Woodworking school in Johnson County draws students from all over

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If you didn’t know it was there, you’d probably pass by without a second thought, just another single-story farmhouse and some pole barns in rural Johnson County.

But for nearly 30 years, those barns have been a beacon for anyone interested in exploring new worlds of creativity under the watchful eyes of master craftsmen.

The Marc Adams School of Woodworking, 5504 E. 500 N., annually offers more than 200 courses—in some years, many more—focused on helping amateurs and professionals hone their skills primarily in woodworking but increasingly in other creative pursuits, including glass blowing, quilting, metalsmithing, upholstery, calligraphy and more.

The school is believed to be the largest of its kind in North America, serving thousands of people every year with a mix of weeklong and weekend classes and drawing visitors from across the globe to the property near Whiteland every week.

Owner Marc Adams was on a lecturing circuit in the early 1990s, speaking at local woodworking clubs, hardware store openings and universities, when the idea to start a specialized summer program struck him.

The first year, 1993, he had 160 students across 16 weeks of classes.

“It about killed me,” Adams acknowledged. After that grueling experience, he reached out to craftsmen he had befriended over the years to gauge their interest in joining him to teach classes. From there, the program took off.

In 2022, about 2,500 students will travel to Johnson County to take a course with one of about 117 instructors across 250 course offerings. The school employs five people full time, plus another seven seasonal staff members, not including instructors.

“We’ve been blessed, there’s no doubt about it,” Adams said. “The good Lord has put all this in place because I do not have the skill or the talent to run something like this.”

A unique approach

Adams has forged strong relationships with hundreds of top craftspeople from across the world during his time running the school, including several who travel from overseas to teach students about their specialties.

“These are the best craftspeople of modern times,” Adams said. “They are a big part of why people come from all over the world to take workshops here.”

In woodworking alone, the workshops cover both skills (finishing, marquetry, joinery, cabinetmaking, turning and more) and projects (shaker oval boxes, a federal hall cabinet, a Stickley-style desk lamp, acoustic guitars, a structural rocking chair, etc.)

Woodworking students who want to gain a wide range of skills can take the school’s masters program, which offers a certificate after students complete 10 week-long, skills-based classes covering joinery, finishing, chair-making, carving and other topics.

Nearly 500 people have completed the program, which can be done in a summer or over many years.

But the school has expanded far beyond woodworking. Workshops offered this year include stitched mosaics, upholstery, advanced leaded glass, essential oils, and soap making, among others.

Jody Hayden

Jody Hayden, a co-owner of Empire, Michigan-based Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate, led an eight-person course last week focused on chocolate making. This was the second year she taught the course, and she hopes to be invited back in the future.

“I think Marc and his team have developed something really special here in Indiana that I honestly haven’t seen in many other places,” she said. “Marc has made the most of an opportunity to help people hone their skills. … It’s really a unique place to be able to learn something and get to a point where you can master a skill you’re really interested in.”

Hayden said the school is one of only a few places that offer a direct-to-consumer course focused on chocolate making—most are business-to-business oriented—which includes what she described as a “deep dive” into the sweet.

The class takes a bean-to-bar approach, allowing students to understand the steps required to turn cacao fruit into chocolate, then taking that knowledge and applying it to baked goods and other confectionery treats.

Lisa Hoffmann

“We’re practically working in a kitchen all the time,” Hayden said. “So, it’s fun to actually get out and educate people about a topic.”

For students like Lisa Hoffmann of Madison, Wisconsin, the school offers a unique opportunity to do something different with her downtime.

“I work 12 hours a day back home and coming here, some people think, ‘Well, that’s not a vacation,’ but it really is for me,” she said. “They make it as stress free as possible. There’s a lot of people from all over the place. It’s just really fun to try out new things.”

Hoffmann has taken several courses at the school, including an introductory woodturning class, which teaches students how to design wood pieces using a lathe and carving tools. She also plans to take another woodturning course later this year, as well as courses focused on building leaded boxes and quilting in the future.

“In my first turning class, I was scared to death because I had come here before and saw all these beautiful masterpieces, and I thought, ‘I could never do that,’” she said. “But the instructors here are so good and so helpful. They don’t do it for you—they make you do it—but they help you learn and walk you through mistakes to do it better the next time. It’s just a really great experience they give you here at the school.”

Community asset

The woodworking school is one of Johnson County’s biggest non-music draws every summer, bringing in thousands of hotel room nights year after year.

Kenneth Kosky, executive director of Festival Country, Indiana—the county’s tourism agency—said Adams’ endeavors have elevated the area’s profile as a hub for longstanding crafts like woodworking and metal work.

“The school brings us instructors and students from across the world, with many returning time and time again to take additional classes or bring their families with them,” he said. “We consider it to be a first-tier driver of tourism in the summer.”

He said the school accounts for about 15,000 room nights in local hotels every year, although a specific economic impact from the business has never been fully calculated. Even so, Kosky described the visitors from the school as a “higher level of traveler,” given the typical circumstances of their visits.

