If there’s one question I hear repeatedly, it’s how did I come to be a woodworker/furniture builder. It’s not an easy or quick one line answer. I’ve provided a Bio, conducted interviews, demonstrated my appreciation for the medium in a video, none of which truly answers the question.
For those who read this, you’ll have to bear with me. I’m not a writer, but am compelled to unearth the motivation that brings me to this point in my life where I’m spending more and more of my time making sawdust.
I was born in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1951, the second of three children. My father, Philip, a WW II vet, had returned from Europe a decorated war hero. He had survived the invasion at Omaha Beach on D Day, a member of General Patton’s Third Army Division during the battle of the Bulge, and, in the end, helped to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. Needless to say, Phil found returning to civilian, domestic life, somewhat less exciting than his war years. He received a degree in chiropody/podiatry and opened a one man practice. This was the mid 50’s, before the era of marathons, and the running phenomena. Ultimately, his practice devolved into the removal of bunion’s from the feet of elderly patients, a business that was unsustainable.
My mother, Barbara, had aspirations of living a suburban, middle class, lifestyle. She encouraged Phil to apply his charming good looks to the business of sales and marketing. It took little encouragement to motivate him. Soon he was racing from town to town throughout the Midwest, a tin man, selling house siding primarily to farmers. On a number of occasions, once old enough, I’d accompanied him, during which he would regale me with war stories, stories of better days, relishing the retelling of a past in which he’d acquired the swagger of an American liberator.
He lived on the road, eating greasy diner food, staying in motels and rooming houses, flirting, cajoling, making friends in one town after another. Persistence paid off, a two story house on a tree lined street with a three car garage, and a pool table in the basement soon followed. My mother found satisfaction in the suburbs of the late 50’s, even if it fell somewhere short of euphoria. She raised her children, attended PTA and neighborhood meetings. Slowly she grew accustomed to a separate life from that of her husband's.
My grandparents, Sarah and Jacob (Jack) owned a combination drug store and restaurant. The business sat across the street from the A.O. Smith factory, a mainstay of Milwaukee’s industrial base. The factory operated three shifts a day, employing hundreds of men and women. Family lore tells it that my Great Grandmother, Jack’s mother Bella, a spry 70 year old woman with a thick Russian accent, had helped pay for the drug store/restaurant with the diamonds she’d sewn into the hem of her coat prior to escaping the Tsar’s army. She had also put my grandfather through a six week pharmacy program, which was all that was required in order to dispense drugs in the first half of the 20th Century.
Jack proudly displayed his pharmacy certificate above the lunch counter register. Every day, as workers from across the street entered the restaurant during their breakfast, lunch or dinner break, they’d discuss whatever it was that ailed them. My grandfather, based on very limited training, would prescribe and dispense a variety of pills and elixirs. The store itself, though clean and tidy, remained shabby and worn, in constant need of repairs. Bella hired an elderly gentleman, a carpenter/handyman named Bates, to keep the property functional. He did carpentry projects for the entire family, building a dresser for my older sister ana garage for our family's first house. Bates became a member of the family as he also served as Bella’s constant companion.
My sister Paula and I spent hours at the restaurant where our mother would occasionally help out, filling creamers and ketchup jars, stocking shelves or simply using the services of her parent’s restaurant in order to feed her family rather than preparing meals at home.
Once I was old enough to explore on my own, hanging out in my Grandparents business was a constant source of delight. When I was about three, I’d decided to visit the basement. I don’t recall descending the stairs, but, I do recall seeing a lightbulb dangling from its cord at the far end of the room. Slowly, I worked my way down a long aisle stacked to the ceiling with box’s, rolls of toilet paper, cartons of canned peas. I was too young to read the labels, but the image of the Jolly Green Giant was a clear indication of their contents.
