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Into the wood

A master craftsman and a relative newcomer talk love of the trade

The language of wood can sound poetic, mysterious, and even a little dangerous. Take pommele sapele that resembles “rain drops cascading down a pane of glass” and the names—African Bubinga, Mexican Chakte Viga, and Indonesian Macassar. And then there’s wenge, an African wood whose splinters can cause infections while its dust can impact the central nervous system. Despite the risks, the passion to sand and hammer, meld and varnish planks of wood into furniture or art hits hard and lasts forever.

Neal Barrett has been creating custom-made cabinets and furniture for three decades.

He came to woodworking by saying no to another career. “After graduating from the University of Rochester, I realized I wasn’t enamored with psychology,” Barrett says. Then he discovered woodworking. “It was something that fit my personality. It requires a lot of patience. It’s solo work. It fits my profile completely,” he says. “I think it speaks to quality of life. You surround yourself with well-made beauty, and it enhances your life.”

Long before his work received acclaim, he began as a carpenter’s apprentice. “I moved around. I built houses and trim, and then I set up my own business in 1979,” he says. Barrett found inspiration from a variety of movements: “Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, Chinese and Japanese traditional furniture, architecture of the Prairie and Art Deco styles, and forms found in nature.

“I don’t adhere to any particular style. I’ve built pieces influenced from the Japanese and the Egyptian,” Barrett adds. “I do custom woodworking, so it’s not strictly my design. I work with architects or individuals, and I stay true to their design.”

Much of Barrett’s work is large scale: traditional furniture for corporations, large home renovations, private libraries, dressing rooms and architectural woodwork. 

“I don’t show things in my gallery. My work is pretty expensive,” he says. Many of his pieces could cost several times as much as those found in furniture stores.

Like all woodworkers, Barrett can list detail his favorite woods, such as curly, birdseye, and quilted maple. “I mostly work with native woods, but I’ve used tropical slike wenge and bubinga. Every species has its own character. Some are harder on your tools; some are oilier, so you worry about the joinery. Some woods are irritating” says Barrett.

It doesn’t happen often, but he once experienced a very bad allergic reaction working with pau ferro, a South American wood. 

“I had been warned, and I was in the middle of the commission,” says Barrett. “It was horrible.”

Despite the challenges, it seems every woodworker leaves a bit of him or herself in the finished object. “It’s not uncommon to get attached,” says Barrett. “It takes a long time to complete, a lot of effort regardless of the design. But, I’m in business.”

He especially remembers one he didn’t want to but had to let go: “it was a built-in display cabinet—the buyer collected gemstones—so there was a portion for display and drawers for storage. It was a highly figured cherrywood, really an eye-popping piece.”

John Roth discovered a love for woodworking as a child in Pennsylvania, helping his grandfather build bird houses, but he only returned to it two years ago. Roth moved to Rochester to study photography at RIT. After graduating he opened the now wildly popular John’s Tex-Mex restaurant in the South Wedge and got married. Then woodworking began calling.

“I needed more than my main job,” says Roth. “I was watching Netflix to get through a long and depressing winter. I messed around with refinishing stuff. I didn’t know how to build a table, but I tried to do it myself.” He turned to YouTube videos, Instagram communities, and a class at BOCES.

“I like all kinds of wood, but I prefer domestic hardwood—walnut, cherry, and maple,” says Roth, who now wanders through lumber stores and mills from Rochester to the Finger Lakes. “I stare at the wood before I decide that’s the one.” In his basement workroom he studies the wood again, always asking, “Where do I cut? Do I cut here? Do I cut there?”

Roth made his first foray into selling his keepsake boxes, small tables, cutting boards, and trivets at the Handmade Holiday South Wedge Craft Show. His pieces sold, and now he’s placed more at Little Button Craft in the South Wedge and Craft Company No. 6 in the Neighborhood of the Arts. For his fifth wedding anniversary, he made his wife, Jeana Bonacci-Roth, a silver maple and lacewood box.

“In the end, I can say, ‘look I made that.’ I can use it in my house, give it to a friend. There’s a pride to making something. The same as painting or making music.”

Roth continues to grow in crafting his pieces within the larger, vigorous woodworking community of Rochester. “Generally, I think the art and creative output of Rochester is as good or better as any another city.  A welder, a musician, it’s all the same family. I don’t know anyone, no matter the craft, who would say there’s nothing new to learn.”

Whether it’s a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Hungerford Building, Roth praises the work of others, from the famous George Nakashima to local furniture makers like Jeff at Entrada Woodworking. Instagram art communities also feed his woodworking projects.

“I’ll never meet ninety-five percent of the people I meet online. Someone in Hungary makes a beautiful vase, and it’s an inspiration. I see what a metalworker does and ask, ‘could I do that in wood?’ Even a 2-D piece can bring inspiration for a 3-D work.

“In some ways, it’s just nostalgia,” says Roth. “You can pass [the work] down to a kid or a friend. It’s not disposable in a disposable culture. It’s made to last.”

On his website, Barrett echoes a similar conviction: “In a world where notions of efficiency, mechanization, and mass production are so pervasive, I believe that there is still a place for beautiful, well-crafted objects that are made by hand.” 

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