In a world of mass-produced everything, it’s refreshing to meet a craftsperson who restores your faith in the value of super-handmade goods. So it was when I met Brian Schopfer, who makes modern rustic furniture from wood and wine barrels reclaimed from his own backyard.
Employed as the farm manager at Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth, RI by day, Brian moonlights as a woodworker at night. After starting his gig at the winery in 2006, he quickly realized that he could source natural, local materials to supply his hobby. “The vineyard used to pay to have trees hauled away,” he says, “but once we moved in, that was the end of that.” To wit, his kitchen table is crafted from two book-matched slabs of intricate cherry (they mirror each other exactly, that is) from the farm and a reclaimed pine beam from a house in Newport where he and his wife first met.
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Located on the shore of the Sakonnet River, the farm — which is listed on the National Registers of Historic Places — makes a bucolic setting for the couple and their two young sons, who live in a circa-1860 house overlooking the water. During work hours, Brian tackles the various chores required on the vineyard the grounds. But once the boys are tucked in to bed, it’s up to his workshop, located above the winery’s tasting room. There he cuts, sands, mills, and finishes tables, benches, tree swings, and cutting boards from felled trees and old wine barrels, and other scraps gathered from the vineyard.
Before trunks are cut to eventually become Schopfer Woodworking projects, friends help strip branches for firewood; other scraps are chipped down and spread on pathways throughout the vineyard. Much of the wood is then air-dried, as opposed to kiln-dried, which leaves more sap in the wood, thereby producing his rich, signature colors. “It’s about not wasting anything,” says Brian, who also produces smaller housewares such as picture frames, mirrors, and shelves. This winter, he’s also taking on a new project — a surfboard constructed from cedar. (Since it will have a hollow-body, the board will remain lightweight.)
Inspired by his grandfather, who was known for building and fixing things, Brian caught the furniture-making bug young. But it was under the guidance of two established local furniture makers — Jeff Soderbergh, and Peter Zuerner — that his dream began to to take shape. Brian’s biggest source of creativity, however, may be his connection to the land itself. “I look at animals and plants as one living system,” he says. “I think that’s why most people enjoy being in nature. It’s where we feel alive because we are part of it all.” From fallen trees and oaken barrels to a beautiful table to set down your wine glass, the artisanship of Schopfer Woodworking certainly brings the beauty and hard work of life on the farm full circle.
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Photos by Maaike Bernstrom Photography, except where noted.