About 10 years ago, Keith Neer's wife
told him, "You've been talking about doing something other than
in your basement. Why don't you do it?"
What he'd been doing in the basement,
of course, was woodworking, a hobby Keith got into about 40 years
ago. "I found a lathe -- and the story sounds like what your
parents may have told you about walking to school in the snow with no
boots -- but we really didn't have any money. I made candlesticks for
During his years employed at the Kroger
Company grocery chain, Keith would go to his basement shop, "even
if it was just for 15 minutes to do a glue-up or to take some clamps
off, to recharge my batteries."
After the conversation with his wife,
Keith took her advice to heart and began preparing for the
post-retirement phase of his life. He bought a commercial property
about six or seven miles from his house, moved all of his tools over
there a year before retiring, and, in the last years of his full-time
employment, began taking the woodworking classes he continues to
"I learned about 80 percent of
what I know about woodworking in the last five years," Keith
said, "even though I developed a great passion for it many years
Many of Keith's classes have been at
the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, where he's currently pursuing a
fellowship. About six years ago there,
"Michael Fortune and I struck up a great friendship." When
working in his corporate career, Keith said, "I knew that the
right side of my brain was really something I needed to work on. I
was trained as a scientist and was comfortable with the left side of
my brain. That kind of linear thinking fits pretty well with part of
woodworking: when you build furniture, it's sequential. That's what
appealed to me early on."
On the other hand, Keith said, Michael
Fortune "is an artist first and a woodworker second, and he's
the one who said I needed to stop engineering my furniture before I
got designing it." When thinking about how to construct a piece,
using the processes he knew, in his designs, "all my joints
ended up to be simplified and all my lines tended to be straight,"
One of Michael's well-known pieces is
"Chair Number One," and Keith thought, "If I could
build something like that chair, I could master anything."
Today, in his woodworking, "If I'm going to make furniture, it's
probably going to have curved elements," Keith said. He's now
enjoying the challenge of nonlinear thinking: "the process that
results, building jigs to control cuts and features, is intriguing to
As he builds those projects, Keith
said, "I really don't build the same thing twice." Instead,
"Most of what I build has a specific function -- such as a
series of drop-leaf tables he built for a local farmer. The request
was for a series of tables to go into a 35' x 40' room, to
accommodate up to 40 people at a time for holiday occasions, at a
20-foot length -- but to fold down to no more than three feet wide
when broken down.
He also cites entertainment centers as
interesting, and restoration work as intriguing. "Understanding
construction of things allows me to go deeper than the average
refinisher could, and with pieces that are heirlooms or emotionally
connected, it's very rewarding."
Keith says he'll probably never be
recognized for a specific piece of furniture, because "I don't
make 100. I used to say in my career that you have a certain amount
of intellect, and that's all you have to spend: you have to make a
choice, whether to be broad-based but shallow or narrower but deep."
As a woodworker, he said, "I call
myself a generalist, because I have a lot of interests. I'm good at
veneering and doing string inlay, but that's not my whole thing. I
also do steam-bent, laminate."
Recently, he built a veneered mahogany
table, for which the the tabletop utilized a hollow-core technique
and the legs were veneered over poplar, with string inlay cut in. "As
I look to the future, I'm probably going to do more veneers. It's
very flexible and unique, very demanding. Maybe that's why I like
Keith also teaches woodworking classes
at that new shop his wife encouraged him to build, which have ranged
from group classes with up to eight students to teaching up to six
people at a time on an individual basis. The individuals, he said,
are generally professional or retired people who either have a
specific project in mind or want to build a specific skill. He has
also assisted Michael Fortune for a couple at his classes and will be
teaching a class on his own in 2012 at the Marc Adams School, on The
Principles of Woodworking Through the Eyes of a Table.
"My passion is to demystify a lot
of what all of us read about in woodworking," Keith said.
"People like Marc Adams and Michael Fortune have been a great
inspiration to me, and this is a way to pay that back."
With his classes and his projects,
Keith said, "I hope I've got another 20 to 25 years in me to do
this kind of work. I tell people woodworking is a wonderful career if
you don't have to make any money out of it. At this point, my
business plan is to make enough to cover my expenses and support my