Keith Daniel’s craftsmanship honors his heritage
It all started with a dresser.
Keith Daniel was lending a hand to his brother-in-law, George Denmark, helping him build an addition to his home, when he noticed Denmark had also built dressers for each of his three sons’ bedrooms. Daniel was so impressed by the craftsmanship, he decided to build a dresser for his own son.
“It’s really primitive, but there’s just something special about handmade furniture. It’s so much stronger and longer-lasting than what you can purchase in stores now,” Daniel says.
One of his grandsons still uses that dresser — a testament to its durability.
“I learned a lot from George and also from neighbors,” Daniel says. “I’ve never taken any classes. I do love YouTube. There’s a lot of good information out there and a lot of really knowledgeable people.”
In the years since building that first dresser, Daniel has discovered a love for making furniture and woodworking. His home in Woodville is situated near Cathedral Caverns. Immersing himself in nature helps keep him connected and brings inspiration for his woodworking pieces. His favorite wood to build furniture with is red cedar, which he finds on his property and processes at his sawmill.
“It’s hard to find red cedar furniture at Home Depot or places like that, so I decided to build my own sawmill,” he says. Having his own sawmill means he can keep costs down, because he doesn’t have to purchase lumber.
Why Red Cedar?
Daniel’s love of working with red cedar goes beyond being able to source it on his property. “It’s a beautiful wood. A lot of people gravitate toward it because of the smell. It’s resistant to rotting, so it’s good for outdoor furniture and bugs don’t like it,” he says. “Above all, it’s just a really beautiful wood.”
Over the years, he’s built hundreds of children’s rocking chairs and a lot of outdoor furniture and porch swings. But one of the most interesting pieces he’s made is a canoe.
Well, he’s actually made two canoes over the years, but the one he made of red cedar gets the most attention. He got the idea after stopping at a grocery store one day where he saw a man towing a sailboat made of red cedar. The stars truly aligned as Daniel was drawn to the red cedar. “I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” he says.
He began researching how to make a canoe. The one he made is 10 feet long and weighs about 27 pounds. The top rail and seat frames are made from red oak, but the body of the canoe is made of red cedar strips, which are about three-quarters of an inch wide and one-quarter of an inch thick. The canoe is covered on the inside and outside with a fiberglass cloth and coated with marine epoxy. Daniel estimates he put about 300 hours into making his canoe.
“I’d call it a wintertime project. It’s definitely something to work on in the garage,” he says.
Now, Daniel’s red cedar boat is the one that turns heads when people drive by. “If I’ve got the canoe in the back of my truck, people want to look at it. If I’m out on the river, they’ll paddle up to my boat to take a look,” he says.
While Daniel loves making furniture, one of his favorite things to make is Native American flutes. He is a member of the United Cherokee AniYunWiYa Nation. As a member of the tribe, he feels drawn to making Native American crafts and honing those skills to share with future generations.
Daniel and an old friend and neighbor, Bull Slocumb, enjoy making the flutes together. “Bull will come over in the mornings and we build stuff together. One day we decided to make a Cherokee-style whistle out of river cane. That didn’t turn out well, so we decided to make a flute,” Daniel says.
The duo began researching how to make flutes, and they consulted another flute maker in their tribe, Blue Bear. Now, they sell their flutes at powwows. Each flute takes at least a week to make, and the instruments are very popular among attendees.
Daniel says that even though he isn’t a musician, he loves when people approach him wanting to learn about a Native American craft.
“I have heard some people play over the years and it brings tears to my ears. It makes me proud as the maker to hear someone who can play it and make it sound so beautiful,” he says.