by Fred P. Gusoff
When you’re walking or driving along the 7000 block of Germantown Avenue, don’t blink or you’ll likely miss one of the best-kept secrets in Northwest Philadelphia.
Off to the side of the road, in a nondescript building that once housed the old Mt. Airy Post Office sits the playhouse of a modern-day Geppetto. It’s not just any carpenter’s workshop, though. It’s James McNabb’s studio home away from home, also known as McNabb & Co. Studio.
McNabb is a college-educated master builder of all things wood. His livelihood is designing multi-dimensional, elaborate, intricate works of art and then selling them worldwide to art galleries, individual customers and companies and corporation that have the financial means to afford McNabb’s craft.
He recently shipped projects to Austin, Texas; Chicago, New York City, Hong Kong and to Sydney, Australia, for a “billion-dollar advertising agency.” And after designing another work of art, he packed, crated and personally drove it to its buyer in Miami, Fla.
McNabb gets some of his ideas for projects by scouting the Internet, and he always has a project in mind.
“I wake up and never know what I’m getting myself into,” he said, estimating that he works 70 to 80 hours a week at the shop. “There’s never down time. I’m as busy as I ever could have hoped for. It’s a full-time job just to manage demand.”
McNabb earned degrees in woodworking design, a bachelor’s in 2008 at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, where he met his wife, Stephanie, and a master’s in 2012 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Both had corporate jobs but preferred to make it on their own, so they did just that. “It’s not your average day’s work,” James said.
“We are just as busy as any full time job that we ever had,” said his wife, a professional web designer who handles finances and marketing for the business. She also works part time for Morris Arboretum.
The McNabbs — he’s 30; she’s 31 — and their Boston terriers, Buster and Riley, live in an apartment in Chestnut Hill about a half-mile up The Avenue. The four-legged assistants spend a good part of their days with their owners at the studio, where they even have their own section.
The McNabbs have been married five years and are so busy that they haven’t taken a vacation in three years that did not involve work. James McNabb grew up in northern New Jersey not far from Manhattan and particularly enjoys working on abstract cityscapes.
“The city is a land of endless possibilities,” he noted.
The carpenter and his wife said they were attracted to Chestnut Hill because it was a thriving area suitable for entrepreneurs and reminded them of a quieter, slower pace, similar to the neighborhoods in which they grew up — Montville, N.J. (James) and Glastonbury, Conn. (Stephanie).
McNabb has had particular success with his City Series, a collection of wood sculptures that represent a woodworker’s journey from the suburbs to the city. Each piece depicts the outsider’s perspective of the urban landscape. Made entirely of scrap wood, the work is an interpretation of making something out of nothing, he said, and each piece is cut intuitively on a band saw. The result is a collection of architectural forms, each distinctly different from the next.
One such work, City Wheel 2 is composed of 360 wedge-shaped pieces of American Black Walnut wood that was salvaged from a storm-felled tree in Lincoln Park, N.J. The pieces are arranged to display a variety of natural colors, from dark brown to warm blond, all from one single tree. McNabb sold it last year.
Another wheel work still in the shop, and still unnamed, was created for a private commission and is made from various species of wood, both salvaged and purchased.
Another McNabb masterpiece is a humongous wooden, full-scale circular version of the Manhattan skyline. It has patterns and textures that mimic the urban landscape and is composed of a few thousand pieces of wood. McNabb spend about eight months working on the project, which was the subject of his master’s thesis. The project was commissioned by Conde Nast and The New Yorker magazines.
“I enjoy the monotonous, methodical work,” said McNabb, whose projects range from small, one-square-foot pieces to the New York City sculpture, which is 12 feet long. Some clients want only a photograph of McNabb’s work; McNabb gets to keep the original.
McNabb opened his studio in September, 2012, which he rents from carpenter Charles Todd, who operates Mt. Airy Custom Furniture in the front of the building. The building occupies about 8,000 square feet, about half of which is McNabb’s workspace. McNabb & Co. Studio is not affiliated with Todd’s furniture operation. “We’re just a sleeper operation that nobody really knows about, but I don’t really mind,” he said.
McNabb declined to reveal the annual gross revenue from his craft, but he did put it in context: “The value of my work has increased a thousand percent over the last 18 months.” He recently sent an estimate for an 8-foot-tall city wheel to a city in China.
And if there ever comes a day when folks are no longer interested in his customized works of art, McNabb is not worried. He can always use his carpentry skills to build kitchen sets and tend to other basic projects. Said the master woodsman: “I have the skill set to fall back on.”
More information at 215-248-4391 or www.mcnabbstudio.com.