We are taught from a young age that compromise and flexibility are golden attributes. I have seen their reward; I won’t go too far into my own sinuous background, but putting myself into different settings with good people, following their lead or being willing to bend my own path, has brought wonderful experiences and opportunities. In woodworking, it’s been ventures into chairmaking, Krenovian cabinetmaking, historic techniques, slapdash construction and basketweaving. In life, it means having a Master’s in computer music, working at a large media/publishing company, working with CNCs to produce violin parts, writing a book, living in five states in less than a decade and being an underemployed but happy craftsperson.
In my three years of researching, interviewing and writing “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” a second lesson in compromise has emerged. There is a lot in Krenov’s story that points to the other side of the coin – the side that makes itself apparent when someone refuses to compromise their worldview or creative practice, even at the cost of their own well-being or success. To me, both the reward and punishment of that second approach is no more apparent than in Krenov’s trajectory from an obscure travelogue writer to a widely celebrated cabinetmaker.
As I interviewed people about Krenov – his students, colleagues, friends, supporters and detractors – the downside of his attitude became apparent. Krenov’s frequent lack of diplomacy in expressing his approach to craft closed doors and alienated many. It took him several tries at educational institutions to find a situation that met his demands or could handle his irascibility concerning the validity of other approaches. His articles in Sweden’s FORM magazine express his disenfranchisement from Scandinavian contemporaries and consumers, often because he thought they would not appreciate or adopt his idiosyncratic approach (though it was there that he reached a level of renown few could hope for). His outlook often made Krenov hard to please, and kept him looking on the other side of the fence (or ocean) for greener grass. It made it difficult (for many years, impossible) to make a living at his craft.
But in this lack of compromise, we can see the seeds of Krenov’s success. At the beginning of his career, a time when Scandinavia was moving toward functionalism and practicality, Krenov declared himself and his work to be outside of those considerations. He called for craftspeople, amateur and professional, to enjoy their work, whatever the wider public insisted about its efficacy or profitability. He was the strongest advocate for the inherent worth of work done well.
So many of us who insist on making furniture or practicing a craft at the highest standards we can muster, rationalize our position and damn the time or impracticality of its execution. We insist that our work is more durable and a better investment, or more timeless and not subject to trendiness or fads.
At several point in his career, Krenov relays these considerations – but he was working to different criteria, not obviously connected to financial or aesthetic concerns. Looking over his work and the lessons he taught, it’s clear that these were secondary (or even tertiary) concerns. He encouraged impracticality and insisted that his way was too difficult to be of use to a professional woodworker. He wanted to be remembered as a “stubborn, old enthusiast.”
I don’t mean to imply a lack of subtlety to his position; in fact, many of his favored students eschewed his path in aesthetics, technique and financial success. I offer up the idea that the “middle path” Krenov described between handwork and machine work – a compromise from many perspectives – was part of what made it so successful and appealing to his hundreds of thousands of readers. And there were students who disagreed with his advice that he came to support or enable – in spite of their resistance. He butted heads with students who, like him, insisted on the value of their own ideas, but in the end many of them won his respect. He could be an inspiring teacher and a friendly mentor, whimsical and enthusiastic.
Krenov’s ability to resist outside influence, especially in terms of income, was enabled by the support of Britta, his wife, who was a high school teacher with a degree in economics and finance. He was also supported by the socialist infrastructure of Sweden, which awarded him stipends and gave Britta a steady pension after her retirement in the late 1970s.
But there is a lesson that can be distilled from Krenov’s path. It isn’t exactly “stick to your guns” or “ignore the haters.” But, after years of my own consideration of Krenov’s story and the memories of those who crossed his path, I think one part of the whole reads something like this: Take in what you can from those around you when you set off, work hard to examine what you value and/or enjoy in your chosen pursuit and be determined enough to pursue it at whatever cost.
It may not lead to success in any traditional sense. Krenov’s career might be measured in book sales or influence, but I think it’s best measured by the memories that were shared with me. His students remember Krenov’s satisfaction in shaping the leg of a stand late into the evenings, or the time he spent happily arranging and composing a freshly sawn batch of veneers. Pursue fulfillment; if you’re lucky or dogged or particularly talented, other measures of success might come to pass. If you’re not, at least you can say it wasn’t a waste of time.
There are many ways to poke holes in this idea as it applies to your own world; I’m not one to promote orthodoxy or dogma. You might be able to follow Krenov’s path with a more polite or amenable attitude. You could pick fulfillment as a guide, and still frequently change the tack of your pursuit. But if you read Krenov’s story (and I hope you will) I think the case study in rigidity and conviction that he lived is worthy of consideration. It is not a prescription, but it might be a part of finding your own path.
Due to a mix-up with a wholesale order, we have a handful of copies of the first printing of “The Anarchist’s Workbench” to sell in our store. So if you missed out on the first edition, this is your chance to rectify it.
