Sometimes when life knocks you off your feet, you find yourself in a surprisingly happy place when you pick yourself back up. Such is the case with furniture maker Jeff Miller. Most woodworkers know Jeff’s name through his many articles, books and videos for Fine Woodworking, Popular Woodworking and Wood Magazine. (He also has upcoming articles in Mortise & Tenon and Furniture & Cabinetmaking.) Jeff has taught at woodworking schools across the United States, from the Northwest Woodworking Studio and Port Townsend School of Woodworking on the west coast to the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship on the east, and others – Red Rocks in Colorado, Marc Adams in Indiana, Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking in central Kentucky (now Pine Croft) and Highland Woodworking in Georgia. He has presented at Woodworking in America, Weekend with Wood and the Association of Woodworking and Finishing Suppliers, and at more clubs and guilds than he can easily call to mind. He has won numerous awards for his woodworking, among them the Distinguished Furniture Design Award from the Chicago Athenaeum Museum, and for his publications, including the Stanley Golden Hammer Award for his 1997 book “Chairmaking & Design.” The Chicago History Museum has Jeff’s “Spider Handkerchief Table” in its permanent collection. And you will soon find his work on the prestigious back cover of Fine Woodworking magazine.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that professional furniture making was nowhere on Jeff’s radar for his first 27 years. Music was his passion, and in that department, as in academic performance and his commitment to physical fitness, he was no slouch. For college he applied to the University of Rochester, home to the Eastman School of Music; Oberlin, with its distinguished Conservatory of Music; and Yale. In the end he chose Yale because the curriculum emphasized academics as well as music studies. He minored in literature – Russian, English, French.
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While at Yale, Jeff took a semester off and dipped his toes in the field of instrument making, learning from a then-recently published book, “The Amateur Wind Instrument Maker.” Guided by the book’s instructions, he made several baroque and renaissance wood instruments. Looking around his scantly furnished apartment, he decided he could use some tables and chairs, so from plans he made a few pieces he now calls “just awful!” Those projects gave him confidence that he could learn to use a lathe and other tools, as well as make what tools he needed. With experience, he took on better pieces. Friends saw them and asked him to make them some furniture, though he says it was still on a strictly amateur level.
After that semester off, Jeff returned to his formal studies and graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Arts in music. Like many musicians, he picked up gigs as a freelance musician in New York City. When he learned the Chicago Chamber Brass quintet was looking for a trumpet player, Jeff auditioned and got the job. He moved to Chicago in 1983 and launched a career as a professional musician, touring the eastern United States and recording a CD.
A serious runner for both fitness and fun, Jeff was training for one of the runner’s ultimate benchmarks, a marathon, when he noticed his legs were swelling. A nurse friend urged him to see his doctor.
“The next day I was in the hospital,” he says. “They did a kidney biopsy and pretty much within a week my life had changed.” He was 27.
The original diagnosis was lupus, which his doctor thought had caused the kidney disease. Jeff’s mother was visiting from New York at the time; they read that lupus was chronic and fatal. (This information came from an outdated medical textbook and was – and, happily, remains – no longer accurate.) Jeff recalls all too clearly “that moment where I could almost see my mom…mentally collapsing…and the blood drained out of my head completely, and it was just one of those moments where everything seemed to fall apart around me.” The medication to treat his condition made him weak and jittery; he went from running a fast 8 miles to not being able to run across the street. It was clear he could no longer play the trumpet at his former professional level. He left the quintet.
As a therapeutic diversion Jeff took up building furniture in his nurse friend’s basement. He’d work, nap, then go back to it. “It was my salvation,” he says, “a creative outlet that was the salve for losing music – and I felt I was actually better at it than at music.” He was still rather naïve, but he learned quickly. Just as exciting, he adds, “I was also designing, and learning more as a designer, which helped push my skills tremendously.”
About a year after starting in his friend’s basement, he had lined up enough paying work to cover rent and moved to a shop of his own. He split off the front to use as a showroom and kept the back of the building, along with the basement, as a shop. Coincidentally, his shop today is just a block away from his first shop in West Rogers Park, home to many new immigrants; he relishes the everyday experience of hearing seven or eight languages in a stroll through the park.
Although Jeff gave most Yale alumni events a pass, he said yes to one in 1986 at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. He’s glad he went; he met a young woman there, Rebecca Wurtz, who was training to be a doctor. “We were talking, and she said, ‘Oh! I have this idea for a bed!’ She sketched something out and I was terribly impressed that she could sketch.” They had dinner and, he says, “just hit it off.” They moved in together and were married a couple of years later. Their son, Isaac, was born in 1993; he’s now in graduate school, training in social work. Their daughter, Ariel, was born the following year. With a degree in creative writing from Oberlin, she is an aspiring writer and illustrator.
