Revolt of the Bruppies

A surprising number of Philly-area adults—and their kids—are making the leap out into the world to actually build something. Meet the blue-collar yuppies

Behind her, an electric thickness planer whined as it shaved a fraction of an inch from the top of a mahogany plank. Among her classmates was Ted Palatucci, 68, an investment banker and bond trader in Ardmore. There was John Lord, 63, a plaintiffs’ attorney at a Center City firm. There was Mark Roberts, 52, a retired marketer with Aramark. With one or two exceptions — Ernain Gil is a retired New York City firefighter — the students at PFW were white-collar professionals, knowledge workers. Palatucci, the bond trader, a big guy originally from the Bronx, said he was learning to work with wood because it was “my only way to be creative — my day job is crunching numbers, watching markets, structuring transactions.” To Lord, the lawyer, “The kind of work I do is always thinking, talking, writing, and woodworking is oftentimes more contemplative.” Roberts said the classes gave him “a different sense of precision.” Yes, they were here for the fun of it, the pure hobbylike diversion — “to blow off steam,” in Palatucci’s words — but like Palko, they had also discovered something deeper in woodworking, a satisfaction that eluded them in their day jobs.

It was a feeling their teacher could easily understand — the man with the bald head and big pink ears who wove his way through the desks, offering hints and answering questions; the man who had brought them all together. He is five-foot-seven, with brown eyes, and glasses pushed to the top of his head. He wore steel-toe boots and faded green Dickies held up by fat suspenders, and his finger pads were covered with a black resin. Every once in a while he’d pause and frown severely and then suddenly shatter the whole impression of dourness with a single deadpan wink. This was Alan Turner, founder of the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop, and he seemed so comfortable roaming the shop, so deeply in his element, you’d never guess that just a few years ago, he wore a suit and tie to work as a Center City lawyer.

“KNOWLEDGE WORK" WAS SUPPOSED TO LIBERATE us. It was supposed to make us happier, healthier and wealthier. The idea of work untethered from physical activity is an old human dream, and in recent decades, the rise of the personal computer finally seemed to make a knowledge economy — an economy built on words and ideas, not things — a reality. We in America could think the big thoughts and design the cool products, and people in other countries could make them. Through the ’80s and ’90s, as schools across the country raced to line their classrooms with computers, they closed down their newly irrelevant shop programs. Thousands of band saws went silent in unison. And management consultants cheered — people like Richard Florida, who makes a living by advising mayors (Michael Nutter is a fan) to bend public policy toward attracting a “creative class” of musicians, painters, coders, graphic designers, financial whizzes, and geeks of all types.