A Kitchen Remodel in Real Time: Changing horses in midstream

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Work in progress. Partially finished elevation of the north wall, showing the planned corner unit and set of narrow drawers to the left of the stove.

After a long hiatus from shop time thanks to Indiana’s stay-at-home directive, I’ve been back in full force over the past two weeks. Sure, I could have kept working on the kitchen — my shop is next to our house. But why turn my work area into a life-size game of Tetris with cabinets as playing pieces a moment before that crowding was really necessary? Better to leave the roughsawn oak and sheets of plywood flat until we could firm up the schedule for delivery and installation.

Every kitchen I’ve worked on has entailed a few changes along the way. I do my best to help clients make the most important decisions early on. I also encourage them not just to order their plumbing fixtures and appliances, but to have them on hand before I start to cut materials, because reworking cabinets can get expensive quickly.

On this job we’ve done a lot of things differently because of the ongoing pandemic. With no clear idea how long the stay-at-home directive was going to last, my clients, Jenny and Ben, were in less of a hurry to order appliances, etc. and have them delivered — they’ve been working full-time from home in the company of their three children, whose schools were closed for in-person classes. Ordinarily we would have met to discuss a few questions that have cropped up; instead, we’ve hammered things out by email and phone. I’ve dropped off samples of milk paint at their back door. Everything has been slightly off — at times, surreal.

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Soapstone slabs at Quality Surfaces near Spencer, Indiana

Our only recent meeting in person took place at a local stone yard, where Jenny and Ben fell in love with a slab of medium-gray soapstone. Compared to other stone, such as granite, this one is relatively soft, so I wanted them to be aware of how it would likely age. I sent snapshots from our kitchen, which has pale gray soapstone counters, and emphasized that even though we treat our counters with care, there’s significant wear along the front edge at the sink. This stone would require extra coddling.

They weighed my warnings. Then, intoxicated by the beauty of the stone, they concluded they had to have it.

To compensate, they decided to use a different kind of sink. The plans included an undermount sink, but after seeing pictures of our counter, Ben and Jenny decided to buy an enameled cast iron apron front, to do away with the especially vulnerable strip of stone across the front. Good thing I hadn’t started building the cabinets — not only did this change the doors from full height to more like 20″; it also meant the sink base would have to be 2″ longer.

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Comparing milk paint samples (which have a topcoat of the same water-white conversion varnish we’ll be using on the cabinets) to colors in the stone

The second major change has been to the kitchen’s inside corner. In our earliest discussions I’d gone through my usual reasons for recommending a simple stack of drawers instead of attempting to use the blind space that would otherwise be wasted, but Ben and Jenny decided to go with a corner optimizer.

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The unit holds four baskets — two on the left, and two on the right, with one above the other on each side. Here Tony is modeling the unit closed, with only the lower left basket in place.

Full disclosure: I had never installed one of these units, which I first learned of thanks to Craig Regan. It seemed like a better choice than the half-moon blind corner pull-out I once experimented with in my own kitchen (more about this in my forthcoming book); it’s sturdy, better looking and smooth in operation. But once I had it in the cabinet I could see trouble down the line: Unless you’re meticulous about pulling the unit straight out and extending it fully before you pull the second half forward, the face frame of the corner cabinet and the face of the cabinet next to it would get scratched and banged up in short order. For a family of five who really use their kitchen, it seemed like a bad idea.

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The first step: pull the primary pair of baskets forward. You have to pull them all the way out before attempting to move them over so that you can pull the secondary baskets out.

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Fully open. The primary side [only one basket is installed on each side here] pulls over to the side of the cabinet opening, freeing it up so you can pull the secondary baskets forward.

I thought through every likely scenario with the corner optimizer and decided to recommend we nix it in favor of some intelligently-designed, fully-functional drawers; depending on what we discover during demolition, the blind area in the corner will probably become a storage cabinet in the wall flanking the stairs to the basement.

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A set of four capacious drawers on full-extension slides will take the place of the original corner optimizer and the 12″-wide drawers that would have flanked it.

To those who complain about old-timers being unwilling to change/jump on the bandwagon of The Newest And Greatest Thing, I offer this story as one reason why some of us whose livelihood depends on this kind of work prefer to recommend the products we know well. We’re not being lazy, fearful or unimaginative. We might have learned something over the decades from our mistakes. In the future, if clients ask me about the advisability of using a corner optimizer such as this one (and I am aware that this is not the only style available), I will factor what I know about how they use their kitchen into my response, as I do with every other detail of kitchen design.

