At the ocean end of Water Street in Beverly, in an old brick building that once served as a stable, the air is filled with the sounds and aromas of wood being transformed from “log to furniture,” as Philip Lowe describes it.
Lowe, a custom furniture maker, is the man behind the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts, a school that draws students from across the country eager to learn the classic art of woodworking. He has been a woodworker since graduating from Salem High School in 1968 and is one of the most respected in the field. It is his tutelage they are seeking.
“For me, anything Phil tells me is the gospel,” said Mark DeVries, a woodworker from Mount Vernon, Wash. “Every time I come I learn things I wouldn’t possibly have learned otherwise.”
Lowe is the 2005 winner of the prestigious Cartouche Award, given by the Society of American Period Furniture Makers to master crafters who have shown “the highest standard of education, resource, and applied venue for historical appreciation.” He also received the 2010 Artisanship Award from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.
Lowe, who now lives in Beverly, began the institute in 1989, first giving part-time instruction in furniture making, using the techniques – and sometimes the tools – that have been passed down from generation to generation, over hundreds of years.
The institute is both Lowe’s passion and the manifestation of his life’s work teaching and practicing his craft.
“We need to know where we’ve come from and the tools and techniques that we’ve developed over the years,” Lowe said. That lets his students “accomplish some pretty amazing things.’’
‘He’s got so much knowledge, you just sit there and learn. And he does so many things old-school, you learn the tricks.’ — Marlin Bowman on master woodworker Philip Lowe
But he wants to impart an appreciation for quality work as well. His job, he said, is “trying to expose them to what good furniture is.”
“But with some advantages, meaning basic woodworking machinery — table saw, planer, joiner, band saw, stuff like that — that helps take the drudgery out of what was done in the old days,” Lowe said. “And it helps to speed it up a little as well. The best of both worlds.”
The institute has been offering full-time courses for 16 years, training students for careers in woodworking by teaching the craftsmanship that has evolved over centuries. The courses vary in length from one day to three years, depending on the goals of the students, Lowe said.
The cost ranges from $165 for a one-day class to $22,000 for a full-time, yearlong course. The full-time course is limited to six students, while other courses can have up to nine students. Most of the students — 90 percent — are men, he said.
Six students were in the shop recently for the weeklong class making a demilune (half-moon shaped) table. The experience levels varied from full-time woodworkers looking to hone their skills to retirees interested in a challenging hobby.
“I’ve always done woodworking,” said Joe Valdez, 57, of Benicia, Calif., who teaches construction management and architecture at a community college. “But when you do it on your own, you never really have the training from someone who builds furniture. We just don’t have that much on the West Coast.”
Valdez said he particularly enjoyed the hands-on instruction and small class size, which allowed him to observe Lowe closely and pick up techniques to offer his own students.
“We’re starting some new classes, and just looking at a piece and understanding how it was built, I can explain to the students, ‘This is how it’s done,’” Valdez said.
DeVries, 24, the woodworker from Washington, was also in the class. He has returned to the institute for classes over the last five years.
This year he brought along Marlin Bowman, 28, also a woodworker, from Ontario. This was Bowman’s first time at the institute. He, too, was impressed by Lowe’s skill.
“It’s great,” Bowman said. “He’s got so much knowledge, you just sit there and learn. And he does so many things old-school, you learn the tricks. You come here and you look at the equipment he’s got; it’s not unrealistic to go home and think you can do that. It’s not like [you’ll need a] $100,000 piece of machinery.”
Joe Gifun, 62, of Andover, recently retired as director of engineering and facilities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His wife gave him the class as a retirement gift. Woodworking has been a hobby for years — he has a small shop at his home — but he said he wanted the challenge that the curves of a demilune table would present.
“I wanted to crank it up,” said Gifun, who has a doctorate in industrial design. “I want to learn something that has more intricate work — carving, curves. I want to learn those skills. I don’t know how I’m going to apply them, but I want to learn those skills and then I can take it from there.”
Brian Mady, 54, of Wayland, is a retired infectious disease physician, a field of medicine that does not involve procedures or surgeries.
“So, this is the other side of my life, with the hands-on aspect,” Mady said. “I do like being able to say, ‘I made that, from start to finish.’”
Freddy Roman, 32, came to the institute 10 years ago to take classes — Lowe calls him his star pupil. He eventually moved from Hartford and now lives in Wakefield. He is Lowe’s shop assistant and also teaches classes at the institute.
“It’s a home away from home,” Roman said. “It’s where I fell in love with woodworking.’’
“I love what I do. It’s been a great experience. It’s all about the craft and continuing it,’’ he said. “The stuff you build by hand can actually be handed down from generation to generation, which I think is very important.”Maureen Mullen can be reached at mullen_maureen@yahoo.