Issue 14.3: June / July 2011

Mr. Impossible

Story by Kevin Whitton

Photo by Kyle Rothenborg


The scent of lacquer and the burnt, sweet aroma of freshly cut wood permeate James Ferla’s woodshop. Planks of koa and mahogany lean against the walls, and unfinished furniture stands on workbenches. Yet there is hardly a screw or nail to be found.


“Fine furniture has true joints—mortis and tenon joints,” explains Ferla. “You don’t need any fasteners; you just need the joint and the glue.”


Ferla is a master woodworker, a distinction accorded to only a select few in Hawai‘i. Hailing from a family of woodworkers and masons in Connecticut, Ferla knew by the time he was 9 years old that he’d become a woodworker. He came to O‘ahu in 1984 for an eight-day job on a Kähala home and never left. Since 1989 Ferla’s been creating custom fine furniture and restoring antique and historical pieces at Kamani Woodworks (also known as Woodchucks Hawaii) in Kaka‘ako. Whether restoring the 1920 American walnut dining table in the governor’s mansion at Washington Place, building koa artifact cabinets for Outrigger Hotels or designing custom pieces in Craftsman, Shaker and Hawaiiana styles, his ambition is the same: to shape what was a living tree into a functional work of art.


“People generally don’t come to me for a project unless someone else has told them it can’t be done,” Ferla says. For example, taking a termite-ridden piece of wood from a 200-year-old chair, restoring it to look like a healthy new piece of wood and then treating it with pigments and stains to make it look 200 years old again—Ferla’s craft is as much a science as an art. “We start at ‘impossible’ every morning and have to defeat it. There is nothing that can’t be reasoned out in woodworking.”


With all ten fingers still intact, the 53- year-old works not only to restore treasures from the past but to perpetuate the craft for the future: Over the years he’s schooled thirty-seven apprentices. “Furniture used to be a commodity; people moved with it and passed it down over the generations. It gained value,” Ferla says. “We need to get back there. We need to revere it.”