Woodworking academy teaches new skills to
young and not-so young in search of careers
by Jeff Joiner
left a well-paying job as a finish carpenter to begin teaching woodworking
skills to others. Now he operates the American Woodworking Academy
rubs dusty hands across the surface of a wooden panel he's sanding that
will become part of a large roll-top desk. "Man, that's nice. It's a good
feeling to see it all come together."
soon graduate from a Missouri technical school which teaches woodworking
skills to people of all ages and abilities. He hopes to leave his current
job delivering pizzas and start his own cabinet shop. With the training
he's received, he's prepared.
Chris Fuchs hopes
the young student will be the latest success story coming out of his American
Woodworking Academy, the school he started in 1993 in O'Fallon. The
academy has turned out hundreds of professional woodworkers, cabinetmakers
and furniture builders as well as highly skilled hobbyists.
Fuchs' own story
is one of success as well as setbacks, and misfortune alongside opportunity.
He went from working as a union carpenter for $17 an hour to teaching
woodworking part time for $6 an hour to launching one of the most unique
trade schools in Missouri all in the space of a decade.
"There were many
times that I thought, what have I got myself into?"
As the son of
a carpenter and one of three brothers with woodworking careers, Fuchs'
job choice was no surprise. Though he studied architectural drafting in
college, he wanted to work outdoors and followed in the family tradition,
becoming a union carpenter.
his way into finish carpentry, Fuchs saw a job advertisement in 1989 that
would change his life. Shopsmith, the woodworking tool maker, had retail
stores across the country and many had wood shops where customers learned
to use the company's equipment. Fuchs landed a part-time job as an instructor.
He quickly discovered he loved to teach and soon went full time.
"I started teaching
in the winter when our carpentry work was slow and just fell in love with
it. I ended up quitting carpentry for teaching woodworking for a third
of the pay."
After Fuchs joined
Shopsmith the company changed its policies and made their instructors
private contractors. Fuchs and others were required to buy or rent Shopsmith
equipment and rent shop space from the company. Now in business for themselves,
it was up to the instructors to drum up customers and Fuchs and a fellow
instructor were good at it. They partnered with St. Charles Community
College to offer woodworking classes to adult students and even taught
laid off autoworkers from the General Motors and Ford plants.
"It wasn't like
a real job. It was like playing all day," Fuchs says. "You get to build
beautiful pieces of furniture and help people learn a step-by-step method
that they can use to build these things too."
Batson, a former coal miner who lost his job when an Illinois mine
closed, applies finishing touches to a roll-top desk. Batson drives
two hours each way to take classes at the academy.
Academies were popular until 1993 when the company closed all its retail
stores, including the academies. Fuchs found himself the owner of thousands
of dollars worth of equipment but with nowhere to teach. He had a decision
to make and he decided to go big.
Fuchs leased a
6,000-square-foot building in a small industrial park in O'Fallon. The
space was cavernous compared to the tiny space he was used to. Now with
a new location and a seemingly steady stream of students, the American
Woodworking Academy was off to a great start. At least that's what Fuchs
could go wrong?
"In the first
year I could write a book about things that can go wrong and how not to
run a business," he says recalling a nightmarish succession of setbacks.
"On the first day of business a fellow got his hand caught in a sander
and had about three quarters of the end of his finger ground off. We werenÕt
even sure if our insurance had kicked in yet."
had and that accident remains the only serious one suffered in his shop.
But, unfortunately, Fuchs' bad luck only got worse. "Within 30 days we
lost one of our major accounts which was the Ford plant because we weren't
a certified school. About nine months later an instructor committed suicide
in the building. He was having personal problems and we walked into the
building one day and found him. The first year was quite a doozy."
On top of all
that Shopsmith sued Fuchs insisting that a clause in his original contract
with the company guaranteed them a portion of his profits. Three years
and $30,000 in legal fees later, Shopsmith dropped the suit.
Many people would
have just called it quits, but Fuchs says he just didn't know any better.
"In a way my naiveté
has been a benefit. I didn't have a business background. I was a carpenter
and I didn't know any better so I just kept plugging along. I figured
every day that I kept the doors open was one more day toward success."
Fuchs' luck slowly
turned around. He taught woodworking classes through a number of St. Louis-area
community colleges, but the state of Missouri objected to those arrangements
and insisted that if Fuchs taught classes to college students the academy
had to be certified as a technical school. It took a year to do but the
academy became certified by both the Missouri Coordinating Board of Higher
Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Becoming a certified
trade school opened a world of opportunities for both students and the
academy. Veterans can use the GI Bill to pay for woodworking classes while
federal programs and trade unions pay for retraining of displaced workers
through certified schools. And vocational rehabilitation funding pays
to teach the unemployed work skills.
teaches 55 different classes to everyone from children to retirees, his
emphasis is on career-minded students interested in earning a master of
woodworking certificate. Master woodworking is a 22- or 44-week program
depending on whether students attend school two or four days a week. Students
are taught the fundamentals of woodworking from joinery to turning wood
on lathes to advanced cabinetmaking. Fuchs and three other instructors
teach using basic hand tools as well as the latest power equipment. And
students learn by doing.
Academy founder Chris Fuchs works with student Christina Girard of
Harvester who is learning to make crown molding.
Each class in
the master's program includes a project to complete. Projects include
furniture, wooden toys like a large rocking horse and workbenches. The
training culminates with the building of a roll-top desk.
The 700-hour master's
program costs $12,900 and includes tuition, lab fees and materials. When
students graduate they're ready to enter the job market and have a transcript
to show for their instruction. Fuchs has attracted students from across
the country and even the world. A young Japanese woman attended the academy
after finding Fuchs' website. She finished the master's program last fall
and returned to Japan hoping to open her own shop.
Fuchs has had
a number of success stories including one graduate who teaches woodworking
at a California art institute and another who builds yachts in Georgia.
Two of his students work building wood interiors in Learjets while another
with an engineering background designs woodworking equipment for a tool
manufacturer. Fuchs fields
numerous calls each week from companies seeking to hire his graduates
who can expect to earn from $10 to $15 an hour for entry-level positions.
"The jobs are
out there. If you want to work, there are plenty of opportunities," he
to rest on his success, Fuchs moved the academy into a new 12,000-square-foot
building in O'Fallon last summer where he plans to develop a training
program to teach students to operate computer-controlled woodworking equipment.
He's applied for a $780,000 education grant through the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation to buy and set up the CNC equipment and create a scholarship
fund and make improvements to the school's library.
Though once Fuchs
considered himself just a carpenter, he's now an experienced businessman
as well. He's even considering franchising the academy. But at the heart
of the business is Fuchs' love of woodworking and teaching.
some of my good fortune and helping other people," says Fuchs.
about the American Woodworking Academy contact Chris Fuchs at 1495 Hoff
Industrial Drive, O'Fallon, MO 63366; (636) 240-1804. Visit the school
online at www.awacademy.com.