Starting out, Jeff found a lot of people ordered beds. He’d done some work for a local company that made futons, as well as easy chairs for futon-like cushions. After a year or so he moved beyond bedroom furniture to another part of the house on which people proved happy to spend money, the dining room. He started with tables. Inevitably, people asked about chairs. Through what Jeff now calls “an excess of confidence” he began them. As he came up with increasingly sophisticated chair designs and translated them into functional pieces, he gained proficiency. He also appreciated the many lessons that came with the process of making the same piece multiple times: “If you’re paying attention and are critical in terms of design,” he says, “you can constantly improve.” Most of the work was commissioned by local customers, but once he got a website, Jeff began to get orders from around the country.
Jeff’s first article for Fine Woodworking was on how to build a Windsor bed. He’d been reading the magazine for several years and had learned a lot, so he sent in a picture with a query. After all his academic writing at college, it didn’t feel like a big deal. He got the contract – his first editor was Sandor Nagyszalanczy – and has written about 35 more in the years since then.
A few articles in, Jeff was thinking big. He submitted a proposal for a book on chairmaking and design. He’d completed a commission for 75 chairs ordered by a convent. The first 50, he says, were “this amazing logistical feat” – aside from the slog of repetition, he had to figure out a way to store the chairs once he had them assembled. He started with a stack on one side of the shop, then moved to the other. With his book proposal he included pictures of the stacks, which caught the editors’ eye. Jeff got the contract. While working on the book, he also leapt into the world of teaching, an experience he found useful in conveying how best to write and illustrate the how-to. “It helped me to understand what students needed to learn.” And writing, in turn, “helped me to clarify and refine what I would teach somebody,” says Jeff. The writing, teaching and making came together as “an amazing trio, each feeding the other two.” Ever since, he has found this combo “the most satisfying part of what I do. It’s not any individual element; it’s all three together.”
At this point in our conversation Jeff switched back to his musical training, which he considers invaluable for its transferability to woodworking. First, he says, “as a musician you have to understand that your body is this crucial part of your ability to play. It is your primary instrument. That helped me so much in my woodworking, to understand that the tools were just extensions of what I thought and was trying to express in the wood. Using your body correctly in music and in woodworking makes a huge difference; it informs how you plane, chisel, saw and shape pieces.”
Second, Jeff goes on, “I think of my designs as musical compositions also. That makes a difference in how I think about the piece as I design it and how I build it. So many woodworkers find plans for what they want to build, and then they build. As a musician you’re given a ‘plan’ for a piece of music [the score], and you have to understand that playing the notes as they’re written on the page is just the beginning of turning that piece into a musical expression. The same is true for woodworking. You can build the piece precisely to specification on the page and completely miss what the person who designed it was trying to get across! When you build a piece of furniture it’s more like playing a jazz solo than following specs. You’re choosing how a curve goes, you’re picking wood as part of an artist’s palette. Every nuance is important.”
Third, “understanding musical composition also helps you understand designs in wood. There can be little motifs that appear in both small and large scale. The flow of lines in music is a huge influence in the flow of the lines in my furniture.”
Even a cursory click through the gallery at Jeff’s website illustrates these connections between music and design in wood. His pieces are both fluid and sturdily made. The back of a chair curves and swells to hold its sitter; there is rhythm, harmony and crescendo. Jeff’s love of technical challenge – how to achieve a flawless intersection of curving, angled parts in a rocker that must also support its sitter safely and comfortably, how to cooper a hexadecagon for a table inspired by a timpani drum – comes through in each design. And beyond these artistic and technical feats, he has garnered a national clientele – no small feat in its own right.
But Jeff lives with another formidable challenge, and his example here is no less inspiring. “The kidney disease has been a huge factor in my life for exactly as long as I have been woodworking,” he says: 37 years. “There have been periods of stasis when I’ve been fine; in others, a variety of crises. I lead a very healthy life. Still run and work out. I’m on my feet all day working in the shop. And yet I have been through more than most people I know.”
“The specific diagnosis may have been incorrect, but there was no doubt about what was happening to my kidneys,” he continues. “They were failing.” In 1993, six years after beginning his life with Rebecca, Jeff had his first kidney transplant. “I remember thinking we were just on a roll in the shop. I had two employees at the time. We were working well as a team, had plenty of work.” One day he got a call from the hospital at 3 p.m.: “We’ve got a kidney for you. We need you down here at 7 p.m.” to get ready. “That completely upended my life again. Over and over, there have been things like that.” The transplant was successful and allowed him to get back to work.
