Lost in Wood:
The O’Donnell Classical Institute

by Julia Pearson
photos by Greg Clarke

Randall O’Donnell, a nationally known master craftsman of Early American furniture reproductions, has worked with wood for the past 35 years and currently makes his home in Nashville. His work includes some of the finest examples of furniture in Baroque and early Rococo style. Studying form and details of original pieces in museums and private collections, O’Donnell learned from the 18th Century masters. He has contributed to books and magazines on the subject of fine furniture making. A video exhibit of his woodworking techniques is currently on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum and several of his chairs can be found in the museum’s Chair Park.

His eyes twinkle as he relates how his grandparents would give him a hammer and nails and let him pound to his three-year-old heart’s content in a closet. The closet’s floor ended up covered in nail heads.

For two years of “total bliss,” he lost himself in the wood to create a rare Chippendale mahogany card table—finishing it in 2000. Known as the Thomas Willing table after its first owner, the original 1759 table was commissioned in Philadelphia by the furniture maker Garvan Carver. Auctioned at Sotheby’s New York and bought by the Chipstone Foundation in 1991, the Thomas Willing card table brought worldwide recognition to this American artist/craftsman.

When visiting O’Donnell’s workshop, a striking quality is the quiet. Hand tools are used to make pieces using the same techniques as the finest American urban shops of the 18th Century. All lumber handling, from choosing and sawing the lumber to kiln drying, is done by the craftsman. All surfaces are hand-scraped; mortise and tenon joints and dovetails are all hand-cut; and hand-carving is employed for each shell, leg, ball, and claw foot.

The O’Donnell Classical Institute was recently formed to continue the art and skills of fine furniture making. It is located in the woodworking shop in the back of 46 East Gould Street. Classical woodworking techniques are integral to all the programs. Groundwork for contemporary or traditional woodworking is provided in the categories of joinery, carving, and turning. Study of furniture history, finishing, and design aesthetics are included and an extensive library is available.

The Institute offers several courses of study. The Full Time Apprenticeship Program lasts two years and takes the student to a higher level of furniture making by providing the necessary skills for a career in woodworking. It appeals to students who are passionate about the skills and materials that create the highest quality furniture/objects. The curriculum includes: the use of hand tools; proper machinery use; carving—bas relief, intaglio, in the round, and sculpting; turning—spindle and face plate; furniture construction and finish restoration; and design and drafting skills.

There is also a less intensive Ten Month Master Course accommodating students who have their own woodworking shops and can make frequent trips to the Institute for one-on-one guidance. Applications for both courses are available on-line at the O’Donnell Classical Institute website . There is also a portfolio of O’Donnell’s work and links to woodworking video demonstrations.

Ryan Bishop, a young man from Valliant, Oklahoma, came to Nashville right out of high school two years ago to enter the apprentice program. From the time he was five years old, Ryan was hanging out in the woodshop of his grandfather, Floyd Bishop. Ryan watched his grandfather turn out moldings, kitchen cabinets, and some furniture.

Ryan knew his career compass was pointing to learning 18th Century furniture making. He researched available school programs that providing dedication to excellence and precision. He applied and was accepted into the equally prestigious programs at the Furniture Institute of Massachusetts located in Beverly, Massachusetts, and the North Bennett Street School in Boston, Massachusetts. Ryan remarks that he called every school in North America. He selected the Classical Institute’s two-year program because of the finer detail he recognized in Randall O’Donnell’s work. Ryan credits his parents, Billy and Tammy Bishop, for their support to embark on such an in-depth program over 800 miles from home.

His day starts when he rises at six in the morning and his mind is already filled with fine furniture details. A fitness buff, he runs several miles a day and returns to the shop for hands-on work, or travels with O’Donnell to study close-up examples of fine pieces in museums and private collections.

Bishop’s “final exam” - a “valuables chest”

On display in the Traditional Arts Building is Bishop’s “final exam”—a “valuables chest” inspired by an antique made in the “blockfront style.” Incorporated in the design are many of the details of its ancestor: exposed fine dovetailing, the use of mahogany for drawer sides and back (instead of the more common pine or poplar), hand-carved beaded dovetailed drawer blades and molding, the undulating drawer front façade, and the Newport style shells capping the vertical elements. The wood is Amazonian mahogany and the brasses are English hand-made.

Visitors are welcome to visit the O’Donnell Classical Institute, talk to Ryan Bishop and other students, and see work in progress. To see more of O’Donnell’s work and for further information,
visit the website