The scent of cut wood and sawdust let me know immediately that I am in a woodworking studio. It’s 97 degrees outside, but this subterranean world of planks and shavings is a few degrees cooler.
I visited with Ted Harlan at his shop/classroom/studio located in the lower level of the old Ohio Valley Bag & Burlap Co. building on South Preston Street. This is where Ted teaches personal enrichment classes in woodworking and luthiery (guitar making).
For almost 30 years, Ted ran his design and fine furniture woodworking company from his studio in the old Louisville Antique Mall on Goss Avenue. When that closed, he moved to this new location.
He graduated with a degree in industrial arts from Berea College and his studies included woodworking, metal working, power mechanics, and electronics. “I came to woodworking through an interest in making musical instruments,” he says. “I grew up watching and listening to musicians playing guitars and mandolins at the Storefront Congregation and Rudyard Kipling — music venues and nightclubs that my parents owned.”
His is a world of hand planes, chisels, carving knives, rules and squares, clamps, and sharpening stones.
“I developed a series of fine woodworking classes beginning with the basics, and then each class builds upon the skill set of the previous ones. The projects are predetermined and a student can take one class and enjoy it and have a successful project at the end. Or they can continue on with more classes and build upon the skills learned.”
Eventually, Ted started his guitar building classes. “I was designing and making furniture and my woodworking classes were running smoothly, and I found I had time to develop those classes as well. It gave me a good excuse to develop my own guitar building skills so that I could teach them to others. I enjoy the students and my interactions with them.”
The introductory woodworking class is a weekly three-hour session that runs for eight weeks. Next there is a dovetail class that meets three hours a week for 10 weeks. The weekly three-hour guitar-making class runs 60 weeks. The classes are small — usually five to 10 students — allowing for personalized instruction and guidance.
Contrary to what one might think, Ted says, there is nothing loud about the classes. They are all very quiet and contemplative. Once the wood is cut for the project using a power saw, the hand work that follows is gentle and quiet. “There is a fear that there is some sort of mystique about fine woodworking, but it only takes a little know-how and a little practice to complete the project. There is definitely a sense of satisfaction upon completion,” he says.
Ted has been involved in shows and exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of American Arts, and galleries in France, Germany, and Great Britain. “For years I did fine furniture design and commission work, but I am not seeking that now. I’m just interested in teaching the classes and passing along what I know.
“For me, the appeal of woodworking is about making something by hand. The end result is fleeting in that the student takes his or her project home or a client whose commission I created takes that piece. So it can’t be about the end result. It is the process that I enjoy.”
BY LUCY M. PRITCHETT | PHOTOS BY MARGE ROYSTON