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The brochure for the Chattanooga Workworking Academy’s new Southside facility reads in part, “a four year course of study designed to prepare students for careers as professional cabinet makers, woodwrights and furniture makers.”
“Woodwrights,” like “playwrights,” derives from the word “wrought.” Things wrought with your hands, your mind, your inspiration.
Quite a lot of wood is being wrought in Chattanooga right now, and the artists and craftspeople who work in wood are beginning to see their work recognized beyond city borders. Here are some reasons why:
A Craft and a Trade
MainX24 revelers could trek south down Market Street a block and visit the grand opening of the Chattanooga Woodworking Academy’s new digs. The rough-hewn pillars and cabin-like exterior are unmistakable. But the academy itself, according to founder and director of the nonprofit, Bill Carney, has already existed in some form for four years. The new space represents a chance to expand its offerings as interest in the ancient craft continues to grow.
Carney, a personable man in his 60s, tells the story of a life in wood that began with his maternal grandfather, a carpenter who came from the Smokey Mountains and made a career of dam-building with the TVA. Carney’s father built houses “on the side, and by the time I was in high school, I could build a house by myself,” he says. He went to college thinking he’d major in engineering, but wound up in wood technology, where “a great teacher” recognized his natural woodworking talent, and before he graduated, he was already making money building furniture.
But schools began abandoning vocational classes. Carney says there have been a couple of “lost generations”—decades in which the chance to learn woodworking skills in school evaporated for most students. The former teacher and drill sergeant decided he could and would change this in Chattanooga. “I would like to see people have the same good life I’ve had through working with my hands,” he says.
Carney turned to friends and colleagues for private support to start the academy, which has also received help from local foundations. The first big project was refurbishing “Poe’s Tavern,” built as a log home in 1817, and now standing proudly once again in Soddy-Daisy, where it is being turned into a museum. He shows off pictures in which volunteers ages 18 to 80 stand in front of the building they helped bring back to life.
Now, in the new facility, classes begin on Monday, Jan. 14, for the four-year program, designed to turn out apprentices, then journeymen, then master-status carpenters, along with the two-year program for advanced design and furniture making, as well as classes for people who just want to learn wood skills for fun. “We have many women signed up for these classes,” says Carney, emphasizing that the age-old skill and craft is now gender-blind.
Rudd Montgomery’s great-grandfather created the original Push Hard Lumber in Florida in the 1930s, he says. Though Montgomery didn’t learn about this history until the ’90s, he emerged from college into job paths that left him longing to be outside and working with his hands. He moved back to Chattanooga and began building homes; in 1993, working with Scott Kelley Wooden Log Homes. “That’s when I began to find the wood I liked,” he says, old, sometimes very old, reclaimed wood, wood that has a story to tell.
He ended up buying a sawmill on Signal Mountain, formed relationships with the local tree-cutters and in 1997 started his own version of the Push Hard Lumber Company.
David Crewe, who had followed his dad around from age 4 and learned basic wood skills from him, decided to leave an engineering career in “about 1990” and built a woodworking shop on the same mountain. His original interest was recreating classic antique furniture forms: Queen Anne, Chippendale. The two men met and an idea formed.
“About five years ago, I began looking around and decided, ‘I have to sell all this stuff in my living room’,” says Crewe. Montgomery, who had been showing at the Chattanooga Market since 2001, was also interested in another outlet to sell his furniture. So, nearly four years ago, the two opened Area 61 on Main Street on the Southside, a gallery that has grown to include all kinds of artwork from more than 30 artists, but which still prominently features Montgomery’s signature “fishing chairs,” “book match” furniture pieces and those with natural edges, alongside Crewe’s work, much of which combines vivid colors with classic forms.
Both men also do a great deal of custom design, with Crewe recently branching out into stereo speaker cabinets, which, he says, meld his engineering expertise with his woodworking skills. Montgomery points to a piece currently at Area 61 that utilizes a hollow log as being an excellent example of how a piece of wood tells him what it wants to be.
Crewe and Montgomery agree that a new generation of woodworkers is relocating to Chattanooga and that native talent is being nurtured here as well.
The New Generation
Like the men above, Aaron Cabeen has a family history with wood. His dad was a carpenter, “and I always had a drive to use my hands,” he says. “Little did I know that he was teaching me important life and trade skills. I would regularly hear things like, ‘Be a craftsman about everything you do’. He taught me to work hard and take pride in my work.”
Cabeen’s sister introduced him to design concepts: “Theater, music, painting—she had an eye and now does home decoration,” he says.
Cabeen worked for his father every summer, honing his building skills. “We started to get some higher-end jobs with interior designers. There was something about what they did. It could literally change your mood whenever you went into a well-designed house,” he explains.
One designer began using “a couple of eccentric furniture makers who really caught my eye. She would design something and they would make it. I asked them about the work they did and they encouraged me to make my own,” he says.
Cabeen bought some portable tools and started creating furniture out of the bed of his truck. He started with an armoire and a foyer table. “Then I got jobs from the people we were already working for. They let me make a couple of things.” Cabeen’s fine attention to detail and exquisite wood choices began to generate attention.
He created tables and built-ins for local businesses, including The Terminal, The Honest Pint and the Warehouse, then eventually moved to the Business Development Center, where he continued to grow the business for three years, and completed the business development course SpringBoard. In December 2011, he moved Cabeen Originals to its current location at 206 Thornton Ave., where he continues to build furniture, specializing in hand-selected Appalachian woods, along with smaller pieces, such as mirrors, as well as custom wood interiors.
“I don’t have a degree, but I run a company and hire people. More and more people want something made in America,” he says.
Matt Sears majored in English in college before dropping out to take a job at an antiques refinishing shop in Athens, Ga. He became a shop foreman—and then, with his wife, moved to Portland, Ore., where she studied law and he worked with John Lake at the Portland Art Museum creating antique replicas.
But the South was calling, and in 2005, they moved to Chattanooga, which Sears was familiar with from outdoor activity expeditions. “Chattanooga is where Portland was 20 years ago, before all the traffic and the expensive cost of living,” he says. He got a job working at Greenlife Grocery, and then-owner Chuck Pruett hired him to build all the fixtures for the new store location.
“I started Haskel Sears Design with $3,000 and a Home Depot credit card,” Sears says. “Now I have seven employees and we do work all over town.” Known for his “pipe and beam,” postmodern style that uses reclaimed heart pine, Sears is currently working on several high-profile commercial projects: fixtures inside the soon-to-open Enzo’s Grocery and the new Flying Squirrel pub at the Crash Pad, both on the Southside. The Flying Squirrel will feature a “canoe that is also a light fixture,” Sears says.
“I am also allowed to build the things I used to do, little pieces of art,” he says. “Each year, 30 or 40 more artists of my generation are moving to Chattanooga. It’s still affordable—and they are bringing businesses and starting businesses.”