Meanwhile, Jeff had become friends with the father of one of Isaac’s preschool classmates. Like Jeff, John was a skier; they went on ski trips together with another friend. In 2002 Jeff’s transplanted kidney began to fail. “I was really pretty sick,” he remembers. But he wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity for great skiing, so he would “just marshal my resources and ski.” One day when they were skiing hard at Vail on one of their favorite runs, John was halfway down the mountain when he tore his ACL. Jeff and his other friend got off the mountain and stabilized him, then took him to the local hospital. That night they were staying with Jeff’s sister and Jeff was huddled by the fire, shivering, when John asked “what do you have to do to donate a kidney?”
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“It’s based on blood type,” Jeff replied. John said, “If mine matches, one of my kidneys is yours.” Of course, notes Jeff, “he was high on painkillers and beer when he said that.” Jeff didn’t believe his friend would feel the same the next day. But back in Chicago, John insisted. Jeff’s cousin also offered to donate a kidney, but hers would not have been as good a match.
“It’s this unbelievable thing that he pushed and went forward with it,” Jeff marvels. “How do accept a gift like that from a friend?” John’s operation started in the morning, then Jeff was brought in for surgery that took seven hours. “I’m back in my room…and they force you to get up and walk. John walked in that night. He was a wreck. He said ‘I want it back!’” Of course he was kidding; for him, the act of giving the kidney was what mattered. “He described it as the most important thing he’d done in his life. It made it so easy to accept that gift and be grateful for it.” Five weeks later John was riding his mountain bike. They skied together the following March. But transplanted kidneys don’t last forever; John’s failed around 2011.
Now Jeff moved to a new protocol, peritoneal dialysis, which involved “a suitcase-size machine you carry around, and boxes and boxes of fluid.” Imagine driving to a woodworking school and teaching a week-long class with that gear.
And there’s more. “They don’t tell you that your native kidneys, if they shrivel up, can become cancerous. One of the problems with peritoneal dialysis is that you have a tube in your abdomen.” (Apologies to you squeamish types.) The tube irritated his intestines, which led to infections. Sometimes he had to stay in the hospital for 10 days. During one of these stints his doctors ordered an MRI that found kidney cancer. “That,” says Jeff, “was probably the toughest period for me.” They removed the cancerous kidney, only to find, the following year, that the other kidney had also developed cancer.
At this point some might plunge into despair. Not Jeff. Instead, he felt gratitude. “I just feel like I’ve been so fortunate and appreciate so many aspects of what I do, despite the fact that there have been periods of real misery. It’s important to appreciate everything you’ve got. Whatever you get is a gift. So many people wander through life without appreciating that.”
People who find themselves faced with such challenges are “more alive,” Jeff thinks. “There are these moments where…things are miserable, and then all of a sudden they’re not so miserable and everything around you is more wondrous. I can remember moments where all of a sudden I’m walking and [realize] ‘this feels great!’ I can even remember where I was when that sort of thing happened.”
These days, Jeff goes to a local dialysis clinic for treatments three times a week, a process that lasts 4-1/2 hours, plus travel time. (Read that again.) He schedules his appointments in the late afternoons to allow him maximum time in the shop.
If you follow Jeff on Instagram you may be as taken as I am by two items that show up occasionally in his feed: Lola the shop dog and his fluting engine. Lola, a blue heeler, belongs to Juan, Jeff’s erstwhile assistant. (Jameel Abraham calls Lola “one of the finest people” he has ever met.) Sadly, Lola and Juan have been out of the shop since June, thanks to the pandemic and then Juan’s decision to attend grad school in furniture at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The fluting engine is a device Jeff made based on David Pye’s circa-1950 invention. Jeff was intrigued by the tool, which makes evenly spaced flutes on curved surfaces, inside or out. A bit of sleuthing turned nothing up since the description in “David Pye: Woodcarver and Turner.” Around 2018, Jeff studied the description in the book with a view to making a fluting engine of his own. He puzzled over it for a few months and built one as a side project. The biggest problem he encountered was figuring out the geometry of the cutters, which required a few variations in the grinding, forging and heat treatment to get things right. In action, the fluting engine makes a mesmerizing sound – for a user or spectator, it’s easy to love. On the other hand, it’s “incredibly infuriating” as it requires adjustments for every variation. But such frustration goes with any relationship. Bottom line: Jeff is hooked by the device, the process of using it and the texture it brings to his work.
As someone at heightened risk of infection, Jeff has been staying close to home since last March. He’s working on a couple of chair designs and a variety of commission work, along with projects of his own. As with many of us, he says “all sorts of design ideas are always percolating.”
In fact, he says, “my head is exploding with ideas. Dialysis takes a huge amount of time and energy. I wish I had more energy.” But Jeff’s glass is full — with “appreciation for being alive, for experiencing things. The sense of gratitude for being able to do what I do is amazing.”
Thanks to Father John Abraham for suggesting that I write about Jeff.
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.