I completed my first real woodworking project in 1999, at the age of 20 (I remember I wasn't 21 yet because a friend had to buy me a bottle of champagne to celebrate when it was finished). It was a stand and canopy for my reef aquarium, made out of mahogany, teak, and figured ash plywood. I was surprised to see how expensive manufactured stands were, and I thought I could do it myself, to save some cash. Although I never took woodshop in high school, I learned the basics of woodworking by watching my grandfather build projects when I was a kid, so I bought a cheap tablesaw and router, then got to work. I wanted to make something unique, out of materials that were different than the standard oak and pine stands I'd seen, so someone told me to check out Owl Lumber, a local hardwood company close to where I was living in Wheaton, IL. I recognized the different types of beautiful hardwoods Owl carried, in the bass guitar catalog I got with my Alembic bass, years before.
As I became more and more interested in woodworking. I bought issues of Fine Woodworking and watched shows like New Yankee Workshop, to learn more. While watching an episode of HGTV's Modern Masters, I learned of the California woodworker, Sam Maloof. Like many people, I was impressed with his rocking chairs. They reminded me of the sculpted bass guitars made by Carl Thompson. Maloof mentioned in his segment of the show that his house and shop were in danger of being torn down to make room for a highway. I knew that Highway 210 was being extended where I used to live in LaVerne, CA., and I wondered if he lived near there. After reading Adamson's book, The Furniture of Sam Maloof, I learned that I practically lived next door to him when I was a kid, and that I had few indirect connections with him. My dad grew up on College Avenue, in Claremont, not far from the Vortox Air Cleaner Company, where a local businessman named Herman Garner gave Sam one of his first jobs. Mr. Garner also sold a unique parcel of land on a mesa to my mom's parents to build their house on, off of Old Baldy Rd., in Claremont. This house was about a half mile away from the Pauda Hills Theater that Sam designed menus and posters for, as well as for the Mexican Players, who also provided the musical entertainment at my parent's wedding. My dad's parents moved to Alta Loma in the mid 80's, right between the site of Sam's old house, on Highland Ave, and his new one, on Carnelian St. I had the pleasure of speaking with Sam twice. Once briefly in 2004, and in the fall of 2008 he invited me to his new residence for a root beer, even though he was recovering from surgery. I remember being somewhat intimidated walking into his cathedral sized living area and a little starstruck when I met him again. My mind blanked on most of the questions I wanted to ask him but he kindly guided me through the conversation, inquiring about my background and woodworking experiences. Eventually, I relaxed and spent a couple hours talking to him, sitting on what I assumed was one of his prototype chairs, probably worth more than my life. I mentioned to him that it had been difficult getting started as a woodworker. He said he struggled too at first, but now he had a five year back log of orders. I joked with him, "but you're 92 and probably the most successful woodworker of all time. I'm 29 and I'm not sure if I have enough money to drive back to Pennsylvania." He laughed and said I could do it. Later, we walked up a winding stairway up to his wood shed. I think he may have rolled down it a couple of times, if I had not caught him. I wasn't about to have national treasure injure himself on my watch. Not many people get the opportunity to spend that amount of time with the person they look up to and try to model their career on. When I'd feel overwhelmed with the work I needed to get done or when I'd wish I made more money as a woodworker, I'd look back on the conversation I had with Sam to get the motivation to keep working at it. He passed away that following spring.
Building a Career
After graduating Northern Illinois University around 2002, I had difficulty finding the high paying corporate job I falsely thought I was entitled to. Whenever I'd have a meeting with a school guidance counselor or sometimes a job interview, I'd be asked what my interests were, and I'd spend the entire meeting talking about woodworking. After spending over a year doing trim carpentry and painting my best friend's parent's house, I decided to expand my construction skills to home building. Home construction and architecture had always interested me so I read several books and watched plenty of shows to give me a decent understanding of how homes were built, from the foundation to framing, to plumbing and electrical systems . I found many examples of fine home architecture in the Chicago area, especially in the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, in Oak Park. In the mid-2000's, home building was a lucrative business so I thought I'd start working for a home builder. One of my dad's friends was business partners with Bill Felton, a home builder in eastern PA. My interest in woodworking lead to a meeting with Bill while visiting my Dad in Newtown Square. He hired me as a trim carpenter and I moved to Pennsylvania. As I learned more and more about home construction with Bill, I wanted a house of my own, to which I could apply my skills. Bill was looking for a old warehouse to recreate a successful art center he had built, so he invited out to Pottstown, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, to look at a warehouse and houses for sale. There I found a beautiful, Victorian home on Walnut St. that certainly could use a little TLC. With the rental income from the family living on the second floor, it was also within my budget. I closed on my house in late 2006 and Bill bought the warehouse, a block away on Beech St. I thought I was in great shape. I had a job, a house, and had just bought a new truck, then the housing crash of 2008 came around and ruined everything. Nobody, including Bill, was building houses so I turned to woodworking to make money. It's not easy to start a business in the middle of a recession, in a new area where I knew half a dozen people. A good friend of mine introduced me to a contractor and cabinet maker named Lou Ronca, who needed some help getting projects done because he was slowing down with terminal cancer. Even though I knew Lou for a relatively short time, he taught me a lot about woodworking and especially shop safety, an area that I had not paid too much attention to previously. While building cabinets with Lou, I continued to build sculptural furniture with his machinery that was vastly superior to what I had been using. In late 2008, although the economy had stalled his warehouse project, Bill invited me to use the west wing of the 60,000 square foot building as a shop in exchange for maintenance of the building. For several years, I honed my skills as a woodworker in that old building, while looking after it.
