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

The point of this exercise isn’t for Turner to criticize a student’s work. It’s to help the student perform to an exacting and objective standard. A joint is tight or it’s not. The goal is very clear, and the product is a transparent artifact of its creator’s competence. “I think it’s good for your character,” Turner says. The white-collar world is more squirmy, more subjective. What the bruppies are after, in the end, is a form of control: control over their work and what they make, control over a trade and control over a destiny. It’s about having a foothold that nobody, not a boss or a recession or a culture, can take away.

Turner admires and appreciates his PFW students, but he’d like to have more who are younger, in their 20s. His own two grown sons aren’t interested in woodworking, and he realizes that for most young people, the craft seems “irrelevant.” At PFW, it’s mostly 40-somethings and up — mostly bruppies.

Turner would feel better about the future of craftsmanship if he visited an open house at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia.

At an open house on a Saturday in late March, a Waldorf teacher sat with a group of a dozen children at a long table, leading them in saying grace. “Blessings on our snack,” she said, “and peace upon the Earth.” A willowy woman in her mid-30s, she wore a diaphanous purple blouse and a tiny silver stud in her nose; she rose from the table and handed a piece of bread to each child, bread that the children had just helped bake. The bread was dense and yeasty, the color of an old baseball glove. From the classroom window, you could see the arcadian grounds of the Waldorf School stretching out for acres and acres, grounds partly boundaried by a fence that a recent class of third-graders built, for school credit.

Observing the snacking kids was Andrew Lee, a Waldorf parent. One of the kids is his son. Lee makes a living by building custom surgical instruments. As a craftsman himself, he is a huge enthusiast of the Waldorf philosophy; his son loves going to school every day, Lee said, and is learning “a respect for craft.” Then he said, “Have you seen the photo outside the room? It sort of reminds you of Haiti.”

The photo depicts three little girls. They wear anoraks and hold mud pails. They are sitting in a giant brown mud puddle and grinning.

“That’s why we picked it,” Lee said. “Very developing-world.”

Haiti. Imagine that. The American Dream used to be that a blue-collar worker could prosper enough to send his kids to college so they never had to be blue-collar workers. Maybe this is the new dream that parents will have for their kids: not a kid who leaves behind the world of dirt and calluses for a cleaner and more abstracted world of work, but a kid who decides to set up shop in the honesty of all that dirt. And who can fix the stuff we’ve built when it breaks.