If anyone would like to buy this 15″ blind corner unit at a discount (it makes a great climbing frame/nap place/carnival ride for a cat), let me know in the comments.

–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

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An Excerpt from ‘Calvin Cobb’

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An excerpt from “Calvin Cobb – Radio Woodworker: A Novel with Measured Drawings,” by Roy Underhill.

Banging buckets echoed down the hall from the clock tower entrance. The painter was done for the day. The stacks of ordered papers on Calvin’s desk no longer made sense, and he gathered them into a single pile.

“I’ll be up in the lab,” he called into Linda’s office as he escaped down the hall. He drummed up the stairs to the ninth floor and walked to the door squeezed between two empty storerooms. He crouched slightly as he passed down the short corridor that led into the square base of the clock tower, but once he emerged into the room, he could stand twenty feet tall if he wanted. Four huge frosted glass clock faces crowned the upper walls of the chamber. Four shafts driving the clock hands converged overhead with bevel gears that doled out the seconds from the clockwork on the floor above. Visitors felt tiny beneath the giant clock faces — smaller than mice in a grandfather clock. But the sense of being inside something intentional, something measured and deliberate, appealed powerfully to Calvin.

Slit windows in the walls, narrow like archer’s loopholes in a castle, gave views of each compass point. Calvin peered through the east window by his workbench. With the trees not fully leafed out yet, he could still see the mottos chiseled into the facade of the new Justice Department building up the street. In large letters under the window of the FBI director’s office were the words “No free Government can survive that” — a disturbing statement if you missed the subsequent “is Not based on the supremacy of law” that continued around the corner.

Those FBI men up Pennsylvania Avenue were, in part, responsible for the stack of golden-hued, white oak boards leaning against the wall beside Calvin’s workbench. He had salvaged this mellow timber with growth rings as tight as a deck of cards from the demolished cabinetry on the atrium floor far below. The cabinetry had all been purpose-made in the 1880s as specialized organs to digest the United states mail — oak cubby-hole kidneys for insufficient address, oak hopper-table livers for postage due. But after the postal operations moved out in the summer of 1934, the FBI moved in, waiting for the completion of their new building up the street. They demanded uniform desks in uniform ranks and broke up the oak woodwork in the atrium with fire axes and stacked it for the dump, exposing embarrassing rectangular outlines on the marble floors where ten thousand nightly moppings had left fossil seashores of filth. Calvin, staying late in the evenings, had rescued as many planks as he could and given them sanctuary in the tower.

He unlocked his wall-mounted tool cupboard and took a plane from the shelf. The cabinet had belonged to a European master stamp engraver and some of his old prints were still tacked to the doors; Dürer’s the Knight, Death and the Devil on one, and on the other, an unknown eighteenth-century engraver’s Virtue Fleeing from Décolletage, showing a young man pursued down a flight of stairs by a quartet of busty young beauties in spectacularly low-cut gowns.

This afternoon, with everyone else ready to slip from the iceberg, he lifted a plank still bearing shreds of varnish and deeply stained with purple ink, and laid it on the workbench. He took up his jack plane and went to his compulsive work. The old surfaces — stabbed by angry clerks, passed over by millions of love letters, bank orders, Christmas cards, draft notices, invitations and regrets fell in corkscrew shavings to the floor. He finished planing the long board and resumed his work on a glass-fronted wall cabinet for Linda’s stacks of punched cards. he cranked his bit-brace auger, turning the center bit into the oak to rough in a mortise. “Why do you choose a center bit for this work Mr. Cobb?” he asked himself in a high and barely audible voice.

“Well, Miss Harper, for a shallow hole, a center bit actually cuts faster,” he answered himself. Tan shavings wound out-ward in an unbroken spiral. The central pike of the bit poked through the far side of the plank. He turned the plank over and inserted the center pike into the hole, and bored down again until the bit pushed into open space, carrying with it a speared button of oak.