The book is $27 for the printed version or $0 for the pdf (download the free pdf here).
The second printing is in the works now. If you are a book collector, the second printing will have some physical differences (there are no significant changes to the content – just a couple typo fixes). The book will use a different interior paper and have a different diestamp on the cover. More details on the second printing will come soon.
The first time I met Chris(topher) Williams was in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG). I can’t remember why I was dispatched to pick him up on his introductory visit to the States (maybe there was an author reading going on?), but I was, and I had no idea what he looked like. Arrivals at CVG come up a long escalator, so I hung out at the top, peering down for someone who looked Welsh. I don’t, however, have any preconceived notion of what a Welshman looks like – maybe a strong bow arm? But I spotted a tall man with curly hair in a polo shirt, pulling a large bag (he’d packed a chair in pieces, along with his tools), who looked slightly bewildered and awfully tired of traveling. “Chris?,” I asked, as he stepped off the escalator. Yep. (Must have been the adze arm, not the bow arm.)
On the drive back to the shop, he was fairly quiet. I chalk that up to exhaustion; that was the last quiet moment in his delightful company. Most of the time when I’m with him, he’s making me laugh…or I’m making fun of his penchant for claiming “the Welsh invented that” (the Welsh apparently invented everything).
And after three two-week (or so) long visits, I’ve now spent a fair amount of time in his company either shopping, drinking, driving to a “must-see” site or listening in on his Welsh stick chair classes. Chris is a great deal taller than the average man in Wales, so every time he’s here, I take him shopping at Carhartt’s so he can stock up on his favorite pants with 34″ inseams (apparently he can’t get his beloved long-length Carhartt’s overseas). And Chris loves his red wine; he decimated the supply of Revolution Red at Crafts & Vines, a delightful family owned wine bar that’s around the corner from our shop (I think we’ve ended up there every day it was open during his visits). The owners – and Philip – miss you, Chris!
And I miss Chris, too. He was scheduled to be here in early September to teach a Welsh stick chair class before we all drove out to Amana, Iowa, together for Handworks. I was looking forward to hearing “the Welsh invented basketball” as we rolled through Indiana. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to hang out together again soon.
John Brown had a vast tool collection – a whole chapter could be written about the tools that he amassed over the years, but I will concentrate on his core chairmaking tools. The majority of these tools were of a good vintage but, interestingly, several of his favourites were new. If a particular tool has an intriguing story, I’ll tell you about it.
No. 8 Jointer Plane For jointing boards for chair seats, his favourite was a Stanley No. 8, which had been “stuffed” like an infill plane. Not dissimilar to a Norris or Mathieson plane in appearance to the layman. In truth, he had two of these, one stuffed in mahogany, the other in yew. The one in yew was his favourite as it had been “stuffed” by his son Henry. John loved its huge mass for shooting “the perfect edge” whilst thinking “flat.”
Jack Plane This was used for roughing out chair parts and, in particular, for making chair sticks and legs into octagons.
Two Block Planes JB had a real affection for his Stanley No. 6-1/2 low-angle block plane – this was a vintage one fitted with a Hock blade. He’d use this plane for shaping sticks and in particular for creating the 5/8″ and 1/2″ tenons on the stick ends. I believe whilst teaching at Drew Langsner’s Country Workshops in North Carolina in 1995, the students pooled their money together and bought him a small bronze Lie-Nielsen block plane as a thank you. A few years later he was gifted a Lie-Nielsen No. 60-1/2 low-angle block plane by a friend. During my own time with JB it was these two planes that were never away on his bench. He particularly liked the weight of them in his hand, which he felt was always an advantage in a one-handed tool. Although the plane is typically one for use on end grain, that didn’t bother him, he used it without too much thought. Other makers now wax lyrical about having a spare blade honed at various degrees to eliminate tear-out on long grain. The minutiae of this subject would have no doubt infuriated JB. The tools’ function was to make beautiful chairs not to beautify the grain of the wood. His dumbscrape (more on that later) would sort any tear-out later.
Stanley No. 53 Spokeshave The No. 53 spokeshave was a definite favourite. JB couldn’t understand why modern tool manufacturers didn’t copy its simple design. He felt that the adjustable throat was a huge asset. You can close its throat up tight to take the slightest of shavings. Its raised handles were always a huge positive to him as the No. 53 was used after the scorp (aka inshave) as a surrogate travisher. I’ve talked elsewhere in the book about its use in seat stock preparation. John Brown had several of these and his favourite had been fettled for a Hock blade to fit. Travishers are now de rigueur and although he had a homemade one, I personally can’t recall him particularly using them as a matter of course. The No. 53 was the important tool here.
