Meet Jon Schmalenberger
Woodworker and Custom Furniture Designer ― December Artist-of-the-Month
It’s opening day of Emerson Umbrella’s Winter Market. Every inch of the building’s 3 floors abounds with art enthusiasts streaming by resident- and visiting artists, who exhibit and sell their art to the public at this annual event. On the lower level, a throng of people buzz excitedly around a shelved exhibit of turned wooden trees, each a unique combination of design, size, and wood. “I have a collection of these at home,” one woman tells me, her arms filled with trees. “What kind of wood is this?” inquires another, comparing the two she is holding.
These popular originals are the brainchild of Jon Schmalenberger, woodworker and custom furniture designer, who stands nearby, chatting with customers while wrapping up purchases. “I’ve been making those [trees] for years,” Jon later tells me. “I think their appeal stems from the fact that they’re one-of-a-kind.” Indeed, anything Jon crafts with wood is exceptional and of the finest quality.
A friendly man with a gentle nature, Jon hails from rural Ohio originally, where he worked in plumbing and heating mostly as a way to earn a living. He would arrive home from work at the end of each day and head right into his shop to build. “Plumbing and heating are good skills to have,” explains Jon, “but they weren’t my passion, that’s for sure.” He began receiving orders for furniture pieces, but was continually frustrated by the fact that he lacked the knowledge and training necessary to achieve the quality standard he set for himself.
Furthering his education appeared to be the answer and so he researched a number of trade schools with woodworking programs in the U.S. It was important to find a school whose teaching methods were hands-on (vs. academic), as that was how he learned best. At the time (late-’70’s), the North Bennet Street School (NBSS) in Boston was the only trade school of its kind that offered an educational environment where the learning comes from actually doing. (The school holds the reputation as having the finest woodworking program in the U.S.). Jon was so impressed with the school when he visited that he enrolled right then and there, despite the two-year waiting list. “I thought to myself, if I could make the kind of furniture they make here, I would just be over the moon,” he said smiling.
In 1977, Jon moved to Boston to begin the Cabinet and Furniture Making program at NBSS. Over the course of the rigorous 2-year program, he learned the traditional skills, concepts, and values of fine craftsmanship the school is so well-known for. After graduating, a part-time job teaching shop at the Fenn School in Concord, MA. opened up, and he took it. During his free time, he focused on building clientele as well as working in the shop.
A friend of Jon’s, who was an artist at Emerson Umbrella, told him great things about the Center, which inspired him to pay a visit there to inquire about renting space. A make-shift studio happened to be free, so he moved right in. It was there, in 1986, that he launched his own business, J.S. Classic Woodworking. Although now in a larger space that suits him better, Jon still works at the Umbrella, designing and building custom-made heirloom furniture in his shop. As the name of his business implies, each of his pieces is made with the same time-honored skills that craftsmen have relied upon for generations. Jon works with many types of woods (pine, maple, oak, cherry, and mahogany, to name a few), and in just about any style you can think of (Colonial, Chippendale, Queen Ann, Arts and Crafts, Mission). He’ll build each piece to exact specifications, which can range from an idea for something a person wants — to a detailed drawing — to no instruction at all. “One man came to me and said: ‘I’ve seen what you build, I like what you make, I need a 3’ x 6’ table. Make it.’ Says Jon, “That scared me a little. He had no style in mind, nothing. So I went ahead and made the table, and he liked it.”
Jon’s love for his work and his appreciation of the materials he builds with are evident in the lasting beauty of all his pieces. “I’m a great fan of trees,” Jon says in earnest. “I like to treat the product with respect and I try to create pieces that will last as long as it takes for the tree to grow. That’s my goal. It’s not difficult to build a piece that will last 200 years if it’s built right.”
Jon Schmalenberger is the owner of J.S. Classic Woodworking, located at Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts, 40 Stow Street, Concord, MA. 01742. For more information and to view his work, please visit his website at: jsclassicwoodworking.com.