Tag Archives: woodworker

Old-School Craftsmanship

April 3, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.


Dumpster Dive Desk

March 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If suddenly ours was a world without trees, 28-year-old Kyle Petersen would still thrive as a woodworker. Credit his keen instincts for finding lost treasure in other people’s junk. As a favor to a friend in need of a bigger desk, Petersen channeled his MacGyver-like creative energies to make her a completely unique piece. He collected scraps of wood, including discarded shipping pallets and bits of Douglas fir he pulled from the walls of his parents’ home. No worries, his parents were remodeling their kitchen.

He has an affinity for the hot trend of repurposing found items to fill a home. Using found and discarded materials, he has also built a headboard out of pallets, and cubbies out of a piece of plywood.  “It’s not so focused on perfection and how beautiful it is,” he says. “What’s beautiful behind it is the purpose of it.” Although he grew up tinkering in the shop with his carpenter father, Petersen dreamed of a career in audio recording after graduating from Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb. But now Petersen is blossoming as a cabinetmaker with a yen for recycling refuse. He works by day at Eurowood Cabinets and finds himself making furniture for friends and family in his spare time. “It’s taking my desire to create and combining it with the knowledge I have in this area and growing it from there,” he says.

First, he collected different species of hardwood material for the desktop. ”They’re not ideal pieces. It is waste essentially,” Petersen says.  He squared and planed each piece, and then assembled the desktop in a butcher-block fashion with clamps and wood glue. He then sanded it down before finishing with an espresso brown stain and a few coats of lacquer. “It’s cool using a bunch of different pieces of wood,” he says. “It will take the stain differently which is kind of a neat effect.”


For the drawers, he disassembled a pallet, squared and planed the boards to make the front, back, and side panels. He then stained the drawers with the same espresso shade and lacquer.

For the drawer box frame, he used a sheet of maple plywood he bought for $50. He cut a rectangle out of the center of the two sides of the wood to make the box “see through” and mitered the whole box together. For the drawer rails, he used oak. Then he sanded and finished everything.

Finally, he tapered the legs with a band saw. The drawer box and legs both come off the desktop, making it easy to disassemble for transport. The legs are fastened with bolts counter-sunk into the desktop. Total time? About 30 hours. The hardest part? Staying patient.

“I learned when to walk away from it for the day,” he says. He says anyone can do it, especially with found materials. All they need to do is try. “There’s a lot of wood out there. Build something.”