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Dedicated to Craft at North Bennet Street School

Guest blog post by Nancy Jenner, Director of Communications, North Bennet Street School

Furniture student working with instructor Steve Brown (photo by Heather McGrath)

Furniture student working with instructor Steve Brown (photo by Heather McGrath)

A Bit of History

Aspiring artisans have been coming to North Bennet Street School (NBSS) to learn woodworking since the school opened in Boston’s North End in 1881. In 1947, the furniture making program was established and thrived under the leadership of George Fullerton who joined the school in 1951 and taught for 34 years. Fullerton learned furniture making as an apprentice in Charlestown, Massachusetts working with furniture makers trained in Europe.

Fullerton’s teaching was based on his personal working experience and a long tradition of custom furniture trade practice, which strongly emphasizes economy and efficiency in labor and materials; proven, well-thought-out construction practice; and the skilled use of hand tools. The goal was furniture of high quality with fine detailing and beauty overall.

As the program evolved, new instructors continued the focus on handskills and traditional furniture-making techniques honing the furniture program’s reputation as one that trains master craftsmen who, because they learn to master the fundamentals of furniture construction and detailing, can make anything.

Chair by NBSS student Timm Schleiff (Photo courtesy of North Bennet Street School)

Chair by NBSS student Timm Schleiff (Photo courtesy of North Bennet Street School)

Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture and Student Projects

Artisans trained at North Bennet Street School are leading workshops and demonstrating furniture-making techniques at several Massachusetts venues as part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture project.

NBSS instructors also are regular presenters at national conferences on furniture making and history and, because of the school’s reputation and unique focus, cultural and historic organizations often contact NBSS for help with projects. These projects provide real world experience in bespoke studio furniture and allow students to further enhance their skills with the advice and supervision of master faculty.

Earlier this year, the Emily Dickinson Museum inquired about reproducing furniture that was original to the house. NBSS students Boyd Allen, CF ’13 and Caleb Schultz, CF ’14 were commissioned to reproduce a dresser and writing table that originally belonged to Emily Dickinson but were given to Harvard University. Boyd and Caleb carefully documented the furniture with the help of NBSS instructor Lance Patterson and then made the reproduction furniture using measurements from the originals.

In another project, faculty, students and alumni worked with the Bostonian Society to make furniture for the reinterpretation of the Council Chamber of Boston’s Town House (now the Old State House). The Council Chamber, the most opulent interior in colonial Boston, is about to reopen to the public as it appeared during the 1760s, lavishly appointed with rich fabrics and with furniture made by artisans trained at North Bennet Street School.

Reproduction dresser for the Emily Dickinson Museum

Reproduction dresser for the Emily Dickinson Museum in process shown with the original

Matt Wajda (left), a 2001 graduate of the NBSS program, holds one of the side chairs he made for the Council Chamber project next to a chair from the collection. (Photo courtesy of the Bostonian Society)

Matt Wajda (left), a 2001 graduate of the NBSS program, holds one of the side chairs he made for the Council Chamber project next to a chair from the collection. (Photo courtesy of the Bostonian Society)

About North Bennet Street School

NBSS trains students to be professional artisans who pursue careers using the skills they learn. In addition to cabinet and furniture making, NBSS has full-time programs in bookbinding, carpentry, jewelry making and repair, locksmithing and security technology, piano technology, preservation carpentry, and violin making and repair. Workshops and short courses in woodworking, bookbinding and jewelry making are open to all.

North Bennet Street School (Photo by KVA Architecture)

North Bennet Street School (Photo by KVA Architecture)

Entrance to the two-year furniture-making program is competitive and based on aptitude and commitment to the craft. The 39 students currently enrolled range in age from 18 to 72 and come from 11 states. For some, NBSS is their first post-secondary training. Others are changing careers or have studied in other fields. The diverse backgrounds, ages and experience provide a rich learning environment.

Early in the program, students complete exercises and projects that teach drafting, benchwork, basic machine operation, turning, and fundamental hand skills using planes and chisels. The first significant project is the construction of a tool chest. Students then design and construct at least one example of a table, a chair, and another piece of case work. These pieces are typically based on traditional 18th and 19th century furniture designs because traditional models require the handskills and woodworking techniques that are the foundation of the NBSS curriculum. Students are encouraged to challenge themselves to learn new techniques and skills in each project they select and execute.

For more about North Bennet Street School, go to http://www.nbss.edu/index.aspx.

Furniture student at work (Photo by John Cetrino)

Furniture student at work (Photo by John Cetrino)

This post is part of an ongoing series of articles contributed by curators of exhibitions and events presented as part of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture collaboration. Read more stories in the series.

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