“The school was founded by David Powell, who in the 1940s had apprenticed under one of the most famous woodworkers in England — Edward Barnsley, who came from a long line of fine woodworkers. Barnsley ran the Froxfield Workshops, and during the war, while Powell worked and studied, he could hear German bombs falling around the workshops. Later, Powell became famous in his own right and even has stuff in Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.
“Powell set up Leeds to mirror the educational process at the Froxfield Workshops. The thing was that he was terribly shy and a horrible communicator. He would demonstrate for us and another instructor, John Tierney, spoke. Powell had these incredibly beautiful English woodworking tools. He was painstakingly slow and meticulous with everything he did. I remember walking past his workroom and watching him slowly sharpening his tools. We spent six weeks — six weeks! — learning how to sharpen tools. That was the sort of training I had. Grounded in 17th- and 18th-century woodworking methods.
“And so my studies began, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. five days a week. September through May. I remember on my first day of class everyone took out their tools and made a big show of putting them on their workbench. Most of the other students already had woodworking experience and had all these beautiful tools. I was the youngest student there by six or seven years. All I had was a set of Stanley screwdrivers my mother had given me. My teachers walked by and looked and sort of sighed and rolled their eyes. I needed everything. I was starting from scratch.
“What I lacked in experience I made up for with drive. With desire. I was hungry. I wanted to learn. And that made me a very good student, because I didn’t come to the school with any bad habits or any preconceptions of how things should or shouldn’t be done. I was a clean slate. So I really studied. I studied all the time. Besides, there wasn’t anything else to do in that small town. I was too young to drink. And where I lived wasn’t exactly wonderful. My dad was giving me $300 a month in living expenses. For $150 a month I rented a room in the basement of this house. There were four rooms in this basement. One shower. One hot plate. One sink. One of the guys living down there was a recovering heroin addict who’d done time in Attica state prison. He was the most wretched alcoholic I’d ever seen in my life. The stench coming from this man’s room was so vile that every time I came home I’d scream, ‘Manny, close your goddamn door!’ He’d drink a case of beer at a time, and he’d stack the cans in a pyramid and at the end of the night he’d be so drunk he’d crash into the beer cans and I’d hear them fall and roll around on the floor. I realized at that point that the human body was incredible and could withstand incredible amounts of abuse.
“Then there was Izzy a guy in his late 30s who’d been at Woodstock as a kid and gotten really strung out on some hallucinogen. He would pick at his zits with a knife. He said the devil was coming out of his body. He’d lock himself in the bathroom, picking at his zits with a knife, screaming, ‘Gotta get it! Gotta get it!’ Izzy’s brother made the fourth. He was an odd little duck with horrible teeth who carried a Buck knife. This was my ‘home life.’ I remember one night I came home from school and I was hungry and I was frying some bacon and I accidentally let it burn and I guess the smoke somehow set off the smoke detector in the apartment upstairs. The guy living there came running down the stairs and pointed a shotgun at me. Again, this was my home life. Most guys, you know, have college buddies or frat brothers. Izzy and Manny were my college buddies.
“Life in the workshop was tense too. And competitive. Most of the other students had worked as carpenters and were following the usual progression of a career in woodwork, from cabinetry to fine furniture. I was doing the opposite. I was starting with fine furniture. I was under terrible scrutiny, and I was incredibly self-conscious, afraid of making mistakes. Of course, I did make mistakes. My very first piece was an end table that took me a month to make. I made it with no power tools. One morning I was carefully, very carefully rubbing an oiled finish into it. It was time for class and I piled all my oily rags on my workbench — my workbench made of wood. I want to emphasize that this was a very stressful atmosphere. All you want to do is blend in, not make mistakes. So, we’re sitting in the lecture hall and the instructor is showing slides and all of a sudden this guy bursts into the room and yells, ‘Who’s got oily rags?’
“I just froze in my seat. My heart pounding. It felt like it took about a million years for me to raise my hand — ‘Uh, I’ve got oily rags.’ We all ran into the workshop, and it was filled with this awful oily stench. My rags had spontaneously combusted. Right there. On my wooden workbench. I was chastised in front of everybody, but the instructor said he was glad that I’d provided an excellent opportunity to talk about the dangers of piling up oily rags.
“Life was lonely. I didn’t have any friends. But the isolation was very good for me. Every Friday night I’d go back to the shop and practice my dovetails. I practiced all night long into the early morning. I’d start again on Saturday afternoon and practice and practice until early Sunday morning. Sometimes I’d take a break and read from my instructors’ collection of books on woodworking or design, or I’d sharpen my tools. There I was, in that big silent mill, all by myself, weekend after weekend, cutting dovetail after dovetail. It was lonely, it was cold, but I was mastering my craft.