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