The Right Name for Woodworking

Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on November 10, 2002

Occasionally a name seems prophetic, as in someone named Mason becoming a stoneworker, or a police officer named Justice. Whether there’s anything in it, Caleb Wood’s last name suits him.

Wood can chamfer the edge of a table, or plane, rip, join, and miter his way to a bed or a cabinet. Furniture making for Wood is a labor of love, rooted in his childhood when he’d follow his father around the house working on odd projects. He followed his interest in carpentry through high school and, after graduating in 1977, he worked building ski condominiums and doing remodeling jobs.

The work wasn’t as steady as he’d have liked, and pounding nails outside in cold New Hampshire winters was hard. Most of all, Wood recalls, “I wanted to turn out pieces I could be really proud of, and say, ‘That’s the fruit of my labor, and it will endure for a long time.’”

So one day in 1984 he answered an ad in the local paper for a cabinet and furniture maker in Meriden, N.H., at Dana Robes Wood Craftsmen, a company producing classic Shaker furniture. It was a small shop, but as soon as Robes showed him around, Wood was excited. He remembers the day clearly.

“The first thing he showed me was a dovetailed drawer for a nightstand,” he says. “It was absolutely beautifully made, and I knew I wanted this as a career.”

The business thrived and two years later moved to nearby Enfield (pop. 1,698), into what is now the Shaker Village Museum. A large Shaker settlement established itself here in the 1800s, and today it lives on in the museum, the well-preserved village buildings, and in the furniture making of Dana Robes.

As master craftsman, Wood oversees the shop’s production of Shaker-influenced armoires, chests, beds, hutches, and chairs. “We do pretty much every type of furniture, much of it custom-made,” he says. “I love the variety. We’re also doing architectural millwork, which is interesting. I just shipped a mahogany library with fan arch molding, mortise, and tenon—very nice-looking work.”

Wood enjoys meeting customers who come into the shop, including some who take classes working side-by-side with craftsmen to learn everything from how to do hand-cut joinery to actually building furniture. “We get a lot of doctors and lawyers who really want a taste of doing this,” he says.

As a hobby, Wood builds small boats. He’s now completing a 14-foot canoe made from butternut, which will weigh less than 40 pounds. Most of the butternut strips used to make the canoe are scraps from millwork jobs that would normally be discarded. “Butternut is a light-density wood, and it’s working out perfectly,” he says.

Earlier, Wood built a 17-foot kayak that gets serious use. “Caleb and I are in the process of paddling the entire length of the Connecticut River,” says Eric Gesler, director of design at Dana Robes. “We do it a stretch at a time, leaving our bikes where we’re going to end up and paddling back to them. This way, we get to see the landscape from two different perspectives. Caleb has a lot of interests outside the shop.”

So what advice does Wood have for aspiring craftsmen? “The old saying is, ‘Measure twice, and cut once’ is still true as ever,” Wood says. “There’s no such thing as a board stretcher—if there were, everybody would want one. It’s also important to plan your project carefully. Material is expensive, and the better you plan, the less waste you have.”

And of the inevitable confusion about his name and being a woodworker, he tells this tale.

“There was a couple who wanted a table built out of cherry for their daughter. We sign and date our pieces here when we finish them, and we delivered the table. The daughter thought it was beautiful. But when she saw my signature underneath, she said, ‘What’s caleb wood? I wanted this table made out of cherry.’”