Some of the students at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport have an odd way of showing their mettle.
The men, at least, eagerly roll up their sleeves and point proudly to a hairless patch of skin on their forearms. The hair has been shaved by a chisel that is literally sharp enough to split hairs, a tool — if not a skill — that comes in handy as students carve dovetail joints and beveled panels.
Peter Korn, who established the school in 1993, said teaching students the importance of having sharp chisels, and showing them how to sharpen them, is one example of the level of expertise the center offers.
Having come East to return to his love of sailing the year before, Korn decided to open a school based on his experiences at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowman Village, Colo., where he had been director of the woodworking programs. The Colorado school offers an immersion in woodworking and other crafts.
Rockport was an ideal setting for the furniture center, Korn says, because it is an area where people would come to vacation as well as study. During the traditional school year, the center offers 12-week sessions, open to just 12 students. The slots are available to the first who come.
Korn remembers telling his father, who was a little skeptical about the venture, that of the 270 million people in the United States, he needed to draw only 12 every three months to be successful.
Tuition is $4,100, and students must buy their own wood and can rent apartments or rooms in nearby houses. Summer sessions run for one and two weeks. In the course of a year, 23 classes are offered, and — evidence of Korn’s vision bearing fruit — attended by 250-270 students.
Korn teaches five of the courses. The others are led by instructors from all over the United States and from Canada and England.
The structure is simple. Students are in the workshop off Route 90 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, working each day on their progressively more difficult projects. The shop, tools and equipment are at their disposal at any time.
The first project is a stool. Students are encouraged to design their own piece, and even make cardboard mock-ups before cutting any wood.
One of the three rooms in the school is devoted to drafting. Full-size blueprints are drawn up for projects, with Korn and other instructors leading the way.
An adjacent shop room has several power tools, including joiners, planers, table saws, band saws and lathes, but the focus is on doing things by hand as much as possible.
The second project is a “case” piece, with students making a chest or box of some kind. The piece must have at least one door and one drawer, so students become proficient in making dovetail joints and panel doors. The final project must use some kind of curved wood, involving the use of steam and other bending techniques, and must include veneering, in which a thin layer of fine wood is glued over a less expensive wood.
Students in the session under way have come from all over the United States, and two are from Taiwan, though neither knew the other before setting foot in the Rockport woodworking shop.
Korn said the skill level of incoming students varies widely, as does the reason for their taking the course.
“They’re not all necessarily ready to be professional woodworkers” when the course ends, “but some are.”
The current class includes one professional, and two who began with little woodworking experience.
Jerry Beagler, 68, of Santa Barbara, Calif., has been an amateur woodworker for 35 years, though he confesses to having been too busy as a real estate developer to get good at the craft. Reading a copy of Fine Woodworking magazine in a dentist’s office, he saw the center advertised. After asking his business partners if he could take a leave of absence, he applied.
“There are other schools around the country,” Beagler said, but none offered the three-month immersion. Korn is “an absolutely outstanding instructor,” he says. “It’s amazing, to me, how he brings everyone along.”
Beagler is making a cherry chest for his grandchild as his second project.
T.J. Shao, 44, of Taiwan had recently sold his tire company, and was searching for a woodworking course on the Internet. He came across the center’s page (www.woodschool.com). Shao’s wife encouraged him to take the course to expand his knowledge of woodworking from that of a hobbyist to a level where he could consider the craft as a career.
Shao is working on a tea service cabinet, with a drawer that slides out both sides. The project was suggested by his wife. Tea is important in Taiwanese social life, he explains.
Sara Grover, 21, of Bangor recently finished college classes at Wellesley, majoring in fine art and art history. “I wanted something even more hands-on,” she said of her interest in furniture-making.
Another art major, Katie Cooper, 23, of Jackson, Wyo., recently graduated from the University of Vermont. She has done some furniture-making, and completed internships at other shops. She is not sure whether she will work as a furniture builder.
“I’d like to have it somewhere in my life,” she said. Cooper is making a gun cabinet for her boyfriend.
Starting the school “was very scary,” Korn recalled. But student numbers have grown, from about 60 in the first few years, to 150 in the late 1990s, to this year, with all classes booked solid, and next year also filled.
The course that begins January of next year had “hundreds” turned away, Korn said.
In 1999, Korn established the center as a nonprofit, taking some of the pressure of its success off his shoulders, and ensuring it would continue beyond his involvement. Earlier this month, fund raising for a capital campaign goal of $250,000 was completed, with $225,000 coming from alumni. A $15,000 grant from the Falmouth-based Davis Family Foundation also helped get the school on firm financial footing.
For more information about the school, call 594-5611 or 354-3542, or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.