Phil Ledford teaches the art woodworking to all levels of students at Atlantic Woodworks School in Calabash.
Four years ago Phil Ledford closed the furniture-making shop he had owned in Franklin, North Carolina, since 1982 and moved to Sunset Beach with his wife, Elizabeth. The couple live on the mainland, but Elizabeth’s family still owns the fifth house ever constructed on that beach. The amiable pair made friends and participated in local activities, but Ledford’s heart yearned to return to his passion of furniture making.
So in January 2018 he opened the 3,000-square-foot Atlantic Woodworks School in Calabash and began offering a variety of classes to neophyte, hobbyist and expert woodworkers.
Ledford learned patience in making furniture, which is evident from his calm demeanor. People relax while he explains how they can design a bookshelf to their specifications, make a picture frame to the exact size they want or create a side table, chair or cabinet for their homes. He assists people in developing their ideas for a special project or repairing a valued item. One of his classes is named Introduction to Furniture Making, another is Introduction to Woodworking. Other classes are Hand-Cut Dovetails and Chair Seat Weaving. For those in doubt on where to start, he suggests making a chair, which takes about 35 hours to complete.
Who can take classes at Atlantic Woodworks School? “Anyone who has an interest in woodworking and would like to make a piece of furniture,” Ledford says, adding that people do not have to buy tools because he has all the ones they need. Those who own tools and want to maximize their skills are welcome to visit the school and discuss their intentions with him.
Ledford began his training at Berea College in Kentucky, where he majored in industrial design and technology. The college doesn’t charge any tuition at all, but in turn, students work for the college in their chosen fields and earn a small stipend. Ledford worked in the woodcraft and public relations departments. Ledford’s mentor was master woodturner Rude Osolnik, and when he graduated he apprenticed with world-famous furniture maker Kelly Mehler.
Ledford enjoys the entire creative process needed in furniture making “from seeing a beautiful tree to cutting the wood to matching the wood,” he says.
He prefers traditional woodworking by hand tools to computer-aided programs. He understands that computer programs help people design and build furniture, but says, “They can’t be as creative.”
“They are perfect for kitchen cabinets,” Elizabeth adds, “but you may not know about solid wood and picking the right pieces.” Besides, custom furniture requires traditional joinery and hand work, she adds. “Phil appreciates the skills he’s learned, and he wants to pass them on. Nothing is hard for him. The harder it is, the more he likes it.”
Cheryl Morrison of Little River saw the flyer for the woodworking school in a local shop and enrolled in the frame-making class. She made three frames and enjoyed the class so much she made two plant stands with Ledford’s help. “I learned how to put the joints together and cut the angles correctly,” she says. “I love working with wood.” She plans to take another frame-making class and wants to make a bookcase.
Jay Vogel decided to replace the front door of his Carolina Shores home, and his wife, Ellen, found a used mahogany door on Craig’s List. With Ledford’s help, Vogel refinished and refitted the door in a new oak jamb. They designed an entry, complete with a sidelight that replicates the design in the door.
“It changed the whole feel of the house,” Vogel says, adding that he appreciates witnessing Ledford’s remarkable skill. “That’s the beauty of a real craftsman. He makes it work. I loved doing [the project].”
Ledford grew up in Franklin with two brothers, neither of whom does woodworking. His father, now 99, was a bridge engineer and did woodworking. Ledford’s great, great, great grandfather made a corner cabinet in 1840 that was passed down through the generations, an antique Ledford now owns. “He built it with hand [tools],” he says.
Although the couple’s three grandsons enjoy working in the shop, neither of their children, Grayson Henson of Shallotte, and Alice Berry of Holden Beach, are into their father’s craft, nor is Alice’s husband, Travis. They needn’t be concerned, though. They are showered with plenty of handmade furniture pieces.
When Ledford opened his own shop in Franklin, well-known interior designers including Nancy Braithwaite, Stan Topal and Joy Hirsch, contacted him to make custom pieces. His biggest challenge was making a gazebo out of mountain laurel and cedar. Ledford explains that making curves in wood is a delicate operation because it’s necessary to make molds and steam the wood. He used mortise and tenon joints and completed the gazebo in three months. It won a landscape award. His furniture has been featured in books and several magazines including House Beautiful, Veranda and Metropolitan Home.
“The harder [the project], the more he likes it,” Elizabeth says, and Ledford adds that he still accepts custom-made requests.
Ledford faced another challenge in 1999 when he was delivering a bed to a customer and a tractor trailer hit his truck. “He broke his arm,” Elizabeth says. “It was a compound fracture.” She emphasizes that it was a serious injury, and he was in the middle of a project. “I had all these orders,” Ledford adds, his expression indicating a flashback, memories of the surgeries. “I had someone come in and help me.” He pauses as if to reconstruct the scene. “I worked through everything.”
Those days are past, and the couple works together for the success of the school. They believe people get satisfaction from completing “something utilitarian,” Elizabeth says.
“[Atlantic Woodworks School] is the perfect place for those who want to make fine furniture but don’t have a clue how to do it,” Vogel says. “Phil takes you from ground zero. He’s passionate about it.” “Phil is a very good teacher,” Morrison adds. “He is one-on-one and really knows what he’s doing.”
Ledford especially likes when a student with no experience finishes a piece and says, “I can’t believe I made that!” or “I never believed I could do that!”
Want to learn the craft of woodworking?
Atlantic Woodworks School
262 B Koolabrew Drive, Calabash
(910) 597-2158 or (910) 603-9542
Classes are posted on the website.