The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 30, 2010


Into the woods with Ann James

Ann James shows off one of her many power tools.
(Photo by John James)

When you first meet Ann James you would never imagine the serious machinery she’s packing in her basement. An attractive, petite, polite and unassuming special education teacher enjoying retirement, Ann can whip up a custom highboy, make and install all the woodwork (including the fireplace mantel, the trim and the floors) of her entire Colonial or handily make use of the fallen apple boughs the recent storms tossed across her lawn.

Seriously, when I entered her basement workshop I began to wish I’d brought my husband along, not only to steal ideas about how to keep a great workspace operational and tidy, but to hint at what might be on my Christmas list this year. Ann makes everything from Shaker-inspired cherry and tiger maple side tables to pierced-tin cabinet door fronts to Shaker boxes and inlay picture frames and trivets made with your grandmother’s tiles. She’s also made a Sycamore “Pi” meditation bench and a box for a beloved pet’s ashes.

She’s also pretty good at hand- carved birds, (the pileated woodpecker I saw was stunningly life-like) but don’t ask her about that. Ann James is modest and isn’t big on self promotion. “But they’re gorgeous,” I tell her. She confesses, “I need a lot of help with those; it’s not something I can do on my own.”

Ann got into woodworking by being a mom to two young children. “I wanted some toy shelves for storage,” she said. So instead of heading on down to Ikea, she took an evening class at Minuteman Tech with a friend. I asked her if using the saws and tools for the first time was intimidating. “Well, the class was mostly men,” she remembers. “You had to have a respect for machines and power tools,” she says simply. “Manny, the instructor, was a great teacher. I handed him my mother-in-law’s design for a fireplace bookshelf and asked, ‘Can I make this?’”

She had fun and before long had built the bookshelves, a play gym in the backyard, and a “blocks” car for her kids. She never looked back.

When Ann and her husband moved to Carlisle from Concord in 1981, they built the custom post and beam colonial on Baldwin Road. “The house is modeled after a 1750 colonial,” Ann explains. “The back is contemporary, with a modern sunroom and porch. We designed it, but then we worked with an architect who “fixed” the design and made it both workable and affordable.” They heat with a wood stove. Ann did all the interior finish work: the flooring, raised paneling, mantels and all the trim. The door and window trim include hand-planed beading and the first level flooring is old growth yellow pine boards.

How long did it take? She just laughs. “Forever,” she admits. She and the kids (two of them, now in their thirties) went on “a lot of Colonial home tours.” After the trim on her house was finally done she went back to work as a Special Education teacher in the Carlisle Schools for 17 years.

“I always wanted to get back to it,” she says of the woodworking. “It’s more of a hobby than a business,” she says, although she does sell pieces at the Lexington Arts and Crafts Society sales. It may be a hobby, but she is truly a craftsman (sorry, woman). Pins? Check. Beveled table top? Check. Tapered table legs? Check. Mortise-and-tenon joints? Check.

What is it about woodworking that captivates her? “The creativity,” she says without missing a beat. “If you make a mistake, wood is pretty forgiving. And it’s something that lasts. I can give my (future) grandchildren something I made.” She’d like to make some toys someday and really enjoyed making the Shaker boxes and the small cherry and tiger maple tables. “You can use them anywhere,” she says. And then there’s the history of a piece. The trap door in the loft in one of her bedrooms used to be her son’s game table. He and his friends would roll the table over the loft door and play board games, letting their legs hang below. The hinges on the door are from her uncle’s old house. She’s currently planning on tackling some black walnut slabs from her grandmother’s farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And she will be making something from the fallen apple boughs in her backyard. Just don’t ask her when it will be done.

“I don’t time myself on projects,” she said. “The one time I did was the one time I had a woodworking accident.” She was working on one of the Shaker boxes, cutting a strip with an X-acto knife. Because she was rushing, she pressed down hard, the knife slipped – and went right into her thigh. “Stitches,” she remembers. “I never kept track of time after that.”

What are her inspirations? “I like the Shaker style, but I’m hoping to branch out from that and make some creative changes. I may do something more modern with the walnut. I’ve mostly worked with cherry.” George Nakashima, Sam Maloof and the Shaker craftsmen are all artists that she admires.

I asked her what she’d recommend for anyone interested in learning more or even getting started in woodworking. “I really like Fine Woodworking magazine and get a lot of questions answered by their newsgroup on line,” she says. “I also get information from the other members of the Woodworking Guild at the Lexington Arts and Crafts Society. I’ve gotten wonderful plans and videos from the New Yankee Workshop.” The North Bennet Street School ( is located in Boston and offers a variety of courses (not just in woodworking) for “serious” woodworkers. “I haven’t taken any of their courses,” says Ann, “but I have seen the work of those who have and it is beautiful.”

And of course, this being New England, visual inspiration is everywhere. “The fairs I like to go to, to see beautiful things in all types of crafts and get ideas for my woodworking, are the Paradise Arts Festival (in North Hampton and in Marlborough), the DeCordova craft show and the Lexington Arts and Crafts Holiday Fair,” Ann reports. She also admits “stealing” ideas from visiting various crafts fairs and shows. Is it hard for her to buy things she knows she could make? She smiles, “yes.”

Back to the mammoth highboy, which she made for her brother, and then shipped to him in Colorado. “I think it cost more to ship it than it did for me to make it,” she laughs. She had a little help on that one, attending a weeklong summer workshop at Dana Robes Wood Craftsmen in Enfield, New Hampshire. She worked alongside a master craftsman – for 11 hours straight. “We worked from seven a.m. to six p.m.” she remembers. At home, she doesn’t work like that.

What’s next? “I’m really looking forward to working with the walnut,” she says. There will be more tables, to be sure. “I’d like to do more inlay work. And I’m looking for some good looking legs.”

Aren’t we all. ∆

A few of Ann James’ periodic tables. (Courtesy photo)

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