‘People used to be more satisfied in their daily tasks and occupations’
by BETH ALTENA
He uses 100-year-old tools, paper, pencil and patience to create furniture the way it was made in early America. Justin Kauffman is following his calling—and he means that in the theological sense that he is doing what he believes God meant him to do.
Kauffman studied Bible and Religion at Anderson University in Indiana and then completed two masters degrees in Old Testament and one in Biblical Languages at Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary with plans to become a professor. While dating his future bride, her grandfather introduced him to woodworking as the two men constructed a hope chest.
That introduction to woodworking 10 years ago would change the course of Kauffman’s life. Their landlady in Boston allowed him the use of a dusty, dank basement to use a few poor-quality tools to practice the craft, and Kauffman came to believe that working with his hands and wood was what God meant for him to do. He went back to school—this time to the county’s oldest trade school, North Bennet Street School, and began to follow God’s will in a different direction—not as a teacher, but as a furniture maker. Today Kauffman is commissioned to re-create a set of lyre-backed Duncan Phyfe chairs circa 1810. Few men today are capable of such an undertaking.
Kauffman, who operates Kauffman Fine Furniture from a workshop in the yard of his Rockford home, scours antique stores, junk shops and the Internet to find antique tools. He has an almost complete set of antique Stanley Sweetheart chisels and hand-planers. The tool company discontinued the elite line a century ago and the tools show their age with the patent dates stamped into the metal. Tools made today do not compare in quality, Kauffman believes. Techniques, too, from a hundred years ago and more are “collected” by Kauffman as he studies old woodworking books and antique pieces to discover how fine furniture was made in the days before electric saws, chipboard and plastic laminates.
“I learned a lot from this,” he said of the first lyre-back chair he built for his Boston-area customer. The customer had inherited three original chairs of historic value. The chairs were made in the Duncan Phyfe shop, which was known for very high quality work and masterpiece designs. Kauffman visited the client and was allowed to bring one of the chairs back to his Rockford workshop to see if he was capable of building a duplicate.
“It was really cool to be able to examine such a master piece in design,” he said. “It was an amazing opportunity to connect to that period and that time in history.”
It took him 180 hours to build a chair that is a match to the one created over 200 years ago and he will spend the next ten months building five more for the client.
“I have three types of customers,” Kauffman said. “They are people who recognize this as an investment and a thing of beauty. They are people who have a historic home and want to furnish it accordingly. The third type are people who have a lot of discretionary spending and want something unique.”
He said in this day of disposable everything, there is value in owning a piece of furniture that will last hundreds of years. “I’m not an artist, I’m a craftsman, but I think this does bring pleasure and beauty to life.”
Kauffman’s customers come from all over the country and he finds them by attending shows. He buys the wood in which he works—traditional American oak, cherry, maple and walnut—locally when he can, examining each board and choosing those with highly figured grain. He also works in mahogany, which, unlike the other four types of wood, is not native to the United States but was very common in the early American furniture industry.
The family moved to Rockford after Kauffman’s wife Audra was offered a job in the “medical mile” in Grand Rapids. Kauffman said his less-than-four-year-old business has picked up since the move to Michigan. “There seems to be more of a historical awareness here, especially because of the history of furniture industry here,” he said.
At just 33 years of age, he believes his youth is one of the difficulties he faces in attracting clients. “People think I am too young to have the skill to do what I’m doing,” he said. “For work like this, they expect to see a white-haired old curmudgeon.”
He said at a recent show he was asked if he built the pieces he had on display because they looked like they were from 200 years ago. “I thought that was kind of funny. Why would I be showing furniture if I didn’t make it?”
“I don’t screw things together, I don’t biscuit them, I don’t use dowels,” he said of the practices that make a piece capable of surviving hundreds of years of use. He uses the techniques of mortise and tenon, hand-cut dovetail, hand-planing and each piece is receives a hand-rubbed oil and shellac finish that brings out the character of the wood. It is a slow process, and with the Duncan Phyfe chair, he was unhappy with the final result and stripped the wood back down to start over with the finishing process.
“I find great satisfaction in creating a piece that can be treasured and handed down from generation to generation,” he said of his craft.
He loves examining other well-made pieces, especially those which have withstood the test of time. “They show signs of use, sometimes of abuse, but that’s okay. If you think about it, that’s how we are, too.”
Spending long hours in his workshop and long hours at trade shows, sometimes with no sale or client prospects, Kauffman nonetheless loves the time spent at his bench with the hand tools, carving, planing, scraping or painstakingly cutting and fitting inlay design. He rarely has had to face a “design opportunity” which, he jokes, is a euphemism for a mistake.
“I spend a lot of time carving and cutting, a lot of time in personal continuing education, looking through old books and studying antiques,” said Kauffman.
The couple, along with son Daniel, visit historic places and feel a connection with the people from another time. “Things weren’t easier then, they were very hard. I think people back then were more satisfied in their daily lives and occupations,” Kauffman said. “In the old days people took pride in their craft. If you were a weaver, or wheelright, you took pride in what you made. If they did poor quality work it was a reflection on their character. If I did poor quality work I wouldn’t be happy with that and I wouldn’t want it in my character. Back then it wasn’t all about money.”
About money, Kauffman said the business is certainly not lucrative. “I am satisfied with the work I do. I’m satisfied with the amount of money I make. I wouldn’t mind making more, but it’s not my driving force.”
He said he is grateful to God for his abilities, grateful to his wife for her support in his work and grateful to live in a country where he is free to choose his own livelihood.
Kauffman said his decision to be a craftsman by trade reminds him of a quote in the Bible which advises, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, mind your own business and work with your hands.”
“There is that theological dimension for me,” he said. “I think we all have God-given gifts and talents. We can choose to pursue them or disregard them in pursuit of something else.”
Kauffman is content with his decision to spend his life using tools and techniques from hundreds of years ago to create works that will be treasured for generations.
To see more examples of Kauffman’s work or for more information, visit his website at Kauffmanfinefurniture.com.