Mario Rodriguez and His Life-changing Couch

“When I was at school, woodworking was where the bad kids were sent.” — Mario Rodriguez

When you reach a certain age, it’s common to observe that people who have been fixtures in your personal woodworking pantheon have become less visible. As a reader of Fine Woodworking since the early 1990s, I’ve long associated the magazine with one of its prolific contributors, Mario Rodriguez. Mario has appeared regularly on the pages, instructing readers how to “Soup Up a Dovetail Saw,” optimize work set-up on job sites, or build a variety of pieces, from a classic Federal tilt-top table or mid-century coffee table to a fireplace mantel or oak chest on stand. After being relatively absent from my notice, there he was in issue No. 291 this summer, still doing his thing. 

Every so often over the past few years I’d heard the occasional mention that Mario teaches woodworking to kids at a Waldorf School in Philadelphia. A masterful craftsman with decades of experience and a portfolio bursting at its figurative seams, teaching woodworking to kids in elementary and middle school? I had to learn more. 

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In 2018, I gave a presentation at Philadelphia Woodworks related to my book “English Arts & Crafts Furniture,” and was more than a little starstruck when Mario introduced himself. Those boots are not a fashion statement; he comes by them honestly. (From left to right: Bruce Chaffin; Michael Vogel, president of Philadelphia Woodworks; Mario; and me. )

Mario was born in 1950 and is the eldest of three siblings. His parents had come to New York from Puerto Rico; his dad worked as a merchant marine and was away from home for weeks at a time, and his mom worked various jobs, from hairdresser to surgical nurse, a field in which she was employed for some 20 years. After that she went into flipping houses. “She had no experience,” says Mario, “just a head for business.”

Mario at 2, already in touch with wood.

In elementary and middle school Mario was drawn to art. He later attended The High School of Art & Design in New York City, which prepared students for professional jobs in the field of art, broadly defined. Many of his fellow students went on to college, but Mario lost interest in school and dropped out. 

After a series of menial jobs he joined the army at 17 and trained as a paratrooper and infantryman.

“What was nice was that in civilian life you were sized up and opportunities were provided or denied to you based on who you were and where you were from,” he remarks. “In the Army, you were judged by your ability to do a job. The overriding principle was: You had to do your job. If you did your job and took care of those you were responsible for, you moved ahead. It is one of the greatest social engines in this country, providing opportunities for ambitious young men and women not available to them in civilian life.”

He stayed three years and was posted in Germany, in addition to the United States.

“At 17, I found it very exciting and new,” he remembers. “As I advanced through the ranks, eventually making sergeant … I found that if I was stationed somewhere I didn’t like, I was stuck there.”

Despite the opportunities, he says that “on a day-to-day basis, it was stifling. I thought I could do better once I left.”

He returned to Brooklyn, where he’d grown up, got an apartment with a couple of roommates and took a series of unfulfilling jobs.

“I would have jobs that were boring or uninteresting where I was not excited or interested, and all I could think about was the coming weekend,” he says. It’s an experience many of us have known at one time or another. But Mario’s life was about to change in exciting and challenging ways.

Arts & Crafts-inspired cherry side table.

A Life-changing Couch

At around the age of 24, he decided it was time to acquire a sofa. It was the mid-1970s; being in New York City, he went to Macy’s, where he found an affordable damaged floor sample. The store scheduled delivery, and Mario took time off from his job to wait for the couch. The couch did not show up. He rescheduled the delivery, took more time off work … and the delivery people were again missing in action. At this point he asked the store to return his deposit and decided to make his own couch. 

“I went to Barnes & Noble and looked for a book on making furniture,” he continues. “I made this crude thing out of plywood.” It’s rough, he remembers thinking. I enjoy the process and the compliments, but I really have no idea what I’m doing. It was time to get some training.

He applied to a four-year training apprenticeship with the Carpenters and Cabinetmakers Union in New York City. They put him in the program for exterior construction – “not what I really wanted to learn.” When he asked about changing programs, they said he couldn’t, so he changed his approach: Could he at least add some millwork and cabinetmaking classes to the work they’d already assigned him? Yes, they said; he could do both. So after spending the day at work on a jobsite, he attended millwork and cabinetmaking classes, two nights a week during the second year of his apprenticeship, three nights the third year and four nights during the fourth. 

At that point the construction industry took a nosedive. As an Army veteran, Mario qualified for education benefits under the GI Bill and had already been taking college classes at night. When he found himself unemployed, he assessed his options and decided to attend school full time at Lehman College, a City University of New York four-year college. Around 1978, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art with a specialization in applied design through the university’s Self-Determined Studies program.

“That allowed me to explore woodworking,” he says.

