A little bit about my school & my journey
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
I'm reprinting an article that came out in Popular Woodworking Magazine a few months back with a few updates. Writer and woodworker, Colin Knoff, did a wonderful job asking good questions and putting this together. I think he has captured the essence of what I'm up to .
Camden Harbour, Maine
William Brown is a lifelong woodworker who’s decided to channel his passion for the craft into a brand new woodworking school, Maine Coast Workshop. We interviewed him to learn more about the school, himself, and the future of woodworking.
Why are you starting this school? Why now? I’ve been making high-end reproduction and historically inspired furniture for 40 years. After graduating from Haverford College (in PA) with majors in music & biology, I thought I wanted to get a doctorate in molecular biology. However, after 12 miserable months, I realized that I needed to work creatively with my hands. I had a very strong sense that I wanted to work with wood over any other media. So I took off a few years, worked at my dad’s tree nursery hoeing fields and digging trees and worked on my brother’s landscape crew. At that time, in the early 1980’s. there was very little formal opportunity to learn woodworking on a hands-on level. There was almost nothing available in the way of classes. Having minimal funds, I wrote letters to furniture makers throughout the US enquiring about working as an apprentice. No one would take me.
Wm. Francis Brown photo 2019 by Joshua Farnsworth, 'Wood & Shop'
To cut the story short, I’m an anesthesiologist and a passionate student of period furniture making. I just kept learning more about woodworking through the years and used every opportunity to gain more skills. I’ve acquired a full shop of third-hand tools slowly over 30 years. My passion for furniture making and carving has only increased in time. That’s a long lead-in to your question- I’m starting classes because I feel that I’ve accomplished much of what I had hoped to as a maker. I’ve made everything from high-end baroque carved Philadelphia Chippendale pieces to Federal furniture incorporating elaborate hand-made inlay, bandings, and veneer. I’ve made over 50 Windsor chairs of every design, and even specialize with my current carving of Bellamy style eagles.
Can you imagine a more picturesque setting for a workshop?
When I started thinking about starting a school, I had to consider that there are a number of craft schools out there and the Maine coast happens to have a particularly high concentration. Would another school be viable? Fortunately, my areas of interest happen to provide a niche that dovetails and nicely complements the other surrounding schools. Peter Korn’s ‘Center For Furniture Craftsmanship’ is 15 minutes away. I’ve taken many classes there over the years and am a big supporter and admirer of his school. Their multi-acre campus focuses more on contemporary work and longer-term apprenticeships. The focus of Kenneth and Angela Kortemeier’s wonderful ‘Maine Coast Craft School’, an hour away in Bristol, ME, is primarily green woodworking and hand-tool only work. My ‘Maine Coast Traditional Arts Workshop’ will focus on classical high-end carving, 18th century Chippendale, Queen Anne, Federal, and 19th century Shaker projects and techniques. We’ll utilize a mix of hand and power tools when necessary. Indeed, there will be areas of overlap with these schools, but I think that we will all work together well to complement and strengthen each other. I continue to direct interested students to these fantastic schools when it best suits what they are looking for.
Mid-coast Maine has become truly a unique mecca for woodworking education, covering the gamut of possibilities. In addition to being just a beautiful place for a family to visit, we now can offer every option for students wanting an opportunity to further their woodworking skills. What’s been the most difficult part? Well, probably just the amount of time that I now spend on my computer, which I really do not enjoy. I’d rather be in the shop! There are so many aspects to making this school a reality. My sense of responsibility to students and teachers makes it all a bit scary at times. Early on, I had to assess my chances of getting some good instructors. I sent about 20 inquiries out, to the very best makers and carvers that I knew. Having been immersed in woodworking for most of my life and having achieved status as an award-winning furniture maker and carver myself, I knew who was doing the finest quality work out there. I received a very interesting mix of replies from my letters, with comments ranging from “sounds interesting, but I think I’ll wait” (the most common) to the downright skeptical (one guy told me to give it up), to a few who were just downright excited and enthusiastic, saying “I’d love to come, sign me up!”. Oddly enough, almost all of my top choices, whose work I most respected, and who also were, crucially, some of the finest teachers, were the most excited about coming! Folks like Alf Sharp from TN, who’s won every award there is for his period work; Alexander Grabovetskiy, from Florida who’s been nominated as “best carver in the world”; Ray Journigan, SAPFM Cartouche winner and very well known as a master teacher (he’ll be teaching 3 classes); Graham Blackburn, author of over 25 books and a legendary hand-tool expert, and others of like caliber all replied with a strong show of enthusiasm and support.
