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New England News

Berkshire Woodworkers Guild Displays Crafts, Builds Future At Weekend Show

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Jim Law
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Woodworkers in Berkshire County will gather in Stockbridge, Massachusetts this weekend for their annual show.

Like many creation myths, the Berkshire Woodworking Guild’s origin story begins with a fire.

“Twenty years ago, actually probably 22 years ago, a friend of mine who had a shop in Great Barrington, a lot of snow collapsed the roof, and there was a fire, and I basically got on the phone and called up my group of woodworking friends and we gave him a small check in order that he could buy some hand tools. And that was the spark of the idea, let’s get everyone together and have a group and have meetings," said Peter Thorne, the guild founder. “The Berkshires is kind of the center geographically of our guild, and there’s lots of people who come over from New York state, up from Connecticut, down from Vermont, to be part of our guild. And the basic economic driver is custom furniture for second home or first homes up here.”

At first, the 30 or 40 members were all professional woodworkers, many of whom live on commission work. Now, the 50-plus person guild includes hobbyists as well.

Guild president James Law lives and runs a shop in Sheffield. He says that the kind of woodwork represented by the group runs from artisans who make cabinets, tables, and other kinds of home goods to a variety of crafts.

“The guild not only has all of those type of people, but they have instrument makers: guitar, harp. Then we have a bunch of turner people that just turn things on a lathe," Law told WAMC. "We have boat builders, canoes, kayaks.”

Once a month, the group gathers to show new pieces and new techniques.

“There’s a conversation that’s had throughout the whole meeting by the rest of the people that are witnessing what they’re demonstrating or what they’re teaching us, and you might have 30 different opinions going around the room," explained Law. "So it makes it a very education group of guys that are sharing experiences from one to the other.”

This weekend at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, 19 guild members will put some of their finest work on display. Alongside the celebration of artistry and live woodworking demos, the guild is holding a parallel event.

“We have a silent auction where every guild member is asked to donate some kind of woodwork piece to the silent auction," said Law. "Last year we raised $6,000, and this year we’re giving out $8,500 worth of scholarships.”

Applicants come from woodworking schools around the country, and winners receive $1,500. Three previous recipients will be among the artisans displaying their work this weekend. Thorne says the craft is experiencing a boom among young people, and the guild is keen to encourage them.

“That we’re all really busy and aging is a driver for us to really try and get new kids into the business, so our $8,500 worth of scholarships this year that we’ve handed out ideally are going out to people who have a connection to the Berkshires," said the guild founder. "Some of them do, some of them don’t – and will replace us old fogies who are still working.”

His pitch to a new generation of woodworkers is that through mastery of the craft, it’s possible to enter history itself.

“At the show, that the people get to meet somebody who gets to make these pieces is the first hook," said Thorne. "And the second hook is of course looking at the quality and construction of the pieces, that they are going to be the future antiques, in that they are all built to last generations.”

Beyond just being built to last, Thorne emphasizes that the wood never stops moving. As it responds to the humidity around it, a piece will continue squirming and growing and contracting for the rest of time.

“This piece of furniture – that three-foot wide piece of ash that is their table top – is going to move a quarter of an inch over the course of the year, and it will move that quarter of an inch every year of its life,”

The Berkshire Woodworkers Guild Fine Woodwork Show and Silent Auction takes place at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts from 9 to 5 on Saturday and Sunday.

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