My father was a cabinetmaker

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.

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28 responses to “My father was a cabinetmaker”

  1. brandib1977 Avatar

    What a treasure you have found. His work was exceptional!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It really was. I wish he had been willing to sell his work harder.

  2. Chris Douglas Avatar
    Chris Douglas

    That last piece appears to be a tabernacle, which is used to house the communion wafers.

    Your dad did some incredible work!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for explaining! Even though Dad did a lot of work for ND, we’re not Catholic and so a lot of stuff he built didn’t make sense to me.

  3. 100 Country Trek Avatar

    Wow! Your Dad is making wood furniture. I love this Table. Anita

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! Sadly Dad’s no longer with us, but we have some of his furniture still to remember him by.

  4. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Incredible work…one wonders what he would have been doing twenty years later with on-line marketing?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      No kidding. That might have suited him. Face-to-face marketing and sales sure didn’t.

  5. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Those are amazing pieces! Your Dad’s work is really stunning.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! He was amazingly capable.

  6. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Your Dad did fine work. These pieces and his good son are his legacy.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a lovely thing to say!

  7. Ken Bandy Avatar
    Ken Bandy

    Wow! Your Dad was a true artist! Reminds me of pieces I have seen in shops in Nashville, IN.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      There’s a fellow here in Zionsville (who sometimes reads this blog) who makes similar stuff and sells it in a shop in town. I wish Dad had figured out something like that.

  8. Kurt Ingham Avatar

    What beautiful work!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you!

  9. Greg Clawson Avatar
    Greg Clawson

    Jim, you have every right to be proud of your fathers work, he was not only a cabinet maker he was a craftsman!
    The patience and attention to detail it takes to make such pieces is beyond me. Your furniture and his brag book are family heirlooms.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      He had l33t sk1llz, as the computer hackers would say!

  10. Brendan norris. Avatar
    Brendan norris.

    Some beautiful pieces there Jim .. he knew what he was doing, working with hardwood is a true art. Well done to him.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! He really developed some excellent skill here.

  11. Verlin Miller Avatar
    Verlin Miller

    Wow, I wish I could have known your Dad. Sounds like we have a lot in common. I’m now a retired woodworker who spent a lot of my career making custom entry doors for buildings on the Notre Dame and St Mary’s campus. And I’ve always had a sideline interest in making furiture -still doing that.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Nice! Dad built all of the benches for the Snite Museum, and I’m under the impression they’re still in use in the galleries. I personally sanded a whole bunch of them. He also built a lot of the pedestals used for sculptures.

  12. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    Those are all beautiful! Such craftsmanship is rare. How nice that you found his brag book, a good way to bring back memories.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Shirley – it was always fascinating to see what he was working on. I got to see many of his pieces during the construction phase, and even saw some of his design drawings.

  13. DougD Avatar

    Great work, unfortunately artistic talent and marketing talent don’t always occur in the same proportion.

    I sent this to my prof friend at Notre Dame, he hadn’t noticed any of your father’s work there but he’ll keep his eyes open.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      He might yet find some of Dad’s work in the Snite Museum. I haven’t been in there in 10 years, but Dad’s benches were still there then.

  14. J P Avatar

    Beautiful work! I have dabbled around the edges of woodwork, but never enough to build anything of this scale or quality. I particularly admire his anesthetic choices – quality work and style aren’t always in the same package.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      He really did have an eye for design. It shocked us all because in his personal life he did not care at all about aesthetics.

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