Crafting a Place to Learn

Marc Adams School of Woodworking celebrates 30 years of teaching

By Glenda Winders  //  Photography Submitted

Take a walk through the Marc Adams School of Woodworking outside of Franklin on any summer morning and here’s what you’ll find: Five to seven classes going strong in a cluster of buildings that combine to almost 45,000 square feet and students from all over the world experiencing what founder Adams calls “the marriage of hands and soul.” You’ll see students working with state of the art machinery and tools, learning the intricate details of woodworking and attending classes ranging from glassblowing and jewelry making, to stitching mosaics and even a class on how to make soap. In the hot shop, people are welding, while across campus, students are building staircases; putting up woodwork; turning out banjos, ukuleles and Tiffany lamps; sculpting with paper and learning how to make chocolate.
“The great thing about what we do is that when you come here, not only are you immersed in an incredible environment, but you’re with like-minded people who have come like you have — to learn,” Adams said. “And you’re getting to meet some of the best craftspeople of our time, which is really fun.”
Come back a week later, and everything will be different — the classes, the students and the instructors.
“We are constantly making things better and more exciting,” Adams said. “When you come here you can walk around all day long and never come across the same thing twice. There’s so much to see.”
In addition to all of this energy, there are showcases that spotlight work Adams has collected from previous instructors, such as a wood-carved orchid that could be mistaken for the real thing, furniture crafted by artisans whose work is in the White House and Mount Vernon, carved figures, a portrait made with one pen stroke by a calligrapher and much more. His own marquetry work that features Mickey Mouse in a series he’s been creating over the last 35 years also is on display, but he said none of it is for sale.
This year, the school is celebrating its 30th anniversary, which kicked off with a workshop where the tuition money went to charities. Beyond that, some 250 workshops are taught by 120 different instructors. Classes are limited in size, depending on the subject and the space available, but Adams said the people who pass through his classrooms this year will account for about 15,000 hotel nights spent in the area. He’s proud of the fact that the school has no corporate sponsors, which means instructors can recommend whatever tools and supplies they believe are the best.
An onsite cafeteria serves lunch so that no one has to leave the premises and, so students can get right back to work as soon as they finish eating. Adams lives on the property, so he is able to keep the facilities open 24 hours a day. If a student has a sleepless night and wants to work on a project at 4:00 a.m., he or she can do just that.
One of those students is Tom Bryan, who has driven to the school from northwestern Wisconsin for four different years.
“I remember the reaction I had when I first walked into the building was, ‘This place means business,’” he said. “The rows of machine tools, the displays of work that had been accomplished there and the entire layout were all inspiring from the start. In some ways, woodworking is an individual experience, but individuals need a community if they are to grow, and that is the atmosphere of learning that I experienced at MASW.”
He said people who attend are at all levels of expertise, from highly accomplished to relative newcomers, but they all appreciate the camaraderie, and many times questions are answered by the person sitting at the next workbench.
“Devoting an entire week to learning from the people who are the very best in their field cannot be topped,” he said. “Most woodworking instruction that I have come across is a day-long seminar here or there. At MASW, you are immersed in whatever you are learning about for at least eight hours a day. You really do get an in-depth, hands-on experience.”
Classes typically begin on Monday and end on Friday, but one- and two-day classes are available on weekends, often with the same instructors. The season runs from the first of April to the end of October so that students traveling long distances don’t have to worry about weather-related delays, but work at the school never ends.
“There is no downtime,” Adams said. “The people who work for me have full-time jobs because there is so much to do during the winter like maintaining equipment, remodeling projects and cutting materials for the next season. A huge amount of work has to take place behind the scenes. We are a vacation destination. We want to make sure people are going to have a learning experience and a great, friendly experience, too.”
One of his projects is laser-cutting name plates for each student’s workbench to announce who they are and where they are from. At the end of the session, they take their projects home as souvenirs. He also designs new classes, hires instructors and publishes the thick catalog of the next season’s offerings.
Although he is devoted to the school, running it was not the direction he thought his career would take. After graduating from Whiteland High School he went to Indiana Central College — now the University of Indianapolis — to earn a teaching degree with the hope of becoming a coach and a youth minister. But while he was working on a master’s degree in sports medicine at IUPUI, his father died, leaving behind the tools of his work as a builder and woodworking hobbyist.
“I ended up jumping into woodworking and found that was all I wanted to do,” Adams said. “The next thing I knew I was doing it. I had never taken a woodworking class or a business class, but I was making a living at it. Instead of finishing my degree, I wanted to continue in the woodworking business.”
He liked making fine furniture, but discovered there wasn’t a big market for it in Indiana. So instead, he manufactured high-end kitchen cabinets and did architectural millwork. After ten years, he had the opportunity to become the United States’ technical consultant on the international quality of furniture standards, which led him to lecture all over the world. Along the way, he had what he said he can only refer to as a “calling” to teach other people to do woodworking, and the school was born. Because of his travels, he met people who wanted to come and study with him, and during the first year, he taught all 16 classes himself.
“It was just too much work,” he recalled. “It was good work, but people were on my property 24 hours a day for 16 weeks. It was just too much. I needed help.”
The second year, he brought in friends to teach, and the curriculum grew from there. He listens to students’ suggestions about what they would like to learn, researches trends and encourages instructors to diversify what they teach so that the program doesn’t become stagnant.
Jimmy Clewes, who has taught wood-turning at the school for 10 years, produced a DVD series and is a contributing editor to Woodsmith magazine. Previous to the COVID-19 pandemic, he traveled widely to teach, but now he teaches mainly from his Las Vegas home. The only place he travels is to the Adams School.
“I go to Marc’s place because people have a great time and they’re made to feel welcome,” he said. “He runs a tight ship and has an excellent setup. Marc has actually changed a lot of people’s lives, and it’s nice for me to be part of that in a small way. It’s not just for the compensation that I go there. It’s because of the whole environment. I would consider it to be the best craft school in the United States.”
Michael Fortune, an internationally acclaimed furniture designer from Toronto, has been an instructor there for 22 years, despite the rule he made for himself of not teaching in the same places repeatedly. He is featured in Adams’ book “The Difference Makers” and one of his chairs is on the cover. In addition, he has designed furniture for 11 Canadian embassies.
“What Marc has created there in Indiana is truly top-notch,” he said. “I’ve had absolutely wonderful experiences there. The students are incredibly keen and enthusiastic. The changes and growth and complexity have been absolutely astounding. It’s an exhausting but amazing teaching experience.”
He said that while he has taught internationally for years, most recently in Scotland at the Chippendale International School of Fine Furniture, no place compares with MASW.
“Nowhere I go can compare with what Marc has put together,” he said. “The whole thing is so focused on the learning environment for the students. It is incredible to be able to participate in Marc’s vision.”
But while Adams is obviously the heart of the operation, he is quick to credit others for his success. First comes his family, beginning with his wife, Susie, who works with him in operating the school. Then there’s their daughter, Markee, a third-grade teacher, who married a MASW student who received his master’s certificate and then became an intern. Son, John, is a diesel mechanic. Adams said his staff members are “incredible,” and that one of his greatest rewards is to be in the presence of some of the finest craftsmen of his generation.
As for his role: “I am just the steward of an incredible blessing,” he said. “I follow everyone else’s lead and see what happens.”