Woodworker Mickey McCann has learned that exquisite craftsmanship lies within a balance between taking your time, and knowing when to stop.
The Leavenworth, KS suburb where Mickey grew up was still under construction for much of his boyhood. He and his friends used to scavenge the area for plywood and scraps–“we were always finding things to build things out of.”
After spending four years of extracurricular hours at the St. John’s College woodshop, Mickey and his wife Ettie moved to Fort Bragg to attend College of the Redwoods, which has an offshoot program for cabinetry and furniture making. It was started by James Krenov
“In the 70s, this guy–James Krenov–started it under the umbrella of the community college so he could get funding and accreditation. It’s technically part of the community college, but it’s separate. Separate building, separate application.”
The woodworking program is very small, only accepting 25 people per year. An invitation to attend for a second year is offered to only five of the best students.
“I got lucky,” Mickey insists. “Everybody that goes there is pretty good.”
After two years in California, Mickey and Ettie moved back to Morristown, New Jersey, to be closer to her family. After a few years of working side jobs, he’s gone into partnership with another College of the Redwoods grad. They inhabit a space on Speedwell Avenue, behind the doctor’s office where his wife Ettie works. From the outside, it looks like a garage or storage unit–white clapboard walls, flat roof.
Inside, it’s something between Santa’s workshop and a robber’s cave, but with a steampunk flair from the numerous machines of formidable size and utilitarian contours, with a pink patina and logos that speak to their venerable age.
“People always wander in and they’re like ‘What is this place?’ I think people are sort of intimidated by all the machinery and stuff around–they’re freaked out when they open the door and a roaring table saw is going. I try to make it a warm environment–I want people to be sort of pleasantly surprised when they walk in.”
To that end, most of the machines are set back against the walls or abutting the room’s stone columns, creating a sort of sight tunnel toward the back, where Mickey and his colleague John work on their projects’ finer details. When I show up, Mickey is staining a round table base with a flannel cloth, while John is hammering hardware of his own invention to fit a bureau drawer.
They get a fair amount of work from New York City–in particular, there is a furniture shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn that sends a lot of projects their way. Mickey also contracts with the cobbler up the street, refinishing shoe heels and purse handles. (Ettie confides to me that he works with a lot of Gucci.)
“It’s a good neighbor situation. They’re happy to have me down there because sometimes there are jobs they just wouldn’t be able to do.”
The biggest service he can provide, that really makes a difference to people, is restoring the shine to their well-used.
“Wood finishing is this big mystery to a lot of people. If you can make it shiny, about 90% of your problems are solved.”
“Shiny shit sells.”
For his own projects, he specializes in marquetry. He made Ettie a cherrywood box for their anniversary with a magnolia tree inlaid on the lid in walnut, rosewood, holly, and maple. Shiny it is, and exquisite.
“I notice little details that I really think are cool. A lot of the time, it’s some tiny part of some little, old thing–the shape of a handle on something…I like to think I sort of tuck that away and don’t forget about it.”
He and Ettie, and their son Virgil, live in an old carriage house in the Mount Tabor, just outside Morristown, where the old Methodist camps used to be. Underneath their living quarters is a garage occupied by an immense round dining table from Bali, with an octagonal base carved in relief with dancing figures and vines.
“It’s weird,” he says, his words betrayed by a fond smile. “Totally impractical and unorthodox.”
In the process of refinishing it, he’s found all different types of glue, which suggests that it was damaged in transit and inexpertly refinished here.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody sanded it, filled in cracks, and put a bunch of finish on it.”
That’s the kind of thing that Mickey won’t allow.
“There’s this guy named David Pye–he was an Englishman and he wrote this book called ‘The Nature and Aesthetics of Design.’ He talks about this property called diversity, that objects have. It’s like seeing a ship on the ocean from far away. You see the general shape of it; maybe it’s beautiful in that way. Then you get closer and you see what type of ship it is, and it’s still beautiful, has nice proportions. Then you get closer and you see a little bit more… Basically, as you get closer and closer, you become conscious of new things.
“I really like that.”
His ambition is that people would find new things to love and appreciate, the closer they get to his work…that there would never be a point where, drawing closer to examine it, the beauty of the work breaks down to something like patches of glue.
“I want it to be nice, as close as you can possibly get to it.”
But, he adds, this isn’t the same as technical perfection. It’s a hard line to divide between exquisite work and demanding so much that the piece “loses its liveliness.”
“If a piece is just too uniform, it doesn’t look right, it’s not charming anymore. A good solid glue joint is important–two pieces have to be butted up to each other pretty tightly–but it can be taken to ridiculous extremes.”
He measures his hands against each other.
“‘Should I line up the grain with it here? Or here?’ It becomes silly.”
His favorite projects are things he can take time on.
“I just don’t like being rushed, having something leave and I cross my fingers–‘That looks okay, hopefully it will hold together.’ Things can always be nicer; things can always be more carefully made.”
It’s not hard, he says, to convince clients to let him take his time. Whether he starts from a chunk of wood, or somebody’s beat-up but priceless heirloom, there’s an assumption starting out that a beautiful product needs lingering, thoughtful care, and the clients seem to intuit that their patience is a way of participating in the work.
“It’s always a struggle–when you work for so long on something, you just don’t want to mess it up at the very end. You don’t want to put all this time and care into something, and then sort of sloppily do the very last little bits to it.”
I ask if putting in that much time and care makes it hard to let a piece go. He gives me a simultaneous yes and no; on one hand, “deadlines, and the fact that I’m getting paid, sort of solve that problem.” On the other hand, if it’s his own design, or something he’s making for himself, it’s hard to call it finished.
“Sometimes, when you’re under the gun, you just know it’s okay, good enough.
“It leaves, and you see it a year later, and you’re like ‘Oh, that’s nice!’ You’ll see a little mistake that only you would notice and you’re like, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad.'”