"When I was in high school in Massachusetts, girls could not take shop," Janet Collins
told me. "Besides, that's where all the bad kids were put; the boys who were troublemakers were put in shop. At around the same time, I recall seeing an article in the newspaper about a woman who was a furniture maker, and thought to myself 'my father would never let me do that.' Nevertheless, I did manage to do some wood carving while still in high school and really loved it."
After such a rocky start, it is perhaps surprising that Janet has become not only a well respected furniture maker, but also a teacher of the very subject once denied to her. However, she teaches not in a high school, but in the nation's most prestigious woodworking school. But first, there were quite a few intervening years. "After high school, I started working as a school administrative assistant, but got married at 21 and became a homemaker for the next seven or eight years. Eventually, I went back to work doing the same thing as before."
Luckily, a family member channeled her into carpentry. "One of my brothers is in the home remodeling business, and I started working with him part -time while my daughters were young. That convinced me to start doing work in my own home, an old farmhouse. After doing the kitchen cabinets in that house, I decided to learn more about it. At the tender age of 37, I started taking classes at the North Bennett Street School. Three years later, I enrolled in their two-year furniture making program.
"The entire time I was a student, I worked for the school milling lumber, preparing materials, and even assisting and teaching workshops. For a brief period of time after I left school, I started working for an individual furniture maker. After that, I started taking private commissions, mostly from people who found out about me by word of mouth. About a month after I left school, they asked me to come back and take a position as Workshop Program Director, and I have been doing that ever since.
"It is about the best desk job you could have," Janet says of the job she has held since 1997, "because it is related to what I do. The Workshop Program is for part-time students. I oversee about 80 workshops a year and teach some of the courses at the school. I've taught most of the woodworking classes here, but I like teaching carving, inlay and woodturning most, because those are the things I enjoy most when building furniture. It is only a part-time job, so it gives me time to do my own furniture as well."
Her own furniture tends toward the traditional, but covers a range of periods. "Traditional American furniture from almost any period appeals to me," Janet explained. "The shapes, curves, carving, inlays, details and even the wood used all appeal to me." Even her work space resonates with tradition. "My workshop is located at my home in Ryegate, Vermont, in a barn on my property. It was converted from horse barn to a cabinet shop in the 1940s by a cabinetmaker. I am the third furniture maker to use this as a workshop."
"I particularly enjoy working with curly maple," Janet admits. "Working the wood is a chore, but the visual rewards are more than worth it. It is a real delight seeing something like figured wood come alive with the first coat of finish. The curly maple chest of drawers and curly maple bed pictured on my web site are probably my two favorite pieces. The chest of drawers is a copy of a late 18th century piece made on the North Shore of Massachusetts, and the bed is also a reproduction. I have an eight-foot bed Oneway lathe that allows me to turn bedposts that size.
"Part of the reason I love this furniture," Collins explained, "is the joy of going through the process of building the piece. Recently I was asked 'Do you ever have a hard time letting go of the pieces you make?' I replied no, because I enjoy the process of building more than the end result. Of course, there is also satisfaction in knowing that I am making the sort of pieces that are likely to still be around in 200 years."
In addition to teaching in the classroom, Janet is currently working on a book called Tool Sharpening Techniques which she expects to be released within a year. She was recently named "Woodworker of the Year" by the Vermont Wood Manufacturing Association, is a member of The Furniture Society, the AAW, and is both a member and the current president of the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers, a group whose entrance is by jury selection.
"I like building," Janet points out, "but also like the idea that I am creating something that is esthetically pleasing, will be around for a while and will make someone else's life more enjoyable. You should make what you are doing count by doing it right and doing the best work that you can."
From the looks of it, she most certainly practices what she preaches.
This article originally appeared in the Woodworker's Journal eZine.
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