The following is excerpted from “The Difference Makers,” by Marc Adams, a collection of remarkable stories and work from 30 of the best furniture makers, toolmakers, luthiers, sculptors and more with whom Marc has worked since 1993 at his eponymous school.
Steve Latta makes contemporary and traditional furniture while teaching woodworking at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and Millersville University in Lancaster County, Pa. He’s a contributing editor to Fine Woodworking magazine and has released several videos on inlay and furniture construction. He has lectured at Colonial Williamsburg, The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and Winterthur Museum, as well as numerous other schools and guilds. Working in conjunction with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, he helped develop and market a set of contemporary inlay tools. Steve is an active member of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers and a juried member of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, with their three children – Fletcher, Sarah and Grace – nearby.
On the Professional Side
In high school and all through college Steve worked in bicycle shops, eventually funding his tuition with his own repair business. After graduating, he continued fixing bicycles until the day he was offered a job making cabinets.
“With bikes, you put the pieces in harmony,” he says. “With wood, you get to make the pieces.” That concept appealed to Steve and at the young age of 22, he made a career change.
For the first eight years it was mostly on-the-job training. Steve did everything from cabinet making to trim carpentry before he landed in Kent, Ohio, where he worked for two companies: Western Reserve Furniture, as a shift foreman, and then on to a much smaller shop, Liberty Custom Furniture. It was during this time that Steve started to gain interest in making period furniture, which led him to move to the Philadelphia area in hopes of finding a shop looking for an apprentice.
“When this journey started, I realized that I liked small, high-quality shops that did not pull the punches,” he says. “So I would work for someone for a few years and when I had learned as much as that shop had to offer, I would move on to the next.”
In time, Steve became known for his skill at inlay and veneering, specifically in the Federal style. However, he has always considered himself more of a process guy than a production guy; he often enjoys the journey more than the destination. In his personal work, Steve is trying to break away from the mould of being a maker known for a specific style.
“With period work, the design is pretty much given and the emphasis is on interpretation,” he says.
Today he is developing his own designs. On a trip to Ireland, Steve was moved by the geometric lines in many of the beautiful cathedrals and Celtic work. Inspired by these patterns he has moved to a new type of work involving a much freer style of inlay and a much broader view of “traditional” work. But Steve admits that he would love to have been a 17th- or 18th-century silversmith: “Their work just blows me away.”
In all his success, Steve still considers one item to be his crowning achievement. It’s not that Lie-Nielsen has made a series of videos which feature him or sells his inlay tools. Nor is it the fact that writing for Fine Woodworking has made him a legend in woodworking circles. Today, if you were to ask Steve what he considers to be his greatest accomplishment, it would be teaching for the last 20 years at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
“My best work, outside of my family, is on display in shops and classrooms all across the country,” he says. “I am referring to my students who have graduated and work in the field and teach in the classroom.”
On the Personal Side
There is an old saying that “those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach.” That is not the case with Steve. He is a brilliantly talented craftsman and an even better teacher. To complete the package, he is a man of strong faith and dedicated to his family. Steve regularly volunteers his time to local organizations as well as international missionary work.
Steve was recommended by finishing expert Jeff Jewitt the summer of 2001. Although Steve had been woodworking most of his adult life, he was unknown nationally. So, I decided to take a pass, but I did keep his name on file. In 2003, Steve sent me an email to introduce himself, along with a résumé and photos of a few of his furniture pieces. His work showed stellar skill, but his résumé didn’t prove he could teach.
Through the years MASW has offered a class called “Decorative Details.” I knew what I wanted from such a workshop, but previous instructors missed the mark. Photos of Steve’s work showed remarkable string inlay, which would make for a perfect Decorative Details workshop. I asked, he accepted and the rest is history. In his very first class he was organized, articulate and his demonstrations were spot-on. Students loved him, as did my staff. And within a year or two he had become one of the largest draws at the school.
What makes Steve so good? It’s not the quality of workmanship or skill he possesses, nor is it his remarkable ability to make complex tasks simple. What makes Steve so good is his servant’s heart. In all my years, I have only met one other person like Steve, and that is Mitch Kohanek. The similarity between these two men is that they both have chosen not to make oodles of money in the private sector, which they could, but they dedicated their lives to the humble service of teaching. Both teach at community colleges with modest pay, long hours and often little recognition from within the systems they work for.
Each week MASW hosts an evening slide show where instructors show slides of their body of work. Steve could talk about his experiences as a contributing editor at Fine Woodworking. He could talk about the tools he developed or videos he did for Lie-Nielsen. He could talk about his leadership in SAPFM, TV show appearances or being a guest lecturer at Colonial Williamsburg.
Instead he prefers to focus on the work of his students. He talks about each person as a proud father talks about a child. Though it’s Steve’s moment to shine, he humbly turns the spotlight from himself to others. He finishes his presentation by saying that his great hope is that someday, one of his students will teach at MASW. Steve considers that will be his crowning achievement. I can’t wait for that to happen.