The Marc Adams School of Woodworking

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This article is from Issue 5 of Woodcraft Magazine.

MARC ADAMS DEMONSTRATES the glueup of a table leg while students look on.

By Sarah Brady 

“A” is for Adams

THE MARC ADAMS SCHOOL OF WOODWORKING in Franklin, Ind., hosts many of the country’s foremost woodworking experts as instructors. Classes run from April to mid-October each year, and some are very tough to get into. 

To find out more about the school, I took the course “Basic Woodworking with Marc Adams” and kept a record of my experience. The class was five days long and cost $765, including materials.

April 24, 2005: Orientation/Meet & Greet

I was invited to join other first-time students at the Marc Adams School this evening to meet the staff and my classmates, stake out a workbench and move my tools in. The school is a huge, orderly building with three large classrooms and two dedicated power tool areas. I signed in and got a wooden nameplate to slide into the front of my custom Lie-Nielsen workbench. Right away the students around me introduced themselves; I was surrounded by the friendly faces of interesting people from many parts of the country. 

Marc gave us all a tour of the building, explaining how the classrooms were arranged to make it easy for all 18 people in my class to see and hear demonstrations, and which classes would occupy which areas. Each classroom is wired with cameras and large-screen TVs as well as accommodations for the hearing impaired. There are three classes taking place this week, and on Thursday we’ll get the chance to rotate through the other two classrooms, see the students’ projects-in-progress and hear from the other instructors.

Lunches, snacks and drinks are served in the cafeteria/library every day, and we’re welcome to browse through Marc’s extensive collection of woodworking books. During this week, we can be at the school whenever we like – that’s Marc’s “24-hour policy” – as long as we use the buddy system. 

touted as “the largest woodworking school in North America,” the Marc Adams School neighbors rural Indiana farmland.

April 25, 2005: Class Begins

We cut dovetail joints by hand today!

It’s hard to believe that on the first day of a basic class, we conquered what Marc calls the “pinnacle joint of woodworking.” I think it was part of a calculated plan to instill confidence and a spirit of adventure. During part of our lecture this morning, Marc showed us some complex pieces of furniture: an ornate four-poster bed and a Newport highboy. But by breaking each one down into its components – a simple raised panel here, a bandsawn curve there – he showed us that even those are within our grasp.

Marc is a compelling speaker and I learned a lot from him today. He discussed the properties of wood using some great visual aids, but even more interesting was his talk on furniture design. 

I wouldn’t want to give away everything, but here’s one interesting technique he showed us for conceptualizing a table design. Start by sketching some tabletops you like. Settle on a few designs, then take a long piece of square stock and cut the tabletop shape all the way down its length. For example, if your tabletop is round, turn the stock to round; if it’s triangular or trapezoidal, cut off the appropriate corners with your bandsaw. Then cut the piece into 2" or 3" sections and you have several blank three-dimensional models to draw out your leg designs on. 

We were ready to get our hands on some tools this afternoon. We all put burr edges on our cabinet scrapers, and razor edges on our chisels. 

Then we learned to cut dovetail joints. My first one came out all right, a tight fit but not very pretty. Marc’s staff quickly gathered the fruits of our first attempts; each year he takes the first dovetail practice joint of all of his students and makes a big wall display of them. 

Marc has four assistants devoted to our class this week, and they are all great. Every student not only gets personal attention from Marc, but also from four other very helpful and knowledgeable woodworkers. 

Tomorrow we’ll start on our main project for the class: a Maloof-style side table.

PAUL LOTKE (left) of Gladwyne, Pa., test-fits the screws for his tabletop as Dr. Merrill Ritter of Mooresville, Ind., lends a hand.

April 26, 2005: The Second Day of Class 

Thirteen hours after arriving for class, I’m finally back in my hotel room, totally exhausted. The first thing we did this morning was tackle the half-blind dovetail, and then we moved on to a lesson in veneering. There is a veneering class in session at the school this week, and those students went on a field trip today to one of several nearby veneer mills. Marc told us about 60 percent of domestic veneers are produced right here in Indiana; in fact, there are two mills in downtown Indianapolis. He explained the different ways veneers are cut and cured for use in the workshop, then instructed us on starting a small parquetry project. 

The definition of a veneer has been distorted in the American psyche to give it an unsavory connection with a piece of cheap fiberboard furniture covered in woodgrain. In other countries, veneer still maintains its original meaning: using a thin slice of wood to conserve resources and beautify your furniture. It’s completely appropriate to veneer particleboard, MDF and the like, as well as solid wood. Using veneers to create embellishments in the form of parquetry (geometric designs) or marquetry (pictures or curved details) can add a lot of value to your work. 

