As a kid, David Keene made things out of wood. Among his many projects and constant tinkering, he made something that gave him mobility: a boat.
Tim Eggers found woodworking during a job with a furniture maker in college. He's never stopped making tables.
And Lynn Frazier's first big project as a child was a sword. She wanted to make her own toy. Her grandfather helped her sand a perfect wooden blade and drill a hole to attach a string on the hilt.
For all three, the compulsive crafting never stopped. And now, out of sheer fervor for woodworking, they’re building something together that requires about 14,000 pounds of lumber just to get started. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of chairs, dining room tables, and bar tops later, Keene, Eggers and Frazier are managing partners of The Workshop, a Fredericksburg-based wood shop meant to keep skills alive and offer a space to create for the whole community. The Workshop opened in late 2017 and is outfitted with all of the tools and experts a crafter needs to take a project from ideation to completion.
“I think it's part of who we are as human beings,” Keene said about woodworking, “we need to be crafting. And in the modern service-based economy, there's not a lot of opportunity for that. For us it's wood, but elsewhere in Fredericksburg, it's paint and pottery at LibertyTown Arts Workshop. It's bikes at Motoworks. For me, woodworking is a satisfying interaction with the world that yields tangible results.”
The Workshop has been an idea of Keene's since he moved to Fredericksburg more than five years ago. A prerequisite in his home search was a detached garage so he could have a workshop at home, but it occurred to him that space and investment in tools was a large burden to anyone looking to get involved in the craft. Located in an industrial building off Summit Street, The Workshop has band saws, table saws, lathes, and a myriad other tools used in the craft of wood. “That all adds up," Keene said. "It's almost like a gym membership.”
There's a general workshop, a member-only workshop, wood storage, and a turning room. And soon, there will be specific artisan rental space and a gallery for woodworkers to display and sell their art.
The Workshop operates with a membership model. For a monthly fee, members can use all the equipment, mentoring and have a discount on wood. There are about 35 members now, but they could support up to 80.
The three partners met through their interest in woodworking at the Fredericksburg Woodworkers Guild. The guild now meets at The Workshop, where they can get up to 100 chairs in the main work area.
Keene used to paint as well, but felt like it was a less interactive medium. “When I make something out of wood, it's not just on a wall, but part of life,” he said. “I eat meals on the bar top I made. Our coffee table, I handmade. Even the chairs in our dining room, people sit on something I made with my hands. That utility is satisfying in a different way.”
Eggers wants to keep those craft skills alive. He said during the guild meetings, about 70 percent of attendants have grey hair. He is in charge of instruction at The Workshop. Among those classes are fundamentals that teach safety and technique, joinery, wood turning, and the most popular: date night from which couples leave with a completed pen. “As providers, there's a satisfaction from teaching someone a skill and seeing their projects come to fruition,” Eggers said. “It comes full circle.”
One guy came in who had only ever made a box. And with Eggers, he made a sideboard for his dining room. “The look in his eye was worth a treasure in itself,” he said. He also helped a woman who initially just wanted to commission a desk to instead make it herself. The desk was a gift for her daughter. “That's really what's happening here,” he said. “We help people create tangible family legacy in heirloom pieces.”
Likewise, Frazier still has her sword. She said there's a way in which woodworkers internalize the items they craft and it becomes more precious than anything they could buy. She's making a box for her daughter, who joined the Airforce, as a place to keep her military medals.
Frazier got involved with the guild a couple of years ago to hone her skills as she prepares to retire. At the time, she wanted to make a box and some ornaments. Now, after mentoring from Eggers, she is making commissioned chess boards and tables.
For her, the mission of The Workshop is twofold. Frazier wants to get more women involved in a male-dominated craft. “I want them to know with the same skills they can do this just as easily,” she said. And second, she wants to see the gallery recognized as a destination for fine woodworks. That space is still being built out.
To support those spaces and keep revenue coming in as the business expands, Keene is looking into lumber distribution to support the larger artistic mission. They already have wood available for members and are starting to import and sell harder to find woods, like massive slabs of shade trees from a Bolivian coffee plantation. A company in Massachusetts bought nine from them. Another buyer found a 4-inch African rosewood board available only through them and one other seller on the East Coast. To keep that demand going, Keene is planning to expand with milling and drying operations.
It's an appreciation for craft that bleeds into other aspects of his life and lights that entrepreneurial spark. For Keene, it's not just business for business' sake. “It is vital to preserve the idea that people can make a living through craft,” he said. “You ensure that by buying what people make and making what people will buy.”
They have also embarked on commissioned pieces like a 30-foot bar that recently shipped to Texas and a display rack for a home builder in town. That rack was made by Avery Toves, lead artisan at The Workshop. The job there makes his desire to earn a living from woodworking a reality.
He found the craft while still in food service. Working in Vermont, he decided to make a desk, slowly putting it together over nearly eight months during his time off. “It was one of few things I loved doing in my spare time that much,” he said. After moving to Virginia, he joined the guild and thought, “Why not try doing something I really enjoy for a living.” Between stacking lumber and helping people at the front desk on a recent Friday, he clamped the display rack together, sanded the edges and cut angles in the wood for a decorative facade.
But he and Keene also got to help a new member start a project that day, too. Paul, who had just joined, wanted to make lazy susans out of red oak as Christmas presents for his family. They cut the base and tops, glued the pieces and talked about the stain. Paul got involved with The Workshop when he ordered a table and realized the top wasn't a real slab of wood. He made his own there to ensure the quality and construction. A computer programmer by trade, he escapes there to create real items in physical space.
“It's pretty awesome to be able to facilitate this for other people,” Keene said. “It's knowledge that we're helping them make nice things, heirloom quality furniture to enjoy for generations.”
The Workshop is located at 1104 Summit Road in Fredericksburg. Learn more about their classes and services at fredworkshop.com.
Photography by Geoff Greene