My use of social media is exclusive to the woodworking/maker world. The narrow focus has been a good respite from other world news. In fact, it has been a positive window into a world that is full of potential. Why? Because of people like Glenn Palmieri. Often you hear talk about “keeping the craft alive.” That is the essence of Bentwood Studio, Glenn’s school for kids and adults.
I had the opportunity to interview Glenn and would like to invite you into the conversation. If you have questions or just want to know more. You can check out the Bentwood Studio website here. Or you can follow Glenn on Instagram (@bentwoodstudio1).
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. -EK
The Daily Skep: The description on your website mentions that you have a great-grandfather who was also a Swedish cabinet maker. Can you tell me about your woodworking heritage?
Glenn Palmieri: On my father’s maternal side (the Swedish side) my great-grandfather was a furniture maker. On my father’s paternal side (the Italian side) my great-grandfather was a builder. When I got older, we learned that the church my sister was married in was built by my great-grandfather (Italian) and some of my great-uncles. Which was an interesting history to learn. But it dates back before they came off the boat, they were builders back in Italy and Sweden.
My father, Ernie, was a contractor and built houses. He also built furniture for people, so we had a full shop at our house growing up. I spent all of my free time down there getting into trouble; Running machines when I wasn’t supposed to and nailing or screwing together every single piece of wood I could find to make stuff. I can’t tell you how many times, at ten o’clock at night, he would come bang on my door and make me go out to the woods to find his hammer and the bucket of nails he needed for the next day.
I understand that you attended the Bauhaus in Chicago. What was that like?
It was an interesting trial by fire. I was in Chicago for a year. It [started as] an eight-week intensive hand tools and building session, then we were literally handed projects and learned the rest of our skills by building. The problem, that I learned later after meeting one of the former presidents of the craft council, was that I was subject to more or less slave labor. None of us were paid. We would work eight to nine hour days. It wasn’t until later on I realized what was going on.
It’s interesting that you went to apprentice and end up being somewhat of a self-taught woodworker.
Pretty much. You spent your time looking at magazines, reading books, and searching the internet for information. Or you would go up to other apprentices saying, “I have no idea what this is or what he’s trying to show me in these plans; you’ve dealt with this stuff before, explain this to me quick.” There were nine apprentices and I ended up having eight other teachers always there. Everyone came from different backgrounds, with different experiences, having done different things. I think I became better because of them being around and offering expertise and guidance. And I was able to do the same for others. We would sound off on each other constantly, “Here’s an article!” or “Here’s a book.” “I tried that before and it just didn’t work for me, try this application.” “Here’s a jig that I made to solve that problem.” Many of the people I apprenticed with are still doing it and are furniture makers out in Chicago and around the country.
Berthold Schwaiger was the head of the Bauhaus. What was it like working with him?
He was definitely a mad genius when it came to design. Very challenging projects. He was an interesting character. I did enjoy my time and I did like what I was doing, but I learned more from the other apprentices than I did from him. We got our basic training from him but then we were doing everything “trial by fire.” He spent his time out meeting clients and trying to get work. Sometimes, if you asked him questions he would get all bent out of shape because we were asking questions he thought we should already have the answers for.
Do you miss having others to bounce ideas off of?
I think that’s what makes it hard today if you’re by yourself in the shop. You have no other sounding board, no one to pull experience from or ask questions. That is one thing I enjoy about working with my father, having a sounding board of a different generation of thought. I’ve found a fantastic community on Instagram. The makers are some of the nicest, caring people. I’ve asked questions sometimes of bowl turners out in Europe…the Ginger Woodturner. I love following his stuff and I’ve asked him tons of questions and I’ve asked Pockets Full of Sawdust a couple of questions. You get answers. It makes life easy because I don’t have to cull through my entire library of stuff. Someone can at least say, “Oh, its in this book on such and such page.” It makes a way for information gathering on a much faster level.
What inspired you to start a woodworking school?