Building & Furniture Making

With his newly minted degree, Mario went to work as a carpentry crew chief with a sweat-equity construction group in the Bronx. By the late 1970s, the South Bronx was devastated; some areas were so neglected they looked like bombed-out neighborhoods in European cities after the Second World War. The group secured its first building and raised the money necessary to gut and renovate. In lieu of a down payment, a would-be resident would invest 500 hours of labor, then be awarded an apartment. Not only did this plan increase the availability of affordable housing, it taught participants a range of practical trade skills. 

“The notion was so new,” he says. “We took people from all backgrounds who needed a place to live and had a desire to move ahead.”

Would-be residents came from the area. The program even attracted the attention of Jimmy Carter, who paid them a visit and pledged some $5 million to expand. The union, though, was opposed to this idea; they built homes for profit.

“The idea that people could get together and build their own homes was not something they approved of,” Mario says. They put challenging stipulations on the project, but the program still grew.  

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After three years, Mario returned to Brooklyn with a plan to strike out on his own. He rented a 12’ x 30’ space in Greenpoint, and started to take on small, fairly simple furniture and cabinet jobs. If he finished a job and had nothing lined up, he’d spend a couple of days going to museums or the park, then come back to new orders. He often found himself starting to work with a prospective customer, only to have them complain about his price. Once that had become “a frustrating and frequent event,” he decided to find a market where price was not the primary consideration. 

He found that market in antique restoration, learning the necessary skills on the job as he worked for dealers, fixing broken joints and replacing missing parts. Before long, he was teaching part-time in a college-level antiques restoration program at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Hans Wegner-inspired modern armchair in white oak with laminated arm and back splat. Mario carved the seat on the table saw.

He also started writing for Fine Woodworking and had a growing interest in building Windsor chairs. At the time, the best-known person building Windsors was Michael Dunbar, who had written a book about the form. Michael “didn’t give measurements,” Mario says; he focused on techniques. Michael was building chairs in his basement and at Strawbery Banke Museum, a historic village in New Hampshire. “He was very friendly,” Mario recalls. One of the most valuable pieces of advice Michael offered sprang from his observation that “there’s no money in making these chairs. The money’s in teaching people how to make them.”

So Mario explored Windsor chairmaking as a sideline, fascinated by the chairs’ design and construction – so economical, and largely done by hand. 

By this point Mario had married; he and his (now-former) wife had a little girl. Their location in a Polish and Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn was “still a frontier,” he says, with no dependable public services – a good place for a solitary artist, but not for a family. So they moved to Warwick, New York, and bought a farmhouse. 

For the next few years, Mario renovated the house and taught woodworking classes in a garage at the back. He focused primarily on classes based on hand tools – Windsor chairs, basic veneering, cutting dovetails – taking four to six students at a time. Then they lost their daughter, who was 7, in a swimming accident. 

“That derailed everything,” he says.

Work was most helpful as a diversion from the pain. He continued to write for Fine Woodworking and teach at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and other schools. As Mario puts it, “I was pretty much a mess.” When his wife took a job in New Jersey, they moved there. They had a son, Peter, and eventually divorced in the mid-1990s.

Sheraton-style lady’s work table. “I built one a few years ago that appeared in FWW,” says Mario’s caption on Instagram. “It’s made of solid mahogany and crotch veneer. It has tapered, reeded legs, dovetailed and cock-beaded drawers.” His wife, Nicole, uses it in her sewing studio.

Meanwhile, Mario’s position at the Fashion Institute of Technology had become full-time, with benefits and newfound job security. He commuted to the city daily. The program, however, “was not well designed,” he says. “The chairman had no experience in manual creative work but was a very charming Ph.D.” As a result, the curriculum “was full of holes.” Students would graduate but not be able to get a job. Decreasing enrollment invited closer inspection by authorities, who eventually shut the program down. Between his part- and full-time positions, Mario had taught at the Fashion Institute for 14 years. It had been a stable point in his life, “like hitting the lottery – good, solid pay, security, outstanding benefits.” The loss left a gaping hole.

As he wondered what he was going do next, it dawned on him that the secure, well-paid job had come with its own price. “You’re giving up time you would [otherwise] devote to pursuing your craft and becoming as good as you can. So it’s kind of a trap.” He says he wandered around a bit, and ended up at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop, where he met the founder, Alan Turner, a lawyer and part-time woodworker who invited Mario to teach there.

Federal candle stand in mahogany and crotch veneer.

The students at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop were a mix of amateurs and professionals interested in learning new skills or refining those they already had. Many were men looking for a hobby or on the verge of retirement; a good percentage, says Mario, “had abandoned ‘getting dirty’ and using tools for their [professional] work” and wanted to explore the creative process afresh.

“It was great to revive that need that everyone has,” he says, adding that he could have a student “who hadn’t picked up a hammer in years and take them from a total beginner course all the way through construction of a Federal card table.” 

Portsmouth card table in solid mahogany and crotch veneer. All the inlays, paterae and bandings were shop-made. Mario offered this piece as a masterclass at Philadelphia Furniture Workshop.

