My father made custom wood furniture starting about the time I became a teenager. At first, it was a side gig, but after my brother and I graduated college Dad made a go of it full time. He couldn’t build enough business to make it work, so he got a regular job again but kept making pieces when work found him.
Dad got into the business when his best friend, Dean, who was Director of the Snite Museum of Art at Notre Dame, put in a large order for his then-new building. Dad had dabbled in making small wooden boxes for people just as a fun thing to do. That was enough for Dean, who paid Dad to build all of the pedestals for sculpture and pottery, as well as every bench for patrons to sit on throughout the museum. Dad wasn’t sure his skills would translate to large pieces, especially this many — but Dean was persuasive. It helped a lot that Dad was unemployed thanks to the closing of the manufacturing plant where he’d worked for 18 years.
Well-heeled museum patrons asked who built the benches, and Dean introduced them to Dad. Many of them wanted custom furniture for their homes, and they’d ask Dad to design and build it. Dad built other pieces for the Snite, including an enormous curved display unit that sat in the atrium for many years. Other departments and even individual priests at Notre Dame asked Dad to build pieces for them, too.
Somewhere along the way Dad started photographing his work and collecting the images in a “brag book.” He brought along when he spoke to potential customers so they could see what he could do. While cleaning out Mom’s house recently, I found the book and brought it home.
The oldest piece photographed was a bathroom vanity he made for someone in 1986. (The print is dated on the back! Remember when photofinishers used to do that?) This early work wasn’t typical of him. That’s our family television in the background.
Dad became a serious student of the arts and crafts movement, specifically the Mission style as practiced by Gustav Stickley. Dad made several coffee tables in that style, like this one.
Dad learned the joinery techniques that were genuine to the genre, and was serious about doing everything in the old ways. He never used a single screw in his work — it was all joinery and glue. He also applied nothing but period-correct finishes. A lot of the time he finished his work in wax — just wax. Here’s another of his coffee tables. I own one just like it, except mine carries the natural color of the table above. Its wax finish is very susceptible to damage, which makes it a challenging piece to use in the home.
Dad made larger pieces, as well, such as this cabinet. The drawer hardware isn’t typical of him, so it must have been what the customer wanted.
This hanging cabinet uses hardware more typical of his choices. I have no idea where any of these pieces are today.
I do know where this piece is: it hangs in my bathroom. I wanted a cabinet like this for my first apartment in 1989, so Dad made one. I’ve used it ever since. My first wife used to apply tung oil to it, which turned it to more of a dark honey color. I wish it were still this light color.
Dad also made pieces to display art and artifacts. These are American Indian items. If my memory serves, the top piece was like a baby backpack, and the bottom piece is clearly a vest. Dad photographed this in the customer’s home. He normally photographed things in his home before delivery. Perhaps he wanted to show these pieces with their artifacts in them.
Dad also made a lot of pieces for various chapels around Notre Dame. The priests liked his work! I have long forgotten what this odd cabinet was built to hold.
Here’s that cabinet in its chapel, with two other pieces Dad built.
This is just a sampling of Dad’s work — his brag book contains photos of dozens more pieces.
Dad’s work was incredible. He took great joy, and great pains, in his craft. All of this work except perhaps the vanity are of his own design. I remain proud of my father for his good work.