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Rural Missouri Magazine

Crafting new careers
Woodworking academy teaches new skills to
young and not-so young in search of careers

 

by Jeff Joiner

Chris Fuchs left a well-paying job as a finish carpenter to begin teaching woodworking skills to others. Now he operates the American Woodworking Academy in O'Fallon.

Pete Linhares 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."

Linhares will 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?"

From carpenter to teacher

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.

After working 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."

Above: Bill 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.

The Shopsmith 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 thought.

What else 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."

Fortunately it 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.

Emphasis on careers

Although Fuchs' 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.

American Woodworking 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 says.

Not satisfied 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.

"I'm sharing some of my good fortune and helping other people," says Fuchs.

For information 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.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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