Learning Curves

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This article is from Issue 1 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By John English

You probably know him as the host of DIY Network’s “Wood Works.” But to those who have become his students and friends, David Marks is so much more – philosopher, artist and mentor.

Professional woodworker David

Marks finds one-on-one teaching rewarding, but was especially moved by a recent experience with one of his students. He spent the day with an American soldier who was on two-week leave, after which the serviceman was scheduled to return to his station in Baghdad. This soldier’s wife had wanted to give her spouse a very special gift, so she booked a whole day with Marks, during which the two woodworkers explored hand-cut dovetails together and built a Shaker-style box. 

That day, the soldier shared photographs of furniture from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, which he had visited during the first part of his tour. He had been on the front lines for a year, and faced a similar stint upon return. Yet he was willing – no, “thrilled” is the right word – to spend one of his 14 precious days of leave in a one-on-one class with Marks.

What inspires a man to spend even an hour away from his family during the course of such a short leave? While far from home, this young man had seen Marks perform miracles in the workshop on his television show “Wood Works,” which airs on the DIY Network. In the midst of mayhem, a half-hour of woodworking was always a welcome reprieve. 

While there was no question that Marks regarded the soldier as a hero, he was humbled to find that the feeling was reciprocal. 

A love of learning … and teaching

Marks is an erudite, yet humble soul. His vast knowledge of woodworking and the countless awards he has earned somehow still seem to surprise him. Here is a man who uses language beautifully. He peppers his speech with complex concepts, but does so in such a relaxed manner that nothing escapes his audience. He is, by nature, a teacher. People travel from all over the country to spend a few days in his quiet Pacific Coast workshop, learning in small groups or one-on-one as he shares the secrets of bentwood lamination or the intricacies of bandsaw veneering. 

“My goal,” he says on his Web site, “is to provide small, accessible classes to fellow woodworkers, and to have the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue about woodworking.”

Marks takes his classroom on the road too, teaching an array of subjects nationwide at venues like Woodcraft stores, the Woodworking Shows, and the famed Marc Adams School in Franklin, Ind. Based on his clients’ requests, he schedules such classes as bowl turning, finishing and inlay techniques. 

THE ARTISTIC SIDE of woodworking is evident in many of Marks’ pieces. His attention to detail and knack for design have earned him numerous awards and commissions.

Teaching has led to some surprising rewards. As the host of “Wood Works,” for example, he has become something of a role model for young people. “I get e-mails telling me how it has impacted their lives and changed the way they spend their free time,” he says.

Marks tries to balance his teaching and exhibition schedules with time spent on the television show and in the shop. Back in the early ’80s he started out working alone. After a while, he missed the company of others, so he now has a full-time employee. While solitude was a necessary element for the creative process at times, it also could be a little overdone. As his career progressed, he began to teach and share what he was learning. 

“It was nice to have somebody else come in and bounce a few ideas around,” he says. “And it validated what I was doing. To have them value my work was uplifting, encouraging.

“Teaching helps me collect my thoughts. It clarifies what I know, and by articulating it to somebody else, it strengthens that knowledge in me. That only serves to improve the quality of my own work. We all develop systems. We go into the shop and switch on autopilot, performing familiar tasks in a routine manner. When somebody interrupts that routine and asks ‘Why?’ – well, it makes you think about why, doesn’t it?”

Part of what David Marks teaches is paying attention to fine details. Technically brilliant while it sometimes challenges established aesthetics, his own woodworking is both art and craft. In California, his pieces grace galleries such as Tercera, William Zimmer, Gumps and Gallery M. He has had work on display in New York at the American Craftsman Gallery in Rockefeller Center, and in Boston at the Gallery NAGA. And his pieces appear in numerous collections across the country, from the Contemporary Museum of Art in Honolulu to the Brookside Institute in New Jersey. 

He currently has work on display in the Sculpture Garden of the Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, Calif., where he also built the bar. It took 250 hours to complete and showcases double-double marquetry set into the bar top – a collage of purpleheart grapes and quilted mahogany leaves, where the carefully selected quilted grain represents veins in the leaves.

In California, Marks’ work has been exhibited at the Brand Library Art Galleries in Glendale, the Art Furnishings Shows in Pasadena and Santa Monica, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco and the del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles. Pieces have appeared in shows curated by the American Crafts Council in both Baltimore and San Francisco. He has exhibited at the Sausalito Arts Festival, the Masters & Apprentices Show in San Rafael, the Sculpture Objects & Functional Art Exhibition in Chicago and dozens of other prestigious venues across the country.

Influences and education

Growing up in New Jersey, Marks took full advantage of his ability to skip into the city and spend a day at New York’s celebrated Metropolitan Museum of Art whenever he wanted. Art was a way of life in his home – his mother was a classical piano player. At the Met, he was astounded at the quality of the art. “Right before me was the very best work from the greatest artists in history,” he says. “What an inspiration!”

This early exposure to the classics has guided his hand throughout his career.

“My inspiration is derived from a fusion of styles including ancient Egyptian, African, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Asian,” he says. The influence of ancient Egypt was underscored early on when he witnessed the splendor of the traveling King Tut exhibit and saw first-hand the magnificent artistry that existed in the Valley of the Kings in 1300 B.C.

During the 1970s, Marks studied art at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, Calif., where a degree still requires students to tackle design and color, three-dimensional form and a healthy dose of art history. This further laid the foundation for his own design work, but to express that vision, he needed to perfect his technical skills. He finished out the decade with hands-on training in various cabinet and furniture shops and, by 1981 – married and the new owner of a home and workshop in Santa Rosa – he was ready to spread his wings. 

