Vinanti Kothari talks about work rituals and the joy of making

Jessica Kilbane

What does it mean to be a woodworker? Very few careers combine so many aspects of making ranging from design, research, development and exhibiting, as well as the business side which includes working with clients, craftsmen and suppliers.

Vinanti Kothari runs Not So Shabby, a store producing a range of woodworking projects, alongside offering custom wood signs and wall art. She has been honing her skills in the woodworking craft for quite a few years now. Although she brings her own natural abilities to woodworking, Kothari is self-taught and has had to work through a learning curve. Her pieces focus on the rich natural beauty of wood and the creativity that weaves together all aspects of her life: texture, color, and layering.

With every item that leaves her woodshop lovingly created by hand, it seems as though her most important creation is always her last one. We caught up with her to discuss her passion and her process:

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What is the most noticeable difference when something is handmade?

Handmade products are very personal. They have the unique ability to grow and reflect your ideas, perspective, personal history and obsessions - all of which are formed over time through continuous experimentation. Each new order, even of the same product, can show small improvements in technique. I spend so much time with each thing before it leaves my hands and is sent to the customers. Each one of my creations goes out and into their life, where begins to be a part of their stories.

Where did you grow up and how did you begin to have an interest in woodworking?

I grew up in Mumbai. As a child I enjoyed spending my time on craft, drawing and making things with my hands. I always had another hobby lined up before one finished. I’d stay more in the art room than in the classroom, where I often felt out of place. The one thing I did right after finishing school was to follow my instinct and not submit to the conventional pressure. Youngest in the class, I joined an interior design school in Mumbai, which made me see my real potential creatively and gave me the lift I needed. That was followed by an internship at a small interior design company and completing my HSC exams the same year.

I always kept myself very busy learning more things. I wanted to continue learning until it felt natural to start working. So I went to the UK for three years to study architectural design and that gave me a different dimension of experience. When I came back, I did try to stick to the plan and be an interior designer. I designed a few homes but I did not enjoy the process and wanted a change.

I found myself obsessed with watching woodworking videos on YouTube day after day. After wrapping up my last site, I bought my first three power tools and turned my house balcony to my small workshop to make things with my hands and learn again.

How did you come to open your workshop?

I worked out of my house balcony for a good year making small things such as concrete lamps, wood frames, and small decor items and sold them at flea markets. I started to get real custom orders after those stints at the flea markets, so I moved to a closed family-owned shop bigger than my balcony where I spent another two years. This shop is where it got real. My school friend and now husband Ashish, jumped in to help me build this small brand. We were a crazy, hard-working duo, and we were making orders and learning on the job. This space had more cons than pros - it leaked every monsoon, it was too hot in the summer and the sound of the traffic was intense.

Eventually, I wanted to design and have an organized workshop where I could work alone efficiently. By then, Ashish had parted with the business to follow his own calling, and I was moving spaces for the third time. Having a good space to work had become very important to me, so this time I mapped out everything I needed to accommodate all the aspects of my creative practice - from woodworking to running the business - and spread it across the space.

I spent all my savings doing up this workshop, but I knew that it was important. When I moved in, it was like starting from scratch again. It's been two years now and the way my workshop has evolved is directly related to my growth as a person and a maker.

Where do you source your wood from?

Earlier, I used pallet wood, which is second-hand pine. It was cheap for an amateur learner like me and allowed me to create one-off pieces. I later found a source and started buying fresh pinewood from Kurla in Mumbai, which is after creating my website where the designs are all listed and needed to be recreated with consistency each time.

Are there particular kinds that you love, certain varieties you stay away from?

For the kind of painted and stained products I make, I love working with pine wood due to its cost and ease to work with. Alternatively, I also use pre-cut teak wood trims and strips in combination with pine wood to create certain products. I now feel comfortable enough to try to introduce new materials for my future work.

How much do you think experience matters for a woodworker?

I think if there is an interest and passion to learn, you should start slow. The process will show where it can take you. Experience matters as much as setting up a system. It’s an exercise in discipline and a process of discovery which takes a lot of experimentation and failures. Anything new requires time, hard work and a good amount of research.

Do you feel like, as a business owner, you do a bit of everything?

Not So Shabby being a company of one, everything aspect to running this business like making, product styling and photography, website building and listing, social media, etc goes through my hands. I shift from table to table switching tasks but I won’t have it any other way. This is not what I had in mind, but I love the hands-on stuff about being a maker and building atypical combinations of skills and knowledge across fields and integrating them to this brand into one skill set.

What’s the process like when you’re crafting a piece?

I start by selecting the wood and cut it to its template or size. The pieces are then sanded individually and then assembled to create the product. It goes back to sanding overall, punching in the nails and filling them with wood filler, followed by hand sanding. Each piece is hand painted using dry brush technique and then hand sanded to achieve a smooth and distressed finish and finished with two coats of protection to get a durable and beautiful touch. If it's a new product, I quickly take its pictures by styling it, that is then is listed on the website.

How long would your easiest order take, start to finish?

Any small order can take up to half a day from start to finish. I recently switched to working on a batch of orders instead of going through the stages together, so I’m not switching back and forth between different tasks and orders.

Do people ever approach you for custom orders? What kind?

Yes, all the time. Since each order that comes in is made to order, I encourage my customers to help me give them exactly what they want by asking them to mention their needs big or small. I owe my woodworking journey to all the challenging custom orders, they are the reason I make something new which unlocks a new level in a way. Apart from that, each layout is custom-made to fit your space based on your wall size, decor and color palette in your home, featuring picture frames, shelves, mirror frames, and add-ons.

What is a surprisingly difficult piece to create?

Making a box has been difficult with the limited tools and machines that I use. If you think about it a box shell, that's what all our furniture is: bed, wardrobe, cabinets and so on. Tools and jigs are my best friend, I am always doing my research and trying to find ways to make jigs and come up with ideas that help me recreate the pieces that seem impossible.

What do you always have with you when you’re working?

A good head space is a must for me. I prefer zoning out for hours while I'm working, until I need to switch tasks. That's when I clean up the area and start fresh. I work better with good music or a show running in the background as silence makes my mind wander. Working solo with a helper has been a blessing for me, we discuss our tasks for the day and try not to distract each other as we use power tools with our hands and staying focused is everything.

How long do your pieces last?

I strive to keep handmade alive. It is a major passion of mine to not only create with my hands, but also be able to offer one of a kind pieces that will last for years to come. I hold on to a few of my old pieces from my beginnings, they continue to age well and inspire me to keep learning and creating. With growing experience and better tools, I have been able to see each of my pieces evolve over time. At Not So Shabby, learning is the only constant.


Images by Vinanti Kothari.

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