He worked until the sunlight rectangles cutting through the slit-windows of the castle grew rust-red. Out the dusty west window, a deep sun fired diagonal rows of clouds into scarlet furrows that left the Washington monument in stark silhouette. A bunt of his hand knocked the shavings out of the rabbet plane and he locked it and the other tools back in the cabinet. Closing the cabinet left him facing the old engravings tacked to the door faces. He stared at one of the lusty women in Virtue Fleeing from Décolletage. He would find a set of colored pencils. He would color her eyes Delft blue.

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Notes on Cancelled Classes

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If you registered for a 2020 class at LAP, then you know from your email that we recently made the difficult decision to cancel all remaining classes for 2020. And I appreciate the kind notes you’ve sent in return – many of you offered to donate your registration fee (which warmed the cockles of my semi-frozen heart) or ask if it could be applied to a new class in the future. And you’ve asked about classes in the future in general.

I’m responding to all questions (I hope!) at once, here.

First, thank you to those who generously offered to let us keep the fee. We greatly appreciate the offer, but we simply wouldn’t feel right doing that – so expect to see those refunds in your accounts soon.

And as far as applying that registration fee to future classes…I’m afraid simply haven’t the organizational skills to make that happen. So again,expect to see those refunds in your accounts soon.

I do, however, have organizational skills enough to make sure that when we do offer classes again, anyone who was signed up for a cancelled 2020 class gets a priority shot at a like class when we are able to invite folks back. So yes to that.

And finally, yes, we do plan to offer classes again – when it’s safe for everyone. As always, stay tuned to the blog; fingers crossed I’ll have good news on that front later this year.

Thanks for your continued support.

— Fitz

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Let’s Go Dutch

 

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With square-shanked Rivierre nails (this is my travel chest…it’s a bit more beat up now).

Waiting for a book to print on the laser writer at the shop is boring, so Chris and I were talking to pass the time as we awaited the pages of Nancy Hiller’s “Kitchen Think”; it’s off to Kara Gebhart Uhl tomorrow for copy edit. He was printing; I was three-hole punching. Such fun we have!

I don’t know how we got to chatting about Dutch tool chests…but as of about 5 p.m. today, I’m writing a book on Dutch tool chests for Lost Art Press. I could not be more excited!

How many of these I’ve built and helped others to build, I don’t know… but I do know it is many. I can build the one I teach in less than two days, from rough lumber to hardware installation. It will take me a bit longer this time though; there will be many pauses along the way for photography.

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With screws (this one was for a customer).

Why, you might ask, if there’s already a good article on how to build this form, do we need a book on it? I’ll be going far beyond the article, presenting multiple approaches to several of the joints, and a choice of at least three ways to build the lid. And hardware – my goodness…some of the hardware people have brought to classes that I had to figure out how to install! So I’ll share a bunch of options on that, too…and what not to try to use and why. (For the record, I prefer unequal strap hinges.)

I’ll also be presenting several approaches to the interior fitments. But I have only so many Dutch tool chest interior variations in me – and there’s now a fair number of these chest in shops throughout the country and around the world. So while it’s early days (heck – we just decided on this book a few hours ago!), I’ll eventually be asking for your help – if you’ve built one and come up with a clever interior arrangement, I hope you’ll take some pretty pictures and send them my way so we can include a gallery.

And there are other Dutch tool chests to discuss (and possibly build), so there will also be research into other forms.

There’s no timeline, but I’m going to dive in soon – I have plenty of wide pine in the shop basement, and (unexpectedly) plenty of time this summer. Heck – I even have parts already sized in my basement…along with some half-finished chests. Time to put those to good use!

— Fitz

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This is what happens when you loan all your tools out by day 2 of a class.

 

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My First Time

During the last 30 years, I’ve heard hundreds of “I first encountered Fine Woodworking” stories that have an impressive ending. The person becomes a lifetime woodworker or quits their job to build furniture. Or collects every issue since the magazine began publishing in 1975.

I’ll never forget my time, because it was just so random. 

In 1991 I was a general assignment reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina and had been invited to have a drink at the house of Jim DuPlessis, one of the business reporters. He lived in a tidy Craftsman bungalow on a leafy street, and on his coffee table was a copy of Fine Woodworking.

I grabbed it and started leafing through it. I honestly didn’t realize that magazines about woodworking and building furniture existed. I had graduated college the year before, and I was feeling drawn back into working with my hands after leaving Arkansas and our farm behind. But I didn’t know how to act on that desire.

I clutched the magazine (I’m almost certain it was the August 1991 issue) like a prize from the fair as Jim and a few other reporters wandered onto the front porch of his house to enjoy the air. 