At the Bauhaus, I got asked early on to teach at night because I had a decent background to begin with. I really enjoyed connecting with different people and showing skills. I got a lot of enjoyment out of it. I think I already had a disposition for teaching because I coached sports from an early age. I have always enjoyed teaching. I think if I had been smarter with choosing my degree in college I probably would have went specifically for teaching. My father, Ernie, while he was a builder also worked for the State University of New York at Purchase as a professor. My mother has been a kindergarten teacher for 26 years. My sister teaches psychology at a local community college. My wife is a teacher. So, I was kind of bread into a family of educators. It just so happened that I found something that I really fell in love with while I tried to get away from it.
Get away from it?
Yeah, I went to school and got a degree in sports marketing and worked for NASCAR for a year and hated it. I would sit at a computer or be on the phone all the time. The more I tried to get away from woodworking the more I ended up coming back to it. I like to be standing and walking around. I like to be doing things. I like to be creative. That’s what led me to Chicago. My father was totally for it. My mother was totally against it. She didn’t want me to follow in my father’s footsteps. He pointed out to her that I’m not building houses and carrying shingles; putting that much stress on my body.
I think its interesting how you have merged the things that were handed down by your family, education and woodworking. You’ve found a great way to combine them in the form of Bentwood Studio. How long has the school been around?
This will be our tenth year in business. We started teaching in Ernie’s basement when he thought I was completely nuts for wanting to start this company. And then we moved to a small 1100 sq. ft. shop in the town I reside in. I begged and pleaded with my parents to loan me the money to get going and they did. For three years I was on my own teaching classes during the week all by myself. Money was tight, so I picked up a second job. I also run a commercial sawmill a couple of days a week. Working at the sawmill covers my bills and the school is self-supporting. Now that we’re actually making money it’s better; I’m not getting tortured to make sure we pay everything on time. I took a second job because I was so dedicated to keeping the school going. I was only getting paid from working at the sawmill, all the other money we put back into the company to get better equipment and bigger machines. The school continued to grow to the point that we had so many students we needed a bigger space. Now we’ve put our money into renting a 2200 sq. ft. shop. We now have more students than ever before and are so busy that we are booking weeks and months out.
You mentioned that Ernie was against the idea in the beginning. What finally sold him on the idea?
He saw how passionate I was about wanting to do it. And that I was full-in on doing it. I was going out of my way to work second and third jobs to bring in enough money to feed my family and stay in my house to make this work. When he finally retired from administration at Purchase he joined me and now he’s here five days a week teaching classes and building projects for clients.
One of the things that I find unique about your school is that you work with kids. What is it like working with kids?
It’s way more stressful to a degree cause you’re letting them use extremely dangerous tools. Even a handsaw in the wrong hands, one odd swing can hurt somebody. When I started working with kids I was actually asked to teach an after school program in my mother’s school. She teaches in a district that I live in. Literally, once a week for six week, I would load my truck up with clamps, wood, coping saws, hand saws, to work with first and second graders. We went through discussing different types of wood and how hard wood is and then trying to cut different species of wood to see the difference between pine and something like oak. Then we started creating projects. We made hot plates and used a coping saw to cut out animal shapes. For Halloween we cut out a pumpkin. We did really basic projects like that.
I have two children who are eight and six. Working on weekends and working seven days a week I try to incorporate my kids into classes. If I couldn’t work with my kids I couldn’t work with anyone’s kids, so we started bringing my kids in to test out the projects.
Recently, we had eleven girl scouts in who all made step stools to complete their merit badges. In two weeks, we have ten cub scouts coming in to make their pinewood derby race cars. It’s a lot of fun to see the smiles we get from kids. I’ve had a twelve-year-old build our adult Adirondack chair and I’ve had a ten year old build a perch that I learned to make with Peter Galbert. I’ve had a lot of joy working with kids to create a real adult project after they do one or two small things with us, so we can gauge their abilities.
What is the ratio of adults to kids you teach?
