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

Then a chance thing happened. Turner, who built furniture in his spare time, was invited to teach an adult course in woodworking for the Main Line School Night program. Around 2002, Harriton High School had just closed down its woodworking program, so there was a big empty shop just sitting there. Turner taught hand tools only: hand saws, hand planes, chisels. He taught adults from the city and the Main Line to cut dovetails and mortise-and-tenon joints. He enjoyed teaching so much that he started to wonder if he could make a new career from it. In 2005, with two partners, he bought a 25,000-square-foot piece of real estate in Germantown, an old factory that used to manufacture plastic parts for tractors before all that work went overseas. Turner fitted out part of the second floor with workbenches and rack after rack of vintage hand tools. Just four years after opening, PFW has become self-sustaining to the point where Turner has been able to significantly scale back his law practice.

And now, when he goes into Center City, he isn’t wearing his lawyer uniform of chinos and golf shirts in warm weather and a suit and tie on court days; he’s wearing his Dickies, his suspenders, his steel-toe boots. And he gets these funny looks from his old colleagues. He knows they’re looking down on him. What he can’t figure out is why. Where do those lawyers get off thinking that their profession is more prestigious, more intellectually rigorous, than woodworking?

“I teach a course called ‘Measuring and Marking,’” Turner says, his arms crossed on the bench that holds his shop’s 10-inch cabinet saw, his head reared back in a proud posture. “If I ask you to count from zero to one in sixteenths, could you do that? No? One sixteenth, one eighth, three sixteenths, one fourth, five sixteenths … If I asked you to draw an angle of two degrees without a protractor, could you do that?” There’s a reason that before the Industrial Revolution, mayors were also their towns’ cabinetmakers, he says: “They’re creating something from nothing. Look. Look at a piece of furniture.” He points to a minuscule imperfection in a student keepsake box: “See the drip in the finish?” He flips the box and points to a joint that is a fraction of a millimeter off. “See right here? Can’t talk that tight.” This is one of Turner’s favorite sayings: A joint is either tight or it’s not. “See how it’s chipped right here?” He smiles.