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After decades of woodworking, Northfield’s Michael Humphries still ingrained in his craft

  • Owner Michael Humphries and cabinetmaker Greg Augustine work on a project at Michael Humphries Woodworking in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Detail of a joinery method on a pair of cabinets at Michael Humphries Woodworking in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Master woodworker Gregg Stone examines a matching pair of cabinets at Michael Humphries Woodworking in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Owner Michael Humphries at his workshop, Michael Humphries Woodworking, in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Owner Michael Humphries at his workshop, Michael Humphries Woodworking, in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • A logo on a drawer interior at Michael Humphries Woodworking in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Senior Project Manager Patty Lazok inspects a mahogany door reproduction at Michael Humphries Woodworking in Northfield. Staff Photo/Paul Franz



Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Michael Humphries’ woodworking shop has grown and shrank over its 43 years in Franklin County, but it hasn’t tried to keep pace with shops that have hundreds of employees and large computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines.

“Where we can compete is in the handwork, where there’s a lot of thought about how the grain matches up in the wood, or installing small pieces of hardware — things that are hand labor time-consuming,” Humphries said.

The shop takes local jobs, mostly in churches and libraries, Humphries said. But that portion of the shop’s work is relatively small next to the “enormous” amount that comes from eastern Massachusetts — Boston and its surrounding suburbs, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.

On those projects, Humphries and the eight woodworkers at the shop deal with architects and designers working on new homes and renovations. Some of the clients they never meet.

The work is “challenging and interesting,” Humphries said.

“You’ve got world-class architects designing for very wealthy people. And they’re going to be doing their best to get their designs into magazines.”

From making ‘efficiency furniture,’ to making a living

Having been fine-tuning his skills as a woodworker since 1970, Humphries has lived through a lot of changes in how his work is done, and what sorts of projects are in demand.

“I remember making drawers in a kitchen using wood slides in 1971. That would be a real specialty piece now,” Humphries said. “Now, almost everything has ball bearings, self-closing, soft-closing, hidden hardware, can’t see the hardware and it just glides closed.”

Humphries provided an example of a recent kitchen project in Wellesley that involved self-opening drawers.

“Cabinetry is having to keep up with a lot of design, electronics and mechanics that are going into these cabinets,” he said.

Humphries has been woodworking in at least some capacity since he graduated college in 1970. He was living in New York City at the time, working as a manager of a retail store and teaching himself basic woodworking technique in his spare time. He learned by building pieces for himself and friends — “efficiency furniture” designed to make use of the limited space of their New York City apartments.

“It was exciting to be able to make something utilitarian,” Humphries said.

After a year in New York City, Humphries went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a master’s degree in educational video production, then to Boston until 1975, where he worked as a television show producer.

“Eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to be able to live in Boston,” Humphries said. “I decided it was just too crazy of a life. ... So I decided I’d come back out to western Mass.”

He rented a red barn in Warwick and started a shop there.

“I started very simply with my workbench and table saw.” he said. “Within 10 years, I was doing more work in Boston than I was out here in western Mass.”

By 1985, Humphries had five employees working with him, so Michael Humphries Woodworking moved into a larger barn. The company continued to expand to a point when, in the early 2000s, Humphries was operating two shops — one in Warwick and one at his current location in Northfield.

In the 1990s, the shop had taken several large commercial projects in Boston. At the Christian Science Library reading room, there’s a Michael Humphries bookcase with brass lighting fixtures. Around the same time, the Gillette shaving company hired the shop for a major project that included a large, curving wood and metal display case — which you can still find in the main entrance of the company’s Boston office — and a new set of wood furniture for the executive office suite.

In 2008, Humphries took the best tools from the two shops and consolidated to just the one in Northfield. The shop now takes less commercial work than it used to, and instead focuses mostly on residential projects. An outside company does the installation work for the shop’s pieces, saving the woodworkers a commute to Boston that is “getting longer all the time,” Humphries said.

“We can keep staying here and building, which is a better model,” he said.

Enduring love and a willingness to specialize

After 48 years of woodworking, Humphries’ interest in his craft is still the same as it was originally.

“I really like wood,” he said. “I like the feel of it, I like its beauty. I still do. Even just splitting a cord of wood, when the pieces open up, I’m always very interested in what I see inside. And this is after decades.”

Plus, to Humphries, wood is a creature all its own, one that he’s slowly learned to understand through perseverance and trial and error.

“The nature of wood,” he said, “is that it wants to move over time.” Even after it has been formed into a piece of furniture, wood continues to subtly change shape according to environmental factors. There are books on how the natural attributes of different woods affect woodworking, Humphries said, but ultimately, it can only be learned from experience. He calls the particular disappointment that comes from failure “the big teacher.”

Through decades of experience, the shop has earned a reputation for versatility and attention to detail.

“We haven’t really specialized,” he said. “The only thing we’ve specialized in is that it’s custom, and that’s enabled us to do very unique pieces, as opposed to making, say, all traditional cabinets, or all contemporary cabinets.”

In Boston, he said, buildings are now often built with steel and glass rather than the more traditional stone style, so the fashionable home décor style is sleek and modern to mirror the city’s architectural style. This is increasingly true, too, of Martha’s Vineyard, where houses are becoming “these big sheer-wall, glass-and-wood boxes with angled walls and windows, as opposed to the traditional shingle style with eyebrow windows.”

“And we still have a good, solid base of traditional New England painted cabinets with beaded face frame and inset doors,” Humphries added. (“Beading” is a small, decorative border added around a door or drawer in a cabinet.) Those types of pieces, he said, usually go to traditional-style suburban houses or old brownstone buildings in Boston.

Master woodworker Gregg Stone, who has been working with Humphries for 20 years, just completed a pair of cabinets that combine classic style with a few modern touches. The two cabinets took him about three weeks of work altogether — a relatively small project.

“For a lot of our projects, we have multiple people working on them,” Stone said. “This one I had a little bit of help for some of it, but mostly I was working on my own.”

The pieces were designed for a glass-roofed party room that “was a greenhouse at one point,” Stone said. Each piece is built around a mahogany plywood box, which he then attached the beaded face frame to.

The piece’s drawers and cabinet doors all have soft-closing hardware, so they’re silent and can’t be slammed. The grains of the different pieces of wood contrast visibly where the “stiles” and “rails” (the vertical and horizontal pieces of the door frames) fit together. Where there would normally be a wood panel in the doors, these ones have metal grilles with machine-punched patterns. Besides those grilles, the only parts that the shop had to send out for were the legs, which have swirling patterns that would have taken too long to carve by hand.

Most of the shop’s projects are brought to them to bid on by builders and contractors that they’ve worked with before, and about one-fifth come from clients who specifically want Michael Humphries Woodworking, Humphries said.

“Ultimately, it would be my goal that we would just get people clamoring to have something built by Michael Humphries Woodworking,” he said. “That we would be in demand enough that people would go with us for our asking price, not having to bid. … That would be my ideal future for Michael Humphries Woodworking.’”

Staff reporter Max Marcus started working at the Greenfield Recorder this year. He covers Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick. He can be reached at: mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.