That’s when Jim’s dog started streaking toward the street, directly at a passing car. As a newspaper reporter you see a lot of horrible things, and you learn not to look away. 

Jim’s dog ran right at the front tire of the car, like it was trying to put its head under the front tire. 

When the car and dog collided it made the worst noise. I won’t even try to describe it. The car stopped. Jim screamed and ran out to the street while the rest of us just gaped.

I don’t know how, but the dog was unhurt. Completely fine. Jim hugged the dog like a teddy bear as he walked back to the porch. Everyone at the party spent the rest of the evening doting over the clueless thing, like it was a miracle sent from heaven.

I spent the rest of the evening reading Fine Woodworking.

This week marks another strange turn of events. And again, no animals were harmed. I now have my first article in Fine Woodworking, almost 30 years after first encountering the magazine. After leaving Popular Woodworking as an editor (1996-2011) and then as a contributor (in 2018), I had resisted getting in bed with another woodworking magazine. It felt like getting married to a new spouse on the way home from the funeral of my first.

But after getting to know the current crop of editors at Fine, I decided I was being stupid and to give it a chance.

My article is deep in issue 283, the August 2020 issue. It is about, surprise, workbenches. It was a bizarre experience being on the other side of the fence as a writer, not an editor. But the entire staff I’ve dealt with – Betsy Engel, Anissa Kapsales, Barry Dima, Tom McKenna and Ben Strano (who I will remind you that FWW “stole” from us) – were a delight to work with.

With any luck, I hope you’ll see more of my writing in Fine, if they’ll have it.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized | 35 Comments

A Cornucopia of Craft: “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands”

Craftsmen from Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia. Photos by Doris Ulmann.

About 10-12 years ago in a used book I came across a $5.00 copy of “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands.” Opening the book brought back memories of taking a day off in mid-July, leaving the heat and humidity of Charlotte and heading up to Asheville, North Carolina for the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands. That first trip was followed by many more.

“Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” by Allen H. Eaton was published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1937. Photographs are by Doris Ulmann, best known for her photographs of the people of Appalachia. The Southern Highlands cover West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The craft traditions include, but are not limited to, weaving, woodwork and pottery. A large section is devoted to making furniture, baskets, whittling, carving, and musical instruments. There are plenty of photos and quotes from the craftspeople themselves.

The book is available on HathiTrust and you can find it here.

The link goes to a copy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as it is the only copy that shows the (some what trimmed) endpapers. Here is a better look at the endpapers with a craft map of the Southern Highlands:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, jump into this book and meet William Creech of Pine Mountain, Kentucky, find the good board maker, the enormous hand-cranked lathe and this handsome rooster:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in For Your Library, Historical Images | 6 Comments

On a Possum (Belly) Hunt

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I’m in search of a nicely framed, uncluttered, well-lit, high-resolution photograph of a “possum belly” table or cabinet for use in Nancy R. Hiller’s upcoming book, “Kitchen Think.” Ideally, it would be shot from an angle similar to that of the white one shown at bottom right in the Pinterest screen grab above…but look more like the table at top right or the cabinets, and have zinc- or tin-bellied bottom drawers.

If you happen to have such as animal in your home and are willing to help, please email me: fitz@lostartpress.com. And if I get a passel, I’ll put up a post to show them all off. (Note: I’m sure I could find one from an antique dealer — but it would be more fun to get it from you!)

Posted in Kitchen Think

An English Translation of ‘How a Handplane Made a Handplane: A Fairy Tale’

Note to readers: Yesterday (25 May) some of you may have received a version of this post. That version was pulled back shortly after publishing due to multiple problems with how the images were loading. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused you. Chris Schwarz very kindly ran the images through his design software to straighten out the problem.

In early April I wrote a short post about two Russian children’s books published in the 1920s. One book was titled “Table” (about making a table) and the other was a fairy tale about a handplane making another handplane. Both books are in the Special Collections of the University of Washington Libraries. You can read the original post here.

Published in 1927, “How a Handplane Made a Handplane: A Fairy Tale” was written by Samuil Iakovlevich Marshak, considered to be the founder of Russian children’s literature. The illustrations are by Vladimir Vasil’evich Lebednev who introduced bright and bold graphics and changed the design of children’s literature. Together they produced an appealing tale for both children and adults.

