Episode #12: Jack Decker from Vernacular Design - The Fabricant Way
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Episode #12: Jack Decker from Vernacular Design

Recreating history for modern day living.

Today I’ll be talking to Jack Decker from Vernacular Design.   Jack is A Kingston Woodworker that Recreates History for Modern Day Living.  He specializes in custom furniture, moldings and cabinetry.

What we talked about:

  • The importance of having a mentor.
  • How business growth happens when you’re ready to take on new type of projects.
  • A crash course on restoration by helping his mom with his home restoration.
  • Figuring out the business side of the craft.
  • Adding collaboration with clients in every project.
I started my business based on, sort of trying to express that vernacular of what my customers need and what I find interesting, and trying not to over-embellish things. Just create quality goods, do quality work that would last for a long time.

Transcript:

Jennifer Dopazo: Hey, Jack. Welcome to The Fabricant Way. Thank you for being here. I’m so excited to talk to you today.

Jack Decker: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. For those who are not familiar with Vernacular Design, can you share with us a little bit about the origin of it and the story of your business?

Jack Decker: The name of the business came about with a historical society that I’m a member of, the Hudson Valley Vernacular Architecture Society. The idea of their group is, basically, original structures to the Hudson Valley based on, sort of, needs instead of trends and styles, which I thought I was a really interesting concept. I really like travelling around the Hudson Valley, growing up on the Hudson Valley, sort of seeing the utilitarian design of some of these really marvelous old homes that we have, some dating back to the 17th century. I always thought that was a really inspiring and a really interesting kind of point of view and perspective, sort of a timeless fashion instead of kind of prevailing trends. So that was kind of what I started my business based on, sort of trying to express that vernacular of what my customers need and what I find interesting, and trying not to over-embellish things. Just create quality goods, do quality work that would last for a long time.

Jennifer Dopazo: Awesome. Sounds great. I love that. I wasn’t familiar with your organization. How did you get started with your business? When did you decide to start?

Jack Decker: Well, I sort of got involved in the trades just by opportunity. There was work present and I was roped in on the base level, entry level, sort of laborer, painter. I started to kind of want to get more into the more conceptual and creative aspects of the work as time went on. That started early on. I’d been working for other people and looking into other people’s work and looking at sculpture. From there, I kind of decided about 7 years ago to go into business for myself. Slowly, I’ve been acquiring machines and equipment. Now I have a 3,000 square foot workshop and fully outfitted. It’s sort of grown in a natural way, just kind of based on the work that I want to be doing and the clients that I have been engaging with. Yeah, so that’s kind of my origin, I suppose.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s great. Yeah, I bet there’s many people out there who just … they’re business owners right now, they started learning the trade with someone else by just helping. I think that’s a really common story and I love it.

I read online that you did a complete restoration of your own home. Can you talk a little bit about that? Was that before Vernacular, after? I’m kind of wondering how that happened and if it’s related to your business and the timeline. How is it related?

Jack Decker: Right. That was before and it was my mother’s home. She was engaged in kind of a restoration project. The person sort of leading that sort of dropped off. So I was sort of there and available to kind of pick up on that. That was kind of my first introduction into working on old houses and doing restoration work. Yeah, so that was pretty interesting. It was definitely like a crash course, a lot of things I would have done differently. But it was early on and I was really interested in how things used to be put together, and I thought there was a lot of really good information in there. Anyway, and just thinking about how people engaged with materials and the resources that they had available to them 100, 200, 300 years ago.

Yeah, so I basically worked with my mother to sort of do the … we did the framing, and the interior plaster work, and the trim, and the mantle piece. It was kind of a slow and fun process of sort of acquiring kind of knowledge and building my skills. We made windows. We made new sashes for the front of the house. We tried to do everything in, what I thought at the time, was the appropriate kind of look and technique. But yeah, that was kind of my introduction into the world of restoration carpentry.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s really impressive. I mean, it’s not just like doing any small project. It’s a full house. So would you say that your mom was your first client?

