Spirit out of the trees: A life of woodworker Tim Carney

Story by Brian D’Ambrosio
Photos by Tim Carney

Timothy Carney’s woodwork is both a mark of respect and a living will. His work is a lifetime of exertion requiring strength as well as a steady execution of choice.

Perhaps, most importantly, his woodwork indicates a lifetime of staying true and points toward the most thoughtful dimensions of that truth.

Born in Butte, Carney’s father was an agent for the Union Pacific Railroad; he was born above the depot. He re-located the family to Boise, Idaho, to pursue work as a supervisory agent and, later,
Carney worked as a carpenter for the very same locomotive outfit.

“I had a dream about becoming a woodworker when I was working for the railroad,” said Carney, 68, of Helena. “I learned a lot from the railroad in 9 years, a lot about their basic construction and tools. I started building furniture on the side and spent time reading ‘Fine Woodworking.’ … Self-taught, I repaired furniture in Pocatello, (Idaho) and I learned what to do and what not to do with furniture repair.”

Tim Carney

Timothy’s Fine Woodworking started in 1982 — and decades later, Carney carries the command as well as the authority of a woodworker.

Carney’s talent is an exercise in the particulars of the Earth: sun, moon, wind, water, points of intersection between this world and the next. His art reflects the vision that brings all that exists in this world into harmony.

“When I do a speculative piece, such as a piece called ‘Sit By A River,’ the work reminds me of a river flowing around rocks and obstructions, and often tabletops remind me of rivers. There is the grain and the movement. Water is a symbol of the unconscious and that’s where a lot of my ideas come from,” Carney said.

“With a piece I call ‘The Yellowstone,’ the wood grabbed me first, and I decided I was going to do what called to mind the Yellowstone River. The tresses represent the river going through the canyon in Yellowstone. The legs are the volcanic tubes that come through the area.”

Woodworking has offered Carney the chance to find his place in the performance. The performance is the thank-you, the gratefulness toward the relationship between man and wood. Indeed, wood is intended to be used with energy. It also takes energy to listen to it — and especially to hear it. Carney listens deeply.

“There is a spiritual bent to my life and a spiritual bent that is more nature oriented,” said Carney. “I’ve been studying Huichol shamanism, and it is really the connection to nature and the healing aspect of nature. Everything has a spirit and woodworking can bring the spirit out of the trees. Everything has a spirit, particularly trees, and I see my job as a woodworker, to honor that spirit and to bring it out. See it, feel it and be connected to nature through it.”

Carney continued:
“With a piece like ‘The Yellowstone,’ I have an idea in my mind, and I go looking for wood. It could be based on a dream I had somewhere in the unconscious, or the wood grabs my attention, and I then have to figure out what to do with it. Sometimes it sits there silent and I let it sit for a number of months until I discover what it wants to be. One piece of wood (a slice of vertical wound in the trunk) has been sitting for 8, 9 years, and I still haven’t quite decided how to use. I don’t want to ruin it — it’s a one-of-a-kind piece, and I want to do what’s right with it. I often think that some of the most damaged pieces are also the most interesting — a metaphor for people. You are thinking about this, and you have in mind what you want to end up with, the finished stage, and after the first coat, the grain, everything just pops. It’s a very heartening experience when that happens.”

The Yellowstone

Woodworking is a decision, a slightest movement in the direction of that decision. At hundreds of points along the way, a designer will be given another step and then another decision. This is how Carney finds his way — or, rather, how his way finds him.

“When it’s in the raw form, things change along the way, all of the time,” said Carney. “You have to respect what the wood can do, and what you might want it to do, and meld those two somehow. Live edge slab tables are really popular — and the trend is to sand and finish and then stick on a spindly hair-pinned leg. I try to think of how I can make a base to support a top that could go with it, enhance it and that doesn’t detract from it, and think of all of the practical things, such as keeping it strong and supported. But I like to be thinking of things such as how do the chairs fit or how are people’s legs going to fit under it.”

Carney’s woodwork is inspired by Tage Frid, a Danish-born woodworker who influenced the development of the studio furniture movement in the U.S., as well as George Nakashima, one of the fathers of the American craft movement, and more recently, renowned contemporary furniture craftsman Sam Maloof.

“I’m very influenced by Maloof’s joinery and the style of joinery he developed,” said Carney. “It is very graceful and I love the play of hard lines to soft lines it allows for.

“I met Sam Maloof in Three Forks, and at 89, even then, he said he worked 8 to 10 hours a day in his shop because he loved it so much. He was a humble man and he wanted to share everything he knew. You can learn something from everyone, even someone who is starting out, and I think you need to be open to that. Much of what I’ve done comes from pursuing the people such as Maloof and respecting what they did, and pursuing those ideas.”

Carney has coined a term to describe his own style; he refers to it as “urban organic.”

“My work is very organic, but it also fits in a modern,urban setting quite well,” said Carney. “I eventually developed a style of my own — urban organic — and I was able to take it in my own direction. Some of the western style can be quite gnarly or logged, and that doesn’t necessarily go well in any setting. I feel my work can go into a lodge or a contemporary setting, or a Western setting. To me, the
name speaks to the organic nature of the joinery, it all flows, especially the chairs.”

Carney works six to seven days a week, fulfilling commission cabinet orders, and, when time permits, he lets his mind stroll and hands drift into the dream of speculative. Indeed, stream-of-consciousness exploration is what will allow him to live out his career to more gratifying ends.

“People are more receptive to art here and the type of thing I want to do,” said Carney, a Helena resident since 1996. “I find myself able to expand here for that reason. I think you have to keep pursuing it.”

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