Braces His brace and bit collection was one of the first things that I noticed when I met him at his workshop. There were several hanging on a rack, each with a different auger bit. The reasons were tenfold, he would often glue up chair seats from two or three boards. The jointed edges required a dowel to strengthen the joint (in his opinion) this needed a 1/2″ dowel, so a brace was allocated for this, which included a Stanley depth stop permanently fitted to the 1/2″ Jennings bit.
Next was an oversized sweep Millers Falls (I believe) brace fitted with a 1″ auger for drilling the leg mortises. He liked the extra size of the sweep whilst drilling the leg mortises
Then a brace fitted with a 5/8″ bit for drilling both the mortises for the sticks that entered the seat and for the mortises in the doubler on the arm, this also included the mortises for the short sticks to enter the arm, and finally the mortises in the legs for the stretchers.
Next, a brace with another 1/2″ Jennings bit for drilling the mortises into the comb and medial stretcher.
Finally, an electrician’s brace with a small sweep. This was important because it allowed him to drill out the mortises for the short stick that is closest to the long sticks in the arm without the brace hitting the back sticks. You must bear in mind that the arm was at this point already fitted over the rear long sticks. The electrician’s brace was fitted with a large 5/8″ auger, which had been extended to reach down through the arm mortise, thus being able to drill the mortises for the short sticks.
This being JB, something had to be different, the bit being 5/8″ was in his words “a smidgen smaller,” which allowed it to penetrate the already-drilled mortises in the arm for the short sticks without enlarging the already-drilled mortises in the arm. There was method in his eccentricities…. I personally did the same for years, but as you can see in the chapter on building the chair, I now use an extended bit in a battery-powered drill. The augers he used were both Irwin and Jennings pattern.
Saws Saws were a subject close to JB’s heart. He realised early on his journey that a good saw was essential to master both in use and maintenance. He owned boxes of them, too many to discuss here, so I’ll tell you just about the relevant ones.
Gent’s Saw A 12″ gent’s saw was used for general workshop use. The tasks included crosscutting sticks to length, cutting the V-groove on the swan neck detail on an arm bow, but probably more importantly it was used to cut the kerfs in the legs’ tenons. The saw bottomed out on the brass back at approximately 1-3/4″, which is an ideal measurement for the length of the kerf.
Bowsaw or Turning Saw These he made himself from oak. Its blade was cut to length from a huge roll of band saw blade that was coiled up. Its use was to cut out arm bow stock. I witnessed this personally, which was a joy to watch. Later on he used the band saw for this grunt work so the bowsaw was used mostly to cut coves on the swan neck detail of his arm bows.
Crosscut and Rip Saws I’ll discuss JB’s favourite crosscut saw here for a few reasons of interest; he wrote an extensive article in Good Woodworking magazine about this saw. It was 26″ long with six teeth per inch. I watched him once crosscut an elm board. Firstly he placed his pocket watch on the board and started sawing. He had previously worked out that if he had correctly set and sharpened the saw and worked to 66 strokes per minute, it took 140 downward strokes to cut through the board. On several occasions I had to study the end grain of a board to witness the marvel of correct sawing.
Etched on its blade is Harley, Old Maymarket, Liverpool. Its fruitwood handle has a medallion which reads J. Tyzack and Son, Sheffield. It was a conundrum to John why the medallion and saw plate had different names. When JB retired he asked if I’d like to choose a saw from his box as a gift – I did and I’m now the custodian of this fine saw for another generation, my name along side J.H. Buchanan, M. Leigh and John Brown on the handle.
The saw intrigued me for some time, so I put a photo of it onto social media and asked for information. Shane Skelton of Skelton Saws contacted me to say it was made by John Harley of Liverpool between 1882 and 1902. John Harley would apparently later become a mechanic. Another person contacted me to ask if I realised what another mark on the saw demarked? I didn’t. It transpired that it was a “Daisy Wheel,” an apotropaic mark that comes from the Greek word for averting evil. The marks were meant to protect from witches and evil spirits. If only a saw could speak.
Adze, Scorp & Drawknife I’ve grouped these three tools together as they were made for JB by his son Matty Sears. John spoke highly of these tools and was proud to own them. Matty is a great craftsman and understands wood and metal in equal proportion. This benefited JB as these tools were immediately user friendly – so many tools are not.
I have seen lots of beautiful adzes that couldn’t chop a chair seat. An adze needs to be made intuitively and become intuitive to the user. This is where the maker’s skill and experience comes into play. The ergonomics of an adze are difficult to describe – the haft has to be the correct shape as does the head. Matty mastered this and he’s developed a technique of forging the head so it can be removed from the haft on a sliding dovetail. This makes maintenance easy, yet the clever part is that whilst being struck, the haft and head tighten. I coveted JB’s adze for years. Now, more than two decades later, I own one. Sentimental? Maybe, but it’s without doubt the best I’ll ever use. And its provenance? I couldn’t ask for more!