Bate’s had set up a small shop at the end of the room consisting of a work bench, peg board with tools hung neatly and a table saw. Under the saw was a mound of curly wood shavings and golden yellow sawdust flakes; sweet smelling, soft and clean. Sinking to my knees I opened my arms, pulling as much of the dust as I could toward my chest. I don’t recall many other experiences from that age, but I do recall sitting on the basement floor, happily hugging an armload of sawdust. I rolled in it, tasted it, and tunneled through it, pushing imaginary cars I’d culled from little blocks of wood. Sometime later that afternoon they found me, asleep, my hands as pillows the sawdust as my bed. Often, when cutting through a piece of pine, the aroma triggers that experience.
When I turned five, a building was being erected across the street from our home. Each morning that summer burly men wearing overalls, boots, caps, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee would mill about in the early light before donning their tool belts and powering up their tools. One morning a large flatbed truck arrived carrying timbers, mostly 2×4’s and 2×6’s. I watched all day from my perch across the street as the men cut and nailed the wood, assembling what ultimately became a single family home. At the end of the day the construction site grew still, the workers gone, the neighborhood quietly preparing evening meals with the soft murmur of voices and faint sound of clattering dish’s coursing through the evening air.
I could not resist the temptation to slip across the road; there was no rope or fence blocking access. I’d crawl around the newly framed walls and stair cases, quietly inspecting all that had occurred each day. The thrill of being where I knew I wasn’t supposed to be, picking my way deeper into the project, up and down stairs, scavenging loose nails and scraps of wood, tossing them through a hole in the floor, down into the stairless basement, listening for the splash when they’d hit bottom. One night, without forethought of consequence, I impulsively grabbed a loose plank and began dragging it back across the street, struggling to reach the garden in our back yard. It didn’t take me long to determine that one piece of lumber was fairly useless. I went back and stole a second, dragging and placing it, perpendicular, atop the first. I found some twine, and lashed the two pieces together, tying a tight bow similar to how I’d recently been taught to tie my shoes. My first complete project was an airplane, upon which I sat and rode for hours.
Taking electives while completing core requirements at the University of Wisconsin had lost its thrill. I no longer wanted to be in school, yet, I had little notion as to where I might turn my attention next. I jumped at the opportunity to travel west the summer of ’72 between my third and fourth year at University. First, travelling to Steamboat Springs Colorado in order to earn some cash as a construction laborer. And then, onto California and the Pacific Coast Highway, Carmel, Big Sur, San Francisco.
Just before sunset, crossing into Oregon, we picked up a hitchhiker. Bearded, glass’s, older than us. In exchange, he offered us a night and a place to stay on his farm if we’d drive him home. By the time we’d arrived, it was dark. A trail through some brush wound up a hill until we reached a fairly large building. Brightly lit with the sounds of children, music and adults emanating from its open windows. Friendly, handsome, curious people, sat behind a round wooden table, drinking coffee, smoking weed, playing music. It was a lovely scene, I was transfixed. My initial reaction upon entering was one of instant delight, it felt magical. We were greeted warmly, welcomed.
Contrary to common belief, truly successful communes were rare in the late 60’s early 70’s. However, the Magic Forest Farm was successful in part due to the individuals living there, former ex-Berkeley intellectuals, as well as a continual flow of known Beats, Hippies, poets and musicians who had passed through.
I spent the rest of that summer, helping to erect a large wooden lodge, learning how to skin, shape and install logs, cut previously from the surrounding forest. I worked harder that summer than perhaps I’d ever worked. The smell of freshly cut timber filled my days. Friendships, lovers, music and conversation filled my nights.
I was confronted with a decision to either stay on the Farm, after having been asked, or, to return to Wisconsin in order to finish my studies. The real question was, in what?