In addition to returning instructors Alf Sharp from TN, Ray Journigan from VA, Matt Kenney from MA, and Alex Grabovetskiy from FL, for 2021, I've had interest expressed from Charleston master carver Mary May, PA period furniture maker Steve Latta, TX marquetry expert Frank Strazza, MA windsor chairmaker Shawn Murphy, and a few other potential surprises. Yes, I'll do a Bellamy eagle carving class once I get over my shyness about teaching. As promised we'll be adding some other traditional arts this year, including floor cloth making by one of the top makers in New England. A few other potential surprises so be sure to sign up for updates below.
Instructor Alf Sharp......
A small sample of the woodworkers and projects available at the school.
Ray Journigan, instructor......
Alexander Grabovetskiy, instructor......
Matt Kenney, instructor
I have tremendous respect for these artisans and what they have accomplished, so it’s very exciting to be able to host them at my shop in Maine. Students, from beginners to advanced, will have the opportunity to rub shoulders with masters and to learn more in one week than they could after many years on their own.
Some of my stuff........
What does woodworking mean to you? For me woodworking has been a tremendously enriching aspect of my life. I love everything about wood (except the splinters and the dust!). I knew I did not want to work with clay or really any other medium. Maybe it was growing up on a tree farm, I don’t know, but I have a certain reverence for wood. Furniture making involves all of the senses and there’s a degree of physicality that has always appealed to me. For example, years ago I had a busy Windsor chair business. That building process, from the splitting of a fresh red oak tree, to riving and draw-knifing the chair parts, to the shaping of a seat and bending the arms, was a significant physical workout which I thoroughly enjoyed. I love the variety of patterns and figure in the local hardwoods that I use. I love learning new techniques and pushing my limits beyond my comfort zone with each new project. I love designing new pieces and then executing the designs. I work from napkin type sketches and my pieces often develop organically as I make them, so there’s a certain creativity an open-endedness that’s always there.
There seems to be no end of new things to learn, better ways to do things, new aspects of woodworking to explore. Woodworking allows me to exercise that creativity within the bounds of what wood allows. Wood is a medium that permits a very wide range of artistic expression. For example, I’m working on combining my carving interests with hollow turned forms. This encompasses two typically quite separate areas of expertise. Carved turnings, along the line of what Dixie Biggs in FL is doing, is a new frontier I’m currently exploring. Working strictly within the parameters of traditional forms, there’s lots of room for originality and creativity. As another example, I enjoy coming up with my own “historically-inspired” line-and-berry designs, a style unique to my roots and derived from the Chester County, PA 17th and 18th century Welsh.
These are all reasons that I love woodworking. It’s maybe a cliché, but there is tremendous satisfaction derived from actually making substantial and beautiful things with your hands. This is something that I want to impart to young folk who are often submerged in a universe of technology. There’s a joy and heightened sense of self that comes with woodworking that one must experience to appreciate. I want to do all I can to give young folk (and old folks too!) a chance to experience this. Your school is focused on historic woodworking techniques- do you see this as key to the future of woodworking? How do we get the younger generations involved? Yes, I want to set my school apart by focusing mostly on traditional 18th-century woodworking and carving. I’ve got some more contemporary projects too, such as Matt Kenney’s amazing Tea Chest class, but the emphasis is with what I know best: traditional woodworking and hand tools. I cannot say what the future of woodworking will be. We certainly live in an age driven by Walmart and Ikea aesthetics; a throw-away society with perhaps an unprecedented lack of understanding or appreciation of hand craftsmanship or of hand skills in general. That said, the pendulum does swing, and there’s clearly been a backlash against the modern plastic commercial, electronic push-button culture that most of us live in. I think there’s a yearning to relearn some of the old ways and to once again achieve some measure of the peace, quiet, and satisfaction that can only come from developing hand skills in the production of beautiful, substantial, solid things.
Curtis Island, a short kayak ride my shop (Brown will take anyone out there who's up for it)
I want to do what I can to get young people into the shop, using their hands, finding the pleasure and satisfaction that comes with making things of beauty that will last for generations. There are also life-long values that come along with this such as self-discipline, patience, and the rewards of sustained concentration and effort over a long period of time. As I mentioned above, I feel a significant debt of gratitude toward my mentor who gave so much of himself in introducing me to period furniture making. I’ve carried with me a desire to do the same for others and I feel that this is my opportunity to do so. I plan to introduce incentives for college and high school age students, such as scholarships, discounts, apprenticeships, and outreach to primary schools, and I’m coming up with more ideas to get young folk involved. I’d be very happy knowing that at least a few have caught the bug from my efforts