Sharon Vredeveld Newton ’81 has had two dreams: to run a marathon and to have her own furniture business. She’s still working on the marathon, but the furniture business is real and growing.
Newton bought her first table saw 27 years ago while working as senior systems analyst for Vector Research Inc., in Ann Arbor, Mich. She didn’t have much time to use it, though, until she left engineering to raise her two sons, and then her wood projects often centered on them: a rocking horse, race cars, a toy box, a xylophone.
As the boys got older she began taking classes with English-trained furniture maker Joe Trippi. “I had been making furniture,” Newton said, “but I wanted to hone my skills and learn how to use hand tools.”
With those classes and lots of practice, she’s mastered traditional joinery methods like handcut dovetails and mortise-and-tenon joints, as well as embellishments like carved feet (both trifid and Philadelphia ball-and-claw), cabriole legs, Queen Anne shells and other period details.
As a tribute to Newton’s skill, the newest edition of the classic How to Build Shaker Furniture by Thomas Moser features her 6-foot-tall 10-drawer chest, fitted with 150 hand-cut dovetails. All the other pieces photographed for the book were made by Moser’s own Maine furniture company.
Though she finds traditional hand-joinery methods “deeply satisfying,” Newton is no purist.
“Furniture doesn’t have to be solid wood with hand-cut joints,” she said. “I’m willing to make anything for people and make it within their budgets. Something made of plywood put together with screws can be fine.”
Newton works closely and collaboratively with her customers. They come with pictures, or she brings pictures and they point out what they like. She then makes drawings, fine-tuning the design with a customer before beginning to build. Her repertoire includes cabinets and coffee tables, footstools, nightstands, dining tables and chairs, chests and bed frames in a wide variety of styles, from Chippendale and Queen Anne to Mission and Shaker. For a church in Carbondale, Ill., she made a living water baptismal font.
Most of her commissions have come by word of mouth. “I think the most telling thing about my work is that once I make a piece for someone, they ask me to do more, and they tell their friends,” Newton said.
Here’s a notable example: When her husband Steve was attending Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., in 2005, she made a portable communion box for one of his classmates. She’s now made more than 60 of the boxes, and they’re sold in the Concordia Seminary bookstore.
Whether she’s making a 6-foot-tall chest of drawers or a portable communion box, it’s the wood that intrigues Newton.
“I love the grain,” she said. “When I choose the wood and when I put the boards together, I try to play up the figure in the wood. In the finishing, too, I use dyes and stains and shellacs to bring out the pattern in the grain.”
Large and small, her pieces all are made in her basement workshop on a workbench she built for herself. Now settled in Canton, Mich., where her engineer-turned-pastor husband leads a church, Newton has the time and space to accept more commissions than she could in the past. Building furniture, she’s building her dream.