Shaker oval boxes. John Wilson, shown here in front of The Home Shop, is renowned for his reproductions of these useful and decorative pieces, and for teaching others how to make them.
In 1977, Wilson received an offer to teach furniture making at Michigan’s Lansing Community College. There was only one catch: The class they wanted him to teach began in two hours. Wilson drove to a library, checked out Ejner Handberg’s “Shop Drawings of Shaker Furniture & Woodenware” (Vol. 1), and with the help of his students chose a dovetailed dining tray as the class project. It was in that book the now-famed Shaker-box maker discovered the oval boxes.
Wilson tells this story 30 years later on a cool May evening in Charlotte, Mich., while sitting around a bonfire and eating chocolate with his wife, Sally, and two children, 13-year-old Molly and 7-year-old Will. In front of him is his 32′ x 86′ shop, The Home Shop. To the right is The Little House, 16′ x 16′ of space in which he lived for 12 years, including five years making boxes before his shop was finished. Behind him is his current home. For Wilson, home and shop have always been deeply intertwined. Although once one-in-the-same, the two are now separated only by a small yard that serves as a playground for Molly, Will and a handful of chickens.
Today, the teacher, craftsman and writer is best known for his Shaker boxes (see August 2003, issue #135 for his Popular Woodworking article on how to make these). For more than 20 years he has made boxes, taught box-making classes, and sold bands, tops and bottoms for various sizes and styles of boxes, carriers and trays. Since 1991, Wilson also has produced and sold the hard-to-find copper tacks, distinctive of the box lap.
Rehoboth – Ample Room
Wilson, who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., was given free reign of his dad’s small basement shop, which consisted only of hand tools. “My parents must have subscribed to the adage that hand tools are reasonably safe if reasonably used, or pain intervenes before damage is done,” he said. “Think hand saw versus table saw.”
While studying anthropology, Wilson, now 68, worked his way through college as a carpenter. After earning his master’s degree from London (England) University, Wilson taught anthropology from 1962 to 1972 at Purdue University, Michigan State University and Albion College. Failing to get tenure, Wilson changed careers and became a licensed residential contractor for the next 10 years. Following that was another 10-year period as a teaching craftsman, making and selling Shaker boxes. By 1992 Wilson was a full-time businessman, selling Shaker box supplies and teaching on the side. In 2002 he added writing to the mix.
Walking around his property, Wilson points to a large, old farmhouse, which he no longer owns. There he lived with his first wife and two sons, both now in their early 40s. After his divorce, Wilson moved into The Little House, which he initially built for his sons after vandals burned their fort. Now a guesthouse, The Little House features a wood-burning stove, bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances and a loft for sleeping. Carved into the bed is the Hebrew word “Rehoboth,” which means “ample room.” For five years it also held a workbench, lumber and tools.
Growing Business, Growing Space
Wilson finished the first section of The Home Shop in 1988, just in time for his May 8 wedding to Sally. It was in the then-empty shop that they had a potluck reception with friends, piano and dulcimer music, and folk dancing. After the wedding, Wilson moved his shop out of The Little House and into The Home Shop. He and Sally lived in The Little House until Molly was born.
Today The Home Shop consists of three sections on three different levels, which follow the slope of the land. This allows for a 10′ ceiling in the main room, and 12′ and 14′ ceilings in the inventory and storage rooms. Wilson recycles building materials when possible. The 32′ x 32′ main room contains a 16′ x 20′ cider mill that resembled a carriage house. A friend offered it to Wilson, so he simply loaded it onto a trailer, took it to his property and worked it into the design. Light floods the shop thanks to 13 skylights – made from old sliding glass doors – and, what Wilson calls “window walls” everywhere.
“I don’t regard myself so much a green person, as being a resourceful one, which is a virtue I hold in pretty high regard,” he says.
Most of the tools Wilson shares with his two partners – Eric Pintar and John Kellogg – are in the main shop. Work areas are arranged in triangular shapes. Wilson spends 15 to 20 hours a week at his Craftsman table saw cutting bands for sale. Completing this triangle is an old 10″ Craftsman radial-arm saw and a jointer. Another triangular work area consists of a 24″ Performax drum sander, a 15″ Delta planer and an 18″ Grizzly band saw.