Reliable. Solid. Hardworking—words that could be used to describe his wood furniture also depict the craftsman himself. Zack Schaffer, 26, is the man behind Schaffer Furniture, located in Jetmore, Kansas. Schaffer, a Jetmore native, began his side business over a year ago, but his love and appreciation of the craft has been rooted inside of him for numerous years.
Agriculture is a part of Schaffer’s family history. His family started farming and raising cattle right before the Great Depression.
“They had ground but didn’t have anything else,” said Schaffer.
Today, Schaffer’s extended family put out 500 to 1,000 acres of wheat a year and 200 acres of feed. They also plant just enough milo as feed for the cattle. Starting in the sixth grade, Schaffer began helping his grandfather and father farm and raise cattle. Those years helped Schaffer know the cattle business was something he wanted to continue to do.
Schaffer now raises his own cattle. He and his wife, Renee, are starting small but have plans to increase their herd. Renee herself comes from a cattle-raising family. She grew up on an Angus cow-calf pairs ranch in the Rolling Hills area. Together, they have about 100 to 150 feeder steers that come out of Missouri on their Jetmore property.
The couple will have been married three years this month. They met through Zack’s roommates when they both attended Fort Hays State University. It wasn’t long before they realized their similarities worked together.
“We are mutually weird,” said Renee. “He just hides it better than I do.”
After graduating from FHSU around the same time as each other, Schaffer started putting his drafting classes and tech studies degree to use.
“After I got out of college, I knew that there was no one around here who did anything like this, so I thought it would be kinda neat,” said Schaffer.
Carving an opportunity
Before college, Schaffer had taken wood crafting classes in high school.
“In high school I learned the basics, but a lot of the stuff I do is more complex than high school work, or I like to think so anyway,” said Schaffer.
On his own, using books and studying designs from craftsmen he admired, Schaffer taught himself how to make wooden furniture.
“I’ve always been drawn to it,” said Schaffer. “Even in high school, I thought it was interesting. And after I got out of high school, I started looking into more the design aspect of stuff. I picked up on a few people and their works I liked. My chairs are designed after Sam Maloof. I feel like it’s art but it’s very functional.”
Schaffer kept studying and polishing his works and is now capable of creating stools, desks, bookcases, buffets, coffee tables, dining room tables and rocking chairs. His earlier designs were making early American style pieces, such as furniture made from around the 1700s. The first piece Schaffer ever made that he felt showed talent with was a cherry wood secretary desk that’s now in his storefront in Jetmore. His first chair, his favorite piece to make, was around June 2014. Though he’s only been in the business a short time, Schaffer can already see the progress he’s made with his skills.
Last winter, a doctor from Tennessee bought a couple of rocking chairs online. Schaffer sent him pictures of chairs he already had made and they were ready to go. One picture was of the first chair he had ever made and another was one of the last chair he had made to date at that time.
“You could really tell the difference,” said Schaffer. “I had only been making those chairs for around six months. It’s really amazing how fast when you work with your hands how you can better yourself.”
Renee agrees, as she has seen how her husband’s skills have improved.
“He’s spent a lot of hours out in his shop. A lot,” she said. “If you could compare one of his earlier pieces with a later one, you would be able to tell the differences. Practice has made perfect for him,” said Renee.
“I don’t know about perfect,” Schaffer modestly says.
Going with the grain
As Schaffer improved with his skill set, so did his wooden pieces. His style began to evolve from early American to mid-century designs.
“I can build and do all the traditional hand cut joinery and all that,” said Schaffer. “I have more of an appreciation for mid-century style stuff because it’s faster to build and I like the style more.”
Renee sees this newer style as a sort of middle ground.
“It was kind of a compromise for us because I like the really traditional style. I really love Victorian era, ornate stuff. He really likes modern,” said Renee. “If we built two houses, they would look entirely different. So mid-century modern was a compromise of style.”
Compromising on style hasn’t been the only adjustment the young couple has had to make. Originally, when Schaffer started his side business, the timing of their schedules was problematic. As a schoolteacher, Renee would get up before Schaffer did and be at the school until later in the evenings. Schaffer and Renee would see each other for maybe an hour a day, especially if he was working on a piece in his shop.