“Students and instructors stay for multiple days, so that’s one factor,” he said. “The daytime visitor spends a certain amount, but your overnight visitor on average is going to spend more. These are also people with expendable income, particularly those enrolled in the master classes. Overall, it’s just a higher level of traveler.”

Kosky said the tourism agency works with the school to create targeted advertising and the school provides the county a platform with which it can engage students and entice them back to the area for longer periods.

“Marc Adams was here, started small and grew his operation here,” he said. “I think the people that run businesses in our community recognize what a wonderful community we have and feel supported locally. I’ve had the opportunity to tour the school and sit in on a class and I’m truly appreciative to have an asset like this in Johnson County. It’s a great school.”

A new dynamic

Some students who enroll in the classes are masters of their respective crafts and just looking for a new challenge, Adams said. The school has taught high-level executives, university presidents and other prominent figures new skills that can be carried forward as hobbies—or even serve as jumping off points for new businesses down the road.

While most students are at least 50 or older, individuals of all ages and backgrounds enroll in summer courses.

“These people are very, very successful at what they do in life,” Adams said. “It’s a really unique group of people. But they’re here and they’re like-minded in their interest in learning something new. And they’re all having the time of their life, which is what makes it so fun.”

Henry Parry-Oaekeden

Henry Parry-Oakeden, who owns a small woodworking shop in Sydney, Australia, recently took a basic course as part of a business trip to the states and as part of an effort to hone his company’s plans to begin offering its own courses back home.

He said he considers the Marc Adams School to be among the best of its kind that he’s visited and hopes to apply some of the things he’s learned in Whiteland to his own efforts. That doesn’t mean Parry-Oakeden plans to make a replica of Adams’ school in Sydney. Rather, he plans to adopt bits and pieces from this and other schools and to create a smaller, well-rounded school in line with the needs of his workshop’s students.

For example, he said, the safety standards preached by Adams are straightforward and applicable across any tool that could be used in woodcraft: Watch your hands, maintain control over the tool you are using and be aware of things around you.

He said Adams’ setup of his machine room—which eliminates bottlenecking among students waiting to work on their projects—and the approach he takes to demonstrating skills are transferable, at a smaller scale.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect downsizing replica, it’s just different,” he said. “As a business owner, I obviously don’t want my students to get hurt so we’re definitely going to be taking [the safety] part back for sure. There are just certain things that just make a lot of sense that I’m going to be replicating.”

The course costs are also among the most affordable Parry-Oakeden has seen in the United States.

“I think the way Marc has gotten to this scale and the ability to have more students per class—he offers an affordable product, the value is the best I’ve seen, for sure,” he said, noting that he recently took a three-day course in California that charged about $1,600 per class.

Most of the weeklong courses at the Marc Adams School cost about $895 per person, plus some material costs, with most of the revenue going right back into the business, Adams said.

Big plans

At a school like Marc Adams, the biggest expenses are equipment. Adams said his school has declined to take freebies from toolmakers—something many other woodworking workshops rely on to offset costs—so he isn’t beholden to any corporations.

“I’ve never taken anything for free—nothing, I pay for everything,” he said. “That way, I stay credible and can say anything I want about anybody’s product.”

He said the school performs well every year (he declined to share specific revenue figures), driven by a 90% return rate of students from previous years, many of whom sign up for multiple courses.

Some students can also qualify for grants to cover the cost of their courses, including those younger than 25, individuals with special needs, and individuals who are current or former members of the military.

“We don’t do this in hopes of someday sitting on a great big pile of gold bars,” Adams said of the school. “That’s just never going to happen, because as soon as there’s a little bit of money here or there, then we’re going to invest in more equipment or other resources for our students.”

Even so, Adams said, the school is just getting started.

He has grand plans beyond the current 44,000 square feet of workshop space currently found on the property. He’d like to expand the master’s program and maybe even add housing for students and instructors to his 17 acres. Already, Adams and his family own about six homes within 15 minutes of the property that they rent to students, but most have to pay for hotel rooms.

“We’re a little bit landlocked, but we’d love to put a dorm on the property for people to give them a place to stay; it could be an all-inclusive thing for our students,” he said. “And on our acreage that we have, we could probably fit something like that in. But for me right now, I would just as soon continue to grow into bigger facilities and do more things.”

Adams said he’s eager to continue bringing in new faces to the school and helping others take on new skills.

“For us, in the middle-of-nowhere USA, people usually don’t think about something like this being here,” he said. “But we’re probably the largest craft program—or certainly one of the largest—in all of North America. People love coming here to see what we do, and we love having them.”

The family is formulating a long-term plan for the school to ensure it continues in perpetuity, but Adams declined to share details of what such a plan might entail.

But he’s nowhere near ready to throw in the towel himself.

“The momentum of this is far bigger than any one person; I can’t just shut down tomorrow,” he said. “And I love what I do, so I’ll never retire.”•

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