By Gina King / photos by Jeffery Lilly, Seana Bill
“The pile of cut trees at the top of the dirt driveway are just waiting for custom woodworker Seana Bill to give them new life and handcraft them into one of her elegant pieces of furniture.”
Seana was a teacher on track to teach physics and working on her Master’s in education in Baltimore City, Maryland when a quest to find good quality furniture on a student’s salary changed the course of her career. “I would buy all this furniture, and it would fall apart or bubble up if I got water on it. Being a student and waiting tables, stuff was expensive,” says Seana. “I saw this farm table in a magazine, and I thought, I think I can make that.”
With a vision and motivation for lasting furniture driving her, she made the trip back to the family homestead in Lyme and built the first of what was to become many farm tables using her father’s woodworking tools and chestnut wood from an antique house. “I was hooked instantly.” After that she spent her weekends and vacations driving back to Connecticut to work in her father’s shop to make more furniture for her friends. “It was a tough decision to leave teaching. It took me a long time to figure out what to do.” Seana is self-taught and has been in business for herself designing and building furniture and custom cabinets for six years. She says she learns best by seeing a piece of wood or looking things up, while her physics background comes into play to help her problem solve on challenging design elements. “It’s always fun to come up with new ways to do things.”
Her woodworking shop is a charming old barn next to a circa 1720 house that her dad built literally from the ground up using antique salvaged wood from all over the state. The little lights hanging from the barn’s ceiling beams are left over from her wedding festivities two months ago. Where her tools and slabs of wood now stand was where the band played, as family and friends danced the night away kicking up sawdust.
One of the commission pieces she is working on for a customer who lives in Newport is a beautiful walnut desk with pull out drawers.“I love designing stuff,” says Seana. “It’s so great to design something either with a customer, or for them; I have come a long way in my abilities and design skills.” She invites potential customers to visit her workshop and look at the different types of wood and colors. The walnut she is using for the desk came from a local arborist and cut down trees. Seana likes to have a few different projects going at once, and this one-woman team can handle it just fine all on her own. She is also working on kitchen cabinets for another customer using sugar maple wood left over from fallen trees, and a cherry tree rescued from Hurricane Irene will be reborn again in a piece of furniture she is designing for another customer.
Her artistic work has become so well known that people call her when they take down a tree in their yard. One customer who is a fan of her wood masterpieces, wanted her to use an old walnut tree that had come down on her father’s property to make a piece of furniture as a remembrance of him. Seana uses local lumber and antique wood from homes and even wooden studs that are 200-300 years old. “People appreciate true good craftsmanship here in New England,” explains Seana. “If someone requests something, I will build it.”
To further her self-learning journey Seana taught herself to weld, which she incorporates as part of her design elements such as adding steel braces to coffee tables or metal brackets on desk legs. “It’s really endless as to what you can do; learning is forever,” says Seana. She puts her heart into her carpentry and is involved in every part of the woodworking process for her one of a kind furniture pieces or cabinets: picking out the type of wood, milling it into boards using the band sawmill on her family’s property, stacking the wood for drying, running the wood through a planer to flatten it out, cutting it, assembling the pieces, sanding, and finally applying finish using a tung oil varnish blend. “I am so grateful and fortunate to have this space,” says Seana. “This is timeless stuff.”
She does feature some of her furniture in local stores such as Lori Warner Studio Gallery in Chester, Chalk Mercantile in Old Saybrook, and Fairhaven Furniture in New Haven; but she really likes to do commission pieces where she can engage with the customer and either work with them on a design, or draw from her artistic skills and build something they will cherish.
To say she grew up around woodworking watching her dad, Greg Bill, restore old homes and work with his hands, is an understatement. He remembers her helping him after school hauling slate up to the roof. Her dad has been working on the family house for 25 years, building it from the floor joists on up and out, using reclaimed lumber from other restored houses and fallen trees on the property. Now they compete for the use of his tools, which he has to go and retrieve from Seana’s barn workshop; but it gives him a chance to see what the latest project is she is working on. “Her business seems to be on the up swift,” says Greg; “a week doesn’t go by that she doesn’t get calls.”
The apple wandered a bit from the tree but then rolled back right under its mighty limbs. “I love what I do to be up here in the woods,” says Seana. “I sit and have a cup of coffee, open the barn, and get ready with sanding.”