Let’s just say that you actually read the “About” section of this here blog. First off, thanks. Even I didn’t read the “About” section. Second off, on the off chance that you remember what it said, you may very well be pissed at me. “I was promised interviews and researched essays!” you shout at me, because you’re a very passionate fan, you.
Well I’m sorry that I let you down. But now I’m going to remedy at least part of that as-yet-unfulfilled promise I made to you. I present below the inaugural interview here at Dovetail Joinery.
The subject: one Joshua Winkley of Maple Tree Cabinetmakers, who plies his trade in picturesque Chester, Connecticut. The two of us connected via our shared love of an oft-maligned improvisational rock band from Vermont as expressed in a blog comment section. I mentioned my burgeoning hobby in the comments, in the hopes that people might be interested in checking out the whole thing I’m putting together here. Josh mentioned his own status in the trade and I reached out for an interview, which he graciously agreed to. So I emailed him a number of questions, which he answered. Those answers are below. My questions are in bold, because I’m more important.
1. Starting at the very beginning, when and why did you get involved in woodworking?
I had always dreamed of being an architect. But when I chose a liberal arts college that did not offer an architectural, I went for the practical route of economics. Well I hated it and ended my senior year with the only sense of direction being as far away from an office or banking as possible. My older brother, who had been building things with wood since he was a young kid, was a self employed carpenter and landed a nice addition that summer. So I figured what the hell and went to work with him. I never thought I would work with my hands for a living but loved the experience. At the end of the summer, we had to build a set of maple kitchen cabinets for the addition. We had a makeshift shop in my parents garage. My brother gave me the job of building all the doors. I had no clue what I was doing. And my brother wasn’t much help as he tackled the boxes, face frames, and drawers. But we pushed through and got it done. It was around this time that I stumbled upon Fine Woodworking magazine. I realized quickly that working with wood was what I was going to do for a living. I just didn’t know in what way. So I played carpenter for a few years with my brother, volunteering for every built-in or kitchen I could.
2. What was your “career arc,” so to speak? At what point did you decide you were ready to do this for a living, and how did you know you were ready?
Well, I loved being a carpenter but was mesmerized by the amazing works of art I saw in Fine Woodworking and other magazines. I wanted to learn how to cut dovetails, make mortise and tenon joints by hand, tune a plane, and shape wood. But it was not a practical job for me at the time. My brother and I were rolling pretty good with his remodeling business and I saw an opportunity for a decent living as a carpenter. But as time went on, I was drawn to the shop. After a couple of years as a carpenter I said screw it and quit my job. I figured at that point I had to go for it or stop dreaming. So I applied for every decent job in a woodworking shop I could find. I landed in a custom shop that built all kinds of cool stuff. My first experience in a real shop and I loved it.
3. What’s your procedure like for working on a project? Where and how do you get your ideas? Do you find you create/change your ideas in the drawing process? How much planning/drawing do you do before you start actually handling wood? Do you find you have to or want to change your plans in the middle? How often do you run into unforeseen problems in your plans?
My ideas come from everywhere, literally. Pictures on the internet, magazines, past experiences, other woodworkers, friends, family, etc… I mostly design and build custom kitchen cabinets and built ins, which means the projects need to fit a specific space and serve a unique need. Every project I do is tailored to the clients taste, their home, their budget, and whatever other parameters are present. So my design process starts with those parameters. I have a basic set of guidelines I use for my projects and try not to reinvent the wheel every time, but i end up doing so more often than I’d like. I used to design just by hand sketching and then onto hand drawing. But now I hash out concepts quickly by hand and then go right to a program called CabinetVision. It is a solid modeling program that enables me to engineer my projects 3 dimensionally and then present drawings utilizing typical CAD tools. The great thing about the software is that it gives me cutlists and material needs. For a kitchen that has hundreds of parts of all shapes and sizes, I find it essential. I have an extensive design process with my clients. Once we agree on what is being built, I finalize shop drawings and that is it. We are off to the races. I try hard to hash everything out before I build and make sure all site conditions are taken into account . Carpenters usually work off of my plans to prepare the site, so the plans need to be spot on or else we all suffer.
