Tucson's John Peter Baer has deep woodworking roots

Restaurants all over Tucson display his talents
2013-07-28T00:00:00Z 2013-07-28T13:18:43Z Tucson's John Peter Baer has deep woodworking rootsGerald M. Gay Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

John Peter Baer has earned a reputation among area restaurants for being the go-to guy when it comes to good wood.

Baer's architectural woodworking business, Baer Joinery, has produced pieces for restaurants all over town, using traditional methods inspired by his Mennonite upbringing.

From tables to bar tops to dividing walls, Baer's mark can be found at a variety of dining destinations, including Café Desta, Wilko, The Abbey, Café Passe and Wildflower.

His build-out at Exo Roast Co., a coffee shop at 403 N. Sixth Ave., included tables made of Douglas fir beams, reclaimed from a dairy barn in North Dakota.

Baer also did all of the woodwork, including creating a large communal table made from mesquite, at the tasting room Tap & Bottle next door.

"I've seen and admired Peter's work for years," said Rebecca Safford, who opened Tap & Bottle with her husband, Scott, in June. "Everything in here has his fingerprint on it."

Baer looks at his contribution to Tucson's dining scene as a positive.

"I still enjoy it," he said. "It makes me feel like I have an investment in the community."

Baer, 38, is a sixth generation woodworker.

He was raised in a Mennonite community just outside of the small town of Archbold in northwest Ohio.

His father worked in wood. His uncle still does. His grandfather was a lifelong craftsman and cabinet maker. Dinners growing up generally revolved around the trade.

"They talked about how things were built," Baer said. "It was something they could all relate to."

Baer wasn't planning on becoming a woodworker himself. His interests were geared more toward music.

He toyed around as an amateur musician in his teen years, before turning a serious eye toward jazz.

"It was something to do," Baer said. "Something that helped me feel like an individual in this community of people who were generally farming or working in factories."

He moved to Denton, Texas before his senior year of high school, so he could qualify for in-state tuition when he applied at the University of North Texas, a school with a well-established and highly regarded jazz studies program.

Baer turned to woodworking while in Texas to make ends meet.

He spent a year under Texas fine furniture maker Charles Mayfield and another year making classical guitar, violins and other stringed instruments under luthier Christopher Savino.

"I picked up a lot from those two guys," Baer said.

After deciding that an education in jazz music might not be for him, he followed his older brother, Matt Baer, to Tucson.

Peter opened his first woodworking shop in 1996 in a small space at East Broadway and North Campbell Avenue.

He spent the first few years doing odd jobs in addition to woodworking: painting, carpentry, plumbing.

His first creative commission was a set of four chairs for a couple that lived in the Sam Hughes neighborhood.

"They knew me through my brother," Baer said. "The chairs were very clean and simple. It was my introduction to self-employment."

Today, Baer works out of two facilities.

One is a cavernous 2,000- square-foot warehouse on East Seventh Street that once served as home to a bakery, and WaveLab recording studio.

"For the first eight years or so, bands would come by periodically, reminiscing about projects they had recorded there," Baer said.

The other space is a two-story building at 925 E. Mill St., just south of the Barraza Aviation Highway.

The facility serves as the head office and is closer to Baer's South Tucson home, where he lives with his wife, Adeena, and two kids.

Both locations are abuzz with activity.

Baer's Seventh Street workshop is filled with different pieces for a large estate being built in Tubac.

Eight-foot-tall doors made in-house from sassafras are stacked upright against each other, alongside antique doors imported from all over the world, and more than 40 windows, all reserved for the home.

"We probably still have another year to go on that project," Baer said.

Large slabs of mesquite, some as long as 13 feet, are stacked high on a sturdy shelf above the work floor.

Baer hopes one day to turn some of the slabs into large cathedral doors, even if nobody orders them.

"Those are as long as we are ever going to find," he said. "I don't want to use them for anything else."

Baer Joinery employs eight workers, including Baer, all highly trained in woodworking.

Seva Gamba studied design in Moscow and has worked in Tucson for more than two decades.

Chris Martin restored boats in the Pacific Northwest before coming to Arizona and ran Velero Woodworking in town.

Many of Baer's employees and larger machines are refugees from other woodworking companies that did not survive the economic downturn.

Baer regularly watches online auctions for equipment that he can add to his inventory.

"You see several shops a day going out of business," he said. "This kind of work has been rapidly disappearing and there is no slowing down. If you can find someone who has a need for those services, there is not much competition any more."

Baer says he has not had that problem.

His company continues to thrive, a testament to his unique approach to woodworking.

The pieces that come from his shops use joinery techniques, instead of dowel construction or metal fasteners.

"It is a method that has been around for hundreds of years," Baer said. "It has more integrity than the other ways of doing things."

His company also uses real wood in lieu of chemically treated plywood when working on things such as kitchen cabinets.

"Kitchens are a burden for a lot of cabinet makers," Baer said. "They do kitchens because there is a demand for it. It has been fun bringing back original materials to the kitchens we've worked on."

Baer Joinery hopes to continue its success in the coming years by developing a series of windows that will serve as its first product line.

Baer also plans to open a craft and trade school with Joinery manager Jonathan Zucchi within the Mill Street building.

Dubbed the Almanac Folk School, the facility will teach a range of topics, from urban homesteading and blacksmithing to woodworking and charcuterie.

In the meantime, Baer continues to work with members of the food service industry.

His latest project is a food trailer called Nanners, which will serve chocolate dipped bananas, fruit pops and other sweet treats outside of the food court entrance of the Tucson Mall.

The trailer will be made of reclaimed fir.

"It is awesome," said Nanners co-owner Shane Ray. "It is big, with thick wood. It is going to have a lot of character when it is finished."

Ray said Baer also constructed a smaller food stand for the business, which will set up inside the mall on weekends.

It is the type of job that has kept Baer busy and his business financially stable.

"Each year has been a little bit better than the last."

Baer Joinery

Find out more about the company and see additional examples of its work at baerjoinery.com

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at ggay@azstarnet.com or 807-8430.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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