A Lifetime of Innovation – Master Woodworker

The Jewish News
Barbara Barbara

Barbara Barbara

A self-taught master woodworker has created everything from sailboats to salad tongs over the course of 75 years.

Turn to almost any corner in Harold Kusnetz’s Southfield home and you’ll find evidence of 75 years of innovation and artistry.

Kusnetz with the double-keyboard harpsichord he built.
Kusnetz with the double-keyboard harpsichord he built.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Kusnetz, 93, is a self-taught master woodworker whose creations range from simple salad tongs to a full-sized harpsichord.

Born in Chicago, Kusnetz learned woodworking at Crane Technical High School and honed his craft at the local recreation center, which had a wood shop anyone could use without charge.

He developed a love of sailing through Chicago’s Rainbow Fleet program, which provided free lessons for anyone over age 13. On his family room shelf is a trophy he won for placing second in a sailing race as a teen. In front of the window is a 44-inch radio-controlled model he made of the Emma C. Berry, a sloop built in 1866.

Before he turned 18, Kusnetz had built himself a 10-foot sailboat, using plans he clipped from a magazine. He still has the yellowed and crumbling plans, carefully saved in a box with other mementos.

Kusnetz clipped the plans for the 10-foot sailboat from a magazine more than 75 years ago.
Kusnetz clipped the plans for the 10-foot sailboat from a magazine more than 75 years ago.

He built a bigger boat, an 18-footer, when he came home from World War II, where he’d served as an ensign aboard the U.S.S. Passumpsic, an oil tanker.

Though he was interested in medicine, Kusnetz knew it would be faster and easier to become a certified engineer, so he enrolled at Illinois Institute of Technology. A few years after he graduated, his mother encouraged him to make the move east.

She had a friend whose son was doing well in Detroit. “Davy is making a fortune!” his mother said. “Go to Detroit!”

Davy gave Kusnetz some Detroit leads, and he was hired by the first company he contacted, Pioneer Engineering, which paid him the princely sum of $3.50 an hour.

Harold Kusnetz shows his daughter Ada Kusnetz-Yerman a sailboat he built as a teen. ABOVE: Kusnetz with the double-keyboard harps
Harold Kusnetz shows his daughter Ada Kusnetz-Yerman a sailboat he built as a teen. ABOVE: Kusnetz with the double-keyboard harps

Kusnetz met his wife, Phyliss, a teacher, at a post-Yom Kippur dance in Detroit. They married in 1961, and her two young daughters became part of his family. Harold and Phyliss, who died in 2004, went on to have three more children.

Kusnetz fulfilled his dreams of a medical career through his children. Lisa Solway, 61, of Huntington Woods, is a retired pediatrician; Ada Kusnetz-Yerman, 56, of West Bloomfield, is an anesthesiologist; Norma Kusnetz, 55, of Orlando, Fla., is a family practitioner; and Eliot, 53, of Highland Park, N.J., is a family practitioner who works in public health. Only Linda Ginsburg, 62, of Jacksonville, Fla., bucked the trend by working in hotel management. Kusnetz also has 11 grandchildren.

In 1956, Kusnetz and two partners started Pilot Engineering, which designed parts for Detroit’s automakers. They closed the company in 2008.

Kusnetz still lives in the house he and Phyliss moved to in 1963, in what was then a brand-new subdivision northwest of 10 Mile and Southfield roads. He built doors and cabinets as well as a state-of-the-art stereo system.

Each child had a rolling toy chest that looked like a circus wagon, complete with a silhouette of a lion in a cage. One of the toy chests is parked in the corner of his family room.

Kusnetz-Yerman remembers how she and her siblings loved the kid-sized motorized Model T-type car Kusnetz built, which could go up to 5 mph. Kusnetz still has the car, under a tarp in his garage.

Phyliss, a talented musician, resigned from the Detroit Public Schools and started giving piano lessons. Kusnetz built her a hammered dulcimer like one he’d seen in the Smithsonian, and a calliope powered by an old portable hairdryer with a hose.

A rosette in the harpsichord’s soundboard was carved in wood, cast in pewter and plated in gold. It features Kusnetz’s initials and a likeness of King David with a crown and harp.
A rosette in the harpsichord’s soundboard was carved in wood, cast in pewter and plated in gold. It features Kusnetz’s initials and a likeness of King David with a crown and harp.

Phyliss had always wanted a harpsichord, so Kusnetz found a kit and built a small one for her. Then he built a clavichord, another precursor to the piano. The clavichord has a very soft sound, and Phyliss liked to practice on it at night when the children were asleep.

Kusnetz built a small foot-pumped parlor organ from a carton of parts Phyliss bought at a garage sale for $12. He got the plans from the Henry Ford Museum, whose curator was so impressed with Kusnetz’s skill that he offered him a job.

His masterpiece is a full-sized harpsichord with a double keyboard. He designed the rosette in the soundboard, which he carved in wood, then cast in pewter and plated in gold. It features his initials and a likeness of King David with a crown and a harp.

He decorated the soundboard with paintings of flowers and birds, including a robin, his wife’s favorite. He wasn’t able to finish the instrument before Phyliss died because she wanted it painted “Chinese green,” a shade so dark it looks almost black, and Kusnetz couldn’t find the right shade of paint; he finally mixed it himself. The instrument is trimmed in gold leaf.

Now Kusnetz is building a third harpsichord that folds up into a 9-by-52-inch case. He saw one like it in a museum in Berlin, built in 1700; Frederick the Great of Prussia inherited it from his grandmother. The museum sold him a copy of the plans.

Kusnetz never has to look far for new inspiration. Last year he went to Israel and saw a menorah he liked. The varied colors of stone made him think of different woods — mahogany, cherry, walnut, oak — so he took a photo and recreated the menorah in wood when he got home, making at least a dozen. He also made a challah board with an inlaid Star of David for each child.

“He constantly has to be doing something,” Kusnetz-Yerman said. “When he gets bored, he’ll just go down to the basement and spend an hour knocking out a pair of salad tongs.”

He would never sell anything, she said, preferring to give his creations away as gifts. He gave two sets of salad tongs to Congregation B’nai Moshe, where they’re used every week for Kiddush.

Even though she grew up with him, Kusnetz-Yerman is awed by her father’s talents.

Her family never hired a repairman because her father fixed anything that broke. “He actually changed the oil in his car by himself up until about five years ago,” she said, “and he continues to fix things for me, my husband and children. I am so fortunate that he is 93 and still going strong!”

 

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