Updated: Oct 18, 2020
I've created and worked in about 12 shops over the past 40 years. I guess I could include in that count my first workbench (let's make it 13 shops), bought by my wonderful parents for me when I was 8 years old. It was placed down in the basement and had a vise of sorts which I was endlessly fascinated by and I used it for everything. My two brothers also received their own benches. Of us three boys, I think I spent the most time there. I had the patience and attention span (this was well before personal computers and iphones) to become totally submerged, body, mind, and soul in my projects, spending 6 hours at a stretch at my bench. I made model cars, Estees rocket kits, and eventually started making my own creations. Just stuff I made up: My rocket designs became pretty complex. I made sculptural creations, panoramic street scenes of 18th century Boston after reading a most beloved book by Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (which made a significant impact on me). That had actual battery powered lights. I made a little bit of everything; lots of whatnots. My attempts at perpetual motion machines were probably my most creative inventions.
Fast forward to my graduation from Haverford College with majors in music and biology. I spent a rather dismal year in the molecular biology lab at Vanderbilt U. in a graduate program. I left that in my early twenties & worked at my dad's tree farm and did manual labour with the landscape crew in Malvern, PA. I was lucky enough during this time to find an apprenticeship with E. Townsend Moore in the tiny Chester County village of Darling, near Media, PA. Townie was in his 70's when I met him and he was the last of a long line of Chester County period furniture makers. I spent almost 2 years of very happy weekends at his shop. He was a most kind and patient teacher who took me under his wing once he saw my passion and potential. I had nothing to give him in return, so after every session, I'd get on my hands and knees and thoroughly clean his shop top to bottom for which we was always grateful. After about 18 months I was pretty much able to look at a photo of a period piece and reproduce it on my own.
Unfortunately, this all ended when I entered medical school at Hershey, PA.
It took about 20 years before I had either the time or the tools to really start back into making furniture. I found that I had lost much of the skills that were once second nature to me during the golden time at Townie's woodshop. Balancing work as an anesthesiologist, a family of seven, and a shop was challenging, so I mostly dabbled and took an occasional class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, ME, the WoodenBoat school in Brooklin, Maine, and a few classes with some master furniture makers. I was able to create a fairly thriving windsor chair business and was doing reproduction pieces for historic sites and museums. Things were really taking off before a series of life events and yet another move left me without a shop for the next 8 years.
After Mr. Moore, I probably owe the most from Chuck Bender who ran the Acanthus Workshop outside of Pottstown, PA, not far from my home in Chester County. Chuck was a major influence, pushing me up a notch to a fairly high level as a furniture maker. I consider Chuck one of the very finest makers of American period furniture. There really is nothing that he cannot make, including the most difficult and complexly carved Philadelphia Chippendale pieces. I learned so much about economy and efficiency of technique from Chuck. .
But let's get back to the topic......
I have had many shops in many locations over the past 30 years: starting with a few tools in my garage in my first rented home (with 5 kids) in Ephrata, PA, to a freezing cold garage with one of those mildly asphyxiating "Ready-Heaters" in Watertown, NY, to a counter top in an old general store, to a magnificent newly built barn with a stone foundation in W. Martinsburg, NY (outside Lowville, near Watertown), to a repurposed garage in Mechanicsville, VA, to another garage shop in Ahoskie, NC, and finally a large basement shop in Forest, VA. There were a few other shops in between all these. We currently split our time between Forest and Camden, Maine.
So, I guess you could say that I've had some time to think about what makes a shop work. Despite this, all my shops had continually evolved as long as I worked in them, always gaining in efficiency, user-friendliness, and economy. The process really never ends. I've been in Forest, VA for almost 12 years now and am still reworking & fine-tuning my space.
The Maine Coast Workshop in Camden, Maine has been an interesting (and fun) project. Currently, as we transition more from Virginia to Maine, I'm still only there a few months of the year, so I have had to work almost everything out from a distance. A woodshop is an incredibly complex organism. There are so many facets which usually need to develop organically over an extended period of time for things to work well. To add to that complexity was the added layer of my desire for a first-class woodworking school, incorporating the needs and expectations of instructors and students.
I think I've achieved this, bypassing the usual long-term evolution. I don't think it would have been possible without all those years of setting up shops for furniture making and the knowledge gained thereby. I understand how a shop works. But this required many years of first hand experience as well as learning from the shops of some masters: Mario Rodriquez, Phil Lowe, Chuck Bender.
The goal was to create a warm, intimate ambience that would be inviting for my students. Important features included lots of natural light, an 'old woodshop' aesthetic with barn doors & a natural pine floor. I also wanted to be able to tuck all the machines into a corner, out of the way, to be largely unseen for the hand-tool only & carving classes that were planned. I wanted this to be a place that would be eminently hospitable, inviting, and non-intimidating for beginner students.
During the wonderfully comfortable summer months in Camden, the windows are open for an inviting sea breeze. Located in the Historic District close to the harbour, and with the surrounding formal gardens, the place is uniquely enchanting in Fall and Winter as well.
I've attracted the finest master teachers for my instructors. Classes will be kept small and intimate so each student, no matter the skill level, can receive maximal individual attention.
Here's the lineup for 2021:
Alex Grabovetskiy - Classical Carving, June 14-18, 2021
Marty Leenhouts - Chip Carving, June 19-21, 2021
Frank Strazza - Marquetry and inlay, July 5-8, 2021
Mary May - Acanthus & Relief Carving Deep Dive, July 12-16, 2021
Matt Kenney - Make a Contemporary Tea Cabinet, Aug. 9-14
Ray Journigan - Make the (highly carved) John Elliot Chippendale Stool, September 13-18
Alf Sharp - 'Make a Queen Anne Chair', Oct. 4-9
So with that introduction, here's my shop. It will evolve and change as long as I'm working in it, but I think it's starting off on a pretty solid footing..........
The Maine Coast Workshop features:
6 student benches with 2 vises each, and a master instructor's bench
Student hand tool and carving sets
Full slate of power tools including 8" jointer, 15" planer
A large library of woodworking, carving, and traditional arts books & videos
Coffee & beverages provided
Pine floors are easy on the feet
Lots of natural light
A beautiful setting at our 1840 period home. Nice gardens for stretching out & taking breaks. Only 2 blocks from the Camden Harbour. Camden is voted each year "the prettiest village in Maine" and is rated one of the top 10 best small town destinations in the USA by Conde Naste Traveler.
A wonderful lunch from area restaurants is provided