4. How do you feel about the differences in doing projects for yourself versus doing projects for customers? Are there major limitations or benefits either way?
I struggle to build stuff for myself. I can’t make up my mind. I love having a problem to solve for other people. Much easier. I have too many ideas and am too much of a perfectionist. I have sketchbooks filled with curious ideas that I’d love to build some day. I guess that is what retirement is for.
Limitations to working with a client would be budget and their tastes. But those are also benefits. They force me to be creative and solve problems, which I love doing. I find designing solely for myself to be somewhat of an empty process to be honest. Like Phish playing to an empty house. Yet I have some crazy ideas that no customer would even know they want unless I built it first…
5. What are your favorite kinds of projects? Presumably you work mainly in cabinetry, but are there other types of things you enjoy building as much or more?
I love designing and making kitchens. They are the heart of the home and what people use every day. I get a kick out of helping people create meaningful spaces for their families. Aside from that, I like building just about anything in the shop. If it challenges me, all the better. If it has beautiful wood, bonus.
6. What project would you point to as being your “best”? That could mean the process or the product.
Three years ago I completed an extensive project for a home that included a kitchen, vanities, living room built-ins, bedroom built-ins, and architectural millwork. The project was designed by an architect and had a very modern design. Lots of veneer work, no room for error. It pushed me to the limits, both skill and sanity. Up to that point I had never worked with veneers, and this one had it everywhere. I also had to design custom knife hinges for all the doors. Modern designs look simple but of course are the most difficult to carry out. Life changing experience for me.
Here is a link to some pictures of the kitchen.
7. Conversely, what project would you point to as being your “worst”? Again, that could mean the process or the product, but I’d probably be more interested in the process. To put it another way: share a horror story.
Interestingly, that project I also considered my worst as I lost my shirt financially and it damn near drove me insane. I ended up closing my doors for a year right after. Working 80 hour weeks for 2 months doing the most technical work of my career to meet an unreasonable deadline that I agreed to will do that.
It culminated in a 36 hour straight work stretch where I had to get a set of cabinets ready for installation so countertops could be templated. Otherwise, more delays. During this stretch, I fell asleep at the wheel of my truck while towing my trailer. Thankfully, I only blew out a couple of tires with minor damage to the truck and trailer. Thankfully I did not have any cabinets in the trailer either.
But it all worked out, I was just a little freaked out.
8. What project(s) are you working on right now?
Cool thing is I am in the middle of phase 2 on the above project. The master bedroom suite – beds, deluxe vanities, closets, cool built-ins, etc.
9. What project(s) do you have planned for the future?
Busy year for me. I have 4 kitchens on the books, a credenza, a set of living room built-ins, and another master bedroom. I feel fortunate if not a tad over booked.
10. Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting to get into woodworking?
The best advice I could give is to constantly challenge yourself. Choose projects that push your limits. Those are the ones that teach the most. You are doing another bit of advice that I would give, which is talk to other woodworkers.
11. Are there any woodworkers out there whose work you particularly admire?
Hank Gilpin has inspired me more than any woodworker. Hands down. I could go on and on about his furniture and why I love it. But the most endearing aspect of his work is his sole use of local woods – any and all. What he does with them is mesmerizing. His work is also very subtle, doesn’t hit you over the head but when you really look close the details are striking. All kinds of influences in his work, yet very unique. Good old fashioned joinery, no veneer, and enough flair to make it real interesting.
12. Do you have a favorite wood?
Today it would be Walnut. I love the color, the workability, the character, and the way it takes a finish.
13. What about a favorite tool?
My Lie-Nielson low angle block plane has been with for many years. I use it for everything…
As far as power tools, I am falling hard for my Festool Domino. Really versatile, one of a kind tool.
And that’s all he wrote. It was a pleasure chatting with Josh, and I, at least, learned something. Buy something from him, just to make this whole thing worth his time. Again, his website is here
. Hopefully I’ll have more interviews to present soon.