|Master Carpenter Seol Seok-cheol was born in a village surrounded by mountains, where
many villagers were carpenters making household items with local Red Oak and Zelkova.
His father and grandfather were also woodworkers who made objects for the home including
nameplates, pattens, mangers and mortars. Thus, his interest in carpentry piqued at an early age.
When Master Carpenter Seol was 17 years old, he began to explore woodworking as his future
career. One of his relatives, who was running a lumber mill, discovered his talent for woodwork and
introduced him to a carpenter’s shop in Jangseong-eup, a small town in Jeollanam Province. It was
agreed that he would work there as an apprentice for three years with room and board but no pay,
and that Seol’s father would pay the shop owner a sum equivalent to the price of two pigs as a fee
for the three-year apprenticeship (a typical arrangement). At this workshop, Master Carpenter Seol
learned from a senior apprentice named Bak Seung-rye the basic skills of making traditional furniture
such as bandaji ('half-door chest'), dwiju ('rice chest') and special tables. By the time he completed
his three-year apprenticeship term, he was able to make a wide range of natural wood furniture.
Seol Seok-cheol opened his own workshop when he was 24 years old. Traditional tables and chests, including
bandaji and dwiju, were his main products although he made various types of office furniture, too. His interest at the
time, and today still, was producing a fine work of art rather than merchandise that could make money. Although he
was a superb craftsman, he wasn't a smart businessman and suffered from serious financial problems, often falling
deep into debt. His strong will to make “good” natural wood furniture, however, was not affected by his economic woes.
He often worked the whole night through for the pleasure of seeing a fine piece of furniture being created by his hands.
The first of the two hardest trials of his life came at 38 years of age when he fell from a tree and broke his right leg,
permanently affecting his body. The tree from which he fell was the dangsan ('village guardian') tree, a Zelkova, in the
village of Seongsan-ri within the town of Jangseong―It was a huge tree with its trunk as thick as three meters in
diameter and was presumed to be more than 1000 years old. When the tree died, the villagers sold it to Seol, but he
needed to saw off the branches before cutting it down. However, after he climbed up the tree, he was hit by a large
falling branch that he had severed and he fell to the ground. The accident kept him in bed for a whole year, while his
neighbors said that he would soon die because the spirit of the village guardian had cursed him for what he had
done. But Seol wasn't superstitious and knew that it was just an accident, although he didn’t use the wood of this
village guardian but kept it with him, even until this day. He still uses the wood as a lesson for his children and as a
mirror with which he looks at his life as a carpenter.
The second tragic accident took place when he was 63 years old. This time a sharp piece of wood sprang from the
cutting machine, breaking his glasses and directly hitting his left eye, eventually blinding him in it. Impaired visibility
is a great loss for any woodworker for whom correct measurement is the most important factor for creating excellent
These accidents left permanent scars on his body, but strengthened, rather than weakened, his will to devote his
life to carpentry. His answer is simple. “People ask me how I can continue to work with wood after such a painful
experience. For such a question, I can only say that this is what I could do, and should do, because it would be very
difficult then, as much as now, for me to learn something new and have a new job with all those unfortunate things
that happened to me.”
Although his eyesight is debilitated, he has gained an almost superhuman sense of touch. His two sons, working
under him for more than 20 years to succeed the family tradition bequeathed from their ancestors of four generations,
are always amazed at the exemplary skill of their senior. “We make things after careful measurement, whereas
our father does everything only by depending on his tactual senses and the imperfect sight. The result, however, is
that he always comes with a perfect piece without an error, much better work than ours. We always feel that we are
left far behind.”
His love of wood became even stronger after the accidents. In fact, he would even
spend most of his income purchasing good wood when he was suffering from
financial trouble. He firmly believes that excellent-quality wood makes a fine piece
of natural wood furniture, and says that a certain energy flows into him whenever he finds
first-rate wood. When choice wood appears before his eyes, he gives it a satisfying
broad smile as if he meets an old friend. His favorite woods are Zelkova, Red Oak and
Paulownia, and his workshop has piles of them. In addition, he has a 1000-year-old
Zelkova, as well as a Black Persimmon, a Gingko, a Red Oak and a Paulownia, all several
hundred years old, more than what he and his two sons can use in their entire lives. But
Master Carpenter Seol Seok-cheol is not content yet. As an artist who has to prepare for an
uncertain future, he has a farm in which he grows 1000 Paulownia trees for future generations.
His achievement as a carpenter and his contribution to the preservation and development
of Korean traditional natural wood furniture was publicly acknowledged in 2001, when he
was designated as Master
of traditional wooden furniture,
a title listed by the Korean government as 'Important Intangible
Cultural Property No. 55.' He says that his heart still beats
wildly whenever he discovers Zelkova and Black Persimmon
with their beautiful grain, or Paulownia or Pine, which feel
soft to the touch. He may be old physically, but his passion
is like a young man's―ageless.
View the master's works