Story by KATIE
Photos by TONYA
Nate Highers was born an artist. He doesn’t work with paints and canvas, though. His medium is wood. He is a master craftsman and cabinet maker, and his custom furniture is pure art.
From tables and chairs to hutches and buffets, Highers can do it all. His one-of-a-kind pieces are craftsmanship at its finest.
His passion for woodworking started at a very young age. One of his earliest memories as a child was whittling a lighthouse when he was just six years old. As far back as he can remember, he has had a fascination with wood.
He and his father camped a lot when he was younger, so Highers always had a pocket knife available, and his favorite way to pass the time was by carving. “It was the late 70’s early 80’s, so we didn’t have cell phones and all that other stuff, so I would just sit in the yard and whittle and carve and make all kinds of stuff,” he recalls.
What’s even more amazing is that nobody ever taught him how to whittle or carve. He was a natural, and Highers knows it was what he was meant to do. “It’s what I dream about in my sleep,” he says. “I look at a piece of furniture like this and I see it explode in my mind. I see all of the parts and reassemble it.”
He made his first piece of furniture when he was in seventh grade. “That was where I got into shop class, where I started getting real education on wood types and tools,” he says. His mother still has that first piece of furniture displayed in her living room: a rocking bassinet with a curved roof. And he’s been creating custom pieces ever since.
When he was a sophomore, he had enough credits to go to trade school while he was still in high school, and there he learned even more about building and construction. More importantly for Highers, that’s where he could access the materials and power tools to hone his obsession. So that’s just what he did.
He started working as soon as he could, and his hobby and passion quickly turned into a career. Unlike most people, Highers has never had a profession doing anything other than what he loves.
“There are few people that have something they were born with the skills to do, and I was fortunate enough to always be able to do what I enjoy,” he says. “So in some way, shape or form, I’ve been able to work with wood.”
“Cabinet maker” is Highers’ professional title, but it is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a common mistake for people to assume that he makes kitchen cabinets, but cabinet makers have actually been around longer than kitchen cabinets. “An empty piece of furniture with no door or drawers in it is a cabinet,” he explains.
And cabinet makers are hard to find these days. “It’s much harder to find a true cabinet maker than it is to find a carpenter,” say Highers. “They are not the same.”
In addition to cabinet making and custom furniture, Highers has worked in construction, doing trim work and anything that required lots of detail. As long as it involved woodworking, he’d gladly take the job.
One of the highlights in his career was working for Stickley Furniture, one of the world’s best known names in high end furniture. “I learned from some of the best cabinet makers in the world when I did Stickley’s work,” says Highers.
“Stickley’s is a global company, and they’ve been around forever. And people spend a lot of money on their furniture,” he adds. At one point, there were only five cabinet makers in the world that did custom work for Stickley, and Highers was one of them. What’s even more impressive is the fact that English royalty have purchased Highers’ work from Stickley.
And even though Highers can brag about high end clientele, he puts just as much care and creativity into his everyday furniture. “My proudest achievement is the entertainment center in my mother’s living room,” he says. “Just because of the way it made her smile…Every time somebody walks into her house she has to walk them through and show them the pieces I’ve made for her.”
Currently, he enjoys making custom furniture for the renowned 24e. Design CO. on Broughton Street in Savannah. The downtown store has been a prominent fixture in Savannah for thirty years, showcasing brilliant designs and international aesthetics coveted by furniture aficionados nationwide.
24e. Design CO. owner, Ruel Joyner, knows a thing or two about fine home furnishings. Showing, creating, and curating original designed furnishings and objects from all over the globe is his mission. “It’s been a pleasure to bring him on and have him be a part of what we do,” he says of Highers. “He’s very masterful in his woodworking, and he certainly knows what he’s doing.”
He knows what he is doing because he has been doing it his whole life. When asked what the most difficult aspect of his job is, he says people can be a lot more difficult than the projects themselves. “People have great designs and people have great ideas, but sometimes they’re structurally not practical, but I do give the solutions,” Highers explains.
Nevertheless, he always seems to find a way to bring clients’ unique designs to life. For example, when a client requested a large table made of one piece of wood, Highers found a way to do it. “It was an immensely huge table,” he recalls. “And it was so big I didn’t have saws or tools big enough to cut it. I had to plane it and cut it all by hand.”
Depending on the labor and quality of materials, handmade furniture can be quite expensive, but Highers wants people to know that it doesn’t have to be. Custom furniture can be affordable, and it’s definitely worth it in the long run.
He says he’d never buy a piece of mass produced, factory-made furniture. “I wouldn’t waste the three hundred dollars to buy it when I know I can make it in two days, and it’s something my kids can give to their kids,” explains Highers. “The furniture I build, you can drop out of a third story window and drag it back into the house. It’s just the quality, really. And the prices aren’t all that different. It’s not all that much more to buy a custom piece of furniture.”
In a world more and more enamoured with instant gratification, craftsmanship and authenticity are falling by the wayside. He worries that masters of his trade are dying with the growth of technology. “Cabinet makers are a dying breed,” he laments. “It’s sad. It’s terrible. Jesus was a cabinet maker.”
That is one reason why he is looking for an apprentice. His mentor at Stickley, an old Vietnamese man named Fu Trann, always used to tell him, “I die soon. You focus.” He taught Highers many invaluable skills of the trade.
“He taught me a lot,” he says of Trann. “And I see it now. If he couldn’t pass it on to somebody, it would die with him.” He finds it disheartening that craftsmanship and the classic trades are being forgotten by younger generations.
He lists Pat Enwright as another mentor from Stickley who taught him that “they don’t make a tool for everything.” Enwright taught him to make his own jigs and fixtures and to think outside the box.
Cabinet makers make furniture that gets handed down for generations, and Highers wants to pass on his skills to ensure that his trade lives on. “Maybe somebody can see what I’m doing and say ‘Oh, wow! I’d like to try that.’” he adds.
His spirituality influences him a great deal, and he considers his talent for woodworking a gift from God. “I knew early on that I was born with this. It wasn’t something that I did, by any means,” he explains. “It was all a gift. It was given to me.”
He considers himself blessed to be able to to do what he loves, and he never takes it for granted. He is grateful to wake up each day and create beautiful works of functional art. He would love to have his own furniture line one day, but for now he is content doing what he loves.
Nate Highers is a craftsman who found his calling early in life. His fine woodwork will certainly be around for years to come for future generations to admire. “I just want to make as many people happy as I can and hopefully pass it on to somebody else,” he says.
For more information, Mr. Highers can be reached at email@example.com or via facebook.