By: Manya Chylinski
Lance Patterson is a bit of an enigma. His colleagues and students at Boston’s North Bennet Street School seem to think they don’t know the real Lance, who doesn’t spend much time socializing. But they’re the people who know him best. Woodworker, teacher, brilliant craftsman–that’s the real Lance. He just happens to be a shy, modest man with a soft voice.
For a generation of furnituremakers trained there, North Bennet Street is synonymous with Lance Patterson. Since its establishment in 1885 as a trade school, North Bennet Street has gained a worldwide reputation as one of the premier schools for traditional crafts. It’s been Lance’s domain for the past three decades.
When you first meet Lance, it’s clear that he’ll be a difficult man to get to know if you don’t understand or care much about woodworking, because that’s the language he speaks. Ask him about his personal life and you’ll get a short answer that quickly turns into a detailed story about a woodworking project or an anecdote about one of his students. Woodworking and working with his hands are his passions, and pretty much have been his whole life.
As a teenager, he designed and built radio-controlled model airplanes (1). He has focused on projects like this and on keeping himself busy ever since. “In my childhood,” he says, “I never understood kids who said they didn’t have anything to do. I always had way too much to do.” As a young man, Lance had brief stints repairing furniture and painting signs, but nothing seemed to fit quite right. It wasn’t until the age of 33 that he finally pursued his dream to become a serious woodworker.
In 1977, Lance decided he wanted to study at North Bennet Street, because of the school’s reputation for excellence. His aim was to enter the piano technology program, but he lacked any meaningful experience in the field. To improve his chances, he ordered a harpsichord kit and built the instrument. That wasn’t enough to get accepted, but it did get him into the cabinet and furnituremaking program.
The first part of the program was, and still is, about drafting—learning how to draw a piece before building it. “I was the slowest one in the drawing room,” Lance says. He clearly had an aptitude for this work: Lance also spent time creating incredibly precise and patterned freehand drawings, which still hang in his shop (2).
Getting accepted at North Bennet Street School was a turning point in Lance’s life. “I finally found a place that cared about doing good work, rather than just getting it done,” he says. Lance graduated in 1979 and worked at the school as the afternoon shop guy. He taught machine maintenance and kept the shop open so students could work on their projects. That same year, he started working in a shop of his own—what would become Fort Point Cabinetmakers—making furniture for clients. In 1981, North Bennet hired him to teach full time. “They said they’d keep me on for one year and see how it worked out,” he says with a smile. Twenty-eight years later, he’s still there, serving as a teacher and mentor to students who talk about him with awe and respect.
“The most amazing thing about Lance is his wealth of knowledge,” says Erin Hanley (student 2005-2007). “He knows everything there is to know about traditional furniture construction. But he also knows about the politics of the time, and about its music and art, too.” When you ask Lance a simple question, you’ll get an essay. Lance is a true lifelong learner. He’ll teach himself whatever is necessary to make a project a success. Once he has a handle on something—say, a new technique or skill—he’ll strategize ways to make it better. And he encourages that search for knowledge among his students. “I love seeing them succeed. I love working with people who are willing to try,” Lance says.
A brief list of some things Lance has done in addition to teaching and making furniture bears out his love of learning–and of keeping himself busy. He taught himself to play the piano and plays hymns, ragtime, and classical music. He plays the musical saw, and has performed with it at the school’s annual Christmas party and the wedding of a former student. He found a violin in the dumpster outside of his apartment, fixed it up, and taught himself how to play it. And, when he was disappointed with the quality of photos of student projects taken by professionals, he taught himself large format photography. Now he’s the official photographer for student work at the school.
Lance is so focused that he often gets on a run, concentrating on one type of furniture or one specific aspect of a machine. For a while, he built a series of stringed folk instruments, such as mountain dulcimers. Another time he made miniature steam engines. Right now it’s clocks—like the banjo clock that hangs on the wall of his shop or the Gabon ebony grandfather clock he made for the school’s President and former student, Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez (7).
Lance approaches each furniture project with an eye for how to modify the traditional design and make it work for contemporary times. “I don’t like to make an exact copy of anything,” Lance says. “Often, time has shown a better way to make a piece.” For example, older chairs may need modifying because the seat height is too low or the back too straight. Making sensitive modifications takes a practiced eye and a talented hand. “There are very common mistakes on certain styles of furniture–things that don’t necessarily improve the design or function,” says Lance. The closest Lance gets to admitting preferences? He isn’t fond of rococo. He does, however, like the William and Mary style, because of its exuberant turnings and carvings and use of space. “It’s visually interesting and fun to make.”
Understanding furniture history is an important part of who Lance is. Early in his tenure at North Bennet Street, the school’s library had only one book: Wallace Nutting’s Furniture Treasury. Today, the library is filled with books and is one of the best woodworking libraries in the country. As his students will tell you—the library grew, at least in part, because of Lance and his interests. And he’s probably read every book in there, cover to cover.
Tools, especially simple ones, also fascinate Lance. He enjoys making his own tools and grinding his own knives. He loves using one of the most basic hand tools: the card scraper. “I can feel it and control it,” he says. “It’s tiring on my hands, but I like the physicality of it, the workout of it. I like being tired at the end of the day.” Gómez-Ibáñez says, “He’s an expert craftsman, especially skilled with hand tools that are no longer in common use and techniques no longer commonly done. But he’s not stuck in the past—he loves to find more efficient ways to do things. And he’s an inspiring teacher because of his love for the subject.”
Lance is not a chatty man or someone who is easily distracted. His colleagues and students understand that it’s his focus–a dedication to making each project the best it can be–that is the true measure of his talent. If you meet Lance Patterson you’ll find a shy, private man who doesn’t quite realize how loudly his actions speak about the incredible person he is.