An English Major Finds his Niche
Some of us are lucky. Instead of bouncing around for decades trying to figure out what they really want to do in life, they find a passion early on and follow the muse. One such is Jon Haberman, a crafter of fine cabinets and furniture who lives on Capitol Hill.
I met Jon at his workshop in a warehouse district on Olive Street in Capitol Heights, Maryland, 10-minbute drive from the Hill. An easygoing guy who obviously loves his trade, Jon got his start in carpentry while working for contractors during summers while attending Brown University as an English major. While student teaching as a requisite for his teaching certificate, he realized that he really wanted to be building things with his hands. With his parents’ blessing, after graduation he spent a year helping a friend renovate a Victorian house in Providence.
Carpentry began taking on a larger role in his life when he began working on new home construction in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He toyed with the idea of becoming an architect, and in 1987 he joined the Taliesin Fellowship in Scottsdale, Arizona where he studied at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture for a year. “It was tremendously inspiring to live in buildings and use furniture conceived and created under the principles of Mr. Wright’s Organic Architecture,” he said. “Building materials were primarily stone and sand from the desert, and concrete. With this raw and rough pallet he built a compound that was graceful and geometrically nuanced.”
But the itch to work with his hands persisted and in 1990, Jon moved to Capitol Hill where he worked for a contractor for a year. As his work evolved from carpentry to cabinetmaking, with his wife’s encouragement, he established Jon Haberman Cabinetwork in 1992.
Jon prefers to use domestic wood for his projects, and he keeps a stock of rich grained hardwoods on hand—cherry, maple and black walnut. Knowing the origin of the wood and how it was transformed from tree to furniture grade is important to him, and almost all of the wood he works with is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified which verifies that the wood is harvested through responsible forest practices. Recently, he and his one employee have begun working with domestic veneers allowing them to maximize the yield of a log while providing more opportunities to match grains.
While cabinetry is his specialty, Jon takes on other projects as well. A few years ago, a family in Northwest DC asked him to build furniture from a huge oak tree that had fallen in their yard. Jon helped them find a local sawmill and wood kiln, and an eight foot log with a 46” diameter was sawn in to boards that were air dried for a year. Jon and his partner constructed a dining room table and eight chairs, a game table and a sideboard from the wood. While this was a huge project, according to Jon, his most challenging undertaking to date was the construction of a cedar tea house in Falls Church, Virginia.
The warehouse has been converted into the ultimate woodshop with a huge table saw and plenty of space for assembling cabinetry and other projects as they come together. The woodshop is operated as a co-operative with space available for lease to aspiring carpenters in the evenings and on weekends. In addition to buying quality wood for eventual projects, he and hispartner have purchased tools, including their huge table saw, secondhand from Community Forklift. This business model has worked well for all involved, as he was able to survive the 2008 recession. He’s very happy to see his workload returning to normal after a few difficult years.
While identifying himself as a woodworker, the English major is still evident in Jon. In addition to Taliesin principles of simplicity, he has been influenced by the work and philosophy of George Nakashima, who wrote,
“Arts and Crafts should be based on pure truth, taking materials and techniques from the past to synthesize with the present. We should be content to work on a small scale and integrally with nature and not violate it.”
As evidence that Jon has incorporated this philosophy into his woodworking, his favorite tool is a hand plane, though he admittedly doesn’t get to use it as much as he would like. It’s nice to see that this English major has found his niche. For more examples of Jon’s work or to contact him, see his website at www.jonhaberman.com.