Doing his homework: Self-taught woodworker designed and built all of his own furniture

Back in 1971, when Jan Panek moved from Mexico City to Philadelphia, he couldn’t afford the dining r

Back in 1971, when Jan Panek moved from Mexico City to Philadelphia, he couldn’t afford the dining room set he wanted for his new home. So, he decided to make his own. The only hitch: Woodworking was not part of his skill set.

“I never did anything useful with my hands, because I produced papers and numbers. I’m an engineer,” said the tall, merry-eyed, 81-year-old native of the former Czechoslovakia in thickly accented English.

That roadblock didn’t stop him. He sent his mother to a museum in Prague to take pictures of the traditional furniture on display in his homeland. Then, from the photos she mailed him, he drew his own pictures of the dining room set he was determined to build.

He bought himself a radial arm saw, a circular saw, a jigsaw and a makeshift lathe that screwed onto a table. “It wasn’t even a lathe, it was just two rails and an electric motor, which turned. I bought it in a consignment shop. I think I paid $5 for that,” he recalled.

With nothing to go on but his sketches, Panek first went to work on the most difficult piece in the dining room set — the hutch. If he could make that, he could make the rest, he reasoned. “It was kind of ridiculous,” he said with a laugh.

He chose to work with ponderosa pine. “It’s soft wood and it’s easier to work with, and also, it’s not demanding on accuracy because you can bend it a little,” he explained.

Demanding project

Despite the wood’s forgiving nature, creating the hutch was no piece of cake. “It gave me so much thinking and trouble, and I didn’t know how to join the boards,” he recounted. Often, he would work on the project after coming home from his job at General Electric, and keep at it until 4 in the morning.

After many long nights, a charming hutch with a country feel emerged from Panek’s woodshop. It now dominates one wall of his dining room. Four glass doors, framed in scalloped wood trim, protect three shelves that display glassware and china. A backsplash of blue and white tile sits above the hutch’s ample counter. Below are drawers, and doors for storing plates, tablecloths and silverware.

“Look,” Panek said with a grin, as he pulled out one of the drawers and then pushed it back in, to demonstrate how smoothly it slides on its rollers.

Once the hutch was completed, he tackled the dining room table, which he designed so that it could be taken apart if it ever needed to be moved. Good thing. It’s a heavy piece; the top is 2 inches thick. “I wanted the table to be sturdy, so that when I wanted to show who was the boss,” he joked, pounding his palm on the tabletop, “the table would not collapse.”

Panek designed six chairs to sit around his table: a large one for him; a more petite one for his wife, Eva; and four smaller chairs, for his two children, and guests. Each has turned legs, a curved backrest, and a cutout of a heart and a tulip shape.

A short, shelved unit sits in one corner of the room — a transplant from elsewhere in the house. It was originally made for Eva to use as a planting table. “Now it’s more useful to have the wine there,” Panek said with a grin.

His handiwork fills every inch of the dining room. He made the chandelier from two-by-fours; he crafted frames for the Czechoslovakian artwork that hangs on one wall, and he carved the bird sculptures that perch atop the hutch. He made the salt and pepper shakers and the toothpick holder that sit on the table. The two nearby wooden bowls, one filled with wooden apples, are his creations as well.

“The furniture takes a long time. To make a chair, at least a week. To make a bowl, it’s two hours, depending on how complicated it is. If I start a project, I always have to finish it fast,” he said. Despite that strict work ethic, it took him about two years to finish making all of the dining room furniture.

Once Panek finished the dining room set, he went on to make just about every piece of furniture in his house. Much of it is of a similar style. That style, he said, was influenced by the furniture of the Shakers and Pennsylvania Dutch. Hearts and tulips are a common theme, found on everything from the kitchen stools to the blanket chest in the guest room.

Original designs

Although his creations show hints of well-known furniture styles, all of Panek’s designs are original. “The ideas are mostly from my head,” he said. “Nothing here is made from any pattern.”

The furniture he crafted for the living room is sleeker and more modern-looking than that found in the rest of the house. A series of stacked, mahogany cubes with curved edges serve as bookshelves, curio cabinets and an entertainment center.

Flanking the cubes are mahogany-edged stereo speakers. Panek designed the speakers and created the housings for them in a way that ensured they would produce exceptional sound. “A speaker has to be solid, so that it won’t resonate,” he explained. “A violin, you want to resonate, or a guitar, right? But this has to be solid,” he said, slapping his palm on the sturdy housing.

Upstairs is a sewing room Panek outfitted for Eva. There’s a high, pink Formica counter for cutting fabric, with shelves underneath for storage; a Formica-topped sewing table, complete with drawers custom made to hold spools of thread; a wall rack that holds fabric; and a shelf just the right height for housing clothing patterns. “This is her kingdom,” he noted.

Basement kingdom

Panek’s kingdom can be found down in the basement. There, he has what he calls an adequate woodworking shop. “The more tools I have, the less I do,” he joked.

He’s still got his original Craftsman radial arm saw. “It was very expensive. Must have been at least $100, 50 years ago, 40 years ago,” he said with a grin. He pointed out other tools in the room: a lathe, a band saw, a jointer.

“I can make noises,” he announced, turning on the dust collection system with a roar. “When I’m angry, I come here and I produce all this sawdust and my wife doesn’t come here.”

On his workbench is a bowl he turned recently on the lathe, and a line of red, yellow and green bottles of acrylic paint with which he’ll decorate it.

Panek traded furniture making for woodturning projects after he retired in 1994. “There were long pauses when I didn’t do anything wood-wise. I was misbehaving in other ways,” he said, flashing his infectious grin.

Panek and Eva now spend winters in Florida, where he has no woodshop. To entertain himself there, he bought some carving knives and took up woodcarving. His first project was a rustic nativity set. “I got a first prize for that in a novice category,” he says with a laugh. Since then, his carvings have become more polished — a graceful crane made from cypress wood, a series of whimsical fish, a bouquet of wooden tulips.

Panek works with both local hardwood and exotic woods, mainly purchased at Curtis Lumber. Throughout his home can be found wooden wonders made from cherry, boxelder, spalted tiger maple, Peruvian walnut, blue mahoe from Jamaica, and red mallee from Australia.

Some of his woodcarving and turning projects have simple designs, which highlight the beauty of the wood. Others are more intricate. “Try this one in your hand,” he said, passing me a very light, squat, black vase, lacy with asymmetrical cutouts. “It’s good for nothing, really,” he said with a laugh. It may not be able to hold water like a conventional vase, but it is beautiful.

“Sometimes I make the inside bigger than the outside,” he joked, holding up an eggshell-thin bowl with a rim jagged from too much time on the lathe.

Artistic awards

Panek has exhibited his work in art shows and galleries, and has earned quite a few awards. He has sold some pieces as well, but doesn’t take special orders. “I never do that because I don’t want to do one thing twice. I actually can’t if I would try to do it,” he said.

Panek is modest about his accomplishments, and can’t believe anyone would want to read about the things he’s made. He posed shyly for a photo in the dining room, surrounded by the evidence of his amazing talent. “I never thought this furniture would be my claim to fame,” he said with a laugh that rippled through the room like the scalloped edges on his lovely ponderosa pine hutch.

Categories: Life and Arts

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