With a number of starts and stops my woodworking journey began in earnest when I returned to the mid-west from Oregon. The University system in Wisconsin maintains high quality specialized institutions of higher learning throughout the State. The University of Wisconsin-Stout is one of the State’s satellite institutions specializing in Industrial Arts. I enrolled in a program with an emphasis in fine woodworking in the fall of 1972. In order to receive a bachelor’s degree it would take me another two years of study. Never having taken anything but basic liberal arts class’s with an emphasis in literature, I found myself immersed in an entirely unfamiliar medium. An Industrial Arts major, even with an emphasis in fine woodworking, was expected to become familiar with all the trades including machine shop, foundry, architecture, statics and dynamics, automotive, etc. With a major in fine woodworking I was expected to cross over to the art department, taking basic sculpture, fine art and pottery. All the courses culminated as background, formulating the foundation upon which fine woodworking skills would develop. Many hours were spent in the wood shop, learning first the basics; such as wood types and their inherent characteristics and ending with the nuances of furniture design and construction.
Greatly influenced by the Studio Furniture movement, I worked to develop a technique that employed rudimentary woodworking skills on design driven product. I traveled out West to Pasadena California my final year in school to meet with Sam Maloof, a highly regarded Studio Furniture master.
During my second year at Stout I took on a number of private commissions, building pieces for faculty and their spouses. This not only earned me a little extra income, but gave me the opportunity to experiment with my new found skills. In addition, a few friends and I founded the Menomonee Food Cooperative, enlisting the support of local farmers from the surrounding rural county. I met my wife Kristi through the Co-op. She’d grown up locally, her father, Click, was the mailman by day and the bartender at the local bar by night. Her mother Bonnie ran the local beauty parlor. Kristi had a three year old son named Shea. A sweet, even tempered boy with whom I spent many fine hours, days and years.
From Stout I was hired to teach a vocational cabinet making program outside of Chicago. This was a two year commitment during which my daughter Leah was born. The four of us, Kristi, Shea, Leah and Rumba the dog, settled into a daily routine.
In addition to running a product driven vocational program, I took the best of my students, utilizing the school facilities, and contracted to build kitchen and pantry cabinetry for private North Shore Chicago homes. This was a productive time during which I was able to further refine my craftsmanship and design chops while earning what I considered at the time to be a good living.
The school district supported a unique program in which building lots were purchased. Plans were drawn and submitted by the architecture class’s for single family homes. A contractor was hired to teach the trades of masonry, framing, etc,. An electrician was hired to teach wiring. A plumber was hired as well. My classs were responsible for the design, building and installation of all the finish work including full on kitchens and bathrooms. This was an award winning program photographed and written about in a number of publications including the Chicago Tribune.
Feeling a bit land locked, missing the West Coast, In June of ’76 I packed up the family, bought a trailer that I hitched to the back of my Buick Skylark, a gift from my grandfather, and headed West to Seattle Washington. I took a job working for a high end production shop, learned a few things, but, felt constricted by the rigidity of design and production standards. I quit, collecting unemployment benefits that, when combined with some savings, enabled us to live a casual lifestyle in a small house overlooking Lake Union in the Wallingford section of Seattle. Though not particularly productive, friends and some relatives in the area enable us to enjoyably pass the time.
By June of ’77 , I had begun to grow restless. Unemployment benefits were about to run out so I began to peruse the want ads for job opportunities in earnest. Seattle, at the time, was a one company town, before Star Bucks and Microsoft, Boeing Air Craft was the only real employer. If Boeing was hiring the town was flush, if not, not. Boeing wasn’t hiring. I was either going to start my own business, or consider casting my job hunt beyond the City proper.
The search for employment, when no employment was to be found, was not easy. Laughingly, I mentioned seeing an ad in the classifieds,seeking teachers on the North Slope of Alaska. My buddy, who knew my situation, recognized an opportunity where I had not. I watched through the kitchen window as he walk out to the curb in the pouring rain, rummaged through the garbage in search of the paper I’d thrown out, and returned, dripping wet, spreading the soggy pages across the kitchen table until he located the ad. “call em”, was all he said.
I hate the cold
How does one pack for a family of four plus dog, for a year, or two, in one of the most remote corners of the planet?