Mario says that when many amateur woodworkers run into a problem they can’t solve, they abandon the project. “The real damage is, it limits their vision and undermines their confidence. Running these masterclasses … I could illuminate the pitfalls and guide them through the process. You are having an impact on someone’s life and supercharging their confidence in relation to woodworking.”

He stayed 10 years, until 2012. The job was “extremely demanding for just two people,” even after Alan Turner, founder of the school, left the practice of law to work at the shop full-time. They worked six days a week, with more than a few 14-hour days. By the age of 65, Mario was ready to slow down. 

A Different Kind of Teaching

Serendipitously, a teacher at a local Waldorf School inquired whether the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop might know of someone who could teach woodworking to kids. Mario took her up on the offer to visit and agreed to teach at the school one day a week. He found he liked it and increased his teaching there to two days a week. The job also introduced him to his wife, Nicole, who teaches sewing and knitting, known as handwork in the Waldorf system.

In the Waldorf system, handwork and woodworking are required, not elective. Mario emphasizes that while he teaches at a Waldorf School, he has veered away from the traditional curriculum slightly.

“The Waldorf education process is essentially threefold, engaging head, heart and hands – thinking, feeling and doing. I’m a woodworking teacher who teaches at a Waldorf School, not a Waldorf woodworking teacher. I come from a different place than trained Waldorf teachers.”

He strives to bring honesty, attention to detail and reflection to each student’s work.

Introductory students start with a branch, which they have to shape, sand and finish; Mario encourages students to familiarize themselves with the wood, exploring its natural shapes and colors. Next they make a spoon, using a template and a #7 sweep, 1/2″ carving tool. (Yes, he says, there’s plenty of focus on safety.) In fifth grade, students make a spinning top using a rasp and block plane instead of a lathe; although the project is designed to encourage creative expression, it demands real skills – the top has to spin upright for at least 30 seconds. Some, he says, spin for almost a minute. Sixth-grade students make a sword and shield, the sword with hand tools – “that’s a lot of fun,” says Mario – and the shield cut out of a plywood panel. They learn about the culture of heraldry and create a coat of arms that represents their interests, family background and ambitions, coming up with three qualities that they admire and practice, such as honesty, curiosity and kindness. They cut the parts out of Baltic birch plywood and finish them with paint, then mount these inspirational elements on the shield. 

“I’m at the other end of the age spectrum now,” he reflects. “When I was at school, woodworking was where the bad kids were sent. Anybody with ability was steered toward the advanced, [more intellectual] classes. Now I’m getting [kids] on the front end, where they’re still curious and exploring things. I’m there to guide them through the experience.”

One of his seventh-grade students made a Wharton Esherick stool and told Mario that her mother, an architect, cried when she saw it, overwhelmed that her child could build such a piece. “That’s a pretty common experience,” he adds. “Even if they never make another object of wood, they leave the woodshop with an appreciation and respect for handmade objects.”

Ask Mario for a word that might characterize his professional trajectory and he answers “curiosity. I live for the challenge of something new, never tried before.” 

“Chris Becksvoort is the Shaker,” he suggests by way of contrast. “People generally gravitate to a particular style or period.” (To be fair, Chris Becksvoort also has some striking contemporary pieces in his portfolio.) But Mario is “all over the place,” with mid-century modern, Early American, Arts & Crafts and Federal pieces, and he has written and taught about a wide variety of tools and techniques. 

Chest-on-stand in quartersawn oak.

Lately, he has been doing more work for Fine Woodworking. He was fascinated by the display of Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History, especially her kitchen table. The table was covered with a yellow oilcloth, which hid a lot of detail. He Googled the image and found it was basically a Scandinavian farm table. Wow, that is so cool! he thought; there must be some interesting joinery involved. He contacted the museum and asked if he could take measurements and get pictures, but didn’t hear back for close to a year.

The table Mario built based on the one in Julia Child’s kitchen.

“Everything Julia Child belongs to the Julia Child Foundation,” he explains; the whole thing is very proprietary and controlled by lawyers. “I just want to run a class,” he told them; “maybe do an article.” They refused. He persisted, appealing directly to the museum. They finally sent him some vague dimensions. So once again he took a different tack: One of his students happened to work at a studio that used a program capable of translating a photograph into a design with measurements. He published the piece as a project article in Fine Woodworking issue No. 241.

Drawing of a handplane.

Today, at 71, Mario is combining less physically demanding projects with furniture making and teaching. He’s going back to his artistic training, exploring more painting and graphic work. Part of his basement now serves as a painting studio. He can see himself teaching for a good five more years. And who wouldn’t want to, knowing the difference good teaching can make in a young person’s life? One of the nicest compliments anyone has ever paid him came from a parent who, on learning that Mario Rodriguez taught woodworking at their child’s school, exclaimed, “What?! You know, that’s like Mick Jagger teaching seventh-grade band.”

Nancy Hiller, author of “Shop Tails,” “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work.”

Source: lostartpress.com

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