Jack Cerchiara ‘06: DTD, penguins and the ethos of woodworking
Photo credit: salishseawoodworks.com
How do you prepare for a career in making fine furniture? If you ask Jack Cerchiara ‘06, he will tell you that he got his start by studying penguins.
After graduating from Kenyon, Cerchiara went on to the University of Washington, getting his PhD in Biology. He did field work in Patagonia, hiking miles to track, weigh and measure penguins that ranged from from newly hatched chicks to 35-year-old adult birds. By the time he’d finished his PhD in biology, he had completed nearly seven years of study and research on the DNA of Magellanic penguins. After that came fellowships with more study and research. To unwind, Cerchiara started to do woodworking.
He’d done woodworking in high school — his parents still have the first coffee table he put together — but now he applied his science ethos onto his craft. “I brought the same mindset to furniture making that guided me through academia,” he said in a recent essay that he wrote in Fine Woodworking Magazine. “First, never turn away from a problem, especially one for which you don’t have an answer. Second, become a lifelong student of a craft – a true expert knows that the more they learn, the more they learn what they don’t know. And thirdly, care. A lot. About your craft, about the details, about people, about the history and the future of what you do.”
His passion turned from a hobby to a side hustle to his full time career. He started Salish Sea Woodworks, a shop that creates heirloom-quality furniture with a commitment to environmental conservation. “If we are going to take a living natural resource from our environment, it is important to craft furniture that will last generations rather than be discarded. And we should try to honor this commitment by making something beautiful,” he said.
“I know starting a woodworking shop sounds like a right turn from my academic training in science,” he said, “but it’s really not. It’s problem solving and working with my hands. It has the same sense of fulfillment as science does. It was a huge change, and a huge challenge, and I really love the work. I work a lot more hours doing what I do now, but I enjoy those hours more. This community of crafts people is wonderful.”
Community, he says, has been one of the enduring themes of his life. When he joined DTD as a sophomore, it wasn’t for the fraternity itself, it was for the people. “I was a student-athlete and it really wasn’t on my radar. But I took a calculus class with several Delts and we became friends. Joining DTD was a very organic thing to do from there.”
“The most important thing was the people. I wanted to hang out with them. The more Delts I met, the more I enjoyed spending time with them. I decided, OK, I want to be a part of this. To me, that’s what fraternity means — a shared connection, shared experience.”
He says that the most meaningful memories are also the most mundane. “It was the little things — coming home from class to watch movies or play video games, or late night trips to Hot Rods for a Pizza Sub. The big events were fun, but it was just spending time with folks that stuck with me.”
Those friendships have stood the test of time, and Cerchiara said that he and a group of Delts text and call weekly, and get together whenever schedules allow.
“DTD was huge for my personal development,” he said. “I was very focused on my classes and athletics, and I wasn’t out of my comfort zone very much. Being in DTD helped me have a broader connection to more folks, grow as a communicator, social confidence and step outside my bubble. Joining DTD was really important to who I am today.”
Today, as he applies what he learned at DTD and his career in science to his craft, he has advice for the next generation of Delts.
“Care about your impact. There is so much joy and enjoyment in doing that. A scientist once said to me, ‘In order to make a difference, you need to focus on your impact on two things: the environment, and people.’ In my time learning and growing as a maker, I have received guidance, inspiration, and support in a community of passionate craftspeople. Find a few minutes and enjoy what you love, and share it with people around you.”
As for combining his love of good craftsmanship and his love for the DTD community, he says that he’d love to get his furniture into more Delt homes. “I’m envisioning a great piece of furniture that’s been loved for years and then goes with their kids into a Kenyon dorm room. If one of my pieces of furniture has that kind of life, I’ll know I’ve done my job.”