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Tools of exhibit curator's trade in very good hands

Victor Marwin has the hands of a master woodworker.

He can't explain precisely how a master woodworker is defined.

There is no standardized test, but the Buffalo native began as an apprentice at the famous Kittinger Furniture Co. in Buffalo and continued to push his own skill level further, even after all the large furniture companies turned to technology and computers to get their wares made.

Somewhere along the way, and after years of sanding, chiseling and creating prototypes and custom pieces, he discovered he no longer needed help to finish a complex project.

That's when he knew he finally had the hands of a master woodworker.

Marwin's office is a large, dusty workshop in the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center at Pine Avenue and Portage Road, where he has established a successful niche restoring antique furniture.

Currently, he is curator of a woodworking show at the center, called "From Deep in the Forest."

The show is free and open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. weekdays and from noon to 3 p.m. on weekends, or any time by appointment. For information, call 282-7530. It showcases 18 woodworkers from New York and Canada, with pieces as varying as a reproduction Shaker clock to an art piece titled "Higher Education" that includes a 10-foot-tall desk and chair for which you'd need to use a ladder to take your seat.

Pieces on display range in price from $100 to $6,000, in use from functional to artsy, and in appearance from simple and clean to mathematically precise design work.

Marwin, 52, who has been fascinated by wood from an early age, believes that the show is one of few woodworking shows, perhaps the only one, held in Niagara Falls.

After Kittinger, Marwin worked in the custom shop of a Buffalo furniture maker, as a consultant to various furniture companies and four years ago was pointed in the direction of the arts center, where he has begun to spill out of his office into the hallway of the former high school with his life's work. The name of his business in the center is Against the Grain Woodworking & Design.

Where did you begin to be interested in woodworking?

I really had a love for it when I was a kid. I was brought up near a lumber yard, and my family was very, very poor, and I would get scrap lumber from the guys and build little things.

Where did you get your start?

I was lucky enough to get into Kittinger. There was an enormous line of applicants, and they would take five guys at a time and give them a little test on the bench with hand tools and a hand plane to see if you had any skill at all. I wasn't chosen first, but the guy who was chosen ahead of me didn't make it and I was called up.

They were over 100 years old, a world-class, high-end furniture establishment when I started working for them in the 1970s. When I was there it was long before computer-assisted technology came into play. Industry standards were not in place, such as with the companies now in North Carolina and, of course, China. So when I started there it was all handwork in the European-style tradition.

What is the European tradition?

The Kittinger family was German. They did Old World techniques. A lot of operations were done by hand. Of course, there was some machinery involved in the milling process. But you were taught similarly as an apprentice would be taught in Europe. Very difficult. On the bench, as a young guy, I was not allowed to use power tools. We were forced to learn to shape and tool things by hand, and hand-sand, like a traditional European cabinet shop would do.

Marwin said all the young workers who were hired by Kittinger went through an apprenticeship period that, for him, consisted of hand sanding rows and rows of chairs every day.

Kittinger had a lot of veteran European craftsmen. I mean, I was a little, long-haired hippy kid that got there on time every day and kept my nose to my work. The year I was hired, that year, they told me 43 guys went through that bench that I was assigned to. Some lasted a day, some lasted a week.

I was hired as a hand sander. Eventually, after a couple of months, your fingers were bleeding and you'd have to wrap them up with tape. You couldn't stop working. And the foreman who took me on noticed I had a passion and some skill and he told me to cut my hair, don't wear those patched jeans anymore, don't speak unless I'm spoken to and those European guys will show you the tricks. I was fortunate enough to learn about speed and finesse and just the skill of shaping wood.

Marwin was an apprentice on the hand-sanding bench for three years. He worked at Kittinger for 12 years before leaving, when he said workers began to see that technology was about to take over.

Of course, nowadays, everything is totally automated. I saw the beginning of that automation, which was also part of the demise of the Kittinger Company. But they had to. Everybody has to. Price of competition . . . getting it done cheaper.

e-mail: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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