fb-pixel Skip to main content

For an old cabinet maker, a master craftsman, it’s time for some high-polished finishing touches

Joe van Benten says he wants to be ‘much, much less scheduled’

Joseph van Benten quit his job as a shop teacher at Chelsea High School 43 years ago and founded Joseph van Bentern Furnituremakers. He's 69 now, and retirement is in his future.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

He grew up in Indiana, the third of seven children born to a father who worked as an accountant, and a seamstress who redesigned the habits worn by nuns teaching kids at the local elementary school.

“We had nuns running around our house in various stages of undress,” Joseph van Benten told me the other morning, looking back at a long and fulfilling life that would take him from the Midwest to the East Coast, where he would sink deep and satisfying roots.

“I had a sense of adventure,” he said, surrounded by the tools of his trade — a table saw, a drill press, a band saw.

Advertisement



“Considering how it turned out after that, it’s hard to believe. But I wanted to get away from home and hearth and my upbringing.”

So that’s what he did. And then stayed for 51 years.

And, over all those years, he established his own home and hearth, bringing up his children. And fashioning a name for himself as a master furniture builder, a career that now is coming to an end.

Joseph van Benten quit his job as a shop teacher at Chelsea High School and founded Joseph van Bentern Furnituremakers 43 years ago. He's 69 now, and retirement is in his future.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Joseph van Benten Furnituremakers, the little storefront shop on Boylston Street in Chestnut Hill, is up for sale.

It’s the end of an era sprinkled in sawdust and a legacy as sturdy as the products he creates, strong and handsome things hewn from cherry and oak, from maple and walnut.

In the basement beneath his showroom, there are big and bulky machines: a joiner, a planer, a stroke sander, and machines that spin at 5,000 revolutions a minute.

“You can’t keep it clean,” he said.

But, as it turns out, you can keep it humming for a long time.

A good and lengthy career working in wood that you can see and shape, stain and fashion into things of beauty. Beds and bookcases. Bureaus and desks.

Advertisement



There’s a bowfront jewelry cabinet, a 32-inch-wide wonder that is more a work of art than a container for all those shiny little things.

Emblems of a long life in a small shop where a kind of magic has been conjured out of old trees.

Some of the furniture at Joseph van Benten's showroom.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“It’s funny,” he said, “because there were no tools in my house. My father never did a lick of work in our house. He didn’t care for that kind of thing. He would paint once in a while.”

Van Benten’s path would wind through Boston College, maintaining his educational career at Catholic schools. He worked as a substitute teacher in the Boston school system during the tumult of busing in the autumn of 1974.

“I was in all the schools,” he said. “South Boston. Boston Tech. East Boston. Martin Luther King.”

Was that enough to forget about the classroom as his chosen profession?

“You know what? It’s funny because what I realized during the course of that year was that the school had woodworking shops,” he said. “I had never seen a woodworking shop because I was in Catholic schools. They had no budget for that kind of thing.”

His attraction to wood was as immediate as it was strong. A sort of gravitational pull.

“By some miracle, I was hired to teach woodworking at Chelsea High School,” he said. “That would have been the fall of ‘75. So, I was there for three years and then I rented space in this building. And I said, ‘I’m going to try to make it as a woodworker.’ ”

Advertisement



And, with that — one of those times when two roads converge — a career was born.

“I never looked back,” he said. “This was my path. I had a picture in my mind that looked very much like this place. I don’t know how common that is but I worked to fill out that picture.”

He wanted to know the people he was making all that furniture for. And he wanted them to know him, the man who would listen to their ideas and then go to work in the basement to turn their ideas into wonders of wood.

He was 26 when it all began. Sarah, his wife of nearly 30 years died of cancer 12 years ago. He and his new partner, Lynn Nichols, have been together now for eight years.

He’s 69 now, a master craftsman, a man who found his passion and went to work to make it a living and breathing enterprise.

“I was actually making really good furniture right from the beginning,” he told me as we stood in the sawdust. “I was just taking a long time to do it. So, I couldn’t make any money. But this was my apprenticeship. I wanted it right. And by taking enough time you can get it right.”

His customers spread the word: Master craftsman makes fine furniture.

Some of the woodworking tools at Joseph van Benten's shop.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“There are so few people like him anymore,” said Bill Douglas of Medford, for whom van Benten made a kitchen table and bedroom furniture. “The craftsman is sort of a dying breed. Some people are good at design, but not good craftsmen. He blends the best of the artisan and the craftsman. This stuff is going to last forever.”

Advertisement



In January 2007, the Globe Sunday magazine carried a letter written by a Joseph van Benten from Needham.

It was brief, telling the story about an elderly woman who wandered into his shop, holding a broken paper-towel holder.

“I saw that it would take at least an hour of billable time to repair,” he wrote then. “Wanting to help her and not wanting to damage her pride, I offered to do the repair for $5. She executed a perfect Yankee sniff and informed me she could buy a new one for that kind of money. With that she took the thing and left.”

He can chuckle at encounters like those now. And he has a sense of satisfaction about a career of turning his customers’ ideas into sturdy and gleaming things of lasting beauty.

Soon, someone else will be doing it. He’s going to retire to his woodworking shop at his home in Dover where in 900 square feet of space he’ll be building the furniture he wants to build.

“Yeah. I’m excited about it,” he told me. “I’m a little annoyed by retired people who can’t stop talking about how much busier they are now that they’re retired. No, I want to be much, much less scheduled.

Advertisement



“Look, I’ve been coming to this room every day now for 43 years. Every day. Like six days a week. Come on! If I don’t do it now, when am I going to do it?’ ”

It’s all yours for $100,000.

That gets you the lease, the shop facility, and the showroom.

But it doesn’t get you the inventory: the wood and finished goods that have been van Benten’s life’s work.

You’ll have to pay extra for that.

“I can work a very long day in the shop and walk out feeling really good,” he said. “I know that’s an irreplaceable feeling. You are lucky if you have that feeling. There’s no substitute.”

No substitute. The real deal. The genuine article.

In other words: Joe van Benten’s perfectly crafted, well-polished trademark.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.