Building furniture and futures in a Germantown workshop

A bookcase is usually that piece of furniture reserved for people to display the items of which they are proud. Diplomas. Trophies. Vacation pictures. And, yes, even books.

However, for the students at Philadelphia Furniture Workshop, located at 5212 Pulaski Ave. in Germantown, the bookcase itself is their trophy.

After all, they spent seven weeks making it, learning how to use the machinery to cut down the wood and piece it together. Suddenly, furniture has a story of its own to tell.

Proud teachers and students

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Colleen Daniels, a former student there, said she remembers walking into the first day of class feeling rather uneasy and uncertain. Over time, that all went away, as she became more acquainted with the materials and machinery thanks to Alan Turner and Mario Rodriguez, the workshop’s founders and instructors.

“To come out of a class and bring something home that I personally made and had difficulties with, fixing my mistakes, and learning from them, is really a great feeling,” Daniels said.

Turner and Rodriguez established Philadelphia Furniture Workshop in the spring of 2005.

Turner was a lawyer, teaching basic woodworking classes at an adult night-school program. Rodriguez was a former professor in the restoration department at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

At the time, the department was being phased out, and Rodriguez knew he needed a job. Turner had always hoped to find a building equipped with power tools and quality workbenches.

So, creating the Workshop was the perfect opportunity for a collaboration. The two complement each other; Rodriguez represents the right side of the brain by working on design while Turner, the left side, handles all the business and technical aspects of the school.

“We are really proud of Philadelphia Furniture Workshop,” Turner said. “We built this business primarily in a recession and it’s supporting two families.”

What they hope to accomplish

The mission of the school, with a roster of people varying in age and skill levels, is simple to explain.

“We like to see students develop a self-critical eye to where they will no longer accept mediocrity in their own work,” Turner said. “Where they push the bar higher for themselves and then achieve that.”

This exactly how former student Daniels said she felt when she left with her masterpiece.

“By the time you get to the end, it’s easy to forget where you’ve come from, but actually being able to look back and say, these are the cuts I had made and this is the order in which it all got put together. You know, I made every part of this,” Daniels said. “That’s a great feeling.”


Kelsey Doenges is a student at Temple University. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.

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