Sara Strong in her Berkeley wood shop. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Woodworking runs deep in Sara Strong’s blood. Her grandfather was a boatbuilder from Finland who came to the U.S. and started a furniture business. As a young child, Strong spent Sundays at his side, watching and learning as he worked in his wood shop. On other afternoons, she did the same with her carpenter father.

Even so, woodworking as a profession is actually fairly new for Strong. She has been in web and graphic design for most of her adult life and, aside from the occasional project, didn’t give the woodworking idea her full attention until just a year and a half ago. Yet it’s no surprise that Strong Wood Studio is growing quickly.

“It’s all just kind of in me. It comes out,” she says as we gaze at a table-to-be in its glue-up stage. The piece rests on her deck, done up with bright orange clamps, waiting to be trimmed, sanded and finished. It looks good, like a woman in curlers getting ready for a night out — you can just tell it will steal the show.

Table-in-the-making with clamps. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
A table being made at Sara Strong’s workshop. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Furniture by Sara Strong. Photo: Sara Strong
Furniture by Sara Strong. Photo: Sara Strong

Strong’s style is founded on contrasts — light and dark, soft and hard, urban and nature. She is drawn to honoring the life of the tree. She’ll often leave live edges — meaning the outer texture of the tree is unmilled — while still integrating contemporary twists, such as metal hairpin legs or a hickory racing stripe through the center. This aspect has a lot to do with being a Southern California gal and her nostalgic love for contemporary modular design that is quintessentially Venice Beach.

Not only this, but Strong loves to build other people’s ideas into reality — be it a modular doghouse or a Dr. Who time machine (yes, that happened). She also collaborates with her illustrator wife, Michelle White, in making coasters, jewelry and other custom pieces.

Coasters made in collaboration with Sara Strong’s wife, Michelle White, an illustrator. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Strong uses salvaged and recycled wood whenever possible. She gratefully accepts cast-offs from friends, scavenges from secret corners of Berkeley, and also sources from Heritage Salvage in Petaluma. Currently, she is working her magic with some walnut slabs from Portland that have a special story. The man who sold the tree to Heritage had watched it grow for all 90 years of his life and, after it started uprooting his home, finally had to bid it adieu. Strong will continue the tree’s story in the form of an 8-foot-long dining table with live edges.

“I find the live edge to be the most beautiful part because you actually get to see the tree and it’s still kind of alive,” she says.

Walnut and hickory table with a live edge. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

This idea of vitality seems to be what drew Strong back to woodorking and continues to guide her craft. Her web work had started to become too intangible to her. She’d build a site and when her clients would redo it all her creative work would vanish. “With wood, it’s here. It lives.” That was something she really yearned for. Each step — the milling, the planing, the sanding, the gluing — is meditative and calming for her.

“Now my commute is 30 seconds. With traffic, 35 seconds when dogs get in the way,” she says with a laugh. “The world is going to such an immediate place with Amazon … I think there is an appreciation for handmade things because it’s less and less prevalent. But if you get the real deal from a tree that fell down and somebody saved it I feel like that’s a special piece that you should keep forever and ever.”

Her two pups, Banjo and Banana, are close on our heels as we walk to her wood shop. They follow us around like drooling paparazzi,  eager for attention. Aside from a few fragrant piles of sawdust, the wood shop is tidy and well cared for. In a corner rests her grandfather’s toolbox, a well-built thing lined with teal green felt. You can tell it’s been around for a while — the waxy finish is cracked and the drawers are starting to warp.

Strong’s grandfather’s toolbox. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Strong’s grandfather’s old tools. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

“[The toolbox] sits here and whenever I’m having a struggle I say, ‘Grandpa, help me figure this out. Please don’t let me ruin it,’” Strong tells me as she jimmies a drawer open to show me the rusted tools inside. “One time I was in a real pickle, so I was like, ‘Alright — bringing out grandpa’s saw. That’s the only thing that’s gonna help at this point.’”

When thinking about the future, Strong envisions expanding her workshop and spending her afternoons in it while Michelle paints. Honoring these simple pleasures is not an easy task for many of us these days, but Strong makes it look so very worth it.

A table being planed. Photo: Melati Citrawireja
Woodworking tools. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Visit Sara Strong’s website for more information on her work.

This is the eighth article in our series on expert craftspeople in Berkeley, written and photographed by Melati Citrawireja, a 2016 UC Berkeley graduate. Don’t miss her stories on potter Sarah Kersten; textile designer Amy KeeferSt. Hieronymus Press, the workspace of David Lance Goines; Klaus-Ullrich Rötzscher and the Pettingell Book Binderycoppersmith Audel Davisethnobotanist and natural fabric dyer Deepa Natarajan; and master perfumer Mandy Aftel. 

More of Citrawireja’s work can be found online at Melati Photography.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

Melati Citrawireja is a writer, photographer and curious thinker about the underbelly of places. She began contributing to Berkeleyside after a summer internship in 2015 and earned a BA in Development...