Making Craftsmen

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This article is from Issue 15 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Joe Skeel

Marc Adams did not envision a career in woodworking education, but a family tragedy set him on a path that has benefited thousands of woodworkers.

The Marc Adams School of Woodworking attracts Hollywood stars, professional athletes and CEOs of major corporations – not to mention the best woodworking instructors on the planet. Students drive an average of 500 miles to the rural Indiana facility at Whiteland just for the opportunity to share saw time with some of the world’s most influential people, whether it’s a teacher or fellow student.

When it comes to woodworking instruction, Marc Adams stands at the top of the mountain. But to get there, he had to start at one of life’s deepest valleys.

Life changing experience

Marc has always enjoyed woodworking. He began making gifts for family members at the age of six but the crafts were limited. His father, a builder by trade, would let Marc use only a lathe and bandsaw for safety reasons. 

John Adams and Marc tinkered in their small Indiana garage through the years, but their relationship never grew beyond father and son – even though the two were close.

Eventually, Marc moved on to college, enrolling at a central Indiana college in 1977. Marc earned an undergraduate degree in education, but found the job market tough so he began pursuing his master’s degree in sports medicine.

During his final year of school, with graduation and a steady income on the horizon, Marc decided to help his father purchase the woodworking tool John had always dreamed of: a Shopsmith – the do-it-all tool that could be expanded with a multitude of attachments. Marc had already helped his father construct a workshop at their home, and this would be the perfect centerpiece.

Students can select from a diverse curriculum of short-term, intensive classes taught by the nation's top woodworking instructors in up-to-date shop classrooms.

“This is the thing that would have really brought us together as friends,” Marc said. “Not just a father and son relationship.”

The day after they purchased the machine, the two assembled it. The following day John collapsed and died. Just like that, Marc’s father was gone; suffering a heart attack while walking from one room to the other during the final game of the 1982 World Series. John was 52.

Like most 23-year-olds would, Marc took his father’s unexpected death hard. He couldn’t bring himself to sell the Shopsmith, even though he couldn’t afford the $120-a-month payments by himself.

“It was the last thing we did together, one of the things he always wanted,” Marc said.

This quote by Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso hangs on the wall at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking – an inspiration to the students pursuing the best techniques for working wood.

Start of something big

Despite college loans coming due, a brand new car payment and a wedding on the horizon, Marc refused to sell or return the Shopsmith. He began to devise a way to make the payments.

“I decided if I could make a picture frame, a doghouse, do a little repair work for a neighbor on their fence – whatever – by using this new machine, I could maybe make 120 bucks a month and after two years have something to remember my dad by forever.”

At the time, Marc – who operates like a man on five gallons of Starbucks – had very limited knowledge of anything wood related. “Back then, we didn’t have trade shows that traveled all over the country, we didn’t have all the mail order catalogs we have today. We didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have all the periodicals, we didn’t have the TV shows,” Marc said. “For guys like me, you had to either learn on your own or you had to find someone you could spend some time with.”

But for Marc, that someone was gone.

The wood craftsmen of tomorrow are at work in this Marc Adams School of Woodworking shop. Nearly 10,000 students have taken classes here since the school opened its doors 12 years ago.

Nonetheless, he knew he could figure out how to put shingles on a doghouse or make a picture frame, and he knew turning, so he could at least make candle holders. “I just knew I could figure it out.”

Marc began to do some odd jobs here and there. But those jobs soon turned into an obsession, and he found himself deeper in debt than when he started. With every breath, Marc was consumed by woodworking. Everything he read, watched and listened to was about the craft. It had turned into a full-blown addiction.

Marc continued to buy accessories for the Shopsmith so that he could do more projects. His payments jumped to $400 a month.

“I got into it so deep that all of a sudden I was in business. I had to spend every waking moment trying to make money to try to pay for what I was buying for the machine,” Marc said. “I was working myself into debt to support my habit.”

Marc dropped out of graduate school with a 4.0 GPA, just a few credits shy of his master’s degree. He never did return, although he has thought about it over the years. Nonetheless, Marc’s woodworking career was underway – whether he wanted it or not.

“Mastering a craft is not measured by the volume of work that you’ve produced. Nor is it measured by the books you’ve read, tools you own, what classes you’ve taken, or how good others think you are. Mastering a craft is a combination of desire, inspiration and motivation.” Marc Adams

Piece by piece

Marc wasn’t just building, he was learning how to build with each job. Soon, he was talented enough to follow his true love: custom furniture.

“But farmers just don’t spend $20,000 on dining room table sets,” he said.