Without a translation it is possible to partially figure out the plot. The book opens with a handplane, tools are introduced, a tree is felled and another handplane is made. With a translation a door is opened to the voices of the handplane and the other tools and you learn why a second handplane is made.

My translation is in prose. Although rhyming poetry is common in children’s books (and kids love it), I am not up to translating poems from one language to another, much less rhyming poems! Nevertheless, it is a charming story and I hope you enjoy it.

You can read the individual pages below. If you want to print and assemble your own book with a two-page spread you can download a pdf using this link:

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Handplane FairytaleHandplane Fairytale2Handplane Fairytale3Handplane Fairytale4Handplane Fairytale5Handplane Fairytale6Handplane Fairytale7Handplane Fairytale8Handplane Fairytale9Handplane Fairytale10Handplane Fairytale11Handplane Fairytale12Handplane Fairytale13Handplane Fairytale14

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in For Your Library, Personal Favorites | 18 Comments

Stay Focused, Keep Moving: An Interview with Freddy Roman

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Freddy’s dressing table, one of numerous Federal pieces he has made since his training.

When Freddy Roman was a student at The Furniture Institute of Massachusetts he saw a dressing table made by fellow student Austin Winters, who’d built the piece after seeing an original in the catalog for an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum. The original, produced by Thomas Seymour at the turn of the 19th century, glowed with the restrained lushness of Federal style. “I’m going to make that piece when I’m good enough,” Freddy resolved. And build one he eventually did, commissioned by a furniture company that, as he puts it, “employed starving artists.”

“I got suckered,” he goes on. After he’d been paid less than $12,000 for months of meticulous research and work in the piece’s making, the company sold it in a day for more than twice as much. From his vantage point today, as a craftsman who operates Freddy Roman Furniture Maker & Restoration, he’s quick to point out that the 100-percent-plus markup was “perfectly fine – that’s just called business.” Yet Freddy’s awareness of the tension between what it takes to practice craft at the highest levels and what it takes to make a living is never far from mind.

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Freddy (right) with his brother, Daniel.

Freddy was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1981. Both of his parents are from Puerto Rico. His mother, Teresa Mercado, was one of 12 children. She helped raise her siblings and cooked every day. (“She’s still considered the best cook in the family, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my mother,” Freddy adds with a chuckle.)

“She has a back like a linebacker,” he continues, describing his mother’s work ethic. “That back came from when she was forced to go down the hill [in Puerto Rico] and carry back a bucket of water with a stick over her shoulders.” Teresa emigrated to Hartford in 1969 and married his father soon after. They’d been acquainted in Puerto Rico but weren’t close friends. She left high school before graduating because she was pregnant with Freddy; she had a second son, Daniel, six years later.

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Freddy with his mother, Teresa, on his wedding day in 2019.

Freddy credits his mother with his drive and many other fine attributes. She spent most of her career at Carling Technologies, which manufactures circuit breakers, where she ran 15 to 20 departments, assisted with production and streamlined a variety of manufacturing processes. Her employers were so impressed by her insights and technical understanding that they sent her to China to train workers at the company’s plant there, then to Mexico as well. In 2007 the company laid her off. “To this day it hurts her that she was laid off,” Freddy says. “She was so methodical, being in control and being a good boss… I gained a lot of experience by watching her.” Now she works on an assembly line at Colt Manufacturing, which he says is bad for her hands, but “she sucks it up and does what she has to do.”

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Freddy’s mom (far left) with some of his aunts and uncles.

“I was able to go to the Furniture Institute because she paid for part of my education,” Freddy goes on. “She doesn’t know this but I almost became homeless in my last semester of my second year. I was working full-time and going to school full-time. I found a CVS store that closed at 11 and worked six days a week, double shifts on weekends.” He was fueled by her example of hard work and determination. Yet despite his job, Freddy could see that his income would not cover his living expenses and tuition for that last semester.

He hatched a plan. As one of the school’s shop managers, he had a key. The school had a kitchenette. He figured he would sleep on an air mattress, shower at the gym and get up before anyone arrived the next morning. As it happened, he didn’t have to follow through. When Phil Lowe (who owns the school) got wind of the scheme, he said, “’Don’t worry about the last semester. You work for me; half the money you make will go to you so that you don’t notice you’re lacking in funds.’ It was like coming home,” says Freddy. “If I had left without graduating, I would have failed.”

