Life and Leadership Lessons From Furniture Making

by | Mar 2, 2020

David Stine

My friend Matt Hall leads a successful investment firm, authored the dynamite book Odds On: The Making of an Evidence-Based Investor, and has a podcast called Take the Long View. An eclectic mix of people has been on the podcast, ranging from restauranteur Danny Meyer to Dave Butler, CEO of mutual fund company DFA. The most recent guest was David Stine, an award-winning furniture-maker. In the episode David recounts growing up on a farm, going to college and law school and then leaving the practice of law to start his furniture-making business.

Link: David Stine Furniture.

What David had to say about the wood he uses in his furniture really resonated with me – my thoughts are after his quotes. Here are the relevant parts (I’ve lightly edited the remarks to make the spoken word a bit more readable):

Different wood for different purposes:

There are different woods that grow here in the Midwest that are better for things that might see some weathering. Like Osage Orange is really good outside. But I would never build something out of Hickory and put it outside because it will last one season and be gone. Society has commodified wood in such a way where we don’t pay attention to what it’s really good for. Instead, we should find the highest best use for that species and then use it for that. If somebody is building a workbench, I would never advise them to build it out of pine. It’s just going to get beat up because it is a softer wood. Now if they want a headboard and they find a piece of pine in our stock that they love, I think that’s a great use. It’s not going to get dinged up and have glasses sitting on it.

Let the wood be what it wants to be:

If you want dark wood, we’re happy to put you at a Walnut table because it’s beautiful, it’s dark, it’s naturally occurring that way. It’s not some color that we’ve added to it. One of my biggest complaints is when a lot of design type people or people who are looking for something will want a dark Maple table. Maple is whitest, clearest wood and they want us to ebonize it. And I’m like, well that seems like a terrible idea. How about if we took a wood that’s already dark and we just celebrate the darkness of that wood and we make it look like real wood because if you really just want a black table, maybe it should be Formica or maybe it should be a painted table, something like that. So we can keep this amazing wood that we have for its highest best use. You know, let’s let the wood be what it wants to be rather than trying to constantly impose our will on everything. Like, let’s find the piece of wood that already exists in kind of the shape and the look that you’re wanting. And then everybody’s happy because the wood is being what it wants to be and you are happy with it.

Celebrating warts and imperfections:

The wood that’s at Ikea, it all looks exactly the same. You don’t see anybody whipping out their iPhone and taking pictures of the amazing woodgrain at Ikea because it’s not amazing. People when they come to our showroom or they see a piece that we’ve done say “Oh, I love this little aspect of it. And look at this knot where a branch was sheared off in a storm and then the tree had to grow and survive and sort of heal around that.” And you can see all that story told in the grain of the wood. I find that just amazing and fascinating and sort of like uplifting, you know, this thing overcame all this and I feel the same way you know about people, about animals, about all kinds of stuff.

Applying David’s Thoughts on Wood to People

If you stop and think about it, what David says about wood could as easily apply to people. Each of us has skills, abilities, and interests that suggest our own highest and best use. We are each like a type of wood. If we are Pine, for example, we shouldn’t be a workbench, and if we are Maple we shouldn’t be a dark table.

I think a key part of leadership is recognizing what type of wood everyone is (or what kind of wood they can be) and helping them cultivate their careers so that they can do what they are best at doing. Let’s let people be who they are and not try to turn them into who they are not. Part of that is celebrating the warts and imperfections that everyone has that makes them unique. If you want an Ikea-type piece of furniture you don’t want any imperfections — no personality. High-end furniture is made out of real wood with real personality – knots and curved grain and holes, etc. What kind of company do you want to work in? One where all personality and imperfections have been ground away? Or one made up of unique individuals, each striving to do what they are best at doing?

This concept is also applicable to relationships. We should be cognizant of whether we are trying to turn our significant other into a type of wood that they aren’t and can’t be. Are we celebrating the imperfections of our friends, family and partners?

That’s a beautiful table. Source: David Stine Furniture


  1. Nice interview and interesting to think about. I’ll also check out Take The Long View podcast. Thanks!

  2. Thanks again, John. You helped me understand a recent kitchen-buying decision. I come from a family of woodworkers. My father has always cut and seasoned his own wood from fallen (or felled) trees and made beautiful furniture. (One tree fell on him about 10 years ago and very nearly killed him.) When my wife and daughter wanted a blue-stained walnut for our kitchen cabinets, I put my foot down. I couldn’t stand the idea of something as beautiful as walnut being stained some ocean-compatible blue. So I am with Matt too.


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