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Woodworking a passion for Chris Werner

Christopher K. Werner stands in his kitchen, showing off the cabinet, with gumwood and leaded glass doors, that launched a massive kitchen remodeling project.

Bunk beds, desks, cabinets, an infant-changing table, kitchen stools and lamps are among the practical wood crafts Christopher K. Werner builds in his basement workshop. Candlesticks, picture frames, chess and backgammon boards, bowls, doors, fireplace mantle, tables and coat racks fill his Tudor home in Brighton.

“My dad could fix anything or build anything,” Werner said. “I spent many hours on the dumb end of the tape or holding the light. Even so, the first thing I built was after law school, to furnish our Rochester apartment. I had saved a plan for a 2-by-4 frame couch out of The Washington Post and built the frame, wove the hammock sling and sewed the cushions. It was remarkably uncomfortable and the first and last plan I used of someone else’s design.”

Working with wood

Couch notwithstanding, Werner has designed and built many pieces of furniture over the years in the “arts and crafts design” and, of late, Adirondack rustic design. In 1988, Werner attended Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of American Craftsmen’s “box course,” as he calls it, where he was taught to use traditional hand tools in building a hand-cut, dovetail jewelry box. Later he took “cabinet making” at Fairport BOCES — another intro-woodshop program, with more focus on power tools.

Werner said he regrets bypassing high school shop courses, as he now believes those kinds of programs train young people to do things carefully and precisely and give them the opportunity to express themselves in functional crafts.

When asked where he gets his wood, Werner laughed. “Wherever it’s free or inexpensive,” he said.

Items made by Werner include this detailed wooden picture frame.

Hilton Hardwoods and many friends and clients have supplied lumber but the cast-offs bring the greatest satisfaction. A diseased white birch in his back yard was reborn in rustic kitchen stools and a series of menorahs for his wife and daughters, designed from its spalted slabs and twisted branches. A slab of waste cherry crotch-wood became the top of his second jewelry box, made at BOCES with machine cut dovetails.

One of his favorite “found” pieces of wood supports the hand-hammered copper vessel sink in his vestibule powder room. The branch from an ornamental cherry was salvaged from a brush pile on East Avenue where a mansion lot was being cleared for development.

“I was riding my bike looking for a tree branch with a particular angle and spotted it in the pile. When I stripped off the bark an amazing pitted surface appeared that matched perfectly with the prickly surface of the burl slab it was to support,” he said.

Kitchen project

The estimate for the cabinets needed for his kitchen remodeling gave him the opportunity to convince his wife that, with a modest investment in power tools, he could produce a better product. Werner had his own vision of the project and worked through the night to present a completed double cabinet to his doubtful wife the next morning. The cabinet incorporated leaded glass gumwood doors salvaged from his neighbor’s attic.

This led to a completely renovated kitchen with a full complement of cabinets and pantries made with cherry frames and fiddleback makore panels (an African exotic hardwood) with purpleheart stars, clubs, hearts, spades, yin and yang and other geometric insets that cover the screws holding them together. Although his wife worried about not having a kitchen, there wasn’t a single day it wasn’t useable.

“Cherry is my favorite hardwood,” he said. “I love the look of it as it ages. It is alive as it darkens in the light and it is forgiving to work with. It doesn’t splinter like oak and it’s not as hard as walnut.”

Displayed on a handmade table are samples of bowls, candlesticks, and a menorah – all handcrafted by Werner.

“As lawyers, our work is wholly abstract. I am compelled to make things,” Werner said. “There is a Zen to woodworking. The tedium of sanding gives way to the sensory pleasure of smooth flawless surfaces, which come alive when oiled. The design and engineering is my favorite part of the process and then, the final coat of finish.” 

Getting started

Growing up in Greece, Werner wanted to be a “Ma and Pa” lawyer. From age 16, he dated Lissa Golden, who became his wife in 1975, the weekend after he graduated from law school. Her dream job at Convalescent Hospital for Children (now Hillside) brought them back to Rochester from Washington, D.C., where they had initially planned to settle.

First earning a history degree at SUNY Albany, he graduated from George Washington University’s National Law Center with honors in 1975.

“Having laid no job groundwork in Rochester, I was literally knocking on doors looking for work,” Werner said. “Lissa and I went to the Corn Hill Festival and I realized there were law firms on Plymouth Avenue that I hadn’t called on. The following morning I knocked on Marvin Falk’s office door and, while we were chatting, he took a call from Paul J. Suter. Marv promoted my resume to Paul and I landed an associate position with Burns, Suter & Doyle for $100 week and half of what I could bring in.”

C. Bruce Lawrence started with Suter, Doyle six years ahead of Werner and taught him a lot about law practice. Acknowledging that those early days were like an apprenticeship, Werner took a lot of senior attorneys to lunch to discuss cases. He said he is grateful for the mentors he has had and the collegiality of the legal community in Rochester.

“I have a lot of debts to pay,” he said. “Anyone who says the spirit of collegiality is lacking today isn’t reaching out. I was very fortunate to have Bruce as a teacher and colleague.”

Werner concentrates his practice on bankruptcy and creditor’s rights litigation, currently serving as Of Counsel at Boylan Code.

“We made a good choice when we merged here,” Werner said. “I was able to give off my broad general practice to some exceptional attorneys and now I sleep a lot better with a narrower focus.”

In the community

As an active member of the Monroe County Bar Association he has served as chair of the Ethics, Professional Performance, Public Education and Bankruptcy committees and on the Board of Trustees. In addition, he lectures frequently for local CLEs and has been asked to lecture by the National Business Institute, New York State Bar Association, National Association of Credit Management and New York State Judicial Institute.

His active role in Volunteer Legal Services Project of Rochester helped earn him recognition with the William E. McKnight Award in 1990.

His lecture skills have also served him well in a variety of academic positions. From 1978-1982 Werner served as adjunct faculty at RIT, teaching business law until his first daughter arrived. He is now an assistant professor at Monroe Community College, where he has taught Contracts, Creditor’s Rights and Litigation in their paralegal program since 2000.

Werner’s community service includes service on boards ranging from the Epilepsy Association of Greater Rochester, where he served as president, to his current seat on the Brighton Town Council, chairing the Finance Committee. He served on Brighton’s Parks and Recreation Board from 1996-2004 and on the boards of Brighton Recreational Soccer and Brighton Stormers Soccer Club, which he also led as president. He said his greatest joy in community service was as a girls’ soccer coach for 20 years in both the recreational and travel leagues.

Family life

The Werners have two grown daughters: Rachel, 31 and Alix, 28. Last November they became grandparents.

Their 8-month old Gordon setter, Franklin, replaced Otis, his 13-year-old predecessor.

Both of the Werners are physically active and have chartered sailboats for vacations sailing around the British Virgin Islands, Turkey, and they have plans to sail in Croatia this June with a side trip for hiking with friends in the Czech Republic. Werner is an avid Windsurfer and frustrated that he has yet to master kite boarding.

They also downhill ski and cross country ski. Werner is also an avid reader, with a preference for history and nonfiction.

One comment

  1. This is a well-written piece noting most of the accomplishments of my younger brother. Alas, no mention was attempted of his integral role as \Porta-Potty Man\ during family winter weekends at Bluff Point on Raquette Lake. Best regards, Ted