Originally published in March/April 60+ in Omaha
These are things that happen in the working life of 78-year-old woodcraftsman Joe Privitera: Someone is missing chairs that match their 17th Century table, can Joe make new chairs? Done. There is this beautiful dining room table in Chicago but the darned thing is too big for this Omaha family’s dining room. Can Joe make a smaller, replica table? Well, just to be sure, the family sent Joe to Chicago for a look. Then he made a dead ringer of a knock-off.
Joe Privitera is old-school—oh heck, he’s old world—a master craftsman who began learning how to make wood bend, shape, and shine inside his father’s Sicily workshop starting when he was 13. He learned the craft under his father’s watch and later worked in Geneva, Switzerland, before coming to Omaha four decades ago.
Privitera’s shop, Italian Craftsman, at 4510 Leavenworth, hides in a nondescript building. The interior is just what you’d expect—the rich smell of wood and sawdust, all types and shapes of wood scattered asunder. Pinned to the walls are photos of friends and grandchildren alongside sketches of tables or chairs that Privitera has created. Of course there are some machines, but not that many; just a few of the necessities.
“I need very little of the machines,” he says while pulling one of many pencils from his apron with a thick hand—white and dusty from the morning’s work. “My father, he was top of the line, he had tools and machines too, but not too many.”
The apple didn’t fall far. Privitera’s skills are renowned. His clients include some of Omaha’s most prominent families. And his services aren’t cheap. The table he was sent to Chicago to replicate cost $18,000.
“I’ve seen furniture he’s made that would blow your mind,” says Dr. Mike O’Neil, an orthopedic surgeon and friend. “He is a dear guy and a real craftsman, this is a lost art.”
O’Neil sought out Privitera about 20 years ago after the doctor started making furniture as a hobby. O’Neil says he made three nestle tables out of cherry wood and needed help finishing them. He’s been a fixture at Privitera’s shop ever since. The two meet every Tuesday at neighboring La Casa (who’s owners are Privtera’s cousins) to share a pizza.
O’Neil says Privitera, who talks with a thick Italian accent and often sings opera while he works, is also extremely generous with his knowledge. “He has taught me everything I know, he’s been my mentor,” O’Neil says.
Privitera says people aren’t as particular about their furniture any more. It makes him sad there isn’t as much pride in passing down beautiful pieces through the generations. But he’ll still fix and build those pieces that are a little more special.
“Sometimes they have to just trust me, I’m the first one that has to be happy with the job. If I’m unhappy, you, the customer, will be unhappy,” he says. And later, when talking about wood’s fickleness: “Wood is not like metal, wood talks back,” he says.
He has no plans on slowing down. He has too many customers who need his expertise, like the friend who complained that his table kept tipping over on him because he put both elbows on the table’s edge when digging into his meal. “You know, us men, we really get in there,” he says.
So he helped his friend by redoing the base and making it much heavier. Problem solved. These are the things that come up in Joe Privitera’s working day.