At five years old, Howard Barnstone was given a toy lathe which he used to make turnings out of balsa wood. After that, his toys of choice extended to Lincoln Logs, Lego, and “girds and panels” sets. And so began his lifelong interest in woodworking. In his high school wood shop course, he made a chess board out of oak and cherry squares and then moved on to creating wooden skateboards—totally ahead of his time. At U. Mass. Amherst, he enrolled in a woodworking art course in order to finish the wooden clock he had been working on at the end of high school—even the gears were cut out of mahogany.
When he was about 27, Howard took an open night class in woodworking at Brookline High where he was making a cherry coffee table. He was planning to finish it up during the last class, but he was invited to another event being held on the same evening. “I was torn about which way to go,” he says. “I finally decided to go to the event and leave early. I figured, that way, I could also make the class.” That ended up being a good decision. At the event, he met Gayle Ehrlich, his wife (and fellow BOLLI member)—but was also able to finish his project.
Howard chose to follow a path in the business world but says that he can see a connection between business and furniture building and design. “I used to put together merger and acquisition deals for a financial information company. Building furniture is similar to complex business deals in that both involve many interlocking pieces that need to not only stand alone but also function within a complicated over-arching concept.”
All along the way, Howard managed to find time for open shop courses at the local high schools. He built a variety of tables for his family in the process. Now that his children are grown and he has retired from the business world, Howard says that he is pursuing woodworking and furniture building and design in an even more in-depth way. “My goal is to refine my abilities and make great furniture for my own pleasure,” he says, “enjoying it for its craft and mastery.”
Howard says he mostly designs and builds tables and cabinets, particularly in the Shaker style which “I like for its clean lines, efficiencies, and practicality.” He says he also admires the work of both Thomas Moser and Stickley.
Shaker night tables (in progress) and boot benchh
During the spring of 2017, Howard took the three-month full-time intensive furniture course at the North Bennett Street School which he enjoyed immensely. “We completed two full projects—a Shaker night stand and a cupboard on a stand,” he says. “We spent extensive time with both hand and machine tools. We also focused on dove-tail, mortise and tenon, and other aspects of joinery as well as wood choice and properties.” Since then, he has also completed Peter Thibeault’s course on The Fine Art of Furniture.
At this point, Howard is focused on the next steps in his journey with furniture. “I look forward to better applying design concepts and principles,” he says, “learning about the evolution of historical furniture design and modern approaches to the manipulation of wood products to achieve certain furniture design aesthetics.”
In terms of future work, Howard says that “Like authors feel they have a certain number of books in them, I have a certain number of furniture pieces in me–and it is up to me, like the author, to produce, them by putting in the hard work. Time will tell.”
Finally, Howard says that it doesn’t really matter what he is making as long as it is engaging him. “I think of myself as being the furniture version of a gentleman farmer. I just get extreme joy from the process of working with wood.”
Howard says about his BOLLI experience, “I have been taking classes at BOLLI or the past four years and have enjoyed the quality of the teachers, courses, and the camaraderie of learning together.”
Is there a BOLLI member you’d like to see profiled in BOLLI Matters? Contact Sue Wurster via email: email@example.com