Professional Development for Furnituremakers

Here's a furniture maker with skills and experience who wants to elevate his game. What are his options? June 4, 2012

I am a professional furniture/cabinetmaker. I am 39 and have been at it for almost 19 years. I started out as a carpenter learning form to finish, then architectural millwork, then cabinetry, and finally furniture. I know a good bit but am absolutely starving for more knowledge. If I won the lottery, I would enroll at Marc Adams, College of the Redwoods, North Bennett or that one in Maine. I was not given the opportunity to attend one of these colleges because my family thought it a pointless luxury. Also, there weren't many schools back then. I have an insatiable thirst for being in an artistic environment, whether it is as a teacher (I have learned some things), teacher's assistant, a scholarship for a weekend or whatever! The problem is I have my wife and kid to feed. Wife can't work for another 6 months due to her being German (green card issue) and kid is 3… so that's out.

After sifting through so much info on the web I thought I might ask for advice. I applied for a grant through Marc Adams last year but was turned down. I am utterly eager. Any ideas? I am in the SF Bay Area with full shop. Just went to the Gary Knox Bennett show in Richmond. I am about to call him to see if he needs his floor swept after hours in exchange for being taught a thing or two.

Forum Responses
(Furnituremaking Forum)
From contributor J:
I am your age, and I attended Redwoods for a full summer and then for a regular school year about 10 years ago.

From your website, it looks like you're already doing some creative, high-quality work. Maybe what you're missing is participation in a supportive artistic community? Immersion in that sort of environment for a year or so is a great experience, but you might get a lot out of joining (or even starting) a local fine woodworker's group that meets periodically to present recent projects and critique each other's work. There are probably a fair number of Redwoods grads in your area, after all. You're right on top of McBeath's and Ecotimber, so you surely can find people of like mind if you ask around a bit.

Beyond that, 6 months isn't so long to wait. It might work out well to plan on taking one or two of the Redwoods summer workshops.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. Felt like a kid this morning when I saw a comment had been posted. You are right. 6 months is not a long time to wait. As for the artistic/supportive environment... It is a big part of what I am looking for. Talked to Heather at Mcbeaths, but all she knows of is the Alameda club. Most of what they do seems to be turning and such. Starting my own? Organization is not my strong point.

From contributor J:
My only additional advice is that, if you intend to do the Redwood's summer program (or some part thereof), that you make abso-friggin-lutely sure that your application is there as early as they will accept it. The summer program, unlike the full year, is a first come, first served arrangement, and it fills up fast.

In the meantime, you should take a day off and drive up to Fort Bragg for a visit to the school. They're very friendly. Go on a Friday and you'll probably be invited to share a beer with everyone at the end of the day.

From the original questioner:
Nice. I like beer. I also have a friend that lives up there. Thanks.

By the way... What is Ecotimber? I googled it but it looks like a flooring vendor.

From contributor J:
10 years ago, when I was last in SF, they were a general-purpose sustainable hardwood dealer with a lot of unusual stuff. I just did some searching myself, and it looks like they were acquired by another company not long after I finished school at Redwoods, and have since focused on the flooring business. Too bad.

From contributor S:
There's not a whole lot of organizations I know of out here for woodworkers. They're kind of a solitary type. There used to be a group of Bay Area furnituremakers that promoted everyone's work under the group name of Launchpad, but that died.

There are a lot of designers here, though. If you want to meet others industrial designers, check out Pecha-Kucha. If you want to shmooze with architects, check out Drinks by Design. There's also some general craft organizations - I think the American Craft Council, but I don't know too much about them.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I'll check it all out. Seems to me that usually designers don't really know what they want but rather have a very vague idea about "designing." In the end I design it for them with their vagueness guiding me.

From contributor R:
I've had the same feeling you have had for about 40 years now. Living in Central IL is not the place to get artistic satisfaction with woodworking. I've been to weekend seminars, joined art guilds, joined woodworking clubs, and drug my family all over the United States stopping and visiting any woodworking venue I can find. I think your billfold will see a much greater change than if you go to school. You will probably get some inspiration, but I don't think you will get much hard knowledge to feed your hunger. Ever hung around another furniture maker while he works? The brain doesn't like to communicate while in hard creative thought. You are more likely to hear grunts, partial sentences, and see head motions than hear words. I'm not sure that anyone can describe their true process to design or inspiration. It is a very personal thing. Thinking in 3D while scratching on paper with a pencil is not for everyone. I also never get the satisfaction wanted, talking to artisans working in other materials. It is a fairly rare bird that gets excited about a board and what to do with it.

