Many readers probably already feel like old friends with Ellis Walentine. His WoodCentral site
has become a virtual clubhouse for woodworkers to share ideas, show off their work, read about new books, and maybe even get a little philosophical.
We caught up with Ellis at home in Pennsylvania and asked him to talk about his long career in woodworking, writing, and most recently, online.
According to Ellis, his old man got him started in woodworking when he was only four years old. He had his own workbench, a Handy-Andy tool kit, and his first tool apron. A Sears Roebuck scroll saw followed at age seven, then a lathe at ten, and soon after a radial arm saw and routers. Inspiration came from a collection of Deltagrams (Delta's in-house publication of ads and articles for the hobbyist that ran from 1932 up to the 1970s). By the time he graduated from high school Ellis was building furniture.
At Dartmouth College in the 60s, Ellis studied pre-med, but also found time to take classes in three-dimensional design and created what he calls "some pretty interesting sculptural pieces." Upon graduation, he decided to forgo medical school, and working with an architect, began building houses and ski chalets, and doing lots of renovation work. When he got married in the early 1970s, he decided to return to Pennsylvania, and he hung out a new shingle under the name Durham Woodcraft. He changed the name of his proprietorship to Woodrose a few years later, and it remains the name for the umbrella organization that covers all his woodworking, web, and editorial ventures.
His early designs were heavily influenced by Arts and Crafts furniture -- especially those by Greene and Greene.
"It absolutely blew me away when I got turned onto them in the early 1970s, and I hardly have to look back. A lot of furniture from that period -- including Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Roycrofters -- I found to be very heavy and visually ponderous. But Greene and Greene brought a sort of lyricism. They elevated the style, mixed in other media, and made it elegant. It taught me that wood is the means, not the end. In my work, while wood is the primary medium, I also brought in other craftsmen and other media like metal, wood, glass, slate, electronics ... anything you might use as a building material or design component."
Over the next couple of decades, Ellis built up a thriving business, building everything from jewelry boxes to houses. Many of the commissions required Ellis to figure out things he'd never done before. Occasionally, he'd jump into his truck and go consult with friends at the School for the American Craftsman at Rochester Institute of Technology. It also helped to pick the brains of his small woodworking guild (a new idea in those days) that included the now well-known Frank Klausz and Allen Miller, a longtime aquantance whom Ellis described as the world's leading authority on 18th century furniture today.
"I worked primarily for millionaires in Philadelphia and in New York," Ellis recalled, generally through interior designers and architects. "Those were (and still are) the only people who care enough, are patient enough, and can afford it. And they like the bragging rights that go along with a custom-built piece."
The one-on-one contact was a key element in his learning process; he became interested in the interaction and communication involved.
"The best way to learn anything is through a direct dialogue," Ellis explained, "You need the veracity and immediacy of the interaction with somebody who knows how to do it. I came to know a lot of people, which helped me learn a heck of a lot more about woodworking than I would have otherwise."
In the mid-eighties, his career took a new twist when he accepted a job as product manager for a contract furniture company, with responsibilities in product development, marketing and engineering. Along the way, he received a U.S. Patent for an innovative office system. The experience taught him about what he calls the "real furniture business" and gave him a new perspective on what he'd been doing. Though he continued to run his own shop on the side, he found he had a knack for writing the numerous brochures and marketing pieces his corporate job required. With his interest in communications, it all came together in the early 1990s when he joined the staff at American Woodworker magazine at the behest of his old friend, David Sloan, then the publisher.
"I've been writing all my life, though never as a professional editor, but I went in as an associate editor and within a year and a half got promoted to executive editor. Go figure"
As the Internet emerged as a new medium, Ellis got involved in the magazine's fledgling web sites. When the magazine was sold and moved out of state in 1997, he decided that he still wanted to be involved in publishing and combined all his skills with those of partner Jim Cummins (a former associate editor with Fine Woodworking) and launched WoodCentral.com. The rest is history.
Well, not quite; there were still plenty of twists and turns ahead. His partner Jim died about six months after they went online. About the same time, his shop burned down, destroying 30 years of accumulated tools, his choicest lumber, thousands of feet of veneer, his entire archive of hand-drawn furniture blueprints, even some ivory tusks. Though he was able to rebuild the building, the insurance didn't even come close to replacing his tools and other losses, so he decided to apply the money to a new venture ... WoodFinder.
"Woodcentral was never a big business investment ... other than in time and love. There was no business model for it to work," Ellis explained. "So I started WoodFinder in mid-1999. Lumber supply companies pay a fee to be in our database, we advertise the database to woodworkers, and when they come looking for wood, they patronize our members. It's actually been pretty successful; we're up to almost 400 members, and I'm going to put a big push on this year."
What about woodworking?
"Initially I figured ... what the hell! I'm not in the cabinetmaking business anymore, why do I need table saws and planers? But I bought a big lathe and a band saw because I knew I could have lots of fun with them. Then I started acquiring all sorts of hand tools, routers, then a drill press, and an ancient, 1940s vintage table saw ... but nothing close to the full-bore woodworking operation I lost. I still build little stuff, asthe mood strikes, but I've been doing more turning than anything else. I don't look back and that's all right."
In recent years, he's also gotten involved with marketing consultation and web site development for several clients and become a champion for woodworker insurance. The latter is a need he knows only too well, and he is currently working on a proposal with a national carrier. In the near future, Ellis has plans to turn WoodCentral into a more cooperative venture, sharing responsibility for projects and departments with some of the devoted folks who enjoy the site, or as he puts it,"share of the non-wealth." And he'll probably soon be tweaking the look of WoodFinder ... but not the functionality. Right now, it sis doing exactly what it's supposed to do -- help people find the wood they need simply and effectively.
"I love the problem-solving aspect,." Ellis explained, "no matter what I'm working on. When I was building furniture full-time, I had to first solve the primary functional concerns. If it's a staircase, well it has to have treads, and the treads have to be a certain height above each other so people don't stumble on them. Then I'd ask myself if I build it the very best way, with the correct materials, the best technique, and the most bodacious creative solution, what would it be? Usually there was enough budget to do almost anything. But to get them to choose my work over someone else's, I still had to spend time weaving words and convincing people what they were getting from me was worth it. Once customers got as excited about it as I did, they usually said they didn't care how much it costs. Go for it!"
Sounds like a good business model!