The drawknife and scorp I believe were also made by Matty from a leaf spring from an old Land Rover (an iconic British 4×4 vehicle, in case you’re not familiar). Again, both tools were an important part of JB’s arsenal.
Dumbscrape I never asked JB why he called his curved card scraper a dumbscrape. I’ll let John Brown explain it as he did in “Welsh Stick Chairs.”
“God forbid that I should ever have a fire in the workshop, but if I did, and had to get out in a hurry, I’d make sure my dumbscrape was in my pocket. This is a magical tool. Called a cabinet scraper in the tool catalogues, it is sharpened to have a wire edge with a burnisher of hard steel. It cuts like a plane – see the curly shavings on the seat. When they come from the shop they are oblong, four-sided. For this kind of work the edges need grinding to a gentle curve. It is a most pleasing business using a scraper.”
I can remember making one after reading this quote. Back in 1990s I bought a new Sandvik cabinet scraper from my ironmonger and fettled it to shape. There wasn’t a photo of it in WSC so I just made what JB describes. It is without any shadow of doubt a must-have tool for chairmaking and woodworking in general. Its uses are endless. I’m not suggesting that I’ve ever opened a tin of wax polish with one, mind you…woe betide anyone who was reckless with JB’s.
Hammer In “Welsh Stick Chairs” there’s an iconic photo of JB hammering a leg home into the seat. It’s a piece of real theatre, and although I wasn’t present to say for sure how hard he was hitting the leg with the mallet, I can honestly say that I never personally witnessed anything like that. In my experience he used a 16 oz. ball peen hammer to drive legs into seats and sticks into their mortises. Well, at least in retrospect it looked approximately 16 oz. to me. In my own personal experience with JB, the seat stock was thinner. So more of a close fit was needed whilst making tenons fit into their mortises. Particularly if anything other than elm was being used for seat stock.
Mechanic’s Vice The mechanic’s vice was instrumental to John Brown and in particular with how he developed its use for chairmaking. Its use was twofold. One, its being at a suitable work height for sculpting an arm bow (for example). And two, in holding stretcher stock up and away from the bench. Its metal jaws were lined with oak so as not to mar the work. I have described its use in the build section.
Folding Rule A boxwood folding rule was always used instead of a tape measure. It is large enough for the dimensions involved in chairmaking. I’ve discussed how JB disliked measuring things too much; the eye was the important tool for making chairs the John Brown way.
Workbenches John used a few varieties of benches through the years. He wrote some wonderful articles for Good Woodworking on the subject with detailed plans. I’ll briefly discuss two benches.
Workbench No. 1 John made the bench from pine which was readily available PAR (planed all round) from the local builders merchants. He’d dress the edges and laminate the leg stock to roughly 4″ x 4″. The top was glued up from three 9″ x 3″ boards. These were dowelled on the edges – the same way he joined chair seats. Tenons were worked on the ends of the legs, and these were mortised and pierced through the benchtop and wedged.
Stretchers were put around the circumference of the bench low down. He made several benches of this style, and my personal bench is exactly the same. I guess you could say it was more French than British in appearance, particularly in that it didn’t have the typical deep apron that appears on a British Nicholson-style bench.
John always used to make a tool rack that sat to the rear of the bench and ran its full length. This worked fine but it’s one thing I personally dislike; when chopping a chair seat the cacophony created by clanging tools infuriated me. Making chairs should be a peaceful pursuit.
For the purists, the bench measured approximately 6′ in length by 26-1/2″ wide. Lots of benches measure 24″ in width, which is fine for cabinet work but is slightly narrow for a full-blown Welsh chair with its eccentric leg splay. A quick-release vise was used as an end vise.
Workbench No. 2 JB also wrote a great article on his designated chairmaker’s bench. This measured approximately 4′ 6″ long by 27″ wide. It was made from various materials. The top was laminated from plywood, which was then sheathed with oak. Narrow dovetailed aprons then sheathed all of the edges of the ply and oak benchtop.
He made the undercarriage much the same way as mentioned on the first bench, but with much deeper stretchers – 8″ x 1-1/4″ wide rather than 4″ x 2″. This added mass and eliminated racking. The top sat on the legs with only stub tenons instead of the through-tenons of the previous bench. The aprons on the benchtop sat proud of the legs all the way around. A dowel located both through the apron and leg tenon secured the top to its undercarriage.
Three vices were built into this particular bench. One was a standard big Record quick-release. The second was a homemade leg vice, and the third a Veritas twin-screw vice, which ran on a chain. I believe that the bench was inspired after JB saw Drew Langsner’s chairmaker’s bench when he taught at Country Workshop back in the 1990s. And for the bench nerds, it measured 34-1/2″ in height. I used this bench extensively for a number of years and it worked incredibly well – yet with me being 6′ 4″ tall, it was too low. I raised it on 4″ x 4″ timbers to suit me. (Heaven forbid this book should start a debate on the subject of bench height; I mention it purely for posterity.)
