Tell and Show: Philadelphia Woodworks Whittles Novices into Pros

By Nicole Finkbiner
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 28, 2012

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Smoothing the rough edges: Fancy cutting boards like this one are among the many items woodshop novices can create at Philadelphia Woodworks. (Photo by Ashley Catharine Smith)

Photo by Ashley Catharine Smith

Founded last April by Elkins Park native Michael Vogel, Philadelphia Woodworks is the only pro-grade members woodshop in town, providing amateur craftsmen and hobbyists with a communal Manayunk workspace equipped with an array of tools and machinery. It also serves as a woodworking school, offering several weekly classes where folks of all skill levels can learn to make everything from an exotic wood pen to an elegant table. 

On today’s agenda: a homemade cutting board.

With the exception of Michael Lehane, a shop apprentice who came to both assist and learn, my fellow classmates and I were all woodworking virgins. Surprisingly, Vogel notes that this is usually the case with his pupils. So after leading us into their separate, quieter educational woodshop, he made sure to simplify things with a diagram. 

If you’re thinking that a cutting board sounds like an elementary project, think again. In addition to using three different types of wood (black walnut, maple and cherry), the process required three types of saws (miter, band and table). After becoming acquainted with the jointer and planer, technically we skipped a couple steps since this was only a three-hour class. The rest, however, was left up to us: scraping off the dried-glue excess, smoothing out the sides with a router table, sculpting the corners with a bandsaw, and finally, lathering the boards with mineral oil to give the wood a more polished look. 

Having first approached the power tools as if they were ravenous sharks, it was funny to see how comfortable we all became around the blades by the end of the night. Also funny: us trying to keep a grip on the electric sanders. 

Afterwards, Vogel rewarded us for our labor with a “cheap, crappy beer” in the front lounge area, which also serves as a gallery space, showcasing the unique wood creations of some of the shop’s members. (Note: Classes do not typically include alcohol.) It was away from all the sawdust and piercing shrills of the machinery that you really start to get a better feel for what Philadelphia Woodworks is all about. 

“I used to work in an office and wear nice clothes and boy, did I fucking hate that,” Vogel laughed as he popped open his Bud Light. It turns out, after studying architecture at Penn, the 33-year-old actually worked as an investment banker for 10 years before ultimately giving it up to open the woodshop of his dreams. “I borrowed against all the equity in my house and everything I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “So I believe in this place down to my core. That’s how I can sleep at night with so much at stake.” 

With about 80 current members and classes routinely filling up, so far his investment appears to be paying off. Much of this is thanks to the dozen or so volunteers who help out when they can in exchange for access to the facility. This includes Lehane, who, oddly enough, also ditched the 9-to-5 grind for the wild world of woodworking. 

“I had always been interested in woodworking, but never really had the opportunity to gain formal training,” the 43-year-old says. Prior to leaving his job in restaurant management in May, Lehane spent months looking for an affordable woodshop until falling “head over heels” with Philly Woodworks and its diverse, friendly community. 

“I think most people have a desire to learn something new,” he adds. “Even if they don’t know what it is.”

Philadelphia Woodworks, 
4901 Umbria St. 267.243.5482.

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