The thin blade on the Chevalet de Marqueterie moved a fraction of an inch, cutting out a detailed petal from a panel of wood.
Popular hundreds of years ago, the saw was used to make tiny precision cuts before advanced machines could do it automatically.
Even though students at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking have access to laser-cut saws and other high-tech tools, these students came specifically to learn how artists coaxed intricate designs from veneer centuries ago.
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“They’re learning to cut wood for these pictorial images. Every person is learning how to use this equipment like they would have done in the 18th century,” said Marc Adams, founder of the school.
People come from all over the world to Johnson County in order to learn from master artisans, many the best in the world at what they do. The school draws more than 3,000 students each year, who spend a week at courses covering everything from building their own tools to stone carving.
Few locals outside of the woodworking world even know the rural Franklin facility is here, Adams said.
“I’ll get more people from California than I will from Johnson County. People locally here don’t take advantage of it, and a lot of them just don’t know about it,” he said.
As the school neared the end of its 2017 session, the different classrooms and studio spaces were filled with students diligently working on their craft.
A small class sat around a workbench, watching as a group of master instructors worked on the pieces of a signature Greene & Greene chair, which exemplifies the Arts and Crafts style of building.
The adjacent workshop found students pounding and chiseling as they practiced the basics of carving, drawing their design, working with the grain and carving a decorative flourish into the wood.
One class was learning how to manipulate wood and metal in order to make their own saw perfectly tailored to the individual student. Others were stepping back from modern tools to work on the Chevalet de Marqueterie, just like woodworkers did in the 1700s.
“The instructors are the best, my staff is the best and the facilities are unmatched anywhere on earth. Because of that, this where people come.” —Marc Adams
In the nearly 25 years since it was founded, the school has expanded its offerings to traditional woodworking to a variety of craft arts, including metalworking, glassblowing and jewelry making.
“We do all kinds of things,” Adams said. “We started off as woodworking, but with woodworking, there are a lot of things that are ancillary with that. Woodworking may be the hub, but there are a lot of ancillary spokes that come off of it.”
To maintain the school’s status as one of the best in the world, Adams works diligently to bring specialists — recognized as the best not only working today, but in the history of modern woodworking — in various areas.
“Marc brings the best designers and craftspeople from around the world to his school. If there is someone that excels anywhere, chances are they will be presenting at (Marc Adams School of Woodworking),” said Michael Fortune, a renowned furniture designer who has taught at the school for the past 18 years.
Andrei Marek, who taught a carving class in October at the school, has worked on renovations of the Royal Palace and Parliament of Romania. He has crafted two valances for the Portico Room in the White House and is currently reproducing furniture in the Gerald Ford House in Dearborn, Michigan.
Jeff Headley specializes in reproducing American furniture from before the 1820s and has multiple pieces that are in the White House as well.
Fortune, a Canadian furniture artist, has work in several museums, including the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Ontario, and the Claridge Collection of Canadian Art and Craft in Montreal.
He was recently inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts. His work has taken him all over the world.
“I consider this to be the perfect career choice. I am self-employed with a committed crew of skilled craftspeople in my studio. I commute to work, about 600 feet, past bunnies that no longer scurry into the woods,” he said. “I work with really interesting clients all over North America. I only do exactly what I want to do.”
Each year, Fortune teaches classes on such topics as how to design furniture and furniture bending. These were skills that weren’t easily learned when he was developing as a woodworker, so he’s happy to share his knowledge for students during the week-long workshops.
“When I started woodworking right after art school, there were no schools that focused on intense instruction for woodworking techniques. There were very few books available — none about specific techniques. I wanted to bend wood, had a vague idea of how I might be able to do it and spent the next five years on and off trying to figure it out,” he said. “I finally mastered the technique after scraping together the info from here and there and a lot of failures. Bending wood to create furniture forms became a passion, and I have incorporated it in my work ever since.”
Adams founded the woodworking school in 1993. Originally an educator, he had been a hobbyist woodworker since the 1980s. In 1991, he was named the technical consultant for the U.S., representing the country on International Quality of Furniture Making, a group that sets overseas standards for furniture.
As he immersed himself in that world, he realized that the U.S. didn’t have a component in place to train master woodworkers.
“One of the things we don’t do in this country is teach this craft,” Adams said. “It’s an uncertifiable skill. You can hire a licensed plumber or a licensed electrician or a licensed mechanic. Woodworking has none of that. What I wanted to do was bring back some way to technically educate people in our country on how to do skill involved with doing anything with wood.”
The first year that the school opened, Adams offered 16 classes, all of which he taught himself. But he quickly realized that was intense, and he recruited other instructors to help.
Next year, more than 100 instructors will teach at the school, Adams said.
The physical space of the school also has grown. What started as a single workshop has grown to include five large workbench rooms, three tool rooms, a multimedia space and a technology lab, where students make designs on computer and then use a laser-cut saw to create the pieces.
“If students get something made or designed on their laptop, they can sent it to one of these machines, such as C&C machines, we have of these lasers, we have a plasma cutter. This room was designed specifically for tech,” Adams said.
The school operates from April to early November, with classes held during the week and two-day sessions scheduled for summer weekends. About 170 workshops were offered this year.
Students come from all over the world. Many are professionals with high-stress jobs — lawyers, doctors, business executives — who come to block everything out for a week and focus on working with their hands.
“This is their vacation. This is what they do for fun. A lot of people like to make things,” Adams said. “It’s not like a vocational school where people come, get a grade and hope to move on to the next class. These people are here because they want to be here.”
The focus of the workshops is technique, not an individual project. While some of the courses do include building something over the course of the week, such as speaker housings or a guitar, the goal is for people to establish the skills so they can work on their own creations.
“You’re not going to come here one week and make a grandfather clock, or come next week and make a dining room table. We teach techniques, and once you have that, you can go home and make anything,” Adams said.
But while Adams is proud of the school’s success, he’s more enthusiastic about the ways that he, his instructors and his students have used it as a tool to impact the community.
One class invited people to come and work to make 78 pews for the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary. Last July, the school hosted a workshop where students signed up to build more than 200 unique flag boxes that were distributed to the VFW in New Whiteland to give to veterans’ homes throughout the Midwest.
That project led to another, where students will make flag boxes for police officers who have been killed in duty throughout the U.S.
“Ultimately, we got to the point where we realized truly how we are affecting people’s lives, and how people’s lives are affecting us, and the incredible generosity that people who work with their hands have,” Adams said.
As those involved in the Marc Adams School of Woodworking prepare to celebrate its 25th anniversary, it has been a time to reflect on the past and future of the school, Adams said.
Thoughout its history, the school has taught more than 30,000 people in 2,700 classes. Another 400 people have completed master’s certificates from the school.
“The instructors are the best, my staff is the best and the facilities are unmatched anywhere on earth. Because of that, this where people come,” Adams said.
Marc Adams School of Woodworking
Where: 5504 E. CR 500N, Franklin
Total number of students taught since opening: 30,000
Total number of workshops offered: More than 2,700
How to sign up: Open enrollment for workshops for the general public begins on Dec. 1 at marcadams.com.