Since then, Renee has switched schools—to Ness City High School—and their schedules work better together. However, sometimes late nights in Schaffer’s property workshop do still happen.
“Sometimes he’s out there until 2, 3 a.m. if he really wants to get something done. Or if I want to binge-watch Grey’s Anatomy,” said Renee, with a chuckle.
The cost of everything involved with the business is an obstacle the Schaffers face.
“We are probably singlehandedly keeping Festool (a German tool company) in business,” said Renee.
Renee hopes someday her talented husband could get sponsored by someone or a company to help with the finances.
Another part of his wooden hobby is everything in their home is for sale. Something Renee once learned the hard way when Schaffer sold a “very pretty” end table that matched a coffee table she really liked.
“I was a little upset with him,” said Renee.
The good news, however, is he can reproduce about anything his wife asks him to. Renee says this is a “definite perk.
“Pretty much anything I want, I can show him a picture or tell him what I’m thinking, and he usually will get something made up pretty quick,” said Renee.
One of the biggest positive parts of the business Schaffer has experienced is enjoying the work itself, especially when making chairs. His favorite piece he has made to date is a large wooden rocking chair that now sits in his living room.
"I enjoy building chairs because they show true craftsmanship. There is really no other piece of furniture that requires that level of thought. For instance, with a bed the mattress has to be comfortable, not the bed itself. Same with a couch. It’s the cushions and upholstery that provide the comfort. A wooden chair is a true testimate to craftsmanship," said Schaffer.
Renee feels her husband’s talents are very special.
“He always told me what he really liked about woodworking was that he got to take this tree, something God has made—it’s grown all its life—and make it into something special. We both really feel his talent is God-given,” said Renee.
Schaffer feels farming and working with cattle assist in loving his woodworking.
“I really do enjoy both. One of the reasons I enjoy woodworking so much is because I’m doing other things, it breaks it up so I’m not completely doing farming stuff all the time,” said Schaffer. “It’s good to get off the tractor and get away from cattle and sit in the shop and do nothing farm related.”
Sprucing up business
Schaffer’s love and admiration for woodworking is seen throughout aspects of his business. For instance, while other craftsmen number their products, Schaffer assigns a name to each of the chairs he makes by hand.
“I figure I spend a hundred hours with them. They deserve a name,” said Schaffer. “I’ll date it and assign a name to it. I think it’s something a little bit more unique that I do.”
Throughout his experimenting and learning on his own, Schaffer also discovered he appreciates more exotic types of wood and chooses to use them in his pieces. While walnut and oak are popular choices requested by customers, his favorite kinds of wood to work with include bubinga rosewood and tiger maple.
“I like to work with different types of wood. They’re so beautiful, said Schaffer. “There are just so many types of wood out there that are so beautiful and that really aren’t that much more expensive.”
Schaffer did learn one wood was more foe than friend, however. After working with rosewood for a couple of days, Schaffer started not feeling well and broke out in hives all over his body. Renee looked up his symptoms and discovered the type rosewood he was working with is a known allergen due to the oils found and released in the wood. The exotic wood’s sawdust is harder to breathe in than other woods. Thankfully, due to his setup in his shop, Schaffer had a vacuum system to catch most of the sawdust.
“He was pretty miserable for a couple of days. That was a first,” said Renee.
“I looked like Shrek for like two weeks,” said Schaffer.
While all of his pieces are special, that completed rosewood chair really will be “one of a kind chair,” said Renee.
Customers of Schaffer Furniture have found not only Schaffer’s wooden pieces to be one of a kind, but also Schaffer himself. Daryl and Leslie Rutschmann, from Topeka, this year bought a chair of Schaffer’s after coming across his storefront during this summer’s Bike Across Kansas event. Schaffer’s pieces caught Leslie’s eye as she and her sister-in-law were in Jetmore as Daryl was biking. Later on, Daryl went to the store and purchased a curly maple and walnut rocking chair. While Leslie said the chair is “very pretty,” the piece itself wasn’t the only reason they bought the piece.