Lastly, both of the workbenches’ undercarriages were decorated with paint in JB’s favourite drab green. There was no “Welsh Miserable” involved whatsoever.
Hand Grinder JB was a proponent of the hollow grind and honed his freshly ground edges with oilstones. He wrote quite a lot about its use and was even instrumental in helping to promote a grinder made in Eastern Europe. It was simply attached to what I would loosely describe in appearance as a bench hook. This was held in the mechanic’s vice and by being well up and away from the bench, the hand-cranked handle could be turned without encountering any part of the bench. JB made a simple oak tool rest, which was adjusted with a wedge to attain his 30° degree preferred grinding and honing angle.
A Favorite Chisel I’ll finish up with one chisel in particular – a 1-1/4″ bevel-edged paring chisel. This was never far from him. It was used broadly – and yes, it was struck at times. What more can I say? It’s just a chisel. As I said earlier I could have written a book on JB’s tools. He loved tools. We all must not forget: Tools are necessary to the making of something tangible, to get to the glory of the form, and to one of beauty that John Brown deemed to be “A Chair.”
Interviewing furniture maker Michael Puryear feels a bit like listening in on a geography or sociology class delivered by a laid-back professor with the mellow voice of Richie Havens and a warm, easy laugh. When asked where he grew up, Michael starts further back than most, with the culture of slavery in the southern states – specifically, Virginia, which was home to many of his forebears.
“Those families in the tidewater area did not grow cotton,” he begins, differentiating the area’s history from the widespread stereotype. Slavery existed, for sure, but in varied forms, each tied to a particular region and the agricultural products that would thrive there. The primary crop in tidewater states was tobacco, grown on smaller farms with fewer slaves, many of whom lived in the same house as their masters. Sea island slavery was another form, this one off the coast of Georgia and North Carolina and based on the cultivation of rice and indigo, which these slaves’ ancestors had grown in Africa. Sea island slaves lived in villages they organized themselves and spoke Gullah, the language of their African heritage. Their owners were generally absentee, living in Charleston and Savannah; while there were overseers, the slaves were “pretty much left on their own to do the work.” Finally, there was Antebellum slavery, focused on the growing of cotton in the hot, wet climate of more central southern states with well-drained soils.
Why start with slavery? As Michael says in a quote on the Smithsonian website, he wants “to acknowledge and honor the contributions of African American slaves to this country. Like my own ancestry this heritage began before the founding of the United States. African Americans have fought with honor and loyalty in every war of our nation. They have significantly contributed economically, socially, culturally and politically to American culture.”
From the South, we jumped far to the North, with more eye-opening history. Although Michael’s father’s side of the family has its North American roots in the tidewater area, his father was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and grew up in Philadelphia. Michael explains the move. His paternal grandfather, Moses, was a Baptist minister in Africville, a major terminus of the Underground Railroad.
His paternal grandmother, Elma Clark, died as a consequence of giving birth to her second child, Ruth. Moses remarried and continued to live in Africville with his children; they were still living there on December 6, 1917, when a Norwegian steamship loaded with supplies for a World War I relief effort collided with a French vessel carrying munitions to France, killing almost 2,000 people and injuring some 9,000 others, most of them Halifax civilians. In addition, the blast caused a tsunami that demolished a nearby branch of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. The horror of the explosion was magnified as locals imagined it was the result of a bomb – this was, after all, during a war. Hospitals were overwhelmed by injured people, and even as would-be rescuers headed to the area from Canada and the United States, they found themselves unable to get through as a blizzard covered Halifax and its environs with more than a foot of snow. Michael says his father, Reginald, who was 9 at the time, recalled seeing dead bodies frozen on the ground.
How had I never heard about any of this?
Michael’s grandfather moved to Toronto, where he died, likely of a heart attack, leaving Reginald and Ruth orphaned. The children were sent to live with an aunt in Pittsburgh. As a single mother who worked as a domestic, their aunt already had her hands full, so she arranged for them to attend a boarding school, St. Katharine Drexel School, outside of Philadelphia. Michael’s father went on to high school at the Saint Emma Military Academy in Virginia, and rose to the rank of captain. While there, his best friend introduced him to his sister, Martina Morse. And so began Michael’s immediate family.
The couple made their home in Washington, D.C., where Martina’s family goes back at least four generations. At a time when the highest level of employment an African-American could hope to attain was working for the Post Office or being a teacher, Michael says, “that’s what my parents did” – his father worked in the Post Office; his mother taught school, following a tradition on her side of the family.
