April 2018


Ophthalmologist finds stress relief, fulfillment in making furniture

by Liz Hillman EyeWorld Staff Writer

Dr. Steele started making his own furniture as a way to furnish his home. It turned into a stress-relieving passion, and he has used his skill to outfit his homes and those of his children.

Dr. Steele has been crafting fine furniture for more than 3 decades.
Source (all): Mark Steele, MD

What started as a way to furnish his home continues as a decades-long hobby

Around the time that Mark Steele, MD, founding partner, Pediatric Ophthalmic Consultants, New York, was starting to practice in the early 1990s, he and his wife were newlyweds with a new home that needed to be furnished. When they started looking for furniture and seeing the price tags, Dr. Steele decided to try his hand at woodworking before buying a readymade product. After his first successful piece, he was hooked.
“It’s creating something from nothing,” Dr. Steele said. “There’s this hunk of wood with bark on it, and building this beautiful, functional, aesthetic piece, it’s a great experience.”
Aesthetics is initially what led Dr. Steele to ophthalmology, too. While rotating through clinics in his third year of medical school, Dr. Steele looked through a slit lamp and was struck.
“It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” he said of the eye, describing the iris as a moving “velvet curtain.”
Being coordinated and good with his hands, Dr. Steele knew he wanted to do surgery, and similarly, he’s found it a useful skill in furniture making.
“It’s a hobby of attention to detail. The surgeries we do are to the micro-millimeters, and so is woodworking. If you want two pieces of wood to joint together, they have to be planed down to the exact dimension. Like in surgery you have to think in three dimensions,” Dr. Steele said. “Certainly a lot of patience is necessary, and like surgery, it’s enjoying the process. It’s the joy of going through this obsessive-compulsive exercise that keeps me going back not just to surgery but to woodworking.”
Mostly self-taught, although he attends some workshops now, Dr. Steele describes his most prominent style of furniture as mid-century modern. It’s not just personal preference that drives it, though; Dr. Steele said the type of wood you choose also determines the style. Quarter sawn white oak, which Dr. Steele said has rays and flecks giving it a three-dimensional quality, is best featured in a mid-century modern piece.
“The wood tells you the style; it directs itself,” he said.
Dr. Steele goes to a lumber source and selects each individual piece of wood, which can range anywhere from ¾ of an inch to 10 inches thick. The wood in this state is unfinished, requiring Dr. Steele to plane it, smooth it, and square it off in a process called dimensioning, which he said is very rewarding.
“There is often a live edge; there is literally bark on it,” Dr. Steele said of the wood in this form. “When you select it, you have to envision what the grain is going to be like when it’s finished.”
From there, in his woodworking shop, Dr. Steele has a table saw, jointer, planer, shaper, various sanders, drills, and a drill press that will be used to transform the raw hunk of wood into a piece of furniture. A table, provided it doesn’t have too many curves, could be finished in a weekend. A chair, on the other hand, could take up to a month, Dr. Steele said.
“Chairs are the ultimate challenge, particularly one that doesn’t have any right angles where everything is curved or skewed,” he explained. “It’s the curvature; bending wood is very time consuming.”
After the wood is shaped, he puts any of the necessary pieces together in a process called joiner, which he explained can be done with wood tenons, dovetails, or steel rods with epoxy glue. The piece is then protected with either an oil, lacquer, stain, or paint. The finish, Dr. Steele said, is also driven in part by the individual characteristics of the species of wood.
“Some pieces are more amenable to oil than others, and some are more amenable to straight lacquering,” he said.
With two homes—one in Manhattan and one in New Jersey—Dr. Steele said he had blank canvases to furnish. He has also created pieces for the homes of his two children. He hasn’t started giving pieces to friends yet, but that’s the next step.
“It’s hard to part with a piece because you put your heart and soul into it for a reasonably long period of time. To sell it or give it away is difficult, but I’m beginning to realize that’s the transition I’m making now, and I feel good about it,” he said.
Dr. Steele finds woodworking to be relaxing and rewarding.
“If you go on the golf course for 5 hours and you return home, you have nothing to show for it, and that bothers me. The nice thing about furniture making is when you’re done you have a finished product, there is a sense of permanence, you can always enjoy it, sit in it, use it,” he said. “It’s pure relaxation. It’s called the flow. Four to 5 hours pass and you don’t even realize the passage of time; you’re immersed in problem solving and technique. It’s like spending a day in the OR, which is my favorite day during the week.”

Contact information

: steele@pedseye.com

Ophthalmologist finds stress relief, fulfillment in making furniture Ophthalmologist finds stress relief, fulfillment in making furniture
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