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

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.

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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.”

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.

Now we’re seeing the result of a move toward a virtual economy. Years of disinvestment in science, clean energy and manufacturing have left us with a weird, skewed economy in which the finance sector alone generates two out of every five dollars of corporate profits, and a bunch of bright 28-year-olds at Wall Street investment banks are capable of throwing the entire game. The unreal part of the economy is so powerful that it can wreck the real part. “I see that Goldman Sachs made $3 billion in a quarter, and that makes me want to vomit,” says Alan Turner. “Go work for a living, you motherfucker. You don’t have to work with your hands for a living, but do something. Make something.”

Whether out of necessity, epiphany or disgust, Americans are rediscovering the value of mechanical competence in a host of surprising and exotic ways. There’s a new artisanal bakery about to open in Phoenixville, the Brick Oven Bread and Cheese Shoppe, that is the brainchild of a former corporate accountant who quit his job so he could devote all his time to the mysteries of sourdough starters. There are two local doctors who like to decompress by watching fowl wander around on their lawn: Gail and Steven Herrine, an ob/gyn and a gastroenterologist, respectively, have been raising chickens in the backyard of their Bala Cynwyd home since 2003. “I’m trying to raise most of my food from about June to November,” explains Gail Herrine. “The chickens eat aphids and other bugs off your plants. They mix up the soil … and they’re pretty.” There’s also a local pre-K-to-eighth-grade school, the -Waldorf School of Philadelphia, that has carved out a niche as a computerless haven where students are taught to cut dovetail joints, build fences and crochet puppets. And across the region, newly unemployed adults are gambling on what they hope will be a more secure future in the trades: Union apprentice programs are filling up, and local trade schools are enrolling a flood of new applicants.

For instance, the Orleans Technical Institute in the Northeast saw a significant increase in students last year. One was Sarah Levetter, who had been laid off from her office job as an executive assistant, and another was Charles Lord, who’d sold Sprint phones before his store closed; both Levetter and Lord just graduated from Orleans as newly minted electricians. “I had become expendable, you know?” says Lord. “Now I can start a business for myself.”

Meanwhile, at the Waldorf School in Mount Airy, kids are learning traditional trades and crafts as part of their normal coursework. By the time they move on to high school, they will have knitted clothing from yarn they dyed themselves, carved their own spoons from blanks of wood using hand tools, and sculpted the Big Bad Wolf out of warm beeswax. According to admissions director Alexandra Borders, the point of all this furious handwork — that’s what they call it at Waldorf, “handwork” — is partly to infuse the children with “this real connection with Mother Earth and how it nourishes us.” (See “Shut Down That Computer and Build!” on page 84 for other local, innovative school programs.)

The parents of Waldorf children are a mix of educators, craftspeople, small-business owners, artists, doctors and lawyers; what they aren’t is poor. They’re paying as much as $11,370 a year to have their kids learn, among other things, to knit little sheep out of yarn. What’s interesting about them is that they aren’t hippies, but rather middle-class and upper-middle-class professionals who have made a choice to expose their kids to traditional crafts and skills. Sure, you could mock the new austerity as just the newest way for status-conscious yuppies to lord it over their lessers. (Yarn is the new pinot noir.) But it feels like something bigger, a wave of dissatisfaction that’s been slowly rippling toward the shore. Call these folks the bruppies: blue-collar yuppies. They’re people who were promised creative fulfillment by knowledge work but failed to find it. In their sudden compulsion to work with their hands, they almost have the quality of religious seekers. “Both as workers and as consumers, we feel we move in channels that have been projected from afar by vast impersonal forces,” writes motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford in his best-selling book Shop Class as Soulcraft. “We worry that we are becoming stupider, and begin to wonder if getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on getting a handle on it in some literal and active sense.”

In Philadelphia, no one has gone further down this path, or has more successfully tightened his grasp, than Alan Turner. Which isn’t to say he’s a perfect example of the trend. He’s a prickly, complicated guy, and his case is complex.

See, Turner isn’t a refugee from a white-collar job he hated. He actually loved the law. He cut his teeth as a public defender, then switched to commercial litigation with the occasional criminal-defense case, “so I could pretend to be Perry Mason.” He defended white-collar guys accused of fraud.

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.

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.

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