Steven Martin’s career and passion began with an acorn.
Growing up with brothers, Martin had to be protective of his things, especially the money young children value so highly. One day, he decided to cut the top off an acorn, placing his dimes inside and capping it off to keep the change hidden from his siblings.
Martin had no idea he was doing more than safeguarding his precious savings; he was planting the seeds for a hobby and passion that would eventually become a full-time career.
“Even as a little kid, I made boxes, particularly boxes that didn’t look like boxes, which is what I ended up doing,” he explained.
For the last 35 years, Martin has created decorative wooden boxes that feature hidden drawers and compartments, as well as secret storage places. His designs range from small and simple to large cases with elaborate designs.
When he started carving, he never imagined it would blossom into a full-time career.
“I made some simple ones and people bought them, so I was hooked,” he said. “I just thought that was cool.”
From there, he discovered the art fair circuit and took his products on the road. In his younger years, he traveled as far as the east coast to attend shows and sales, finding success and building a customer base along the way. Now, though, he prefers to stay within a day’s travel
of his Carterville home.
Wherever he goes, Martin’s work sets itself apart from others. The basic technique he employs is similar to creating a bandsaw box, but he adds his own touches to his products, making them unique. Each box begins with one piece of wood and is slowly transformed into whatever shape its crafter imagines that day.
“I feel I’ve taken that simple technique to a whole new level of my own,” he said. “I used to worry that other woodworkers would steal my ideas, but I’ve seen no evidence of that.”
In his workshop, set up on Johnson County property that has been in his family for a century, Martin transforms native woods, some harvested from his own property, into his signature collectables.
He draws his inspirations from the things around him in life: music, literature, folklore and personal experiences, mainly. One of his boxes is inspired by a Russian fairy tale, while another is straight from Dr. Suess’ Whoville. His background in botany and thesis research also inspired him with designs based on miniscule elements of plant life.
His designs rarely repeat themselves, though there are a few patterns he’s replicated through the years. With all of his designs, he tries to keep a certain mystique to them, while simultaneously decorative and useable.
“I want them to look more sculptural and mysterious at the same time,” he said. None of the compartments have handles; they’re all opened by pushing a button hidden elsewhere in the
design — a technique derived from an Abbott and Costello haunted house movie, where pushing certain blocks on a wall opened hidden passages.
But, when Martin sits down with a block of wood, his vision is a clean slate.
“I really don’t know what the shape will be until I cut the log for the first time,” he said. “I may have an idea, but I learned a long time ago not to plan too far ahead because the raw materials might make the decisions sometimes.”