Building furniture and more

Vermont woodworker Paul Annetts '73
defines success on his own terms

by James Leach

What used to be the walk-in cooler in Dot Smith's grocery and liquor store on the main thoroughfare in the Lower Village of Stowe, Vermont, is now the 4' x 6' office of Stowe Restorations. Owner Paul Annetts '73 was at the desk late one Friday afternoon in December, writing a paycheck for his only employee, when a neighbor strolled in, headed for the woodworking shop. "I need a moisture reading," he called to Annetts. "Is the meter still on the back wall?"

It was, and the neighbor took his reading and left as unceremoniously as he had arrived, noting on the way out in a New England twang that the pine, selected from the local lumber yard, had registered a moisture content of 13 percent. "Not bad."

The easy relationship between Annetts and his friend took time to develop. When Annetts arrived in Stowe 20 years ago, an experienced carpenter but a novice furniture builder, he sought the advice of veteran woodworkers in the village. "Unh uh," he remembers. "They weren't about to give up what it had taken them years to learn. Not until I proved I wasn't some fly-by-night."

Today Annetts is an accepted member of the community of Stowe artisans (such as it is) and one of a handful of independent furniture builders making their livings in the Green Mountain state. His career began in a disagreement with a foreman.

Life choice

A self-described "math jock" at Colgate, Annetts was looking at a promising actuarial career as graduation approached. But as lucrative as the field would have been, it didn't seem right at the time. Summers as a college student had been spent painting and building on Nantucket, and Annetts headed for the island after graduation to sort things out. "I pretty much knew when I went down to Nantucket that summer that being an actuary was not what I wanted to do."

That fall he moved to Vermont, closer to the woman who was to become his wife, and closer to the major eastern ski areas that have also been an important part of his life. During one of the few times in his life that he has been on someone else's payroll, Annetts and a friend were working on the peak of a new house near Burlington. "We cut something that was built the way it should have been and the foreman yelled at us.

"`I told you to do it this way,' he said.
"I said, `Well, this is better.'
"`I'm the foreman, dammit. Do it my way.'
"I turned to my friend and said, `Look Greg, let's start a business.'
"He said, `What are we going to do?'
"`Let's build furniture,' I said."

Annetts admits, "I came to this knowing nothing." But he was serious (more serious than his partner, as it turns out, whose share in the business Annetts later purchased). "We knew we couldn't just hang out a shingle without a portfolio or we'd go broke -- which we almost did anyway -- so we bought a stripping tank and refinishing equipment and went into the restoration business. Quite honestly, we weren't making much furniture in the beginning."

Restoration work taught some valuable lessons. Restoring and repairing upwards of 1,000 pieces a year, Annetts learned what works and what doesn't -- from taking apart and rebuilding a piece that has survived 400 years' use, to repairing a 15-year-old piece that hasn't stood up.

"I did a lot of reading too," he said. "One thing you learn is that not everyone who writes woodworking books knows what they're writing about." Gradually, the knowledge developed, through experience and trial and error.

Cash-flow business

In 1976 the partners met Dot Smith, who was ready to retire from her grocery and liquor store in the Lower Village. She liked the young men, rejected a higher offer, and sold them her store. Within a year Annetts married Barbara. And the couple bought the 200-year-old farmhouse that they continue to restore and improve. "That was quite a year," is Annetts' understated assessment.

Enter Stowe Restoration today and you will find a front room filled with new and restored pieces, waiting to be delivered or picked up. Some day ("I think I'm almost there now") Annetts hopes to be able to stock the room with furniture built on speculation -- an example of his skill and a hedge for those times when it might be good to take a few days off. But for now, "It's mostly a cash-flow business. To stop the income for three to four weeks to create pieces on spec -- it's something I'd have to be ready for."

Slide through the dust curtain at the back of the front room and you enter a storeroom full of pieces under construction or awaiting renewal. The cooler-office is in the back corner, with room for a desk, some files and shelves, and the owner. "I like this part of the business too," he says, "keeping track of the books."