Jack Decker: Yeah, I guess I would say that. Yeah. And I agreed, probably because of my own naivete. I find that very helpful in getting you started in doing things is, the less you know the better I think sometimes. It definitely gives you the courage when you don’t know what is going to happen. I find that way better.

Jennifer Dopazo: Do you think that the fact that it was someone known to you … of course, it’s your mother and she loves you … does this whole idea of well, there’s risk of things not going the right way, but it could always be fixed. Do you think that helped a bit?

Jack Decker: Yeah. I think so. I think so. And in terms of risk, I’ve always felt like, well, that risk doesn’t really go away. I mean, things happen all the time that we don’t plan on. Especially in my industry where we’re in a very physical world, and the ramifications of mistakes manifest themselves in very tangible ways that cost you money. I think, really, it’s about rolling with it. You’ll spend more time worrying about your mistake than it will actually take you to just fix it. I think having that environment that wasn’t a really high pressure environment, it really taught me how to roll with what happens. Because nothing goes like we ever plan it to.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. So then, after you worked on that house is when you went ahead and got the job, right? Or you went straight to having your own company?

Jack Decker: Yeah. I started to get hired by people on an hourly basis. People started talking to each other about me and what I was doing. It just kind of started there and I just sort of figured it out as I went along, sort of the business side of it, you know?

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. I mean, that’s pretty common that that happens after the planning, right? Or while you’re at it?

Jack Decker: Yeah. There was not a business plan. It’s all been sort of like … even now I’m still always actively trying to improve that part of it, too. Because most crafts people, they’re not interested in the business part of it. It’s like you have to force yourself to engage in it in a positive way because it’s your livelihood. So it has to be another fun learning challenge.

Jennifer Dopazo: Definitely. And has there been anyone that you reach out to or help you? How did you go about figuring out the business side of it?

Jack Decker: Well, when I was working on one of my first bigger projects, I spent a couple years working on the old Mohican Market in Kingston, another kind of restoration project. And another carpenter was working there named Johnny . He is, was then and is, a sculptor, furniture maker, restoration carpenter, cabinet maker. We hit it off and he sort of liked my enthusiasm, I suppose. I just liked his attitude and demeanor and his company. So I started working for him kind of here and there, helping him with his sculpture show and just helping him install things. And we’ve been sort of working together now for eight years in a varying capacity. But he has definitely been a mentor to me especially helping … kind of critiquing … helping me critique my own aesthetic, and engage in the business part of things which it’s really good to have someone to bounce things off of instead of just working in a vacuum. And our shops are in the same building, so he’s right down the hall. So-

Jennifer Dopazo: Well, that’s helpful.

Jack Decker: Yeah. That’s been very helpful. And really nice to have someone there to, I don’t know, just to talk to about it all.

Jennifer Dopazo: And it’s just because you guys do the same thing, I find that sometimes, yeah as makers, you can just go out and maybe buy a business book. But how much of that you can actually implement in your business when it’s so different, right? So I’m assuming that having it from someone that is doing, like the model might be the same and doing the same, it’s what you sort of implement there.

Jack Decker: Yeah, sure. Yeah. And just to have someone to be like, “Hey. I just made this. What do you think of this chair prototype? What do you think about it structurally? What do you think about it visually?” It’s like. It’s really a great advantage.

Jennifer Dopazo: Awesome. Do you have any project that has been your favorite so far?

Jack Decker: Well, I recently finished a big year-and-a-half kind of whole-house restoration project in Stone Ridge. I don’t know if it was my favorite. It was fun and it was probably the most consuming thing I’ve done recently. We did whole house. There was a fire on the second floor so we replaced the whole roof structure. But then we took the opportunity to build an addition that contained a kitchen, a master bedroom, and some new dormers, and a new sunroom. So we kind of did a really big overhaul and improvement in sort of our repair of the fire, too.

