Former architect-turned-artist Silvia Song was born in São Paulo, Brazil, raised in Los Angeles, California, and now lives and works in the Bay area, creating handmade wood bowls, butcher blocks, walnut coffee drippers and custom orders out of her garage studio. She has been working at her craft for just over a year, and in that short time she has already received showcases at both the Los Angeles and San Francisco outposts of historic artisan pottery manufacturer Heath Ceramics. She regularly teaches classes to legions of aspiring woodworkers in San Francisco. We spoke to the homespun entrepreneur to learn more about the unexpected ascent of her small company, her ambitious but organic business plan and how both complement her family life. Song works hard to ensure that all the balls in her juggling act—family, work, art, design, craft—are balanced and weighted equally.
What brought you to choose woodworking?
I initially wanted to be a ceramic potter, but I have thyroid disease and I had a lot of problems with eczema, a side effect. It was hard to work with my hands; the high friction of working with clay irritated my condition. I ended up getting a wood lathe in order to explore forms in wood, in the same way that you might with pottery. In architecture school I took some shop classes, but mostly it’s intuitive and self-taught.
How did you come to open a woodshop in your garage?
My background is in design and I practiced architecture for 10 years—I did exhibition design for museums and single-family homes as well as larger developments. I was in grad school for architecture at U.C. Berkeley when I realized I didn’t like sitting in front of a computer all day—I really missed the studio environment. I left my program and I had a child. And then I thought: How am I going to make this work? I took on furniture design work and soon my customers were asking me to build my own designs, but I didn’t really have any equipment. It was then that I made the leap to start my own shop, my own design/build studio.
Why create your own woodshop as opposed to sourcing a local woodworker?
It was just a desire of mine, and even if you hire a woodworker, it’s hard to find people that will execute your exact vision. If you bring the work into your own studio, you can control the design. I come from parents who owned their own business and were fully immersed in the fabrication of things. My dad was a textile engineer and my mom, my sister and I worked with him in the family business. It was very hands on. My uncle is an industrial toy designer. So making things was probably something that was ingrained early on in my life.
Where do you source your wood?
It’s so nice to use local wood that has been felled in the Bay area. I source sustainable wood from the region and I work with the city arborist in Berkeley. I also have clients who request custom pieces using trees that have fallen. They want to commemorate the trees through a wood bowl or a butcher block. One day, I got a tip from a friend about a bunch of felled cypress that were in someone’s yard. I ended up taking three round trips that day, hauling cypress blocks in my Volvo station wagon.
Your woodcarving classes are incredibly popular. How did you get into teaching?
I was very surprised at how much people were interested in learning how to carve. I’d like to continue teaching, but I also want to create a dedicated, outdoor space to do that. Teaching wood carving in the city is not ideal—you have to endure the hassles of commuting and finding parking, and you’re stressed from the hustle and bustle – but then you suddenly have to sit down and relax and practice the introspective act of carving. I want to create a peaceful outdoor space where you could carve wood for hours. Teaching is fulfilling because I feel like I am not just imparting a skill, but also passing down a meditative process.
You’ve managed to create a thriving enterprise in a very short period of time, while working around the demands of your family—how did they adapt?
My daughter has come into my studio a few times. Once she grabbed a piece of wood and sandpaper and just started sanding. I don’t think she’s ever seen me do that, but I guess it’s in the family.
It sounds like you work very organically and just go with the flow…
My approach might seem nonchalant, but I definitely had a plan for what I wanted to accomplish in the next year – I just didn’t expect everything to happen so quickly! The first four months of launching the business were spent producing my own work, and then connecting with everyone I knew, especially other artists in the area. During that process, I realized that the community of artists and makers in San Francisco is so small. We all know each other. I probably would have wanted the development to be a much slower process – I feel a lot of pressure to perform to that level of expectation – but I’m also happy and grateful that I’ve gotten to where I am.
What’s next for you then?
I’m in a position now where I need more equipment to fulfill wholesale orders at a faster pace. I want to expand the business. My output is very high, but my equipment is for a home business. That being said, I want to keep my studio in my home. I have a three-year-old daughter who needs a lot of attention. Lately I’ve been taking on more custom orders, and eventually I would like to create wood sculpture and focus more on the art and craft of carving. My husband and I are looking for a little piece of land. On that property I’d have a space to teach my own classes, run my studio and also raise a family…
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