One more dust curtain gets a visitor to the workshop. Table saws, band saw, planer, shaper, joiner, drill presses and benches are laid out to allow efficient movement from one process to the next and a free swing for the longer boards. Wall space is taken up with c-clamps and pipe clamps, drill and router bits, mallets and hammers and chisels and an assortment of other woodworker's tools, all neatly arranged.

Twelve-quarter (3" x 3") lengths of butternut were stacked on a bench one day, cut from a tree on a neighbor's land, dried in Annetts' barn, ready to be shaped into the pencil posts for a style of bed that has become an Annetts trademark. Perhaps this one would be graced with a hand-carved sunburst, a skill learned from the signmaker down the road. The wood was bartered -- in return the farmer would have a Hepplewhite table built from his own tree.

The search for stock is never-ending. "I'll pay $100 extra for a figured board." It helps to be on good terms with the graders at the local mills. Annetts' portfolio -- an album displays less than a tenth of his work -- has pieces in quilted cherry, bird's-eye and tiger maple, walnut, mahogany, butternut, oak, even a handsome screen built of pine boards reclaimed from his own house. Each is unique.

The designs are his own, and range from modern to Victorian. Everything is built on commission now, and nearly all the business is on referral from other satisfied customers. (An ad for beds, placed in a Vermont catalog several years ago as an experiment during leaner times, attracted one order.) Building new furniture makes up about half the business these days. Some day -- maybe in retirement -- building new furniture will be the entire focus.

`Where I want to be'

There is a plan to Annetts' business, for sure, but it is also clear that he has made a commitment to a style of life for his family, and to a place, and that those commitments are his true motivation. "I didn't make any money for a long time. It's not a lucrative job anyway. I don't think there are many woodworkers out there who are doing it for the money. Even the people who are making money didn't start that way -- they started for the love of it."

Remembering an opportunity to make $40,000 as an actuary straight out of college, he says, "If I were still doing that work now, I'd be working all week to be able to do on weekends and vacations what I do now 365 days of the year. Not that I'm on vacation all year, but I'm where I want to be and able to do things that have meaning for me. It's a great place for my family -- I can't think of a better place to raise kids."

And then there is the satisfaction of working the wood. Annetts' skill and love of the work is displayed in each of the pieces he crafts or restores. It is also evident, and openly shared, in conversations with a new employee -- really an apprentice at this stage -- who has her own appreciation for the work and the life in Vermont. As Annetts works in one area of the shop these days his ear is attuned to the sounds of the tools across the way. He picks up on the crackling of a cherry board sent through the planer against the grain, or the whine of a laboring table saw, and stops to instruct: straightforward, easily understood. "I think this is going to work," he says, encouraged.

Still, all is not woodworking in northern Vermont. On weekends Annetts teaches skiing at Stowe, continuing a skill he first developed on Trainer Hill as a student at Colgate. Over the years at Stowe he has developed a clientele that includes a loyal cadre of regulars ("basically I get paid for skiing with my friends") but also foreign royalty and members of America's first family. As part of the package, Barbara and the boys -- Jeff, 17, and Matt, 15 -- ski for free.

"We live much better than our income provides," says Annetts. The big concerns at this point are providing an education for the boys -- Jeff is off to college in the fall -- and building a retirement. "But we're working on that."

There is a confidence about Annetts that is as far from cockiness as one could imagine. Whether he brought that confidence to Colgate or learned it there he is not certain, though he knows it developed as an undergraduate. "Education is something that can never be taken away from you; it helps you to understand life a little better. You really do learn to believe in yourself."

Looking back on his first 20 years as a woodworker, he says: "There was a time I thought I would have to give this up -- that I couldn't support my family with it. But Barb also works and between the two of us we have a pretty nice life. Certainly it's not the life of many of the people I meet skiing, but I've said to them many times I wouldn't trade my life for anything.

"I like the challenges -- building something that hasn't been built before or restoring an antique that comes into the shop in a bag. I'm not doing this to get rich. I do it because I like it."

There are different kinds of wealth, that's for sure.