Woodworking is more than just a job Craft is part of Woodwards' family heritage

October 07, 1993|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

Ask James S. Woodward why he became a cabinetmaker and he'll say jokingly, "I had to eat."

But when one sees the furniture showroom in his Uniontown home, it's evident that he meant to say, "I had to build."

"My father could sort of build anything and everything," said Mr. Woodward, as he relaxed in an armchair in his Carroll County living room. "And when I was a kid, I'd watch."

When he grew up and started to build, his own sons watched -- and continued the legacy of woodworking that remains the foundation of the Woodward family's furniture restoration and reproduction business.

"We're sort of cabinet makers/antique dealers," said David, a cabinetmaker and the youngest of Mr. Woodward's two sons who now operate the business. "Sometimes, we'll buy things at auctions, take them back to the shop and repair them.

"Usually, they're in rough shape," he said as he walked through the furniture-packed showroom in the family home. "We'll work hard to bring them back to life."

The Woodwards -- first James, then sons Jack, 47, and David, 35 -- got into the business because they believe they can breathe life into any piece of furniture they touch.

Woodworking, for the Woodwards, seemed inevitable.

"I had a few courses on it up at McDonogh [the former military school in Owings Mills], but I learned mostly by watching," said Mr. Woodward, who retired from the business about eight years ago. "You also learn when you repair. Take a piece for restoration and start to bring it back to life, and it's not too long before you can build a nice piece of furniture."

Mr. Woodward started the business 30 years ago at his home in Baltimore County. The operation now provides his two sons' livelihood out of the Uniontown showroom and a wood shop in Littlestown, Pa., where the sons live.

Their craft, said Mr. Woodward, has yielded hundreds of "nice pieces of furniture."

The woodworkers' attention to detail helps them clear the blemishes in the surface of the antiques they restore. Careful eyes, steady hands and an extensive knowledge of furniture styles helps them produce some of the most authentic-looking reproductions -- a "fool's gold" in furniture -- in the area.

"We use mahoganies and walnuts, things that were the most predominant woods in the older pieces we are trying to reproduce," said David, as ran his hand over the smooth surface of a cherry lowboy in the showroom. "We try to produce quality work, without exception."

Several of their pieces -- including a reproduction Chippendale secretary worth about $10,000 -- have been mistaken for the real thing, Mr. Woodward said proudly.

"One time, a couple of dealers told me I was selling an antique table for way less than it was worth," the elder Woodward recalled. "They asked me how I was so sure it was not an antique, and I said, 'Because my son built it.' "

The Woodwards pride themselves on knowing their business and understand the importance of knowing their customers.

"Customers want your full attention, and they get it," David said of the small operation.

"With the kind of money they are spending, we are fully in the position to work with anyone on anything."

But that doesn't mean the Woodwards will build something they know would not be true to the original.

"We want the piece to be as authentic as possible, something that, while it is not exactly the same piece of furniture you might have found in a room 50 years ago, it is not so way out that it could not have been found in a room during that time," he said.

Each piece is the finest work they can produce. Their conviction on that point is so strong that a customer is not obligated to pay anything until the piece is finished.

"In essence, this is a service business," said Mr. Woodward. "We don't sell the furniture. People buy it."

"We will tell people that the things they want done won't work, and we will not build a piece if we know it won't work," said David.

"We could build it, but that's not to say it won't be a real monster once it's done."

There is a satisfaction in knowing you have produced quality work, David said, as he talked of the business he and his brother inherited. The same pride is in his father's voice as he talks about his former trade.

"It's a peculiar thing. You can't teach this work," said Mr. Woodward, pointing to various pieces of furniture in his living room.

"It's an art, really. Nobody taught Van Gogh to paint, did they?"

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