I was first introduced to the Schwarz Media Conglomerate on Jan. 10, 2008, with the announcement that we were collaborating on an annotated translation of sections from Roubo’s “L’Art du Menuisier.” The two-year anniversary of that announcement happens to also be a much more important milestone for me as it marks exactly the 40th year of my entrance into the furniture trades. Looking back down the tunnel of those four decades is an exhilarating experience.
I was a high school kid working in a warehouse because it paid more than slinging burgers. Because it was a 25 percent raise, I showed up for work at 1 p.m., Jan. 10, 1972. The job was exactly as promised; all I had to do was keep three warehouses clean for a large commercial furniture store.
I soon discovered the little repair shop in the corner of one of the warehouses, manned periodically by Frank Tautzenberger. How a retired Hungarian house painter became the furniture repairman for a multimillion dollar furniture store is beyond me, and truth be told some of his structural repairs were sketchy, but when it came to matching appearances he was simply a genius. On the days when he was in the shop I found myself literally running through the warehouse to get my chores done in order to spend time with him. watching him make it seem effortless. Imagine the voice of Bela Lugosi telling you over and over, “See, it’s just like this. Easy.”
That experience led me to a number of refinishing and restoration shops over the next few years, punctuated by some time in college. I was on a special program that allowed me to enter college as a junior, on the fast track to law school. But always the lure of working in a shop kept tugging at me, and to this day I can hear the disapproving tones of my adviser, Dr. Stetson, 18 months later after I informed her of my withdrawing from school.
“But Don, there is just no future in the crafts.”
I think she might have been wrong about that one….
I have recounted some of my experiences in the shop of the Schindler’s, but not of one acquaintance who also shaped my career. Nicky Hlopoff was one of the most renowned art conservators in the world, and when he was working for clients in Palm Beach he stopped by Schindler’s for frequent visits. With his encouragement I began focusing on moving toward a career in preserving historic furniture. But still I was only part way down the tunnel.
After another unsuccessful attempt at college, this time as an architecture student, I wound up as the assistant patternmaker of a small custom foundry. It was there where I learned what precise and fearless woodworking was all about, especially large-scale turning. The lathe axle was about throat height and the 10-horsepower motor made sure nothing slowed the workpiece, which was often so large (we were making patterns for giant pumps used in dredging) that I was literally part-way inside the pattern while I was turning it. The first time, my boss Johnny Kuzma simply handed me the chisel and said, “Good luck, kid.” Gazing up at the pockmarks where countless chisels had been dislodged from the hands of timid turners and embedded into the ceiling, I grabbed the chisel with a death grip and dove in. Whenever anyone brags to about turning something big, I ask if they have ever turned a 10’-diameter bowl.
After a final and successful attempt at college, I got my current dream job 28 years ago, which has allowed me to pursue a nearly limitless menu of curiosities and opportunities.
Which brings me to the title of this essay. Long before I had ever heard of Popular Woodworking, much less Chris Schwarz or Lost Art Press, I was re-thinking my acquisitive impulses. Better tools. Fewer tools (well, maybe not really fewer tools, and I have not yet come to the place of discarding superfluous tools). Desire to get increasingly serious about scholarship and my skills. That path has been immensely pleasing.
Like many of my fellow galoots, after 40 years I was even reconsidering the need for a table saw. In the end I decided to keep mine, in part because it is a big, heavy machine that does some things nothing else can do, and to remove it from my tiny basement workshop would require recruiting a large number of stout young men to get it up the narrow stairs. Besides, what would I do with the space if I got rid of it? I would probably put an assembly table there. How is that different than a nice table saw with a piece of Baltic birch plywood on it?
Table saw: a machine with side benefits. So I’m keeping it.
That just about sums up the acquired wisdom of 40 years in the furniture trades.
— Don Williams
13 thoughts on “After 40 Years, It’s Come Down to This?”
Thanks for sharing a bit of the unseen side of your self.
What a pleasure to meet you at WIA.
Nicely done Don. Thanks for sharing that with us.
I don’t know why, but I was expecting some sort of Jedi secret.
Look closer, I think he revealed one.
Wow, I can’t even imagine turning something that large. Talk about a trial by fire.
I’d love to hear more about Don’s experiences. He seems to have had a very unique career, and there must be some fascinating stories.
Great post Don. I think you definitely have something to add to the dialog and perhaps one day you’ll consider publishing something. You had me going though. I thought for sure you were going to announce the completion of your end of the Roubo work. Oh well, life teaches us patience if we allow it.
@Robert: Oh, man! You could’a said ‘Closer you should look. Paying attention you were not!’
@Mark: As I’ve always said, ‘I want to learn patience, and I want it right now!’
Great post! You have wonderful stories to tell! I think if Chris is going to be head of the Schwarz Media Conglomerate and take over the world he needs to work on his evil laugh!!! (Can an anarchist do that?)
At your presentation at the Roubo Dinner/WIA 2010, you showed a picture of some wood (white oak?) that you were clamoring to get hold of, I think to build some desktops. How did all of that work out?
I have tried repeatedly to contact the seller but thus far it has not worked out. the slab was air dried white oak, 15′-9″ x 42″ x 16″ thick and was one glorious hunk of wood. I could see easily a dozen workbenches out of it, six @ six feet x 20″ x 5″ thick, and six @ nine feet by 24″ by 5″ thick (with a little laminated to the rear) or some combination thereof. Cris wanted to be signed up for a piece of that action.
If I recall correctly, you were also casually soliciting donations on behalf of this cause. I would be happy to chip in, should you finally be able to convince the seller that he ought to. I would certainly hate to see this slab go to waste and made into toothpicks. I suspect that you, Chris and your contemporaries could do wonders with it. Vive la Revolution.
hummmm, could that possibly be a knife box you are massaging
Yes it could, old eagle eye. It is one of a pair of Federal style knife boxes I am making to hold my carving chisels. The secondary wood is bald cypress I milled out of some c.1840 railroad water tank staves. all the joinery and sculpting was by hand. The veneer was hand sawn out of a gorgeous hunk of mahogany crotch slab. Once I get done I will write an article and submit it to American Period Furniture.
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