Costilla artist builds furniture to last a century

A cedar chest by David Satrun illustrates his quality workmanship. Courtesy photo

The cedar chests, the cabinets and the benches of Costilla furniture maker David Satrun present a quality and a durability that inspires and will remind viewers of a previous era when building something meant making it with the best possible workmanship. "What I build isn't a temporary thing," said Satrun. "It's built for generations to come. I don't fool around with shortcuts and cheap materials. The quality of the whole piece, not just what you can see … is important to me."

Satrun moved to Costilla in 2002 from Alma, Colorado, seeking a peaceful place to do his woodworking. The presence of Ute Mountain also affected his choice. "There is a magnetic pull for me from Ute Mountain, from Cerro de Las Utas," he admits.

Satrun has built with wood all his life, starting with a tree house when he was a child. He soon discovered, he said, that "I could make wood conform to my will." He found himself naturally drawn to the construction industry where he often became the lead carpenter. In the mid-1990s, when he was living in an old miner's cabin in Alma, Satrun finally got his first wood shop, a building made of World War II wooden ammunition boxes with a great part of the plaster gone.

One influence on Satrun were some fellow woodworkers. "There was a mean old German guy that used to yell at me all the time," he said, "I remember I was working with one guy and I said, 'Wow, when this is done it's going to be perfect,' and he stopped and he looked at me and he said, 'Yes, it must be perfect.' " Satrun also recalls some Austrian woodworkers who were "always striving for excellence."

For Satrun, excellence in furniture-making begins with the wood itself. "The first quest," he said, "is looking for the wood, looking for slow growth wood." This often leads him to use old beams and take apart salvaged material "because it's much higher quality wood." His goal, he said, is to bring "quality of materials, of design and of workmanship" to each project. "I won't participate in poor workmanship in somebody's home. I think it's wrong … To me, good work is a moral issue," this affable woodworker explains, because "that's what people think is going on."

Generally, he either works with his own designs or with those of his clients. "One of the talents I have is prying the design out of a client's head because … I can tell it's in there." It is important to Satrun to help people bring their visions into form and for that form to evoke joy in them. "That's what I want," he said, "the emotional response."

This desire reflects Satrun's world view that art affects people's well-being. "I think art is really important to people," he said. He cares about the process of art as well as the artistic creation. "I'm just as interested, if not more so, in the journey as in the destination. It's all about the journey," he said, explaining that "it brings you to a higher consciousness."

Not surprisingly, then, what Satrun loves most is "the meditative time in my studio, when I'm in the zone."

For Satrun, the creative process involves both his waking and sleeping worlds. "I'll wake up at 3 in the morning and have an answer to a problem. It (furniture-making) is just a continual chain of problem solving,"

His best inspiration, he said, "is looking at a pile of wood and then finally something comes to me. It all starts with the tree and who takes it down and who saws it up. I'm involved with all these aspects of it."

After gathering materials, finalizing the design, and planning the details which have to be determined before the project can begin, then, he said, there is "the sweet meditative process, the smell of the shavings flying around, and I like to get lost in music when I'm doing it." Subsequently, he said, "You think you're finished," but the wood finishing process ordinarily comprises at least one third of the time spent. "A good quality finish is important," he said, "It's a great barrier to dirt and dust and handling so the piece stays looking good for a lifetime."

Satrun, who turns down more work than he accepts, encourages buyers of woodwork to study the joinery before they purchase.

Viewers can see Satrun's work on the annual Costilla Studio Tour in September, which he has participated in almost since its inception two decades ago. What he considers his best work, the kitchen in the old hotel in Jaroso, Colorado, now remodeled as a home, is usually open to viewers on the tour as well. Satrun can be contacted through his website

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