KNAU and Arizona News
4:18 am
Thu March 14, 2013

Makers and Menders Part I: Guida Woodworks

Unassuming shops and garages lie south of the tracks in Flagstaff. Inside, there's the clank of metal, the small of wood and the beauty of raw fabric. People here are using their hands to create useful goods. In the series Makers and Menders, Michael Collier and Rose Houk highlight this way of making a living and a life. Today, they take us to Joe Guida's woodshop which is filled with beautiful old tools.

Flagstaff woodworker Joe Guida
Credit Michael Collier/Rose Houk

Can you imagine what it's like at the end of the day to look at a woodworking project or a wedding dress or a bicycle and say, "I made that?" An MBA is not everybody's passport to happiness. Not everyone wants to be an office manager or teacher or banker. Some people choose to use their hands and make things instead. To use their hands...

'What got me into this was my grandfather was a woodworker. I always knew I was going to be a woodworker, but I went to school and thought, 'I'll do something else.' I got, like, 3 1/2 years in and said, "Uh uh."'

Joe Guida started out at a dead run in the heady world of custom woodworking in Los Angeles.

'I was a furniture builder in California and I worked for pretty high-end clientele. I was tired of it. To be honest with you, I was burned out.'

Joe moved to Flagstaff in 1987 where ne now owns and runs a small business. His shop - well-lit, warm enough on a cold winter day - turns out wooden products: Flooring, molding, rubber stamp handles. He sports a wool shirt and red suspenders and a leather apron jammed with pens, ruler and a screwdriver.

'We just did 2,500 square feet of rustic hickory, all 7" hardwood flooring. God, it was a dynamite floor. It's much harder than hard maple. A lot of silica in it; it's really a tough wood. It's hard on tools.'

A woodworker succeeds or fails by his ability to care for his tools.

'All of our blades on any machine we use, they get taken off once a day and cleaned. So, all the pitch gets taken off, they get cleaned up. The saw arbors get cleaned up and they get put back together.'

Joe's shop - 6,000 square feet - is packed with planers, jointers, sanders, table saws. Wood is stacked to the ceiling. He spent years finding used machines that he could rebuild to better-than-new. They were rescued from old factories in North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey. Case iron, heavy and steady.

'I'm running flooring, I'll have 2 straight heads in here. So, I'll hog most of it off right here and just put a finish on it. So, it comes out the other end and I mean it's glass smooth and doesn't have any snipe in it or anything. You can see my shop, it's so heavy in equipment. And, that stuff's got to be kept tuned up and running. You know, the job's hard enough; if the equipment's not right, it's really hard.'

The job isn't always glamorous or rewarding. Sometimes chores just have to get done to keep the doors open.

'If I never had to do another piece of paper again, I'd be happy. I don't mind working on equipment, I really don't.'

But, Joe's lucky. When the distractions become irritating, he can reach beyond paperwork to things that are tangible.

'Cherry. I just love the color and the texture. What it becomes in time, the way it oxidizes. It's just such a premier wood. You know how it works by hand, you know what it planes like, you know what it carves like. It's just a pleasure to work with. You know you like to feel like you've accomplished something. You know it's got my name on it, it's my methods, it's my equipment. So, I like to think that everything we turn out is something I don't mind saying that I made. No matter what it is. If it's stamp handles. I can look at my stamp handles in a store and tell which ones are mine.'

Have people forgotten how to use their hands? Are computers and video games so compelling that teenagers will never get a chance to know the satisfaction of making something on their own? With their own hands?

'People say don't mix family with business. I don't buy it. My kids have an aptitude for this work. I mean, my girls have been working in my shop probably since they were 10 or 11. You know, they used to take the scraps and they'd glue sawdust on and take the blocks and put eyes on it. I still got a bunch of those; they'd make all that stuff in my shop when they were working in it. And then my grandson, he's been working here the same way, the same age. He's always been around it. Now, he's getting some aptitude for it. He sees the value in it. And he's taken an interest in it.'