamps,” says McDunn, who eventually left the museum to focus on his own business, specializing in contemporary tables. “This is all I’ve done since 1981—fortunately, I never had to resort to getting another job. I managed to squeak by somehow . . . I had a very patient wife, which helps.” McDunn now runs a spacious 4,200-square foot workshop and showroom on Rutherford Road in Greenville.
He has created work and found inspiration in a variety of styles over the years—everything from elaborate 18th-century reproductions to Chinese Chippendale. He sources his wood and veneer from all over the US, including Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York. A good many of his gorgeous natural-edge pieces are found locally in the Upstate; for beautiful timber, McDunn particularly recommends John Crow of Sycamore Sawmill.
“Right now, I’m getting people that are interested in more of an Art Deco influence,” notes McDunn. “I’d guess it’s related to the revival of what I call ‘Dick Van Dyke’ furniture—pieces from the ’50s and ’60s, or mid-century modern.” He describes his personal design style as a contemporary one, with some influences from the Chippendale (modified Rococo) and Hepplewhite (neoclassical) styles.
“Tables are probably my favorite thing to make, and dining tables in particular. Other than bedroom furniture, they’re the most intimate piece of furniture in the house . . . or at least they used to be, now that everyone eats in front of the TV,” McDunn adds with a laugh. “In fact, I’ve started making coffee tables with beautiful granite tops because people would tell me, ‘I love the table, but we eat on our coffee table every evening,’ and of course that expanded the market a little bit.”
Woodworking takes Time and Talent
Every piece is a completely unique work of art, made entirely from scratch—meaning that McDunn is often booked five to six months out, and the entire design process can take close to 300 hours. “That includes talking to the customer on the phone, drawing sketches, making final drawings, sourcing all your materials, and things like that,” the woodworker reveals. “We are making this from a raw piece of wood; it has to be sourced from a wholesaler, sawed, dried [in the] kiln. Even the finishing process can take a couple weeks—if you put your finish on too quickly, it doesn’t have time to dry completely, and if the finish is not completely dry when it leaves, the appearance of it can change over time.”
Remarkable and enduring, the end result is always worth the wait. Perhaps you’re in a hurry to shape your own vision in wood; thankfully, McDunn also enjoys passing along his knowledge. “I teach classes, too, and we build everything from basic woodworking items to desks and corner cabinets. Some of those classes run just one or two evenings a week and on a Saturday, and some will run six months,” McDunn explains. “It’s quite rewarding to see people finish with a nice product to take home.”
Classes were on hold during COVID but will be resuming soon. “If you sign up on our website, we’ll send out a notification when classes start back up. And we have a lot of women who take classes here, so it’s not just a guy thing. It’s kind of funny, I have a couple of ladies that have taken a good many classes, and they’re better woodworkers than anyone else—they even help new students out.”
McDunn is a longtime member of the Greenville Woodworkers Guild and suggests that anyone interested in working with their hands look into the storied group. “I think we signed our charter the same year I quit my job in 1981, and we’re [at about] 900 members. It’s a great organization.” In fact, McDunn can’t say enough good things about the creative community in the Upstate—a community he has watched grow for decades. “I’m so glad that artists here in the Upstate are so successful. My mentors all worked hard to strengthen the arts community in Greenville, and I’m sure that they’re [proud] to see others prospering in the arts.”
Michael McDunn’s studio and showroom are open by appointment: 741 Rutherford Rd., Greenville, mcdunnstudio.com.
Photography by Eli Warren.