Because of Marc’s obsessive-compulsive nature, each piece he makes takes a lot of time – some more than 2,000 hours. Although the work was excellent, today’s gotta-have-it-now society put a dent into Marc’s ability to pay his bills. People would rather drive to a furniture store and take it home that day, Marc said. Customers have to be willing to wait for custom furniture.

“Two or three years after I started, I’m thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into? This isn’t where I wanted to go,’” Marc said. “I was struggling to make ends meet, bigtime.”

To help with the bills, Marc began making custom cabinets. His business took off at a dizzying pace. As he generated more money, he was able to buy better equipment. With better equipment, he produced faster. Because he could produce faster, he took on more work. With more work, he needed to hire help. When he hired help, he needed bigger and better equipment. That meant he needed more sales and more work coming in. Soon, Marc was landing some of the biggest jobs in Indiana. By the late 1980s, John Adams’ death had catapulted Marc into a multimillion dollar business that employed 35.

“I don’t know that my path would have taken the direction that it took,” Marc said. “Unfortunately, where I am today is something (my father) would have dreamed about his whole life. But it probably never would have happened to me if he had been alive.”

Marc’s reputation continued to skyrocket within the industry. In 1991, he was asked to be a technical consultant to the Western Wood Products Association (the governing body that determines the size of a 2x4).

Marc found himself doing programs worldwide about international quality standards for furniture making. He traveled to teach different technologies, materials, techniques and marketing strategies, all while running the business behind his modest rural ranch home.

As Marc traveled the world, he was quizzed about how America trains its woodworkers. In many third-world countries, Marc said young boys are taught the trade from a young age and eventually take over the family business.

“In our country, to be a plumber, you have to be licensed. To be a mechanic, you have to be licensed. To be an electrician, you have to be licensed.  But to be a woodworker, all you have to have is a tape measure and a toothpick and you qualify,” Marc said. “While I was overseas on these missions, I realized that I needed to open my eyes to back home.”

A new direction

Soon, Marc would close his business and put all of his seemingly-endless energy – and his money – toward teaching others the lessons his father never had the chance to teach him.

Mark spent the next year crafting the school’s concept and class list, all while touring on the lecture circuit.

But before opening the doors in 1994, Marc decided it was time to let the Shopsmith go. Twelve years after his father’s death, the tool had done all it could for Marc. It wasn’t conducive to education, and the emotional attachment was gone. It was time to move on. Marc was at peace with his father’s untimely death and the guilt it forced upon him.

“His death was a big part of why I am where I am, unfortunately – or fortunately, however you want to look at it,” Mark said. “It’s terribly unfortunate that he died so young, and to have him still alive I’d give it all up, but that’s not the circumstance. I’m very happy with the way things turned out."With all new tools and workbenches, Marc opened the school and taught all 16 classes – with 10 students each – the first year. He also did all the paperwork, helped book hotel rooms and coordinated travel plans.

“It nearly killed me,” he said.

The following year, Marc lightened his teaching load by hiring other instructors. In two years, Marc added a second class each week, doubling the school’s capacity. Two years ago, Marc added on to the facility, creating one-third more space. His school, considered the largest in the United States, now teaches three classes a week at all different skill levels.

In the school’s 12-year existence, almost 10,000 students have passed through its doors.

A big reason for the school’s success is the unparalleled list of instructors.

“The master cabinet maker from Colonial Williamsburg teaches here.  

Guys who have TV shows teach here.All the guys who write books (sold at) Home Depot teach here,” Marc said. “It’s not the local guy down the road who has a workshop that I have teach here. To qualify to teach at my school, you are absolutely at the top of the game, period.”

What's on the wall . . . ?

Marc’s Basic Woodworking students are often amazed to find themselves cutting dovetail joints by hand. Each student signs his or her practice joint, and the joints are assembled in a wall display.

Introducing this somewhat advanced technique early inspires students to take on woodworking challenges they might not have otherwise felt up to. The sense of satisfaction, the “I can do it” factor, propels Marc’s students through a rigorous week (or weekend) of learning and working.

A father’s legacy

Small reminders of Marc’s dad are scattered throughout the facility in the form of photos, old hand tools and woodworking projects. They are there for students to see, and they remain there for Marc when the school is closed from October to April each year.

When the school is empty, Marc toils on his own custom furniture. Not to sell, but with hopes that it will someday be in a museum. That’s how he wants to be remembered; as a great furniture maker.

It’s his playground. He leaves his mess where he wants. He listens to the music he chooses. And he teaches his two children about the craft. This is Marc’s place. This is John’s legacy.

Joe Skeel

Joe Skeel is a freelance writer from central Indiana. He grew up in Whiteland, Ind., the home of Marc Adams School of Woodworking. 


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