LOCAL A&E: Cutting Loose at Philadelphia Woodworks

Jun 08, 2017 0 comments
LOCAL A&E: Cutting Loose at Philadelphia Woodworks

By Leo Dillinger

Photography by Melissa Kelly Photography

While Michael Vogel studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he fell in love with the campus’ woodshop. But after graduating and taking up a career in finance, Michael found it nearly impossible to continue his passion.

“There was nowhere I could go and casually have a hobby in woodworking,” Michael said. “And it kept gnawing at me this idea of trying to invigorate a hobby while having a job. Nights and weekends would be something I’d want to do, but I had no space, I had no tools, and I had no experience with how to maintain those tools.”

As the years went on, Michael grew more and more disconnected with his role in the finance industry. He needed a radical change to get him to a place where he could be happy. And he needed it fast.

“I kept fantasizing about how a woodworking hobby would be an escape from everything else,” Michael continued. “I decided to build a business around that escape knowing there would be lots of other people just like me who want to have this hobby. But there was no way to know if this was the kind of business that would be well-received. It’s the kind of thing you have to do on faith.”

When Michael initially conceptualized “Philadelphia Woodworks” in 2011, only three other woodworking shops like the one he envisioned existed in the country. He interviewed two of the shop owners (one from Washington D.C. and another from San Jose) who eventually became his mentors. Michael visited their shops and learned from their experiences to identify what it took to make his member-based woodshop a success.

The next step was finding the right location. Michael eventually stumbled upon a large, raw industrial space on Umbria Street across from the Ivy Ridge Train Station. Though the building needed months of work and renovation to create the right atmosphere, he immediately knew this would be the perfect space to house his new business.

Before signing a lease, Michael also needed to find people who would actually be interested in his project. So he pounded the pavement, putting out postcards on corkboards and countertops at hardware stores and lumber suppliers. He networked with numerous fellow woodworkers, built up his email list, and slowly but surely, the word started to spread. Philadelphia Woodworks opened for business in March 2012.

“The coolest thing about woodworking is just being able to lose yourself in it,” Michael said. “Your stresses and anxieties about everything else going on around you disappear for the period of time you’re working on something. An entire day will pass by and you’ll forget to eat, you’ll forget to take care of everything you wanted to take care of just because you disappear into another place. And that place is mentally and physically stimulating. This is an experience that you just get to lose yourself in and find yourself at the same time.”

Michael and his mix of full-time staff and part-time instructors truly make the experience worthwhile for their 125 members and the thousands of students who take woodworking classes every year. Right as you walk through the door, the rich aroma of fresh lumber soothingly hits your nostrils. The wooden decor all over the lobby, from the front desk to shelves holding numerous woodworking technique books, reiterates the idea that you are dealing with the finest professionals.

The space is compartmentalized into three core areas: the main woodshop, the classroom, and the lumberyard. The main shop area is a woodworker’s dream come true with enough room and tools for members to operate on projects of all sizes whenever the shop is open. Meanwhile, the classroom intimately hosts anywhere from six to 10 students at a given time with individual workstations.

Philadelphia Woodworks offers two types of classes. The first and most popular type is for experience seekers looking to create their very own souvenir from cutting boards and picture frames to coffee tables and Adirondack chairs. These classes range in length from three hours to multiple weekends depending on the project you want to craft. The other class serves new and veteran wood artisans looking to perfect a particular skill. The shop even offers private one-on-one lessons, custom projects and repairs, and a lumberyard that’s accessible on nights and weekends.

“I want people to be as bold and as confident as they’ll let themselves be with trying something different,” Michael said. “As much excitement as there is for crafts and woodworking, I find just as often people fearing they won’t be good at woodworking. The truth is if you have the right environment, the right people coaching you, and just give us some trust, the experience will be incredible.”

Now in its sixth year of business, Michael’s shop has started to gain the recognition it deserves as the market for community woodworking spaces has grown every year since he first opened. Now, he’s become a mentor for new entrepreneurs who travel to Philadelphia Woodworks from across the country to get a glimpse of his operations with the hope they’ll open a shop of their own. Several local companies have hosted team-building retreats at the shop. Night and weekend classes always tend to sell out and make a much more adventurous water cooler conversation than Painting With A Twist.

“We’re now five years strong and doing incredibly well,” Michael said. “It’s been a surprise to me how amazing everything is going. Every statistic about what a small business’s success should be have all been beaten, and it feels amazing. This place is exactly what I hoped it would be and a whole lot more.”

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