Michael was born in 1944, the third of seven children. Early on, they lived in an apartment in the city’s southwest quadrant; the last two of his siblings were born after the family moved to a house on the city’s northeast side. “It was a very nice house,” he remembers – a detached house built in the 1920s with a gambrel roof, hardwood floors and unpainted chestnut trim. There was a garage under the front porch, and a basement, all in “a very nice neighborhood with big yards” around a park-like area that drew opossums and other wildlife. The family of nine lived with a single bathroom, which didn’t even strike them as worthy of notice, though Michael is now especially appreciative of the cooperation and mutual respect this must have required.
“When we moved there, we were the third Black family on the block; the other two were doctors. We were the first one with young kids. The neighborhood became predominantly Black with white flight. When we sold the house, we sold to the first white people moving back to the neighborhood.”
From first through third grade, Michael attended a segregated public school. After the family moved, he switched to an integrated Catholic school, where he almost had to repeat fourth grade – other students were already taking notes, writing in cursive and doing multiplication and division, all of it foreign to him. He persevered and caught up.
His favorite subjects were social studies, geography and science. But some of his most valuable learning experiences came from his parents, who took the children to cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian. “That was an amazing place to go and see the diversity of what man does and the differences in cultures and the natural world. It was really a refuge for us. We would go on our own, when we were old enough, and just spend hours looking in the museum.” He and his siblings also got library cards as soon as they could print their names. “That was also a very important part of my education. Those things [museums and books] created a sense of curiosity, an awareness of something larger than ourselves.”
Their parents also took them camping. “We were the only African-Americans we came across that camped. It wasn’t really an issue, other than that awareness.” These family trips sparked a lifelong love of the outdoors. “One of the most important things to me, as a consequence of growing up, is my awareness and interest in nature,” he says. Later, with his wife, Sarah Wells, he camped, went backpacking, kayaked (they built their own boats), made long-distance trips by bicycle (once riding the entire length of Newfoundland from south to north) and did an extended trip in Europe. He has also been to the Arctic twice with his brother Martin.
He credits his upbringing with instilling a sense of individuality, but adds that “growing up in a close-knit family, we had a sense of responsibility to others, as well. My mother demanded of us a certain level of behavior that I think was even more so than parochial school. I feel fortunate in my growing up. I think my parents basically did an amazing job of giving us what we needed to survive.”
After high school, Michael studied at Howard University for two years but dropped out because he was “floundering.” He points out that he was paying his own way, “the deal my parents made with us. They paid for our grade and high school, and we were expected to pay for our college education. In those days, that was possible. Most of my siblings got scholarships. Howard University was subsidized, so its tuition was reasonable.
“I felt like I was wasting my time and money” he goes on. “I didn’t have a sense of direction, of what I should be doing. There was an expectation that we would all go to school, so when I dropped out, I felt like I was letting my parents down.” He was surprised and grateful when they accepted his decision and said he could live at home, but “’You have to pay a little rent,’” they told him. He got a job as a page at the D.C. Library. “It was seamless,” he says with appreciation. “My guilt was stronger than their reaction.”
Two years later, in 1965, he was drafted into the Army. The Vietnam War was in full force. Because he did well on the entry tests, those in charge wanted him to become an officer. He had his own opinion. “I knew that would be a mistake; I knew as a draftee I would only have to be on active duty for two years, and if I had become an officer, I would have to have an active duty period of four years. That wasn’t a very good equation, as far as I was concerned. I was actually against the war. It was before there was a lot of counseling about being a resistor.” Besides the lack of guidance for those who might have sought conscientious objector status, he felt a sense of responsibility to his parents to fulfill his duty as a citizen.
During basic training there were so many draftees that instead of barracks, Michael’s unit slept in tents set up with six cots apiece on concrete pads left over from the World War II. “It was better,” he thinks, “because you were not under the constant eye of the sergeants.” He volunteered to be a truck driver, which got him out of kitchen patrol and guard duty.
He recognizes he was fortunate. He was trained as a medical lab tech doing biochemistry and toxicology in St. Louis, which kept him from going to Vietnam. The job wasn’t on a military base, and the hours, from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., with no weekends, were easy. All in all, he says, “it was very un-military!” He never even wore his dress uniform, because they wore whites at work.
After two years, he’d satisfied his military obligation and returned to his job at the library in Washington, D.C., where he ended up working for 11 years, advancing from page all the way to supervisor of circulation.
He traces his career in furniture making back to this job at the library. “I was always interested in design, in shape and form,” he explains. “I was teaching myself photography at that point; it was form that was very much part of the images I was making. I became aware of the Shakers and the Scandinavian furniture movement. There were books there! I started reading books about woodworking.”