It’s definitely way more adults than kids. I have a 14-year-old coming in this weekend to build another chess set and I have two kids on Sunday coming in, one to turn a bowl and another working with his father to start a project. We had a couple of kids in the other day building step stools as an introductory class. I’d say its 80% adults and 20% kids.
In your opinion, what is the motivation for adults to take classes?
I think it is a mix of a couple of interesting things. Almost every adult who’s come in who is 40 and older has always said they remember shop class, they remember making stuff. I think they are trying to go back to their roots a little and do something they enjoyed. Some of the more interesting stories are the women who are in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s who have been recently widowed. Their excuses is “My husband has passed away and he is no longer here to tell me ‘No.’” That, to me, has always been one of the funniest comments I’ve gotten and it’s happened probably 12-13 times.
Most of the women have always had a yearning to do it but grew up in a time period where they weren’t really allowed to. And a lot of them said their husbands didn’t want them to get involved because they didn’t want them to get hurt. They found their way here and are some of the funnest students we’ve had. The stories they tell about doing some woodwork in school and always wanting to get back to it are great.
What does the future look like for you? What are your dreams?
Stay in business! It’s hard to say. The school is going well. I love to build so I’m getting back into building for clients as well. But I would like to try to do more kid stuff and run some more small group classes who don’t necessarily want to do one-on-one. Maybe four people to a group.
We’re still in growing pains. Even 10 years in I don’t think anyone can say they are in the spot they absolutely want to be in. I’d like to grow a little bit. Maybe have another teacher in with us where I can take a day off and not go seven days a week and be able to spend a little extra time with my family. Adding another set of hands and eyes and another thought process is great for every student who comes in.
Who are your influences? Who inspires you?
We didn’t touch much on when I renovated churches, but when I was getting started with the school and renovating churches I had the absolute and utter luck—I mean I struck the lottery when I got to work on one church that George Nakashima built everything for. I was involved in restoring his alter, his reading desk. And then I made several pieces that fit with his work. I had to match his dovetails and had to cut them all by hand. That my work sits in a church with Nakashima’s was a defining moment. I would love for someone, at some point, to love to have something sit next to mine.
I love live edge, I always have. So, Nakashima was always kind of someone who was inspiring to me even though I tend to incorporate many different views. I’ve had other people ask me where I draw inspiration from and I don’t know. The corny thing is to say what Krenov says, “the board speaks to me. The person asked for a cabinet but the wood said chair, so I made a chair.” I’m kind of on that thing. I look at a piece of wood and run through my head 57 million ways that it could be used.
What is your design process?
I almost never draw anything out that I make. I’ll do a sketch on a white board and give myself some criteria. If I’m doing a seat I’m going 18” high and 18” deep then I let the wood work with me, especially If I’m making it for myself. Schwaiger’s plans were super complex, super intricate. I just feel like that over complicates things as I’m thinking through how I’m going to build it. Inevitably you end up changing things as you go, and sometimes, I feel like if your plans are so incredibly complex, it doesn’t allow you any kind of creativity in building it. I love having the ability to change on the fly. I really crave clients who give me creative freedom to not even give them a drawing; a client who says, “I want benches, make them as cool as you can. Here are the dimensions.” I’ve done that quite a few times and that to me is the most rewarding, when I get to be totally open and flexible and let it go as it goes.
Has social media changed how you work or inspired you?
I think it’s great that the platforms of social media open up channels to makers and those interested in making. Eric, you found me on Instagram and it feels amazing that someone feels motivated, informed, and excited to see what we post. I like that something I post may spark an interest in someone to get involved in craft because of a photo and a description of what’s going on. Just today, on Facebook, I had a someone ask a how they could utilize my “beam” on a brick fireplace. I responded, and they were thankful. Maybe they will come in for a class because they see how open we are to share and how we care about what people do. I love having students send me photos and texts showing/telling me what they are up to and seeing their progress. Social media is full of negative comments and harsh comments, but makers like to share and be positive. This community of makers on all avenues of social media is what is going to make craft live. I can give hands on to students who walk into our studio, but hopefully I can also spark that interest by what I post on our social media outlets!