ON A RECENT SATURDAY MORNING IN GERMANTOWN, Denise Palko, an information technology specialist with a round face, straight hair and curly bangs, stood next to something beautiful she was making with her hands. It was a Hepplewhite butler’s chest — about three feet wide, two feet deep and three feet tall — resting on a workbench lined with clamps. The chest was about one-third of the way finished. Planks of mahogany, poplar and hard maple were joined in places with dovetail corners she had cut by hand, the planks zippered together like pieces of a puzzle.
Palko, 42, was one of eight students taking a master class at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop, a local woodworking school. In her day job, she’s a manager at a small local firm, but these days she spends most of her free time either cutting joints in her own shop, the one she set up in her home in Collegeville, or reading books about woodworking. She’s no dabbler. The class cost $3,250. (Beginner classes at PFW are substantially less expensive.) She had poured more than 100 hours into the chest already and would probably devote 200 to 250 more.
True, her piece wasn’t as beautiful as the butler’s chest her teacher had made, and which was his original design — the chest whose joints were so seamless they had given one of her classmates, Ernain Gil, goose bumps. (Gil: “The engineering, the expansion, the way it will expand together. It’s like reunifying the wood. It’s not glued together, because it speaks to a time when glue wasn’t used. And also saying, look at me, you know? Look at me, I’m a beautiful thing.”) Still, her chest was a difficult piece, containing exactly 154 hand-cut dovetails in all, and Palko had executed it competently. She knew this because her children were already arguing about who would get it when she died. Palko considered this “the highest compliment a woodworker could receive.” She said, “The code I write is going to be dead and obsolete in a few years. My father worked for the phone company for 40 years. He could point to a pole and say, ‘I hung that pole.’ I get something here that I can’t get from my job.”