“If we had gone to a furniture store, we wouldn’t have bought it. Hearing Zack talk about it, and how he was so proud of it, we had to buy it,” said Leslie.
The Rutschmanns were also impressed with the Schaffers as a couple.
“Both were just the nicest, and they reminded us of our kids. You just want to support good people like that,” said Leslie. “Zack still does business on a handshake and a smile. We like that.”
Schaffer said he really enjoyed talking with the Rutschmanns as well.
“They were really nice people. They offered us their cabin if we ever go to Colorado,” said Schaffer.
Renee said she likes watching her husband connect with people and explain his passion.
“It’s what he loves doing. I think it’s what he’s most passionate about,” said Renee. “I like getting to see him interact with people at shows. When Bike Across Kansas came through, it was pretty fun to watch him talk to people about it because he really lights up. You can tell it’s what he loves.”
The love of his work is part of the reason the Rutschmanns love showing off their chair.
“You can tell it’s done by hand,” said Leslie. “You can tell someone loved it. It’s a one of a kind work of art. Of love and of art.”
While customers like the Rutschmanns see the quality of the furniture, the Schaffers do experience others focusing more on the price.
“Our price tags are much more affordable. And the furniture is actually better for you than a La-Z-Boy. They support you correctly—they have lumbar support,” said Schaffer. “My rockers are flat bottom rockers—they are never going to wear out. So you can have them for the great, great, great grandkids who will be fighting over them if you still want them. So you’ll never have to buy another chair. But a lot of people like to get new things and then get rid of them. It’s just society anymore: throw stuff away and get something new. It’s something that makes this a little more difficult.”
“Many people out here don’t realize how much effort goes into building each piece of furniture. They just ask for the price and go ‘Whoa, that’s a lot of money for a chair.’ They don’t realize from just about anyone else, a rocker like that would be about $5,000,” said Renee.
At a Garden City, Kansas, show Schaffer took several of his pieces to, a man told Schaffer he needed to raise his prices. He said Schaffer needed to be selling them for $5,000 to $6,000.
“I told him no one out here would ever buy a chair for $5- to $6,000,” said Schaffer.
As this Garden City man had actually worked with Maloof, one of Schaffer’s main craftsmen inspirations, his words were especially complimentary to Schaffer.
“He said these were the highest quality of chairs he’s seen next to Sam’s, which he was probably just being nice. It made me feel kinda good,” said Schaffer.
Sawing into the future
The Schaffers see themselves continuing to raise cattle, work their full-time jobs and expand Schaffer Furniture by advertising more and displaying pieces at more shows in the Kansas City and Denver, Colorado, areas. Right now business is being brought in by word of mouth. That seems to be working, however, as Schaffer has had order inquiries and sales from the east coast, Tennessee, various parts of Kansas, North Carolina and even Australia. He and his business have been profiled by KAKE news, a Hutchinson, Kansas, newspaper and in an online magazine by Highland Working in Georgia, a place Schaffer spent some time and where Maloof once taught several classes. This past fall, the Carnegie Arts Center in Dodge City, Kansas, showcased Schaffer’s work during one of their Final Friday events. Schaffer was told the event was the biggest turnout they had ever had to date.
Having such support for what he loves to do is why he can see staying in the area in his and Renee’s future. And while if his woodworking business took off he would pursue that full time, right now his finding the balance between two businesses he likes to do enables him to enjoy life. Knock on wood that continues.
“I think if I keep doing all this farm stuff, I’ll forever enjoy woodworking. I also think if I was to have a couple of people hired and I was busy all the time building things I enjoy building, I would be totally fine with that, too,” said Schaffer. “If I could make $100,000 a year doing this, I’d move. Until then, I’ll be here at home.”
For more information on Schaffer Furniture, visit https://www.schafferfurniture.com or its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/schaffer.furniture. To see a video of Zack Schaffer making a bar stool, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Og-nGp2BGu4.
Rachel Keeley Turner can be reached at 620-227-1887 or firstname.lastname@example.org