In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi the 85 year-old acclaimed chef and subject of the film rejects the notion that he is a “master” sushi chef, despite the fact that his restaurant earned three Michelin stars, the most presitgious award in the industry. Instead, he humbly states that he wakes every morning with the intent to improve upon his craft, to strive for perfection, and to be better than he was yesterday.
Such humility can also be found in Rough Cut Season 6 special guest Philip Lowe. Owner and director of the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, Lowe is no stranger to the “master” label, but his approach to his craft looks much like Jiro’s — grounded, humble. Lowe plays the role of teacher in Episode 9 as Tommy visits the Institute for a lesson Queen Anne chair design and construction.
We reached out to Lowe in his workspace in Beverly, MA to learn more about this master woodworker and his work on the episode’s Queen Anne chair.
How did you come into woodworking as a profession?
Woodworking has always been a part of my life, but I didn’t realize that I would become a professional woodworker until after high school. Woodworking really became part of my life when I enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to a woodworking shop aboard a ship in San Diego. There I spent four years working with some of the great American machines. After my stint in the Navy I went back to school using the G.I. Bill and it was then that I knew woodworking would be my profession the rest of my life.
You’re the owner and director of the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts. Can you tell us a little about how that came to be?
After teaching for 10 years and building a client base I realized that I had enough work lined up to venture off on my own, building custom furniture and doing repair work and architectural millwork. I did this for a period of 15 years and realized that I missed the interaction with students and thought I would start running some summer workshops, which became very successful. After a year or so of running workshops I realized I wanted to teach people how to do this for a living, so in 1999 I took on the first three full-time students and have been doing that ever since.
It goes without saying that you’ve produced many a finished piece over the years. Are there any that stand out for you?
There are a few pieces that do stand out in my mind. I had a customer from NY who gave me the opportunity to do some work, carving bedposts, making shell cupboards and other great American masterpieces — all from the finest museums in the eastern seaboard. Recently I had the opportunity to build two end tables made completely from solid ebony. Also I have had the opportunity to work on some of the greatest antique pieces that were produced in the Boston & Salem of which the Peabody Essex Museum has stewardship.
It is clear that you are a mentor to many. Who were Phil Lowe’s mentors?
My mentors were some wonderful men including my high school shop teacher Bob Pesce who I still communicate with on occasion to this day. But I would say it was George Fullerton with whom I spent 10 years who had probably the largest influence in my woodworking career and life in general. And this is one of the main reasons why I started the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts — so that hopefully I would influence some of the younger generation to aspire to be fine woodworkers and hopefully set them on a path that they too can be passionate about for the rest of their lives.
You mention that you got the design for this episode’s Queen Anne chair by tracing the patterns from an original. Can you describe how you went about the tracing/measuring? Tell us about the chair that you were given access to.
The Queen Anne chair that we made in the Rough Cut episode was based on an original from the Peabody Essex Museum. At one point in my career I had the opportunity to make a video of the process, which is still available on my website, of collecting the pertinent information to build one, which entailed tracing patterns of all the curved pieces and taking critical dimensions of the piece. Then back at the shop I was able to do a full-size drawing, plug in the curves and dimensions so that I could figure out the angles of the joinery.
While taking some of this information from the original it was quite interesting to find scribe marks for the tenons and mortices which were left behind from the original layouts where they had overshot the marks. This gave me accurate dimensions of what the joinery was.
One of the things I love the most about these chairs are the facets that are left on the surfaces from the use of hand tools which can never be replicated with machinery such as routers. I have always been astounded that these beautiful forms could be made with a few hand tools.
You go with walnut on this project because it was used traditionally for this type of chair. What other species might work well and why?
Walnut just happens to be the wood that was used on the chair that I had copied, but you would also find that these chairs at times made of maple, cherry and mahogany. Mahogany would’ve been used in the urban centers where seaports were importing materials from the Caribbean. Cherry and maple were used in some of the rural areas.
The word “master” has been used to describe you more than a few times. In your opinion, what makes a woodworking master? What advice would you give to the novice or amateur woodworking aspiring towards such an achievement?
I think the word master really refers to the person who has for years studied and perfected techniques that are performed repetitively to a point where it becomes second nature. And speaking of a master piece, I believe that it is a combination of rudimentary tasks that combine into something that is grand. To build a masterpiece you must perfect each and every rudimentary task and execute them to the best of your ability. To master a trade it requires becoming proficient at repetitive tasks and having the patience to perform these tasks well when required.
Check out the preview to the episode below or watch the full episode Master Showcase with Phil Lowe.