We needed a lot of hand-planed, hand-beaded paneling. It was all plaster walls, a lot of really nice trim work, and beautiful heart pine floors that … we put some new heart pine floors in and we bleached the old floors and the new floors and did a really nice kind of floor finish. The clients had a really terrific aesthetic. I think we really got to play around with doing things in a really nice way. So I think that that was definitely really gratifying. It was fun, too. It was challenging and engaging, but I think it came out really nice and it was great to see, from having a gutted house with no top half of it, to see it had a really nice finished project was really satisfying.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. I bet. What is, for you, the favorite part of what you do, the whole process, so any part of the whole work that you do? Is there anything that is your favorite absolute stage of it?

Jack Decker: My favorite part of it is the design work, I would say. I think that I really love having the initial need from the client, which might be myself or my wife or something like that. And coming up with a solution that kind of fits their needs and appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities. I love when I’m in that world of visualizing what it’s going to be, how it’s going to go together, what the wood’s going to look like or what the components are. The design work is definitely what engages me the most in the process. I love doing a scale model of this piece of furniture, a dining table, or a prototype of a chair. That problem solving, that engineering is really interesting to me. Yeah, so I guess that’s my favorite part.

Jennifer Dopazo: And that’s interesting that you mention it, because it actually brings me to my next question which was, I was reading an article in the Upstater and they were talking about your process. And they mentioned how you create these scale prototypes or models and you show them to your clients to avoid surprises. I haven’t seen that before. I don’t know if it’s common practice, but other designers and people that I know, I haven’t seen them doing that. And I wonder if you could talk more about that? Why did you decide to do that and how does it help you when you’re creating the final product?

Jack Decker: Right. Well, when I was first starting out, it was something I didn’t think was necessary and I often skipped it. Even drawing it, I kind of just went for it. But after being disappointed several times with kind of the outcome of what I was doing, my mentor strongly advised me to explore building a quarter-scale model. So, basically, it’s just everything is exactly proportional as it would be when you build it, it’s just everything is a quarter of the size. So we can use an architect’s ruler to scale down all the components. And it’s easy if you’re calculating an inch, you just make it a quarter-inch. Two inches, it’s a half-an-inch. So it’s an easy kind of number break down.

It is so helpful in terms of solving some of the problems that you’re going to be encountering when you’re building the big, real thing. It’s a lot of fun and you really get to explore and look at the shape in the three dimension. When on a piece of paper it’s very kind of lifeless, there’s no … especially a black pencil, graphite on white, it doesn’t have what the thing is going to have. You’re never going to look at it that way. So you can really make a scale model and stand back. Put it on a white background and you take a picture of it, you could confuse people for looking at the real thing, if you do it so scale and proportionally. So I can put it on a piece of white seamless sheet for a client and they’re going to see exactly what they’re going to get.

It helps me make the design process a little more collaborative, which people seem to enjoy, instead of it’s trusting me until the thing shows up at their house. It’s nice to sort of be able to see exactly what I’m thinking proportionally, the curves and the shape. So I just find it a really helpful process, a fun process. It doesn’t take that long and I think that it really adds some value to it all the way around. And everybody asks me, “Oh, what are you going to do with the model?” Well, I keep them all and I have all these nice models that I can also use to recreate the pieces in the future if I wanted to.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s true. I’m assuming that it helps with the whole design conversation, right? Because I’m just thinking of the different types of clients that you might get and not all of them might be very clear on what they want. Or even if you show them an idea or walk them through it, maybe they are imagining something different. With something as a piece of furniture, which is actual materials involved and all that, the risk of just having to redo it or there’s no tweaking in a piece of furniture, right? You cannot just go in and tweak it.

Jack Decker: No.

Jennifer Dopazo: I’m assuming that that helps you with that sort of conversation with them.

