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From finance to furniture – how Iain Stirling shifted his career path

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

Have your outgrown your current 9-to-5? Ready to turn a passion into a career? Then look no further than Professional Course graduate Iain Stirling’s story.

In this blog Iain tells us why he departed the world of finance to carve a new, rewarding career in woodworking with his business Chapelhill Fine Furniture.

What was your career path before applying to study at the Chippendale School?

Having earned a Masters in Chemistry at St. Andrews University in 1997 and a PhD in Chemistry from Birmingham University 2001, I decided that I wanted to learn about ‘business’ and so joined PricewaterhouseCoopers to train as an auditor before becoming a qualified ICAS Chartered Accountant in 2004.

I subsequently went on to work as an Accountant with Citibank in Edinburgh until 2009 and then spent ten years with Standard Life Investments as an Asset Pricing Manager, with responsibility for the pricing of financial derivatives across their investment funds.

What was it that prompted you to switch careers to woodworking? 

A desire to do something different, that would be rewarding to me personally and would give enjoyment to others.  I like the idea of being able to produce something useful that will outlast me and is made using natural materials.

Iain with his pieces crafted on the Professional Course

Have you always loved woodworking, or was this a relatively new interest?

Woodwork has always been in the background of my life - one of my first memories is banging nails into pieces of wood when I was at nursery (in 1979), and my grandfather made model fishing boats.  I have always been ‘interested’ but never took it seriously because there were other more profitable ways to earn a living that offered me greater security – particularly with a young family.

How did you find the process of building your new brand and company, Chapelhill Fine Furniture, on the course? 

The process I have followed so far is to start building a following for my Instagram account by documenting my progression through the school course, and I also have a blog on my website where I can provide more insight to my woodworking.  I expect to use Instagram to continue to document the pieces that I make and act as my online gallery and advertising.

Can you describe the inspiration behind the Chapelhill Fine Furniture brand?

I am hoping that my brand will be apparent from the items that I make.  After all, you are what you make. I hope to use solid wood where possible and aim to avoid MDF!  My furniture will showcase the beautiful hardwoods available in the UK and will be as practical as possible, while also holding aesthetic value.

Iain's Professional Course collection

How did the Professional Course help build and refine your brand and business model?

The course placed a lot of emphasis on trying to take people on a journey - which is where the Instagram account comes in - and to try to develop a style.  I don’t necessarily want to make a ‘range’ that all looks similar and I don’t claim to have a style yet. Instead, I would rather that my brand is in the quality of my work and my style is free to develop over time as I mature as a furniture maker.

Any significant steps when building your brand?

My business name was going to be ‘Iain Stirling Furniture’ but I felt too self-conscious using my own name, so it is named instead after the area where I live, and ‘Fine Furniture’ indicates my desire to design memorable items of high quality. The other main step was to settle on a logo and typeface that were simple yet recognisable – and could also be branded onto the bottom of a bowl!

In your opinion, what was the most important thing you learned on the Professional Course?

The most important thing I have learned about woodwork is that non-woodworkers generally know very little about wood, and they do not notice mistakes in the same way that we as makers do.  I call this the woodworkers’ curse.

Whilst it is admirable for us to want perfection, or to make something as best as we possibly can, it is quite often not necessary for us to go to such lengths.  We need to learn to accept our mistakes and forgive ourselves when we have larger ‘gaps’ than we would like.

What advice would you give someone thinking about setting up their own business, woodworking or otherwise?

Be prepared to spend lots of money on tools.  Be prepared for things to be ’slow’ at first. If you are reading this, then you are interested.  And if you are interested in what you are doing, then you already are on the right track.

What is next for Chapelhill Fine Furniture?

A commission for two small side tables - coming soon. An extension to my own kitchen table, a bookcase for my daughter, a footstool for my wife, a shoe rack for the back door, turning some bowls, a new front door!

If you would like to learn the skills to follow your passion and start a business like Chapelhill Fine Furniture, see more information on our Professional course at the Chippendale International School of Furniture here.

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