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Pull that weight. Fun times with Phil.

Freddy’s father, Ramon Roman, provided another example of what it means to take pride in good work. Ramon grew up on a cane sugar farm and has a sixth-grade education. He was renowned among his peers for his skill at dominoes (a rough equivalent of today’s mobile phone games, for rural Puerto Ricans in the 1970s). Back then, those wishing to emigrate to the United States had to be sponsored by someone who was already here. Ramon was very close to his brother Pedro, who had moved to Connecticut and found a job manufacturing aircraft engine parts at a factory in Windsor. Pedro sent part of his pay home to Ramon so he could join him in the United States.

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Freddy (center) with his brother, Daniel, and father, Ramon.

Ramon found work at the same factory – not in making engine parts, but as a maintenance man; he painted walls, buffed floors and cleaned bathrooms. “He instilled in me that there’s nothing wrong with cleaning a toilet bowl until it’s shiny as can be and seeing your reflection in it,” says Freddy. “He took a ton of pride in his work. When I walked into my dad’s bathroom that he cleaned, there was no question that every square inch was clean. I still don’t understand, when he’s in the bathroom, what’s taking so long,” he adds, then answers his own rhetorical question: “He’s not just taking a shower and getting ready; he’s cleaning the grout!” Pedro and Ramon also sponsored their parents, who moved to Connecticut in the late 1970s.

Freddy’s parents insisted he graduate from high school, then “figure it out.” There was no pressure to get a college degree. He sometimes wishes he’d continued his education and become an architect/builder. Everyone told him he couldn’t do both, but the combination struck him as ideal. “I was good at CAD. Very skilled in it. I did house models, 3-D modeling in high school construction technology. I was getting college credit for it even in my sophomore year in high school. But I knew staying in the office was not going to be my thing. I needed a mix.”

He did an internship in Manchester, Conn., with a view to becoming a civil engineer but found the job involved too much sitting in an office for his taste. Then his mother’s place of work offered him a job; at the time, the company’s attention was focused on preparations for Y2K. Seeing how quickly he picked things up, his employers hoped he’d become a mechanical engineer and work for them. His first question was, “‘Where’s your office?’ For me, it was, ‘This is where I’d be spending the rest of my life. Behind a desk.’ No, I’m not interested,” he decided. “It’s not for me. I wanted to find something where there would be a balance between work in the office and work in the field.”

“Where I got my real firecracker bite was at Woodcraft in Connecticut.” (To clarify, the Woodcraft store in Manchester, Conn. and the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking were connected as a business entity in the past. They still occupy the same building.) “I feel like it was sent from God for me to trip over. The tools were amazing, the books were amazing. All these people who write for Fine Woodworking came in there. That’s where I tripped up on Phil Lowe. He suckered me at the age of 19 or 20, said ‘You gotta come up to Massachusetts.’” Freddy did his formal training at the Furniture Institute from 2004 to 2006 and says, “It was like a new world. Being able to see [Phil] talk to students while working, it sucked me right in. He barely laid anything out. It was like a beaver cutting a tree. He totally eyeballs everything.”

The two-year training covered drafting by hand, furniture making and restoration. Phil insisted that anyone interested in restoration first learn to build; this education went well beyond hands-on woodworking to encompass the study of furniture history, as well as the development of different kinds of joinery. Freddy was also struck by Phil’s approach to compiling a cut list: Starting with a full-scale drawing, students would think through the process step by step and list the parts in the order in which they’d be used to build the piece.

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Freddy and his mentor, Phil Lowe.

Phil urged his students to get their name out early in their training, have a website, start acting like professionals. Freddy began his business after his first year of training, in 2005. He literally knocked on people’s doors. “Furniture making is a great business when you have the work, but when you don’t, you can get hungry.”

“You’ll never go hungry if you can repair furniture,” he observed. He convinced Phil to take on more restoration work. Freddy was contacting antique dealers about repairs. He didn’t know how to price work, and Phil gave him a piece of advice. “’If they put you on the spot, look at every joint and figure an hour for each. If that joint didn’t take you an hour, you’re ahead. If it takes you longer, hopefully others will take less and you’ll be OK.’” Restoration is a huge part of his business today.

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Before and during restoration.

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Restored doors in place.

