For every 300 slabs of wood Greg Klassen sifts through, he finds one. Digging through slabs and boards turns up hundreds upon hundreds of rejects—pieces that just don’t have the natural shape, the funky burls, the strokes of lively grains and the intrigue marks he must have. Just one piece is good enough to become a River Table.

Klassen is a one-man Washington State furniture-making shop who doesn’t stray far from the style he created, doesn’t venture from the wood he knows, and certainly doesn’t compromise the precision he demands. Why should he? Not so long ago there was a two-year waiting list for the signature River Table, a point that made Klassen realize he needed to stop accepting worldwide orders until he could catch up.

Getting to this point required a hand-spun diligence, just like any of his prized projects.

Rough Edges

Matt Mattox

A river runs through it: That’s the best way to describe Klassen’s master craftsmanship. In a typical Klassen table, two distinct live-edge slabs of wood—that is, pieces with raw and rough edges—merge but don’t touch. The void between them is covered in glass, evoking a feeling of raw, naked, angry nature. “I’m looking for a dynamic shape that suggests a river into a canyon,” he says. “I never put a river or lake in wood not asking for it.”

The look comes from the land. Klassen’s wood shop stands steps from the old farmhouse he shares with his wife and three children in Washington State, nestled among raspberry fields by the shores of the Nooksack River. But his journey began many miles away, and his style was born of necessity.

Klassen grew up on a peach, plum, and nectarine farm in Dinuba, California, and studied theology in British Columbia, Canada. Just before finishing school, he landed a job south of the border at Lynden Door, serving as little more than the factory’s wood recycler.

“That was my first introduction to wood,” he says. “I was poor and newly married and I would bring wood home (to Canada). I got a lot of questions from the border guards, but on the back deck I had a drill and a saw and would build furniture for my home.”

A hobby started. A passion lit.

Klassen struggled early with woodworking and with working with recycled lumber, but engrossed himself in learning the craft and collecting tools. After realizing that church ministry and then office work weren’t for him, he knew he needed to work and create with his hands. ”That is when I felt most alive.” From there, Klassen attended woodworking schools in California and Sweden and started his own furniture-making business in 2008, returning to the northwestern-most corner of the lower 48.

"Every time I finish a piece I have ideas for two more."

His start wasn't promising. Klassen remembers one major show in Washington, D.C. in 2013—the travel took him away from home for a month and all he sold was one big coffee table. Then his vehicle broke down on the return trip. “I have so many stories of different degrees of failure,” he says.

It all changed on July 1, 2014. Klassen’s work, which had already been seen in major architecture magazines, was featured by the design blog Colossal. Soon, nearly every major newspaper had covered him. He was on the front page of Reddit as his craftsmanship went viral. “It was a huge explosion,” he says. “It happened overnight.”

Suddenly, the connectivity of social media pushed Klassen into the stratosphere. His personal website was set up so that anytime a sale was made he’d get an alert on his phone in the sound of a train “choo choo.” Suddenly the trains ran at all hours. “At the time, we were really struggling and just barely finding enough money to pay our mortgage,” he says. “I was using a shop in the corner of someone’s building and this train just stared sounding over and over. I’d be in the kitchen and we’d hear the train. It happened over and over.”

Klassen managed the interest well, promoting his work and ballooning his social media following — he now has 82,000 Instagram followers — and took orders along the way, building a two-year waiting list for his tables. While he eventually cut it back to not take any orders more than six months out, he is just now wrapping up the wave from the initial push, including his largest table ever, a 15-foot conference table for a Manhattan office. Klassen will take his entire family out this month to help with the table installation and enjoy a cocktail party in the office and a family tour of New York City.

True to His Trees

Matt Mattox

Even with a growing business, Klassen hasn’t strayed from a dedication to his very particular craft. He works mainly with big-leaf maple and walnut. Maple comes local to him, and it affords the shapes and textures he craves. “Burls growing on the side of the tree and the contours inspire the shape of the river,” he says. “When you see it in the sunlight it has dramatic colors and is kind of three-dimensional. It is much harder to find walnut wood that inspires the shape, but it is such a beautiful wood it is worth the hunt.”

That’s a giant leap from years ago, when all his wood came from the barn of a friend who lived nearby and milled as a hobby. Now Klassen also hand-picks from local mills and from across the country, checking on wood stocks up to four times a week to make sure he doesn’t miss a choice slab.

“It can’t be overstated the importance of the material selection,” he says. “That is the impetus for the whole design. I can’t just call up and ask for 1,000 board feet of maple. I have to hand-select each piece and I think that is where my work separates from all the people who have chosen to imitate me. I have a really clear vision and when I look at wood I know if it will work for me or won’t.”

Greg Klassen
Matt Mattox

But Klassen can’t dig into a piece as soon as it arrives. Wood that reaches his shop must air-dry as it acclimates to the environment, often for months, until it reaches a moisture content between 10 and 12 percent, the lowest you can get in the Pacific Northwest.

The wood comes rough, twisted, sometimes with bark still on the edges. It is dirty. Too thick. To make a table, he needs everything perfectly flat. Enter his hulking Wood Wiz machine, which Klassen imported from Australia. The machine allows Klassen to lay entire slabs of wood onto the machine and let it do much of the resurfacing and flattening. In this way, Klassen flattens the wood slowly and cautiously. Portable track saws help him shape the wood, using a self-vacuum system to remove wood chips for a cleaner cut.

The cutting and flattening tears out fibers and leaves divots, leading to plenty of sanding—some by machine and much by hand. The wood’s natural decay can leave exquisite design, but it also requires care. “I had a slab that was falling apart and almost lost an entire section until I put it back together using epoxy resin,” he says.

Only after the cutting, flattening and fixing can he start designing the river and cutting pieces of colored glass to shape — the most secretive part of his design process — so that every piece of glass and table comes fully unique.

"I'm Just Getting Started"

Matt Mattox

Klassen uses simple bases, often powdered metals, to highlight the river design and ACT as a structural component for stability that maintains table flatness without sagging. Klassen never uses a stain on his table, believing it suffocates the natural colors and grains of the wood he has painstakingly chosen.

“It would mask all this variety, all of these colors and tones,” he says. “Stain makes it all uniform. Instead I want to inspire the beauty of the wood I found.” He applies multiple layers of a clear protective finish — sprayed on and sanded several times until silky smooth — so customers can spill a glass of wine on the table and simply wipe it off. While the river runs the length of the table, small “lakes” present themselves when holes in the slab, due to decay, open in close proximity to the live edge.

Then comes the most nerve-wracking part of the process: shipping. “For (shippers) it is just a box,” Klassen says. “I build my shipping crates, over-build them so they are extremely durable. I am dialed in on the whole process of how to package it so it is really secure and there is no pressure put on the glass. I have never had any glass break during shipping. I have a careful process.”

Each piece Klassen creates has its own emotion, he says. Some rivers feature bold openings that narrow and create tension in dramatic shifts. Others feel like calm, meandering creeks. But every design comes from Klassen and his love to create. “I am fully and completely living my dream out here,” he says. “I’m just getting started. Every time I finish a piece I have ideas for two more. I have only begun to explore this design of mine.”

Matt Mattox

Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.