Right now, Chuck Bender is finishing up a few traditional cabinetmakers’ benches—three down, and three more to go, for a total of six. “That ought to last us for a while,” he says.
Bender is calling his upstart, in-studio classes the Acanthus Workshop, lending them an air of mystery, sophistication and permanence—three things for which his remarkable handcrafted furniture is already known. The East Coventry-based Charles Bender & Company specializes in 17th- to 19th-century American reproduction furniture. Of late, it’s become nothing less than a full-fledged woodworking emporium in Bender’s converted barn just outside Chester Springs.
At 45, Bender is considered one of the country’s finest furniture makers. Now he’s sharing his craft with others, offering classes for beginners and more seasoned woodworkers alike.
He launched his school in September 2008, then upped his course offerings in 2009. Now, some months, there’s a workshop scheduled all four weeks. He’s still making custom furniture and offering restoration services, too—when he can.
The idea for a school—or, at the very least, classes—came from West Chester client and amateur woodworker Mark Gross, who has his own fully stocked shop. “I asked Mark’s wife why he came to me,” Bender recalls. “She said, ‘Because I wanted [a William & Mary highboy chest] during my lifetime.’ He told me I had to take this bigger—that it was something I couldn’t keep to myself.”
At first, Bender resisted. “I thought, ‘If I advertise a school, who will come?’ I thought the ones who buy from me wouldn’t want to learn,” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s what they have me for.’”
Bender made the couple the highboy, and then an American tall case clock that’s “beyond spectacular,” Gross says. Bender even crafted the same clock for himself in walnut. It’s a piece he brings along to his shows.
“I’ve been his muse on a couple of things,” says Gross. “When he did [start the classes], he went after it with a vengeance. He’s built the classes to a point where you almost can’t get in, and he’s drawing from all over the country—or, at least, east of the Mississippi.”
Bender likes to keep enrollment at six (hence the six workbenches) and then host finishing classes where students bring back what they made in a previous session. Chuck’s wife, Lorraine, cooks for the crew. “We have a blast,” Bender says. “It’s like a reunion.”
Beyond his obvious skills as a craftsman, Bender’s demeanor as a teacher is exceptional. “He’s a rare breed in an industry where the best artists usually have a temperament that isn’t so easy to deal with,” says Gross. “Chuck is just the opposite. He has the patience of a saint.”
Bender also writes for Popular Woodworking Magazine. The April 2009 issue included his feature on how to carve Spanish feet. In November 2009, it was a piece on secret drawers and hidden compartments. This past April’s issue featured his article on William & Mary furniture. Last October, Bender gave presentations on inlay techniques at Popular Woodworking’s “Woodworking in America Handtools Conference” in Valley Forge. This December, he’ll be in the Society of American Period Furniture Makers’ magazine.
So how can a skilled cabinetmaker write articles, teach, and still make and refinish fine furniture in a field where most don’t necessarily share trade secrets? Bender passes on “just so much knowledge.” Some is proprietary—like antique restoration. “That stays,” he insists. “It’s why people bring pieces here.”
In this tough economy, Bender seems to be a genius, generating a new revenue stream that’s been drying up in custom furniture. For now, he’s looking for the perfect balance, but he believes he’ll transition into teaching full time this decade. “Soon, I’m not going to be able to move around a highboy by myself,” he says.
Gradually, he’s replaced antique shows with woodworking shows. In 2009, for example, he spent four of the first five weeks on the road. For the past two-plus years, gates at antique shows have slumped, and patrons in attendance have spent less. Yet Bender noticed thousands lining up at woodworking shows. Why?
“The economy is slow, so rather than travel to Europe, if they like woodworking, they come here,” he says. “They can’t rationalize a week in Bermuda, where all you come back with are pictures. Here, you return with a piece of furniture—and skills. The baby boomers got clobbered in the market, are in retirement or are close to retiring, and they’re saying it’s time to do something for themselves.”
Gross has formally taken two classes, but sits in on others for even half a day if he can. He calls himself a “disciple.” The workshops allow “Type A personalities like me an outlet that leaves the high-pressured executive world behind,” he says. “It’s cheaper than a psychiatrist. It’s a pacifying hobby—and an important one, because most executives are involved in a larger process and don’t necessarily get to see an end product.”
There are three levels of classes at the Acanthus Workshop: apprentice, journeyman and master. In the fundamentals course, students generally create something from an image or photo, typically a one-drawer nightstand. Students choose their own wood. Classes also include tours of the furniture and American decorative arts collection at Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
One father-and-son pair recently enrolled in the workshop. The son wants to be a cabinetmaker—unheard of in a world where the young would rather “get out of college and punch buttons on a keyboard,” says Bender.
“Some are super-charged with energy,” he says. “Others are laid-back. The best thing is that they ask me questions, and I have to think about things I haven’t thought about in 30 years. It’s actually what convinced me to start writing, too.”
Bender was taught by Downingtown’s Werner Duerr, a native of Germany, at Central Chester County Vocational Technical School—now the Brandywine campus of the Center for Arts and Technology. He saved money from a newspaper delivery route to buy a table saw, band saw and lathe. In the family basement, Bender began making tables, dry sinks and bookcases for friends and loved ones.
It was after a junior-high trip to Colonial Williamsburg that his appreciation for America’s early period blossomed. “I just connected with it,” Bender says. “Plus, this is the area for historic homes. I’m fortunate I can build what I like.”
Bender is recognized both locally and nationally. For years, he was chosen by Early American Life magazine for its annual directory of traditional crafts. He’s appeared in the industry’s best shows, including the Designer Craftsmen Show of Philadelphia at the Valley Forge Convention Center.
He works on commission. “If all I wanted to do was make 500 somethings all the same way, I’d get a job on a line somewhere,” says Bender.
He’s made several fine pieces of furniture for Karen Kenworthy, who owns an 1805 farmhouse in Nantmeal. The list includes a cherry Pennsylvania Farm table with a drawer, a tiger maple hanging corner cupboard for a new kitchen she’s designed, and a tiger maple reproduction 18th-century miniature Queen Anne highboy.
“All of it is exquisite,” says Kenworthy. “Every now and then, you look [for an original], but you can look for eons for the right piece. Or you can order a piece made by a premier cabinetmaker whose work will be an antique. All the pieces he’s made for me are moveable, and I hope they’ll move after I’m 6 feet under.”
Another client, Alan Reed, lives in a 220-year-old home that borders East Coventry and East Vincent townships. He had an 1805 tall case clock from Horncastle, England, with delicate fruit-wood inlay that needed repair. “I’d looked at it and groaned for years,” Reed says. “It was like a pretty woman with a scar. Well, now the scar is gone. You just don’t take good stuff to anyone who doesn’t understand it.”
Initially, Bender admits, there’s a lot of romanticism to his work. But there’s a difference between saying you’d love to do the work and “actually loving it when you’re doing it,” he says.
In the early years, it required encouragement—and he had it from his wife, who helps with surface preparation and finishing. Mostly, Lorraine also runs the business. She was one of his shop workers before they married.
“To be good at anything, you have to be immersed in it,” says Bender. “You have to do it not because you have to do it—not because you’re going to get rich doing it, but because it’s what you want to do. The process and the art drives you.”
CHARLES BENDER & COMPANY
Location: 244 Ellis Woods Road, East Coventry; (610) 970-5862, acanthus.com
Classes at Bender’s Acanthus Workshop either last a week or span a weekend. October classes include “Woodworking Fundamentals I” (Oct. 9-10) and “Woodworking Fundamentals II” (Oct. 30-31). Fees range from $24.95 to $445.