by Wilko Martínez-Cachero and Lamia Choudhury
Beautiful oak and maple trees with deep orange and light-yellow leaves stand tall and bunched together in Old Bethpage, but inside the village’s extensive restoration museum, lathes and electric saws chirr and drill as heaps of wood shavings plummet to the floor.
Bob Barker, a slim man with thinning gray hair and a wide smile, lifts up his goggles and examines his work. Barker is one of the roughly 500 attendees present for the 22nd annual Long Island Woodworkers show in Old Bethpage who are hoping to keep the woodworking tradition alive.
“I do this whenever I can,” Barker said. “This is our annual show. I’ve been coming here the past several years now.”
When he’s not playing golf, Barker spends his time handcrafting furniture, mostly for his grandchildren. He has made dressers, tables and bookcases for them. Occasionally, Barker also sells smaller pieces like car figurines at events such as this one.
“I always was [interested in woodworking], even as a kid,” Barker said. “I did little things here and there, but I didn’t actually have a shop until I retired.”
Many woodworkers at the Old Bethpage exhibition, such as Gary Salzburg, are confident that woodworking can and will be passed on to future generations.
Similar to Barker, Salzburg has held a long-standing interest in woodworking, but truly started to focus on it in the past 20 years. He woodturns—a woodworking technique used to cut shapes such as bowls and vases—but also built most of the furniture in his house.
“We’re not going to lose it,” he said. “There are still people who appreciate things that are handmade and the quality that comes with it, which is different than the machine-made stuff which you might get cheaper, but [is not] as good.”
However, others admit that some preoccupation about the future of woodworking is natural.
“You always worry about [woodworking being a dying art],” George Nemos said. “[But] people like things that look like they were when they were first done. A lot of people don’t want everything new. They want to have that restoration look and that’s very popular right now.”
Currently, most of Nemos’ woodworking is dedicated to trim work around the house. He started woodworking as a child when his father bought his first house, but his first professional experience was a plumb-and-supply job that led him to cabinet making.
“There’s a lot of people on the show that have different ways of making furniture, bowls, anything,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t die out.”
The median annual wage for woodworkers is a lowly $30,850 and there are only 263,500 woodworkers, per the U.S. Department of Labor. Somewhat encouragingly, the Department of Labor expects 2,700 woodworking jobs to be added by 2026. That is only a one percent increase, but it’s one that could encourage some.
Despite that, many are increasingly not seeing woodworking as a full-time occupation.
“To me, it’s more than a hobby, it’s less than a profession,” Salzburg said. “It’s just what I do.”
He is not alone.
“It’s just a hobby, but it’s almost full-time,” Frank Napoli, the president of the Secret Society of Woodcarvers, said. “I’ve been working with wood since I was a kid. My father had a shop in the basement and I used to tag along.”
There are those who are confident that woodworking will make a resurgence in the United States.
“It was outsourced abroad but the quality of timber on this continent is very good and we have centuries of knowledge,” said Yoav Liberman, an architect who has been in woodworking for over 20 years and has taught at Harvard.
For now, woodworking is kept alive yearly in Old Bethpage. Long Island’s finest woodworkers are expected to host their annual exhibition again next fall, where the fight will continue.
“I would [come back next year],” Tim Kosta, a first-time attendee and artist, said. “There’s a lot of craftsmanship, a lot of quality to the work. There’s beautiful pieces.”