Carving Out a New Path

Wood craftsman says he owes his life to his art.
Gene Starr

   Caleb Schraeder believes wood saved his life.

   After spending 10 years as a registered nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center — six in the intensive care unit — the 37-year-old divorced father of three knows a thing or two about death. When personal relationship problems triggered severe depression a few years ago, he sought refuge in woodworking — a hobby that blossomed into a new career as an artisan craftsman.

   “I like to say that I didn’t really find woodworking,” he says. “It found me.”

   Always fascinated with tools, he had bought a hand plane for $5 at a garage sale to use as a paper weight. He had no idea how it actually worked and wanted to learn more.

   So he dabbled with some research and finally took the plunge with a relatively simple woodworking project: building storage shelves in a girlfriend’s house. He enjoyed that project so much that he decided to build a railing for her porch. But he ultimately tore it down and burned it because he wasn’t satisfied with his efforts. At that point, he decided to create a woodshop to further hone his skills.

   He began researching everything he could on woodworking — buying books and every magazine on the subject that he could find. He bought a table saw for $10, only to take it completely apart just to see how it worked.

   The turning point came when he figured out how to square a board.

   “When I got that board square it was like light shining down from heaven because I realized that now I can do anything with wood,” he recalls. “I really believed that there was nothing I couldn’t do with wood. All the limits were removed.”

   He invested in quality tools and decided to “completely dedicate myself and my life to learning how to make the best furniture in the world.” He began creating pieces that resonated with his family, friends and himself.

   After much soul-searching and with six months’ worth of work orders from his colleagues at the hospital, he quit nursing in April 2013 to devote full-time energy to his pursuit, eventually naming his business Bespoke Woodworks. He recently began working with BetaBlox, a Kansas City-based organization that helps startups be successful.

   “I don’t consider myself a designer or a craftsman,” Schraeder says. “I’m just a nurse who can make stuff.”

   Well, not exactly.

   He becomes emotionally invested in his one-of-a-kind pieces and asks his clients numerous questions to get their backstory to incorporate into the design.

   “I make furniture the way it was made when it was made to last,” Schraeder says during an interview in his Westport home, where he has a woodshop garage. “I design intuitively around the person I’m making it for, the space the project’s going into, the tree, and blend it all together.

   “One of the cool things about everything that I’m doing is that I’ve never done it before. I have no predisposition for anyone else’s philosophy or influence. Not being able to draw in the beginning was very tough, but it actually turned out to be probably my biggest attribute in that if I can visualize it, I know that I can do it.”

   Dan Nilsen, an avid local art collector, commissioned a Schraeder piece based on the recommendation of season three HGTV “Design Star” champion Jennifer Bertrand, who lives at Weatherby Lake. Nilsen wanted a wall sculpture to complement the magnificent staircase at Bishop-McCann, his Kansas City firm that produces live corporate events all over the world.

   He could not be more pleased with the fan-like sculpture Schrader came up with. Its design reflects such things as the number of years the firm has been in business —17 — and the number of employees —74.

   “I have never known an artist that puts so much of himself into his work,” Nilsen says. “Caleb is almost obsessed with it. He has this passion for what he does and what it means. You can’t help but love the piece even more because of his boyish enthusiasm.”

   Bertrand agrees.

   “I knew Caleb would rise to the occasion because he does more than create art,” she says. “He takes it to a different level to where it has a story and its own life.”

   Schraeder’s enthusiasm extends to rescuing trees and lumber that would end up in a burn pile and giving them a new purpose. And his neighbors know this.

   “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten little notes in the mailbox from neighbors saying, ‘I’m having a tree trimmed or taken down. Do you want any wood?’” he says with an infectious laugh.

   A former Marine who struggled through school with dyslexia, Schraeder is used to challenges and working hard. It’s all in an effort to pass a legacy on to his own children, whom he hopes will join him someday in his business.

   “I truly have become a believer in ‘everything happens for a reason,’” he says. “I found woodworking at the lowest point in my life, and what I've realized, looking back, is giving trees a second life in turn gave me a second life.”

Categories: People