Local woodworker creating memories from island studio
Steven Sabella of Jamestown has established a reputation as a woodworker with more than 25 years of experience in the field. Since May, Sabella has been hard at work in his island studio after years of working for other furniture makers.
Sabella was born in Rhode Island and his family moved to Connecticut when he was 14. When it came time to purchase a home, he wanted to get closer to the water because of his passion for fishing. He had never been to Jamestown, but one day he took a ride with a friend and fell in love. He bought a house and moved here 16 years ago.
“I loved the whole feel of the island,” Sabella said. “No chain stores or big-box stores. It’s been a great place to live.”
Sabella’s stepfather was a carpenter, and at a young age, Sabella began to learn the trade, including framing and trim work. When he was in his 20s, Sabella opened a small shop where he made products like plaques. He supplied his work to the craft industry, but when business began to dry up because of foreign competition, Sabella returned to carpentry.
Sabellas was living in Pomfret, Conn., when a friend told him about a furniture maker in town by the name of Stephen Swift. Sabella met Swift, and soon after starting working in Swift’s studio. He was there for the next 12 years. Even after Sabella located to Jamestown, he continued the 100-mile round trip to Connecticut every day for five years.
“It was a lot,” Sabella said.
While still working for Swift, Sabella built a two-car garage on his island property so he could get some work done at home. But when Swift passed away, Sabella decided to make a change. He was hired as a principal builder for a company in Plainville, Mass., and worked there for 11 years. When the owner decided to reorganize six months ago, Sabella decided to work full time for himself. He still retains his former employer as a client.
“For a lot of the furniture companies remaining in the United States, the owners are so busy running the business that they don’t have time to make their own furniture,” Sabella said. “They hire guys like me to make the furniture. So I build the product, they finish it and sell it through the store in Massachusetts. This has enabled me to put more time into my own product, to do what I like to do.”
Sabella and his wife Susan put together a website that is regularly updated with new offerings: Ste venSabella.com. It serves as the primary promotional tool for Sabella’s business. One of the things the woodworker likes to do is find pieces that had other uses and adapt them for new uses. As an example, Sabella took a swim ladder from a yacht and made it into a king-sized bed. There was also a work light that he got off a tugboat and turned it into a table.
“I call it American craftsman,” Sabella said. “It’s traditional joinery. It’s made to last for generations. It’s unique.”
Sabella also creates more traditional pieces. He describes the range of his products as high-end country to artistic. He employs a lot of reclaimed lumber in his work and recently acquired a load of wood that came from a demolished 200-year-old barn in Marlboro, Mass. Sabella has the barn’s beams and flooring, and he plans to use the wood in different pieces.
Sustainability is an important issue for Sabella. He understands the world cannot continue to consume natural resources at the current rate without endangering them further. Of particular interest to him is the wood of the chestnut tree. American chestnut forests, which once dominated New England and the entire East Coast, have been devastated by a blight that came from overseas.
“They’re trying to work with an Asian variety of the tree that’s resistant to the blight,” Sabella said. “They’re trying to make it mostly American, with a small amount of the Asian variety, hoping that will bring it back. I’d love to have the opportunity to be able to grow some. It’s a great wood.”
While Sabella found the swim ladder and the tugboat light, he is open to the idea of people bringing things to him that have sentimental value so he can incorporate them. It’s a way of preserving memories, he says. A man once brought Sabella some soda crates. There were a lot of memories tied up in those crates – the man remembered them from his grandfather’s garage.
“I took them apart and wondered what I could do with them,” Sabella said. “I ended up making a chestnut coffee table. It wouldn’t be for everybody, but he has a piece that will help him remember his grandfather and growing up.”
While Sabella makes furniture to order, he also makes spec pieces so he can show people examples of his work. An example of the latter is an old workbench that he turned into a unique kitchen island. He encourages people to visit his studio to see examples of his work.