‘Fences and fine furniture’

By Sharon Letts, Times-Standard, 12/11/2008


Local designer started out making just about anything anyone wanted out of wood Woodworker and designer JoAnn Schuch at home in her shop. Schuch began her studies in art, transitioned to food, and fell into furniture and kitchen design after being dissatisfied with retail furniture designs and quality.

Food, not wood, is how furniture and kitchen designer JoAnn Schuch earned her bread and butter while working in a high-end eatery in San Francisco in the 1980s. That is, until she began to spend her hard-earned cash on fixing up her digs.

“With a good paycheck in hand, I went shopping for furniture,” she said. “I didn’t like what I saw — the styles, the quality and the prices. But, I did love the furniture I saw in a touring art show of Arts-and-Crafts-style furniture. I loved the clean lines and the straightforward mortise-and-tenon joinery. I thought, ‘Now this is furniture!’ and I brashly thought, ‘Hey I can make this stuff.'”

Schuch said she “covertly” took the measurements off a Morris reclining chair in the exhibition and went home to try to figure out how to build it.

“I got the white oak for the chair milled at a lumber yard and with only a hammer, a chisel, and a dovetail saw I tried to reproduce the recliner,” she continued. “After a year of experimentation, reading books and getting advice from the oldest guys in the lumberyard, I finally had a beautiful chair that other people, surprisingly, offered to buy. That was the start of my furniture business.” The sideboard is an example of Schuch’s work. The sideboard is an example of Schuch’s work.

Though not trained in furniture building — Schuch received a bachelor of arts degree from Pitzer College in Claremont in 1979 — she took to hammer and nail readily, and credits her late father for a solid foundation in “how-to.”

“My father was a guy who could fix things, not a woodworker per se, but he had a shop and tools so I grew up around drills and hammers,” she said. “The best thing he passed on to me was an understanding and appreciation of engineering. We always talked about how things were built, why bridges stand up, how houses are built. I think it helped me think in three-dimensional terms about things.”

Schuch said that putting together a piece of furniture or a kitchen project is like solving a puzzle.

“I actually credit my background in art for giving me the courage to be self-taught as a woodworker, and to venture out in a new design business,” she said. “Art is all about creating something from nothing.” The Pacific Maple table is an example of Schuch’s work.

At the time Schuch began doing woodwork for hire, she was living in Oakland and began making furniture and anything else people wanted. “I joked my business name should be ‘Fences and Fine Furniture,'” she said. “During this time, while visiting friends in Arcata, I was introduced to the great, supportive woodworking community here and the world-class hardwood store, Almquist Lumber.”

After mulling over the possibilities of a life in Humboldt County, Schuch moved here in 1989. “My furniture was first shown at Plaza Design, then later I began to advertise and work directly with clients to make one-of-a-kind pieces,” she said. “Some of my furniture clients asked me to build their kitchens, and I loved it because it combined my interests in cabinetry and cooking.”

Over the years, Schuch said she built many kitchens by herself for clients here in Humboldt County and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I really enjoyed working with people on kitchens,” she explained. “Often you have to combine the tastes and needs of two partners to get a design that works for both.”

Her shop is small and soon she found that other cabinetmakers could more easily build the kitchens she designed.

“I found that most cabinetmakers are happiest working in their shops, not talking to clients about what tile to use on their backsplash,” she said. “They prefer to have a finished drawing of a kitchen to work with. So, I offer my design skills and diplomacy to the clients, and as a knowledgeable cabinetmaker, I can interface with contractors and cabinet shops to streamline the construction process.”

Once her own business was off and running, Schuch said she began helping other woodworkers do the same.

“About 10 years ago, I saw that skilled craftspeople were not necessarily good at marketing their businesses,” she said. “A group of us formed the Humboldt Woodworkers Guild as a marketing organization.”

Grants were written with the purpose of providing marketing classes and assistance to woodworkers and other artisans. Through those grants a “Peer Consultancy” marketing class was developed, which Schuch said many have found beneficial.

Schuch can be found teaching the occasional class on woodworking and furniture building at Almquist Lumber in Arcata, and she credits the staff there as well as the woodworkers of Humboldt County in general for helping her become a successful designer.

“The woodworking community here was a great help in my development as a furniture maker,” she said. “I received tremendous help from the people who work at Almquist, like Rick Alexander and Eric Almquist, many of them very knowledgeable woodworkers themselves. There was also support from established master woodworkers like Joe Amaral and Anthony Kahn.”

For beginning woodworkers, Schuch said there are great classes at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, and for the more advanced artisan, a well-respected program at College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg.

“The most important thing is starting out. You don’t need the most expensive equipment right off the bat, but get good tools,” she said.