Our Beginnings – Eldred Wheeler
Our Beginnings – Eldred Wheeler
Bill Wheeler and I arrived at our common interest in American antique furniture from very different starting points. Bill grew up in western Massachusetts and attended Yale University. For Bill, 18th century Americana was omnipresent: the village green surrounded by stately period structures, the art in his neighbors’ homes, the antique bureau where he kept his clothes. For Bill, appreciating American antiques was second nature. They were intimately familiar objects; heirlooms passed from one generation to another.
On the other hand, I was born and raised in the West. Spending my youth in Olympia, Washington, I first encountered a pre-1850 item when I arrived in Boston to attend graduate school at MIT. For me, developing an appreciation for antiques was a new adventure. I visited museums and reveled in the artifacts of the nation’s heritage; I previewed and bid on items at auctions; I bargained and bartered with antique dealers. Being on a graduate student’s budget, my purchases were small, but very educational. I gained the firsthand, hard-knocks experience that comes from actually buying something, and hoping you’re not making a mistake. Is it fake or authentic, American or European, restored or not? These were the questions I learned to ask. Over time, I developed a passion for antique American furniture, and ultimately longed to own a few choice pieces.
My interest in cabinetmaking began after an attempt to restore the ogee feet on an antique Pennsylvania walnut desk I purchased at auction while in graduate school. The desk was my first major furniture purchase. Unfortunately, my ability to determine originality was not very good, and it was only after I lived with the piece for several weeks that I realized the feet were modern replacements. To make matters worse, I determined that they were poorly restored. Their design, height, and color match were wrong for the desk. Frustrated at not recognizing the problem before bidding, and unable to find someone to correctly restore the feet, I decided to remedy the situation myself. I located some inch-thick walnut, and after extensively researching the correct design began to fashion new feet, using only a handsaw and a flat chisel. After attaching the homemade feet to the case I experimented with several commercial stains in an attempt to match the finish to the rest of the desk. The end result was pretty good, considering that my workshop was a ten-by-twelve-foot dormitory room.
My cabinetmaking activities were pretty much put on hold as I concentrated on graduating and landing my first job. With a fresh Ph.D. in organic biochemistry, I found myself traveling the country marketing products to physicians and clinical laboratories. After a year, I realized my heart was not in the job, and even more worrisome, I had no idea what career I might ultimately pursue. I elected to return to Washington State, to do a bit of soul searching. While investigating possible career options, I decided to use my spare time to try a bit of furniture making. Upon arriving home, I renewed my acquaintance with a neighbor who had worked for the Washington State Forestry Department for 35 years. He had some woodworking equipment in his garage, and had assembled a sizable collection of rare native wood. Hearing of my interest, he volunteered to let me use his band saw and lathe, and also offered to give me some of his figured maple. Over the next six months I began teaching myself woodworking.
My first project was a corner chair, inspired by one in Nutting’s Furniture Treasury. I constructed it entirely from Washington State curly maple, and, with the exception of using a lathe to turn the corner posts, fashioned the chair using only a handsaw and a flat chisel. I constructed several other smaller pieces over the next few months, including two shelf clocks and a mirror. Each of the projects was ambitious, considering my equipment and skill at the time, and as I reflect on those pieces today they seem quite amateurish. However, they were great learning experiences, and ignited a desire to incorporate woodworking into my life at some point.
The next year I returned to Boston to work in the Diagnostics Division of Corning Glass, but I continued to pursue my amateur woodworking hobby. My two-bedroom apartment had one bedroom dedicated to storing wide boards of cherry, maple, and pine. To gain access to the necessary woodworking equipment, I enrolled in adult education courses at a local high school. During my four-year tenure at Corning, I built several pieces. They included a small desk-on-frame with elaborate interior, several Chippendale mirrors, a Newport lowboy, and a dish-top tea table. I used old wood whenever possible. It made finishing easier because age had already given the wood a mellow color. There was no need to apply stain; a few coats of shellac and a light rubbing with steel wool, and the piece was done.
My marketing position at Corning required me to travel several days each month; not bad for someone who had little worldly experience beyond Washington State and Boston. One assignment took me to Toronto, to provide sales support for the company’s medical diagnostic kits. It was during this visit that I first met Bill Wheeler, who had responsibility for Corning’s Canadian sales. I doubt that either of us gave much thought to our brief conversation, since we had no way of knowing how fate would bring us together as partners in a furniture-making venture a few years later.
I had been at Corning a little over four years when I began thinking seriously about a career change. Over the previous year, there had been a lot of turmoil in my division, highlighted by the departure of my boss, Bob Foster. He had left in order to start his own medical diagnostics business in Maine, and had taken most of his direct reports along with him. This was quite a blow for me, since I enjoyed working with Bob and the rest of the diagnostics team. I felt stranded. My new boss viewed me as a part of the old guard, “the deserters,” and I soon began to feel that my days at Corning were numbered. Several headhunters called me about other positions in R&D, but my enthusiasm was tepid at best. If I truly wanted to do something in woodworking, this was the time.
I had only been married two years, and I imagine the last thing that Joanne wanted to hear was my crazy idea of abandoning a promising technical career and starting a furniture company. Fortunately, she understood my passion and encouraged me to give it a try. Of course, she might also have thought that if the venture failed she would at least end up with a house full of nice furniture. With Joanne’s support, I resigned from Corning to concentrate full-time on my woodworking venture.
My first activity was to list everything I had to do before starting the new business. All at once I was faced with a plethora of unanswered questions: where would I locate the business, how much capital did I need, whom should I hire, what products should I offer? The list went on and on. Entrepreneurship suddenly looked like a pretty daunting endeavor, and I began to have second thoughts.
I had spoken to my old boss, Bob, about my woodworking plans, and he had mentioned it to Bill Wheeler. Bill had left Corning the previous year and had been actively looking to purchase or start a business, so Bob suggested he give me a call. One evening my phone rang; it was Bill, wondering what I’d been doing since our meeting in Canada a few years earlier. After briefly describing my frustrations at Corning and my decision to leave, I launched into a harangue about my idea of creating a handcrafted furniture company. Bill seemed intrigued, and we agreed to meet the following week at my home in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.