Jack Decker: Yeah, right. And it’s also in tweaking the model, it’s like scrap wood and hot glue. It’s purely sort of aesthetic. So it definitely is very helpful in terms of zeroing in on … and it also, you do it early on in the process and, if it takes you another month to deliver the piece of furniture, they have an idea that they’re getting acclimated to, right? They know what it’s going to look like so they’re kind of, I don’t know, they’re definitely … I don’t know if falling in love is the right thing, but they’re definitely beginning to enjoy it, the look of it, before it even shows up.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. That’s great. Yeah, I have the same experience with my clients. The more you share with them what the process is, what you’re working on, and keep them in the loop, they just feel taken care of. They’re feeling like things are happening and not so like there’s something obscure happening and, “I don’t even know when he’s going to show up” or-

Jack Decker: Right. That’s right. It’s not wizardry, but it is nice to just have it. People like to be involved, I think. I mean, I like to be involved in the process of everything and sort of how it technically works. It’s helpful for that.

Jennifer Dopazo: Great. Can you share with us how’s a day in your life and in your shop? How’s a normal, regular day for you?

Jack Decker: Well, my days are definitely all over the place. I’ll sort of have my coffee in the morning and organize my thoughts about the day. Usually, I have a few projects going on at once. I have some smaller things now, so I have like six things happening. So that’s like a little more that I kind of wrap my head around about, organizing just things need to get painted, things need to get finished, things need to get sanded. I kind of develop an order of operations about how I’m going to do things. I’ll be making some parts on the table saw. I’ll be running some things though the sander. I’ll be sanding by hand. I’ll be finishing. Or I’ll be sitting down at the computer to do some AutoCAD work for a kitchen or a built in or something. Or I’ll be making some templates for bigger pieces that I’m making.

So it’s really all over the place. I mean, I’m in my shop every day, which I love. It feels like my second home, for sure. It’s sort of my domain. More than at home, it’s like my place to be. It’s clean or it’s messy or whatever. Let’s see, what else happens in my day? At the end of the day, I blow the dust off me and go home.

Jennifer Dopazo: That sounds great. Is there anything next coming out for Vernacular Design that you want to share? Any project or anything that you’re thinking of that you want to share with us?

Jack Decker: Coming up next for Vernacular Design. At the moment, I’m having a baby, so that’s kind of my focus.

Jennifer Dopazo: Congrats! That’s a big project.

Jack Decker: Thank you. Yes. The middle of next month. Yeah, that’s my latest project. So I’m definitely going to be engaged in that. And then, I don’t know, I’m excited about the future. I don’t really know what it holds, but so far everything has been very positive. Yeah. I’m open up to anything.

Jennifer Dopazo: Awesome. Sounds great. This is a question that I ask everyone. Why do you think we need Vernacular Design in our lives?

Jack Decker: I think that Vernacular Design, sort of being me doing all the aspects of it, I’m skilled at understanding what people want and have in mind, and communicating my vision to them and trying to work with that. I think it’s a challenging thing and it’s something that I think, so far, I’ve been able to do well and provide a well-designed, high-quality, longevity project or finished project. So I think that’s why I need to do what I’m doing. Yeah. Sort of like what I was saying in the beginning, I want to make things that people, long after I’m dead, can engage with and observe and enjoy in their lives, and contemplate them. I guess I’ve always aspired to that idea of making something that would inspire me in the future.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. That’s wonderful. Just to close up, what would be your … any sort of advice to anyone who wants to start a business in what you do, or they’re already in it and they’re having one of those hard days which we all have? What would be your one piece of advice that you want to give to someone who works in something similar like you do right now?
Jack Decker: My one piece of advice would be is to just always keep making things, no matter what. Just don’t get too hung up on the details. Just do it. Just keep doing it. And there’s going to be disasters. And you might lose a bunch of money one day and make a bunch of money the next day. It’s just, we just never know. Just keep making things. In the end, that is our reward for it.

Jennifer Dopazo: Yeah. That’s great. I think sometimes we get caught up into the details such as wanting to make it perfect.

Jack Decker: Yeah. This isn’t a test run. This is life and you should enjoy even the things that you don’t like. You should try to find some peace in those moments that are also … that some are great and some are miserable, because that is the gift of our days on this earth.

Jennifer Dopazo: Excellent. Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to talk to you today and learn more about your craft, your business, and how you got where you are today.

Jack Decker: Well, yeah. Thank you very much for having me. It was cool.