John Wilson, who unlocked the mysteries of Shaker oval boxes for millions of woodworkers around the world, died on Friday, Jan. 27. He was 83.
Wilson of Charlotte, Michigan, began his career as an anthropology professor, but then became a home builder and professional woodworker whose main line of business was building Shaker oval boxes and supplying woodworkers with the training and raw materials for these boxes (especially the copper tacks that hold the bent bands together).
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But Wilson’s career encompassed more than just the beguiling and beautiful boxes. He also wrote extensively about toolmaking and taught classes on a wide variety of subjects, from boatbuilding to workbench building.
The business at the center of it all, The Home Shop (aka ShakerOvalBox.com), offers all the supplies and information that woodworkers need to build the boxes. Wilson retired fully from business in December 2022, leaving Eric Pintar, his long-time employee and partner, in charge of the business.
“John took full retirement… in full confidence that we will carry on with The Home Shop, and I’m ready to live into that,” Pintar said.
Pintar worked for Wilson for 28 years, and began as a shop assistant there when he was 16. In 2004, Pintar became an equal partner with Wilson in The Home Shop. Since the start of the pandemic Pintar had taken the lead responsibility for the output of the Home Shop including the teaching of Shaker oval box classes. With Wilson’s passing he takes ownership of the Home Shop and will lead it into the future.
So the supply of Shaker box supplies is secure for years to come, Pintar said. Still Pintar is humbled by the role he is moving to fill and said he is saddened that it is under these circumstances.
From Professor to Woodworker
Wilson grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and was allowed full use of his father’s hand-tool workshop. While he studied anthropology at university, he worked as a carpenter on the side. After graduating with a master’s degree, Wilson taught anthropology at Purdue University, Michigan State University and Albion College. Despite his best efforts, a doctoral dissertation eluded him, thus ending a career as a university professor. Wilson then went to work in home construction.
In 1977, Lansing Community College offered him a job teaching furniture design. There was a catch: The class began in two hours, according to a 2007 interview of Wilson by Kara Gebhart Uhl. On his way to class, Wilson checked out Ejner Handberg’s “Shop Drawings of Shaker Furniture and Woodenware, Vol. 1” (Berkshire House). That book, and the course, led Wilson to investigating the Shaker’s oval boxes and figuring out how to make them.
“To be able to take the methods used by the Shakers and share those with others is a very beautiful thing, and in the spirit of the Shakers,” Pinter said. “Before John (making these boxes) was mysterious. He brought the methods and materials to the public.”
Wilson began making the boxes to sell and taught others how to make them in classes all over the country. That led to him starting The Home Shop, a large workshop on his land that he built using mostly recycled materials. The Home Shop supplied makers of Shaker boxes everything they needed to build them, including the carefully sawn wooden bands, plans and – most importantly – the copper tacks.
In 1991, the W.W. Cross Nail Co. – the last copper tack manufacturer – stopped making tacks. Wilson acquired their machinery and began making seven sizes of tacks and 1/2” copper shoe pegs. The noisy, ingenious machines crank out a pound of tacks in about 15 minutes. In the early 2007 interview, Wilson said he was making about 300 pounds of tacks a year.
Wilson insisted for years on keeping the personal touch with The Home Shop. It was years before they had a website. Orders were taken over the phone and shipped with a bill – the honor system.
The Home Shop also offered classes on toolmaking (planes, spokeshaves and travishers) making, joinery (hand-cut dovetails, mortise-and-tenon), plus sailboat building and paddle making.
John Wilson & John Brown
I first heard of Wilson by reading the column of Welsh chairmaker John Brown (aka JB) in Good Woodworking magazine. JB took his first trip to teach chairmaking in America in 1997 and taught at Drew Langsner’s school, Country Workshops in North Carolina, and at The Home Shop in Charlotte.
Wilson always used an efficient blend of machinery and hand tools to make furniture. JB, on the other hand, used only a band saw to rough out the pieces and then was passionate (probably an understatement) about using hand tools only for the remainder of the work.
During the class, the men famously butted heads. Though Wilson was hosting the class, he also was a student in it. So when Wilson got behind in his work in the class, he would try to catch up in the wee hours of the morning with the help of some power tools.
JB was furious.
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“I received a proper dressing down such as a boot camp sergeant might give,” Wilson told Gebhart in 2002. “I stood attentive like a good solider, listening to a man deserving of respect because of his expertise and experience. I could appreciate his point of view, so passionately given, on the virtue of hand tools while blending that kernel of truth with the mix of tools I had just employed that morning.”
JB also confiscated a micrometer from one of the students and threw it in a lake.
In the end it all turned out OK, and Wilson ended up making several of the chairs for his family: his wife, Sally, and children Molly and Will.
Writing it Down
In the early 2000s, Wilson began writing magazine articles and books to help spread the word about Shaker oval boxes and toolmaking. He wrote multiple articles for Popular Woodworking Magazine, which is how I got to know him. Many of his articles are free for the reading here on The Home Shop’s website.
Plus he wrote and self-published four books. Three were on Shaker Oval Boxes plus “Making Wood Tools.” Like his business in general, Wilson made his books with a careful eye to quality with a personal touch – every book was autographed.
I made several visits to The Home Shop to help take photos for Wilson’s articles. I was always struck by how nearly everything there was made by him. I mean everything. He built the buildings, the kiln, the shop, the storage areas. Plus everything inside them.
His work was always soft and humane. The workshop was flooded with light thanks to enormous skylights (salvaged from sliding doors). I got to stay in his so-called “Little House,” a 15′ x 15′ structure where he lived for 12 years. This building – built decades before the “tiny house” movement – was incredibly well-considered. It felt absolutely roomy and comfortable thanks to his planning and careful construction of every bit.
As a person, Wilson was remarkably generous with his knowledge and his time. He sent hand-written letters (always accompanied by a postcard for The Home Shop). And he has been generous to the craft. His work with oval boxes has launched the woodworking businesses of hundreds of people over the years, and he never sought credit or royalties or anything. He just seemed thrilled that other people enjoyed making the boxes as much as he did.
Thanks to Wilson, I’ve made a bunch of these oval boxes – they are incredible gifts to give. And I couldn’t have done it without him.
So thanks John, for everything you gave us and more. You will be missed.
— Christopher Schwarz (photos by Al Parrish)