At this point he brings the conversation back to the neighborhood where he grew up: it was populated by homeowners who worked office jobs for the government, but most of them worked on their own homes, and neighbors helped each other. When his father was painting their house, Mr. Morris around the corner pitched in with his ladder. Michael’s father had been trained as an electrician in high school, which made him a real neighborhood asset. “It didn’t seem like a big deal,” Michael remarks. “You figure out how to do [something], and you do it.” He and his older brother, Martin, agree that attitude gave them the confidence to pursue their interests in art and craft. The family had a workshop in the basement and access to a range of tools – chisels, planes, screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, most of them manufactured by Stanley, from the tool chest their mother had given their dad when they were first married. (“It was probably from Montogmery Ward,” Michael adds.) “I used to hang out with [Dad] and other neighbors who were handy. I was like their buddy. They would tolerate me. I would be like a go-fer. That was very important to who I have become.”
At some point while working at the library, Michael became aware of James Krenov and Wharton Esherick. “What they were doing was very interesting to me,” he remembers. Working at the library was “a great job, with nice people. But there was something about it that felt like, ‘I wanted to live what I call an integrated life.’”
He went back to college on the GI Bill and got a degree in anthropology.
Life in New York
“I’d been doing photography and had some recognition. Looking at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, there were Penn and Hiro and [other] well-known photographers.” When his girlfriend at the time transferred from American University to Pratt in New York, Michael thought he’d move to the city with her and become a photographer. He quickly found he “didn’t know anything about running a business. You can have all the skill you have, but if you don’t know how to run a business, you’ll fail.”
He had a landlord who was a plumber; the landlord happened to be working on a kitchen for a client. The brownstones in north Brooklyn were just starting to be converted from rental apartments back to single-family homes. Michael did the kitchen with his older brother. Word got around as people on the block saw him working; they asked if they could hire him. Then a friend who taught college and had invested in four brownstones asked Michael to renovate them all, which gave him significant experience.
But as much as he enjoyed the work, he says he found “being a contractor was much more about the headaches – the estimates, the crew, material procurement, subcontractors…” He decided to move away from general contracting to work of more pointed scope. Kitchen cabinets were a start; he’d built some before he even had a shop, in the basement of the house where he’d been living. But with kitchen cabinets, he said, “the only creative aspect of it was the facades.” (Ouch.)
The first piece of furniture he made and sold was a desk for the friend with the brownstones. With time, he got more commissions and the work became increasingly interesting. “At a certain point,” he says, “I decided to call myself a furniture maker.” He ended up working as a furniture maker, sharing a shop with friends at Brooklyn Model Works, whose company did props and special effects for advertising and film. He learned on the job; with each succeeding piece, he’d add “one aspect that I had not done before” to develop new skills. Again, books were invaluable – Charles Hayward on joinery, “Cabinetmaking & Millwork” by John Feirer, the “Encyclopedia of Furniture.”
In 1976 he met photographer Sarah Wells, who would become his wife. Sarah and a friend moved into a loft on the Bowery; as Michael’s relationship with her developed, he moved in with them. A couple of creatives making a home together in a New York loft may sound enviable today, but Michael is quick to bring that fantasy back to reality: “It was pretty rough. We were heating with a wood stove.” In 1980 they were bought out by the restaurant supply business across the street. “That was the first example I knew of a loft being turned back into a commercial space,” he laughs.
They moved to a loft in Chelsea that became home for the next 25 years. Sarah did photography for artists, collectors, galleries and museums. (Two examples of books illustrated by her photographs are “Against the Grain: Bentwood Furniture From the Collection of Fern & Manfred Steinfeld” and “The Newark Museum Collection of American Art Pottery”.) “People loved her,” he says. “I always considered that she was so unjudgmental. She didn’t have strong negative responses to people. So we would have community dinners – we had a tradition of having a Thanksgiving dinner in our loft where we would have 25 people. You couldn’t ask for a better life, in a way, other than that you had to always think about being evicted!”
Michael flourished as a furniture maker. In the late 1980s he was accepted to the first show he ever applied to – at no less than the Smithsonian Museum of Craft. Encouraged, he started doing more shows – the Philadelphia Furniture Show, the Philadelphia Museum Craft Show and the Ace Craft Show in Evanston, Ill. – and kept at it for about 20 years. “These were considered the top shows,” he notes. “They were run by women’s committees – well-to-do women. So the clients, the people who came, were of that class.” But despite the well-heeled visitors, he found that he and his fellow furniture makers made surprisingly few sales at the shows. “Furniture has always been a tough sell,” he reasons. “People don’t buy it just on a whim, the price point and being a large item they had to have the space and need. All my furniture-maker friends, we talked about how it was the stepchild of the craft show, while people doing ceramics, fabric and jewelry sold well. People felt free to buy [those things].” Furniture, on the other hand, required a major investment – “more than most people would do at the drop of a hat.” Over this entire period, he thinks he sold two or three pieces off the floor at shows. Instead, he says, the value of doing shows “was more about talking to people,” checking back with them later and developing a reputation based on word of mouth once people had seen his work in person. His one effort at advertising in magazines was in Metropolis early on; while that didn’t directly bring in any business, it brought him name recognition.
