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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.