After meeting Sam Maloof again in 2008, I really wanted to further pursue fine furniture making. Lou's friend and accomplished woodworker, Ray Kelso, generously vouched for me and I got accepted to exhibit at the Philadelphia Invitational Furniture Show. Being one of the youngest exhibitors, the more established woodworkers at the show were supportive and encourage me to continue making furniture, even though I was technically their competition. I participated in the show again the following year and had my library ladder accepted in the Wharton Esherick Museum's "Step Right Up" woodworking competition. The Wharton Esherick Museum and George Nakashima's Studio have been inspiring places to live near. I was invited to participate in the Wharton Esherick Museum's Poplar Culture exhibit, in 2012. I made a pair of candle staffs, selling one at the show.
Living in the Great Borough of Pottstown, PA.
As the United States shifted to more of service based economy towards the end of the 20th century, many older, manufacturing based towns, like Pottstown, were hit pretty hard economically. Also, many people became less inclined to contend with the maintenance that 19th century houses require and opted to move to new houses on large lots in new developments. This lack of demand lead to a large inventory of antique houses in places like Pottstown, often in states of disrepair, with low selling prices. For someone like me, this provided a great opportunity. I recognized that the craftsmanship and materials used to build my house in 1890 were in many ways far superior to what were used in houses built today. I was able to buy a solid brick, 2264sqft house with oak flooring, mahogany and chestnut woodwork, a set of 9' double entry doors, and 10' ceilings for the price of a vinyl clad, townhouse in suburbia with the architectural details of a cracker box. After my tenants left in 2009, I converted my house to a single family and was able to really dig in and start renovating by replacing the horribly inefficient, steam heating system with a high efficiency, gas heater with central AC, and insulating the exterior walls. I found more than I beautiful antique house in Pottstown, I found my beautiful wife, too. After being introduced to her in the spring of 2011, I learned that she lived about a block away from me, in a nicely renovated carriage house apartment, on King St. Not only did she not mind that I lived in house that was half torn apart she actually moved in to help me put it back together, later that fall.
For years, all I did was either work with wood or work on my house, by myself. Besides my puppy dog, Dakota, it was really great to have a partner, like Athena, to actually do things with. I don't like to admit it, but some of our arguments about the design elements of our house have lead to better ways of laying out floor plans or selecting more appropriate wall colors than what I might have chosen without her rather tenacious input. Actually, I was so happy spending time with her, I asked her to marry me on my birthday, at the base of our staircase, in 2013. We got married the following year.
Even though Athena and I were working hard to improve where we lived, some areas of Pottstown still needed a little help getting back on track. While building a oak pergola, for a community garden on Chestnut St., I was able to meet several people living near me and I was asked if I'd be interested in running for city council. I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to meet more people and a chance to see what I could do to help improve the borough, since I didn't see myself moving any time soon. In 2014, I was sworn in. Since then, it's been a real privilege being a public servant of the good people of the first ward of Pottstown. If you really want a front row seat at what's going on in your local government, join it. One of my more notable decisions was to approve the redevelopment of my ex-shop warehouse. Some people didn't like that it was going to be renovated into affordable apartments but most embraced the idea. Doing this forced me out of my working place but I thought it was better for the neighborhood to have the building renovated before it completely fell apart. I do miss the size of the old shop but I find that I work more efficiently with my shop at home. It's much warmer in the winter, too. In 2015, the Reading Eagle featured our home in the Floor Plans section its newspaper.
In 2016, Athena and I welcomed to the world our first born son, Asher. It took a lot of work to get the house prepared for his arrival but we did it. I even had time to finish a custom cradle, right before his due date, although he decided to arrive ten days later.
Athena currently is an art teacher for two of Pottstown's elementary schools and in 2016, her brother and his family bought a house just a few houses down from us. Long time Pottstown resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Tom Hylton, was nice enough to write an article about us in his column, published in the Pottstown Mercury Newspaper. Pottstown's situation continues to improve with many new developments on the way. I fortunately continue to get a steady stream woodworking commissions and, as always, Athena I continue to work on this old house.