Meanwhile, he and Sarah shared a life rich in outdoor experiences. They took off a month every summer and went on a trip; they took a week-long back-country ski trip in the winter. “There was not a lot of money involved, but we used to be amazed how much we could do with so little money. It felt like the integrated life I wanted to live.” They backpacked in the Canadian Rockies and the deserts of the Southwest, kayaked the coast of Maine, skied New England and Canada, traveled up the Amazon while in Brazil and studied Tai Chi in China. They were paying $800 a month for their loft in Chelsea, and New York State Loft Law kept the monthly payment at that rate for 25 years.
After Sarah died of cancer in 1998, Michael stayed on in the loft. A new owner bought the building as an investment. More and more of those moving into lofts were not artists but well-paid professionals who coveted the spacious live-in studios in old industrial buildings. Michael understands. “They wanted some of that, too!” Unable to recoup his investment with rents so low, the building’s new owner asked Michael if he’d be willing to be bought out. Finally, in 2005, he was ready to move.
Making a New Life
At first he thought he’d find a place in Brooklyn, but rents were “skyrocketing,” while his income was not. His brother Martin had moved from Chicago to the Catskills; Michael was familiar with the area because he and Sarah had spent time there. He figured he could run his business there just as well as in the city. It took two years to find the right place, in part because he needed shop space, but he eventually found an 1870s farmhouse in Catskill Park. Though the property around the house had originally belonged to the farm, it had been subdivided and developed with houses.
The barn would serve fine as a shop, though it needed major renovation – insulation, electrical wiring, heating and more recently, plumbing. At 24′ x 36′ with 10′ ceilings, it’s smaller than his former shop in Brooklyn, which had about 1,000 square feet and (my heart!) a 15′ ceiling, “but it works,” he says; “I really like it.” And while Michael doesn’t have any domestic animals at present, he shares his piece of earth with bears, deer, foxes, woodchucks, rabbits and skunks, as well as lots of wild birds. “I’m pretty happy here. I have what I need. As you get older, you don’t really need a lot more.”
Michael’s work has slowed since the 2008 recession. For a few years he was part of a group called the Hudson Valley Furniture Makers, with young and older members. The group’s activities in person together “kind of fizzled,” though he says they’re all still friends.
He still gets jobs from time to time, such as a bench for Brockport College near Rochester. The college gave lumber from some trees on campus to six New York furniture makers who would design and build benches for the school. In 2015 he was a visiting artist at Australian National University in Canberra. And he would have participated in the 2020 World Wood Day event in Japan, had it not been cancelled, along with so much else, due to the pandemic.
On the other hand, as a furniture maker who lives and works alone, he says the pandemic hasn’t affected him as badly as it has many others. For fun he bikes, goes fly fishing or skis. He visits friends at a distance and thinks “there’s no point in railing against it, because you can’t do anything about it.”
He also continues to teach. His first teaching job was at Penland in 1995; he taught there again in ’96, ’97, 2002 and 2006. Since then, he has taught at Arrowmont, Anderson Ranch, Haystack, Parsons, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and SUNY Purchase. He’s now teaching a series of classes at the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s wooden boat school called “Foundations of Woodworking,” which covers understanding wood, the use and care of tools and joinery, and culminates in a project. “That’s a lot of fun, because it’s people who aren’t seeking a degree. They just want to learn stuff. I’ve always liked teaching, because, one, it clarifies your thinking about what you do, and the other thing is that I just like working with the people. They’re so grateful, so appreciative. And a lot of them are discovering things about themselves they didn’t know.” Classes have just started up again; he’ll start teaching in late September. On top of this, he teaches boatbuilding.
Boatbuilding? I asked. Isn’t that a specialized subject?
“There’s something about reading,” he chuckles. “I taught myself photography from reading. I taught myself woodworking from reading. It’s the curiosity that’s the important part.”
See a Smithsonian interview of Michael Puryear here.
See American Craft magazine’s article about Michael.
We’ve ordered more copies from the printer, but it will be about five weeks before we are back in stock on both titles.
In the meantime, you can still buy these titles from our retailers and support some family businesses that we like.
I apologize we have had problems keeping books in stock in recent days. These shortages are not a crass marketing ploy to goose demand by limiting supply.
Lost Art Press has grown a lot in the last two years, and we are still trying to figure out how many copies to order with each press run. We need to find the (new) sweet spot. Why not order 20,000 copies of each book instead of 4,000? Among the many reasons: It ties up money we could be using on other projects and it costs money to store extra inventory in a climate-controlled environment.