After all these shared thoughts, I would bet that some of my ventures have changed me more than I would imagine. Places that have changed my life, just with a visit: any restored Frank Lloyd Wright house or studio, Berea Kentucky in the old days when you could sit and visit with any of the artisans, and The Highlight Gallery in Mendecino while travelling to College of the Redwoods for a weekend design seminar with Krenov. Not much in 40 years, but I don't like to travel much anymore. A couple of those trips were without the family, cause they stopped enjoying being dragged around after a while.

From the original questioner:
Although I almost blew the soup I was eating out of my nose while reading your post, I don't understand. Are you saying go to a school, or be with others that are creative? I have worked with other woodworkers… many. It was a good time but I learned little. Maybe to listen to my gut.

From contributor R:
Just a bunch of old man ramblings I guess, but I'm not a fan of schools. I have no personal experience with a full term type of place, but I have wasted a bunch of money paying for seminars (both one day and weekends). Most of the guys I have paid to watch are not teachers, so an education is not what I got. They spend the most time helping the newbies, and if you had some skills, you were mostly on your own. I really enjoyed a seminar with Toshio Odate, but all he did was talk about his early years and the respect of craftsmanship that he was taught. I haven't found anyone to hang around with, in the woodworking trade or other artists, that brought about any skill changes or great inspiration. I built my skills by reading and doing. I've earned my living working wood for 22 of my 37 years in the workforce. 8 of those 22 were self-employed, and I'm now 58. Maybe it's my personality, but I believe that the best skills are learned by personal experience.

From contributor T:
I am with contributor R on this. What is a woodworking school going to teach you? Based on your website, it appears that you can design and actually make stuff. You have a great portfolio and reputation that I suspect gives you all the support you need. That alone would be the envy of every student you would be in class with.

I say keep challenging yourself and your clients with unique designs and technically and challenging work and you will continue to succeed. Take the time and money you would spend on school and take some trips around the US to see the great furniture, architecture and houses, or go to Europe and look at the architecture and woodwork there. It's an amazing education.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the ego boost fellas. Maybe you are right. Maybe the school thing is a racket. I appreciate the advice as I don't have money to waste. Cheers!

From contributor T:
Don't get me wrong, I think school is a good thing for folks who have just graduated from high school or are just entering the workforce. If you don't have much responsibility (family, payments, etc.) and need to build a lifelong network of connections, school is a good option.

There are so many more resources than ever before that can help you: books, online resources (including WOODWEB), videos, etc.

The best part of school is the people you meet (students and teachers) who form a support network that can help you as you move through your career and experiences. You already have this network. Yes, you can expand it, and yes, you will learn new things at school, but as long as you keep challenging yourself and don't get complacent, you will continue to learn.

As a mature student, it is sometimes difficult to connect with others who are much younger and focused on much different things. Those things are and should be important to them, but for the most part they will not be all that important to you. As you have explained and demonstrate through your website, your circumstances and experience are much different than that of someone just entering the workforce.

Consider your time to date an education in itself. In my opinion running and being successful in a business (any business), attracting customers, retaining them and supporting your family is a skill not everyone is good at and it is extremely valuable.

From the original questioner:
Again, thank you. Maybe I'm just feeling lonely too. I will search out a woodworking group (maybe form one) and hopefully get some satisfaction there. As far as books are concerned, I think I have read about 500 concerning woodworking. Learned a lot and refer to them off and on. As for video… where? Youtube and the like seems like I waste one hour for every 5 minutes of engagement. "This is Carpentry" is great, "Woodtreks" also, Fine WW too… Seen all vids and still thirsty.

I won't bother posting more as I am sure everyone is growing tired of my posts by now. Nevertheless, thanks again for the words from all.

From contributor V:
Watch "Woodwright's Shop" with Roy Underhill on PBS.

Also, try reading a few books. Here are my recommendations:
"Encyclopedia of Furniture Making" by Ernest Joyce
"A Cabinetmaker's Notebook" by James Krenov
"The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking" by James Krenov
"Impractical Cabinetmaker" by James Krenov
"The Handplane Book" by Garret Hack

I have the same insatiable hunger for knowledge, and these books have wonderful things to say. I've been woodworking for just over a year now and my longing to learn gets stronger every day. Lastly, your work is amazing and beautiful. I hope to someday have my stuff in shows and people's homes like yours is.

From contributor O:
Could be wrong but I bet school would be more fun than anything else. I have learned a lot from copying advanced projects others have designed. Also learned a lot from employment in the trades.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I think I've seen all Roy Underhill's shows and If I used his methods I'd be in the poor house. Nevertheless it's interesting to see how it used to be done. As far as the books, I read them all a long time ago.

Contributor O, you are right. I have learned a lot that way too. The problem is the learning curve is too long. In other words, learning through mistakes. I have made plenty. I think I've settled on attending a few local groups and perhaps next year taking a week long class at Marc Adams. Redwoods schedule is like reading Lithuanian upside down, so I think they only have month longs and semester long classes.