Chris Zumkeller heads over to the area of the shop where he keeps his safety glasses and hearing protection and changes out the cartridges in his respirator.
He tries his best to keep the sawdust out of his lungs, but he can’t do anything about the fact that it’s already in his blood.
Zumkeller is a third generation timber frame carpenter, based in Campbell River.
But he certainly didn’t think his path would follow his father’s and his grandfather’s before him.
“I did well in school and all my teachers said I needed to go to university, so that’s what I did,” he says, surrounded by his wooden art in his gallery downtown. “I didn’t really have a goal going in, but I went to school for business, actually. I was going to go into, I dunno, working with money or finance or investing or something.”
But in order to afford school, he came home to work for his dad in the summer.
“It was pretty terrible, actually,” he says with a laugh. “They were just starting a cabin out at Horne Lake as I was getting done for the year, and I was basically just digging holes for footings for a few weeks. Then I was just packing lumber up a hill. I should have left, but I didn’t. I don’t really know why. I went back to school, still not knowing what I wanted to do, but I knew it wasn’t that.”
But then the next summer rolled around, and guess what he was back doing.
“It was a really great group of guys who were really open and willing to help me get better,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said for working around good, supportive people.”
Once he graduated with his Bachelor of Commerce degree, he applied for every job he saw in his chosen field. But apparently there were a lot of other people who wanted those jobs, too.
“I applied for about 90 jobs, got callbacks for two of them, and got an interview for one, which I didn’t get,” he says. “Looking back, I’m pretty grateful for that.”
Having some background in construction from his summer work, he landed a job doing interior renovations down in Victoria to keep food on the table. He got married. They bought a house. And he claimed half of their single-car garage to turn into a shop to see if he could make some furniture for some reason.
It started with a relatively simple bench.
“We didn’t have any furniture, and I made this bench, and my wife wanted to use it as a TV stand,” he says, “but I said, ‘nope. It’s going against that wall over there for people to sit on,’ and I intentionally put it somewhere nobody would want to sit so that people wouldn’t sit on it.
“I had no intention of selling it at the time,” he continues. “I had no particular use for it at the time, I didn’t really have a spot for it in mind at the time, I just had a piece of wood and an idea of something I thought I could make with it. Wow. That sounds ridiculous now that I say that out loud.”
If it sounds like he made a piece of art, rather than a piece of furniture, there’s a reason for that. Deep down, that’s where Zumkeller’s heart is. It turns out that he’s an artist, and these days, he’s spending as much time doing it as he can, using the same medium he works with in his now-chosen career.
He’s back up Island and back doing timber framing with his dad and his brother, but when he gets off the job site, he heads to his family’s workshop downtown and works on his art.
He takes commissions, but not very many. Working a full-time job and doing this on the side – not to mention his two young children – he can be a little bit choosy with which jobs he wants to take.
“I can take on projects that maybe I don’t make a lot of money on but I appreciate the vision someone has or the idea sparks something within me and I can get creative and push myself,” he says, “rather than just having to take on every project that comes my direction.”
His art reflects his day job in some ways, as well.
“Everything we do with my dad is custom, one-off stuff, which is nice,” he says. “I guess there’s some continuity there between my work and my hobby. You can see it in the pieces that I make, I think. No two are alike, and I think that’s just the way I’ve chosen to grow: through experimentation and pushing myself past my known skill set and always trying something different.”
There’s an upside and a downside to that way of working, Zumkeller says. On the one hand, it means he doesn’t have a particular “style” of work that people would necessarily come to him for. But on the other hand, it means there’s a higher chance that he’s got something that everyone can appreciate.
“Having had a few people in here now, that’s what I’m finding,” he says. “Something will resonate with someone, and the next person will be pulled to something else. I feel like it would be good for me to choose a direction for my work, but I don’t know what that direction would be, and I kind of like that it’s a hodgepodge that most people can probably find something in that resonates with them.”
You can find his work at zumkellerwoodshop.com and follow him on Instagram (@zumkellerwoodshop). His work is available to view by appointment only – he’s obviously pretty busy – but he’s happy to chat about what you’d like via DM on Instagram or by phone at 778-348-0477
And while much of his art is functional, and can – and likely will – be used as furniture, if you purchase one, you might not want to tell him that you let people sit on it.
Even if it’s literally a bench.