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Shop Talk assembles a cutting-edge coffee klatch


Published June 11, 2003 at 5:57 p.m.

Few things are more manly than the smell of sawdust, the buzz of table saws, the feel of freshly cut lumber. A new woodworking studio in Essex has all these things. But it also has a spic-and-span kitchen with a coffeemaker and a coat rack, and sunshine spilling through the windows of the 4500-square-foot space.

And women. Lots of women.

Welcome to ShopTalk, a 21st-century spin on your dad's basement workshop. Gone are the cramped quarters, the dusty, mismatched tools and the single light bulb hanging overhead. In its place is an impeccable, spacious, designed-to-a-T oasis that sparkles with promise.

"When I first walked into a woodshop, I was intimidated as hell," says owner Nick Ruggiero. "What we have here, we sell people confidence. It's a place for amateur woodworkers to network."

Ruggiero grew up in the Bronx, a city kid who played handball for a hobby. When he was a sophomore in high school, his father, a mason, got hurt on the job and moved the family to Rutland. "Oh, my God, what happened?!" Ruggiero recalls thinking of the transition to rural Vermont. But he never moved back to the Bronx. After graduating from high school, he became a lineman for the power company, then joined the state police at 21. "I always wanted to be a cop," he says.

While moving up the state police ranks, Ruggiero earned his bachelor's degree at Trinity and master's at UVM. But he still felt something was missing. So he picked up woodworking 18 years ago. "I found it to be quite peaceful and enjoyable, because after two or three hours you can see what you've done," he says. "Police work, it would take three or four months to see the end result of anything you did."

After schlepping his wood back and forth to the South Burlington High School woodshop every Monday night and then working at home, Ruggiero was looking for a space to rent. He found none, and that's what inspired ShopTalk. "I said, 'Well, if I'm looking, I wonder who else is looking?'" To find out, he asked -- over and over and over again, through an exhaustive set of surveys sent out through local papers, inquiring about interest in woodworking classes, thoughts on fees and more.

It was all part of a three-year business plan that led to ShopTalk's opening last fall in Essex -- the location chosen based on where surveys said most potential customers lived. Working with a local landlord, Ruggiero -- who retired early after nearly 30 years of police work -- designed the ideal space for woodworking. The shop floor itself is the size of a small airplane hangar, with multiple machines and plenty of elbow room. Electricity is wired through the ceiling, and outlets dangle down so there's no tripping over cords.

Also on the first floor are a ventilated finishing room for stains and sealers, a soundproof classroom decorated with a jade plant and wooden ducks, and the kitchen, where Ruggiero has placed a suggestion box labeled "Let it rip." The box is empty, though: No one here has many complaints. In seven months of operation, there have been no injuries, save the occasional nick of a finger among folks carving wooden ducks and such. And upstairs, where students and members keep their lumber -- sometimes expensive lumber -- not a single piece has vanished from the shelves masking-taped with names. Half-finished bookshelves, computer tables and entertainment centers are also stored here, waiting for their creators to return the next day or next month.

Most members are lured back fairly regularly by the therapeutic atmosphere of this place. One recent evening, a soft-spoken instructor demonstrates how to make dado joints with a table saw, while resident woodworker Kevin Campbell roams the floor, keeping an eye on things and offering assistance when someone gets stuck on a particular detail.

"It's nice to get hand-holding," says Jim Whitney, a Waterbury-based business-school teacher who's come in to work on his kitchen cabinets. "I've been playing with woodworking for three or four years, but there's a lot of techniques that I've only read about and not seen, so Kevin's going to walk me through the process. It's that kind of experienced advice you get here."

In another corner, Minga Turner sits at a table on which pieces of elaborately carved mahogany are laid out. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Turner picked up these poles in Peru before moving to Vermont. "One night, I said, 'Hey, I could make a bed!'" One month into her project, she comes to ShopTalk a few hours each week and has found even more uses for the creative space: "When I'm sleepy, I go into the classroom and take a siesta."

Turner is one of 12 females who have joined the 45 men with yearlong memberships. "What I found in my survey results was startling," says Ruggiero, whose two daughters, ages 26 and 30, show no predilection for woodworking themselves. "I thought that 90 percent of the people interested would have been men. But there were a lot of women."

Classes are split 50-50 between the sexes, and even those women who may not have displayed an initial interest are starting to trickle in, thanks to word of mouth and, well, plain old loneliness. "My wife was jealous for a long time," says David Blumenthal, a freelance designer who's become a ShopTalk regular. "Now she's taking the basic woodworking course."

The 10-week workshop is de rigueur for woodworking newbies. But aside from Minga Turner's siestas, there's not much snoozing in the classroom; after a couple of hours of lessons, students are out on the floor, learning techniques and then building their choice of end table, vanity cabinet or quilt rack. The end tables, with elegant tapered legs, are the most popular. So far, none of the 140 graduates has picked the less-practical quilt rack. This speaks to another attraction of ShopTalk: It's a hell of a lot cheaper than buying pre-made furniture. Pieces that might go for nearly $3000 in a store can be built here for $500, after a short span of study and practice.

"I wasn't sure if I could take a class," says Abby Chickering, a kindergarten teacher from Fletcher. "But Nick was so nice on the phone, and it was exactly what I wanted to hear, just the nicest, friendliest voice. I'm so glad I did it."

Chickering, who's been hard at work on a vanity cabinet, calls it a night early. Clutching bottles of Vitamin Water and wood glue, she tells Ruggiero she doesn't feel well. "You want me to drive you home?" he asks, alarmed, but she declines. Ruggiero shakes his head and looks her in the eye. "Do me a favor. When you get home, call me? Just to let me know you made it OK."

Known for hanging out at the shop long past his allotted hours, Ruggiero limits himself to two days per week. The rest of the time, he leaves the place in the care of Campbell and fellow resident woodworker Rick Stewart, who became a connoisseur of exotic woods and hand tools during his two years with the Peace Corps in the Philippines.

"The expertise and knowledge -- you couldn't put a price on it," says Tom Sopchak, who joined in March and has already built custom cabinets and a butcher block. An electrical engineer for IBM, he goes to ShopTalk for the same reasons dads have always escaped to the basement: "The stress, I leave it at the door," he says. "It's just peace and you and the wood."