Like many of us, Freddy has become increasingly professional over his years in business. He’s required to be licensed by the state, and he carries all kinds of insurance: liability coverage, shop building and contents coverage, vehicle transportation insurance, worker’s comp coverage, hand disability insurance (because his hands are his livelihood). He runs his business out of two shops, which means doubling some of these expenses. At times he has shared space with other craftsmen, most recently with a fellow who specializes in millwork and does side work for Freddy; and another, also a graduate of North Bennet Street School, who just wants to build things and is happy to have Freddy deal with the customer relations and office work.

It’s a demanding and frenetic existence. “Because I live in such an expensive state, I’m more money-hungry,” he says. “I have this serious look all the time, it’s just ‘stay focused, keep moving.’ I’ve built up mental walls. You’re bouncing around left and right; the phone is ringing; you’re juggling five or six jobs at least.” There always seems to be pressure from customers to get the job done. “It could be four to eight weeks before I start [their job], but now I give them the worst-case scenario. There are so many factors: the humidity, how long it will take the product to come.” When we spoke, he said he was waiting for a sunny day, because so much of his work is outside. “Last year it rained through June, then got hot and humid, which made things take longer to dry.” This year he says he’s “trying to work just 40 to 50 hours a week plus the office work. It used to be 60.”

In 2019 Freddy made his living through a wide variety of jobs. He repaired furniture, stripping and refinishing each piece; he fabricated shutters and entry doors with sidelights for period and 20th-century buildings; he restored entry doors from all over New England and New York (some for historic buildings, others for old houses). He also made furniture – farm tables, built-ins and cabinetry; the commissions for built-ins come most often from homeowners who live in old houses with wonky floors and walls – people who value Freddy’s sensitive appreciation of historic architecture and the skill with which he honors it. His jobs involve a lot of color matching and finishing. He also does basic upholstery, sheet caning and weaving rush. In addition, he does onsite rot repair for pilasters, crown, cornices and other architectural features and is now taking on small remodeling jobs, such as a current project that will turn a three-season porch into a year-‘round room.

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Freddy and Krista at sunset on their wedding day.

Last year Freddy married his longtime girlfriend, Krista, whom he met about 11 years ago. It’s hard to meet people when you’re working all the time, he acknowledges, but when a friend invited him to that particular party, he said yes. He’s glad he did. He “fell in love at first sight” with “this adorable, driven woman, very passionate, [who was] going to school for nursing. She was different; she was kind; family was important to her. All of these things made me want to get to know her more.”

They dated for 10 years. “I probably waited too long to ask her to marry me!” he laughs, then explains it was important to him to be in a stable position before getting married, so he could support a family. He wanted to pay off debts and start a new life with “a fresh slate.” Aware that things might have been different had they waited until this year, he’s glad they married in 2019. “She’s the one I trust, I confide in. She’s my support.”

Krista was training to be a nurse but graduated just as the stock market crashed in 2008. Hospitals weren’t hiring. She couldn’t find a job. So she adapted to circumstances and took a different direction. Now she manages a retail store and Freddy says he has learned “a ton” from how she conducts herself in business. “I understand what customer service is because of her. I don’t have as much patience. I hate repeating myself eight times when I’m not teaching. [But] she’s an amazing all-around customer service person.” Through the lockdown in Massachusetts Krista has continued her work in customer relations, working online and by phone.

Freddy’s brother, Daniel, is employed by an accounting firm and working toward a master’s degree with a view to becoming a CPA. Reflecting on their life, Freddy says: “Our rough upbringing could have taken us in many ways. When you move to Connecticut and grow up in the ghetto, there’s gang violence. You can get sucked into the streets and make a lot more money. My parents kept us moving constantly.” They worked hard to improve the family’s situation, always with discipline and love. “I’m 100 percent happy [my mom] gave me all the spanks I got, because she kept me in line. She knew there was more opportunity out there. By her keeping us in line, we lived a better life.”

— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

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Chair Chat No. 9 with Rudy and Klaus: A Poetic Chair From Far East Wales With Green Poop Finish

Editor’s note: In today’s chair chat we discuss a chair that is so beautiful it makes Chris write poetry. We are unsure about its heritage, but it could be from Wales. Or further east. As Chris was smoking his ham, we found that we love this chair to bits, despite its possibly fake tits. Oh, did I mention to beware the salty language? Sorry!

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