Local woodworkers pursue their ideals
By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer
The Wood River Valley is full of small businessmen. Yet
that first plunge into self-employment is usually a scary one.
Greg Plowman turns a table base on his
lathe. Courtsey photo.
Woodworkers who take that plunge usually have an
additional concern beyond the economic—how to maintain a profitable
business while building creative, challenging projects. Often, woodworkers
find they can either make money by building production-type cabinets or
find satisfaction in doing more artistic work, but staying poor. Here are
the stories of three who are trying to negotiate that path.
Greg Plowman and Jerome Scher, both 47, quit their
well-paying and secure jobs with a local cabinet company two years ago
when they jumped feet-first into the uncertain world of self-employed
woodworking. They’ve never regretted it.
Jack Melville stands next to an
almost-completed, cherry-and-walnut entertainment center in his Hailey
shop. Express photo by Willy Cook
"We both enjoy being independent," Scher said of
their partnership. "We’re serious about our work, but we like the
freedom of self-employment. If there’s something better to do at a
particular moment, we’ll go do it."
Working in a shop in the Woodside light industrial area in
Hailey, Plowman said the two are willing to build "anything you can’t
find at K mart."
"We don’t compromise on quality to do things really
cheaply," he said. "We do things as well as they can be done,
and have faith that there’s going to be a market for that."
Recent projects include a double dresser with
bent-laminated, curved drawer fronts, an entertainment center, and a
10-foot long, arts-and-crafts-style trestle table made from fir boards
recovered from old pickle barrels. They are currently working on a
king-sized bed and a six-foot-diameter dining table with a turned base.
Much of their business comes from local interior
"It makes the process a lot quicker for us,"
Plowman said. "They work it all out and then come to us."
The orders keep them in regular work, but allow some
freedom to be creative. The process, Plowman said, involves
"translating ideas from their mind to my mind." From there, it
goes onto paper and then into wood. "And then the client comes in and
says, ‘That’s it!’ That’s rewarding."
"I like taking what nature has created and making
something useful out of it," Plowman adds. "It’s not steel and
Plowman initially learned his woodworking skills in a
cabinet shop in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the late 1970s. "I sanded a
bizillion doors and put together hundreds of thousands of face
Deciding he needed to make more money to support a family,
he got a job as a framer. He didn’t find that too inspiring either. Then
one day while driving down the freeway, he saw a boat-building yard.
"I took a huge cut in pay but I thought, ‘I want to
learn to do this.’ I learned how to do yacht interiors—how to fit
things to curves and odd angles. If you can do that well, you’re in
pretty good demand in a marine town. It gave me the realization that I
could be self-employed."
Scher, too, began his woodworking career in California in
the late 1970s, when he was "surfing and collecting unemployment and
they got me."
"They asked me to put down what I would do for a job
and I put down ‘woodworker’ because I figured they’d never find me
anything. Sure enough, they called me up and said, ‘We’ve got you a
job as a shop teacher at a Boy’s Club in Petaluma.’
"I decided I liked doing woodworking more than
working with kids, and one job led to another."
By the early 1990s, both were in the Wood River Valley,
"doing houses full of cabinets."
They say they’re still feeling their way through the
small business thing. How much production do they want to get into? Do
they want employees? So far, they’ve elected to stay small.
"I like the variety," Plowman said of their
current work. "I’d have a hard time saying, ‘I like this dresser—let’s
do 300 of them."
And they’re reluctant to hire employees.
"Even sanding, there’s a way to do it so that you
don’t mess things up," Plowman said. "I have a hard time
letting go of any aspect of it."
One aspect of self-employment the two have found difficult
is estimating their time and costs to set prices.
"We’re getting a lot better at it," Scher
said. "You can’t sell yourself too cheap. You need a certain amount
of money to keep a shop going."
Asked what goals they have for the future, Scher said he
would like to experiment with more hand joinery—"be a little more
daring." But basically, he and Plowman say they’re very satisfied
with what they’re doing.
"I think we’re creative and every project has its
challenges," Scher said. "I’m living my goal right now. I
think we’re very lucky."
After 11 years working as a woodworker in Hailey, Jack
Melville finally got his dream job. A woman living in Quigley Canyon
commissioned him to build a 7-foot-long by 6-foot-high entertainment
center, of his own design, from $2,000 worth of walnut and cherry.
"She was like an angel sent from above,"
Melville said of his client, who arrived when he was running short of cash
and had no job prospects.
The woman chose the complex design from about 50 he had
submitted to her. She liked its unconventional, asymmetric lines.
"After I drew it and she said, ‘Let’s do it,’ I
started thinking, ‘How am I going to make this? How am I going to put
this piece in here and this piece in there?"
The project took five months to complete. It has lots of
odd angles and 10 dovetailed joints with 14 hand-cut dovetails in each.
"To me, this is like a big sculpture that holds a TV
set. It’s never going to break—it’s going to last 500 years. You put
time into it—it might as well last forever."
Melville’s interest in quality construction was piqued
when he was just a kid, marveling at how long some antique furniture had
held up, and wondering what kinds of joints allowed it to do that. About
1970, he bought a bunch of hand tools from the Whole Earth Catalogue.
He now owns 10 hand planes, including one 1902 Stanley inherited from his
For five years, he ran a woodworking shop in Spokane,
Wash. His pieces were good enough to qualify him for a booth at the 1974
Melville arrived in central Idaho in 1989 intending to be
a rancher. He had just spent 15 years "ridin’ and ropin’" on
ranches in central Washington and southern California. The most recent had
been a 30,000-acre spread that sold for $186 million.
"That was the end of that ranch there," he said.
Melville looked at ranch property near Challis, but just
couldn’t come up with enough cash for a piece of property likely to be
"So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll make some
furniture for the wealthy people around here.’ That’s not as easy as
it sounds. The wealthy people often don’t have any interest in quality
furniture. Very few people do."
Melville tried selling in furniture stores and to
designers, but found they needed to double his prices. He said he was
"giving stuff away, basically" to keep the prices low enough
that the pieces would sell.
Melville went to work for a local cabinet shop. His work
there included making more than 30 mahogany doors for The Mint bar. But
the main thing he learned there, he said, was "I don’t like working
with MDF (medium-density fiberboard)." In 1995, he quit and went to
work for himself.
Now he builds furniture that’s up to the standard he
thinks it ought to be. But it’s tough going.
"The goal I hope to attain is to pay my bills. I’d
like to be able to design stuff for people, unique designs. Go into their
homes and get some inspiration and work with them. More now I think I like
the design aspect. A lot of woodworking is just plain labor."
For the time being, he said, "it’s a tenuous deal.
Once I get through with [the entertainment center], I don’t have
anything lined up."