We paused for demonstrations on power tool safety, then started on our table project. The table legs are comprised of three jointed pieces that will be sculpted into a smooth whole and attached to a center post. We each cut our joint angles on the leg parts using power miter saws according to Marc’s mantra: Square first, do the joinery, then cut to size and shape. 

You might think there would be a bottleneck on some shop equipment when 18 people are trying to do the same thing at once, but Marc set up several stations and everything flowed beautifully. 

The day ended on a high note as the instructors, Bill Hull (Veneering) and George Walker and Tom Young (Build a Tall Case Clock) showed slides of their impressive work. Then Marc gave a talk on his life’s work – the school, of course, but also his furniture making. School is in session from April to October, but for the remainder of the year, Marc builds detailed, intricate fine furniture for his family. It’s almost all Disney-themed, with colorful inlays and intricate carvings of animated Disney characters. Marc’s work is stunning, imaginative and award-winning; it will all be in a museum someday.

SONNY VARISCO of Coral Springs, Fla., works on the details of his veneering project.

April 27, 2005: Day Three 

Today was a flurry of activity as we worked on our tables, gluing up the legs (each has three pieces, two splined joints), cutting dadoes in the center column, scraping and sanding our tabletops, and so on. Gluing up the legs was the biggest misadventure I’ve had in class so far. We all had the option of using white glue and clamping the legs, or using traditional hide glue with its blink-and-you-missed-it open time. I chose hide glue and ended up having to scrape glue off a joint three times before I finally got them all together. 

Tomorrow we’ll use a template to bandsaw the legs into their curved shapes and, as with the tabletop, use rasps to hand-shape the pieces. 

Today we put our parquetry projects into a huge vacuum press. Marc also showed us how to cut a packet of veneers to create a radial display.

If you’re thinking about taking a class at the Marc Adams School, be prepared to work hard and absorb a lot of information. There is constant activity and the students’ accomplishments in this short period of time are amazing. My feet, legs, back, neck, arms, shoulders, hands and fingers are sore. It’s exhausting and rewarding!

April 28, 2005: Day Four

I’m pretty close to finishing this little table. We actually won’t apply a finish here, but that’s the only thing that will be left undone. Marc will give a lecture on finishes tomorrow, much like the one on adhesives he gave today. 

A large part of my day was spent rasping and sanding my table legs into their curved shapes. One of the tools on the list of items to bring to class was a Japanese saw rasp, a wide, handled metal implement about 12" long with a latticework of tiny saw teeth that can really remove some wood. We rounded over the edges on all of our legs and then glued them to the center columns of our tables. 

This week is historic, Marc said, because for the first time, a member of the school’s Fellowship program – an intensive course of study requiring many advanced class credits – began his artist-in-residency program. Tom Dilger of Indianapolis has been stationed in a special area this week, working on a beautiful bed with tapered posts, a starburst inlay in the headboard and traditional Japanese joinery. We have all been able to watch him work on his complex project. 

I’m sad to be leaving tomorrow, since I’ve become comfortable at the school and enjoyed every minute of class time. Marc is without a doubt one of the foremost authorities on woodworking, so if you’re lucky enough to get into one of his classes, don’t hesitate at the price tag. You will definitely get your money’s worth. Marc not only has a wealth of knowledge, but an endless amount of enthusiasm and energy (as well as a great sense of humor). He takes a lot of pride in his school, and treats his staff and students with the utmost respect. 

YOU MIGHT RECOGNIZE some of these signatures of past and current instructors, which adorn a cabinet outside the Marc Adams School’s cafeteria. Inside, the cafeteria’s walls are literally covered with photographs.  

April 29, 2005: Finishing, Cleanup & Goodbye

My classmates and I scrambled to complete the construction of our tables today, sanding them smooth and drilling holes in the legs to attach the tops. Marc talked about finishes, the different types of them and how to use them appropriately. He also shared with us his own technique of “Finishing the Finish” for a deep sheen that reflects light from any angle of sight. 

It’s easy to see why Marc is a respected instructor in his own right and why he is able to get “the best woodworkers of our modern times” – everyone from Jeff Jewitt and Michael Fortune to Graham Blackburn and Scott Phillips – to come to his school in rural Indiana and teach. He is an accomplished furniture designer who started and ran a successful cabinet shop before opening his school. A woodworker since the age of six, he’s been an avid observer of the woodworking industry since at least the mid-seventies and held a U.S. government post as an international technical advisor to woodworking industries.

I learned a lot this week, but one thing really stands out: If you equip yourself with knowledge about the tools and wood you’re using, it gets a lot easier to tackle something new. 

When I get home, I’ll have to choose the right finish for my little table and decide whether to dye the oak. I also plan to make another one to match. 

For more information on the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, visit marcadams.com.

Sarah Brady is associate editor of Woodcraft Magazine.

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