Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Discovering Patience and Attention to Detail

Attending the Winter Furniture Making Intensive at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking has been an amazing experience. The high level of instruction from the teachers and the comradery and support of my fellow students led me to feel comfortable and confident in branching out and expanding my woodworking skills. I’m grateful for the opportunity and for the school’s existence.

I grew up woodworking; I spent a lot of time in the shop with my father, who makes Windsor chairs. I learned a lot of foundational things about power and hand tools as a child and teenager; although looking back, I wish I had paid more attention and spent even more time with him during those years. It never occurred to me in that time period that woodworking might be something that I could make a career out of. It wasn’t something people talked about: my friends, my guidance counselors, my teachers. Everyone said ‘you have to go to college, you have to get a degree’. And so I did.

I spent three relatively miserable years not doing anything with my hands, besides turning pages in a book. And in the end, I had a relatively worthless degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. By that time I had grown to know myself better and realized I wasn’t going to be happy working in an office or pursing a path in academia. So, it started; working outside, working with my hands, finding greater joy than I had experienced while in college.

I spent many years as a landscape carpenter, creating nice but rough imitations of woodworking pieces. Pergolas, decks, gazebos, fences that were screwed and nailed together, sunk in concrete in the ground. It was fun and we got into some wacky projects. But, while it was fulfilling for me to be outside and physically engaged with my work, my brain wasn’t in the game. My creativity was being stifled by the medium of the work. So I transitioned into residential carpentry, and found the world of fine finish work to be much more fulfilling, in the short term at least.

But, in the end, there’s only so many bookcases and bay window benches one can make before beginning again to feel limited by the medium of the built environment. So I went searching for a new, more creative outlet. I thought back to my early years in my dad’s shop, and the joy and simplicity of hand tool work and fine furniture making. I knew immediately, that’s what I should pursue, strive to find an outlet for my creative flows and bring them into reality with traditional woodworking techniques.

I began the search for a woodworking school in late 2018. Some programs seemed interesting to me, most were financially way out of range. Often times I was confronted with a seeming dichotomy between free form American studio furniture (i.e. art/design schools) and rigid instruction in classical furniture styles. Neither seemed particularly appealing to me; both seemed overly dogmatic. But then I came across the Furniture Making Intensive program at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking and it seemed like the perfect fit.

The class was a wonderful balance between instruction and freedom: adherence to traditional techniques and time tested joinery while still allowing for creativity and personal voice in the design processes. The instructors were honest about the limitations of my skills and the constraints of the curriculum, yet were encouraging and supportive, challenging me and pushing my skills forward. Personally, I grew tremendously during the course, finding in myself an attention to detail and a patience in building I didn’t know I was capable of.

As well, the community that the school fosters has been a great addition to my learning process. At the most basic level, the other students in my class were always challenging me and critiquing my work. They provided inspiration in the great work they were producing. But the school also brings in amazing assistant or visiting instructors, or simply amazing local craftspeople who just wander into the classroom to see what’s going on. These people were a constant source of career and life inspiration, and it’s a testament to the school that so many amazing people want to be involved and be around.

In the end, having now completed the program, I look back with fond memories of each piece I created; while at the same time looking forward to what I’m sure will be many more to come. I fell in love with the area and have decided to stay and set up shop outside of town. Hopefully one day I’ll be a local craftsperson stopping in to see what the furniture students are up to.

Philip Shelton

Winter Furniture Intensive 2019