He spent the next 10 years building one-of-a-kind furniture, melding modern influences – Sam Maloof, James Krenov, Wendell Castle, Art Carpenter and Gary Knox Bennett among them – with his classical roots. During this period, an audience of his peers began to celebrate his craftsmanship and originality with a series of awards.

Then, a dozen years ago, his career and his vision moved in a new direction. In the 1990s, his focus shifted more toward woodturning and sculpture. By 2000, he was exhibiting pieces in Los Angeles, and the following year he earned two prestigious NICHE awards in Philadelphia in the categories of mixed/miscellaneous media, and garden art/sculpture.

MARKS SPENDS MANY AN HOUR in front of a camera, teaching viewers of the DIY Network’s “Wood Works” the finer points of building furniture. The show is shot in Marks’ shop behind his home in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Given all the aspects of his craft – contemporary furniture, patination finishes, creating Arts & Crafts, Shaker and contemporary pieces for the television show – Marks says that turning is perhaps his favorite. 

“It’s the most fun,” he laughs. “I tried pottery and working with clay in high school, but it was so hard to control. Wood, while it certainly presents other challenges, at least holds its form. And it is relatively stable.”

This is a man who values stability. The father of two grown children, he and his wife have just celebrated their 28th anniversary. They still live on the property they bought back in 1981 – an acre of ground with a house in front and a horse stable behind. That’s where he opened his first studio, and within a couple of years the work he completed there earned him the Jurors’ Award of Excellence from the Mendocino Woodworkers’ Association. This, his first peer award, was a watershed in his career. It inspired the confidence to continue in a tough business and to find his own path to artistry and excellence.

Turning has always been a part of that journey, especially in the later years. 

“Turning is unusual in woodworking,” he says. “In most other activities, you bring the workpiece to the tools – a board to the saw, perhaps, or a joint to a mortising machine. In turning, you bring the tools to the wood.”

He likes the nonlinear shapes turning produces, as opposed to the usual boxlike fare common to most woodworking. Turning and sculpture have led him to explore not just shapes, but also textures. He has become an acknowledged expert in the art of patination.

“The patina finish that is a trademark of my work is a hybrid I’ve developed over the last decade,” he says on his Web site. “It combines painting, gilding (metal leafing), chemical patinas and lacquering techniques. The complex layers result in something that gives the appearance of an ancient, petrified stone quality.”

Mixed media, mass media

“Woodworking is an incredible medium,” Marks says. “You can go into your shop and produce everything from a spoon to a boat, a chair or even a complete house. How many other areas of endeavor offer so many options?”

In his own shop, there’s little evidence of the production machinery common to so many pros. All of his equipment uses single-phase power, although he does have some substantial machinery – a 12" Parks planer keeps company with a 1940s bandsaw and a cast iron 16" jointer with Babbet bearings. 

“The old machines have character,” he says with a smile. “These were designed by engineers and patternmakers, men who relished spoked wheels and built dovetailed ways into their steel tables. The new ones don’t have the history yet, or don’t have a story to tell.”

The television show is shot here. 

DIY began an expanded schedule of “Wood Works” in October 2004, including the airing of 26 new episodes. That brings the total episode count to 91, the last of which was videotaped in March. Since then, Marks has been on hiatus, but should be back in production on the show over the colder months. Either way, he’ll be back on the air soon, and one of the highlights of the new season is a show called “Masters and Mentors,” which features two of his most revered influences: James Krenov and Art Carpenter. The Krenov segment was shot in December 2003 in the master’s own workshop and on the campus of the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif., where Krenov taught at the School of Woodworking from the time he created it in 1981 until his retirement in 2002.

During the hiatus, Marks has been catching up on real life, and has spent a great deal of time in the shop, on the road and teaching. He’s currently working on two commissions; the first is a turned vessel which will be gilded in silver leaf, the second is a gilded electric guitar for noted musician Henry Kaiser.

“Wood Works” began in 2001 and features 30 episodes a year. The show came out of the blue – Marks had been exhibiting his work at a show in Chicago and when he arrived home, tired and hungry, his wife told him that he had a funny message on the answering machine.

“She almost erased it,” he laughs. “She thought it was just one of my buddies playing a joke. The message was actually from a TV producer asking if I was interested in hosting a woodworking show. That was the beginning of three months of résumés, meetings, and lots and lots of photographs. They apparently interviewed about a hundred candidates all over the country and it finally came down to three.

“I was told that I had a pretty good shot if I was willing to get a haircut. At the time, I had long hair down to my shoulders.”  

Each episode of “Wood Works” features step-by-step instructions for building contemporary studio furniture, which David has designed specifically for that show. To this craftsman, renowned artist and accomplished teacher, television was a natural next step. Like any of his other classrooms, it’s another way for David Marks to share his lifelong love of woodworking.

“As worn and tattered as the phrase may sound, there is a lot of truth in the premise that woodworking is therapeutic,” he says. “People need to feel that they are doing something of value, and they don’t always get that from their jobs. The Arts & Crafts master, Gustav Stickley, recognized this dichotomy, and he endeavored to teach young apprentices more than a trade. He sought to instill in them, through learned skills, a role in society. Their work was to create value on other levels beyond a salary. We seem to have lost sight of that in these busy times. But woodworking fills that void, that need to create and excel, for so very many people.”

To learn more about David Marks, visit www.djmarks.com

John English

Originally from Ireland, John English is a trained cabinetmaker and the author of more than 500 magazine articles. He lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in Casper, Wyo., at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. 

His Web site is www.woodezine.com

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