As a teen-ager in his native Eaton, Ohio, Nathaniel Smelser set up a woodworking shop in his dad's garage and would spend all night there teaching himself finishing techniques. "I loved the creativity of it," he remembers. "You have an idea and when you're finished, your idea is tangible."
Once Smelser started selling the tables and lamps he turned out for $25 apiece, he was hooked. Today, the one-of-a-kind furniture he designs and builds in his Royalcrest workshop in Samoset is prized by owners of luxury homes throughout the Sarasota area.
Recently at his studio, Smelser proudly showed off photographs of a newly completed 13-foot by five-foot dining table bound for a client in New Hampshire. Made of golden Carpathian elm burl with an inlaid border of rich dark brown wenge, a silver-leaf rope edging and a high-gloss finish, the table is a true work of art.
Smelser doesn't advertise; clients come to him by word of mouth, and at any one time he has three or four pieces in some stage of construction.
A pivotal point in his business came several years ago when he was installing a solid cherry kitchen he'd built for clients in The River Club in Bradenton. Fabiola Softas, a designer with Anne Folsom Smith Interior Design and a friend of the clients, saw his work and was impressed. "I thought it was very well made because of the craftsmanship and the finish, and because he was very precise in his installation," she remembers. Since then, the furniture designer has completed a number of projects for the design firm-some of them into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he says.
"His craftsmanship sets him apart," says Softas. "Anything no other cabinet guy can do, he can do."
Under construction in the woodworking shop is a master bedroom wall unit with desk made of golden brown, fine-grained afrormosia wood punctuated with a tall column of wenge. Smelser's assistant, Glenn Krone, estimates it will take 250 man-hours to complete the piece. Krone stops to lay out a piece of beautiful cherry veneer bound for a soon-to-be-built conference table. "I open the box [the veneer comes in], and I get goose bumps," he says.
Smelser says choosing the wood is as much an art as designing the furniture. "The wood is chosen by the color, of course, but also the grain. It makes a statement: wide, narrow, straight, light, bold, curly. I chose the wenge on the wall unit because it's my exclamation point. It goes 'boom' [against the lighter wood]."
The furniture maker says his best ideas come in the early morning between sleep and wakefulness. The sleek twin curio cabinets he kept for his own dining room "came to me in a vivid dream."
In his spare time, Smelser, an avid mountain climber, is on a quest to climb the Seven Summits, the seven tallest mountains on the world's seven continents. He's already conquered Mount McKinley in North America and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and was bound for Aconcagua in South America at press time.
On his 40th birthday, in December 2002, Smelser climbed another mountain: A maple and poplar chest of drawers in black lacquer with gold leaf stencils he created for a client in the Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, was featured prominently in Fine Woodworking magazine.
For more information about Nathaniel Smelser, contact Royalcrest Furniture, Inc., (941) 747-7394.