Local Maker Makes Good: Joe Budka’s Pagoda Studios

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Captain Budka

Joe Budka is a sculptor, woodworker, stage manager, tinkerer and maker. He founded Pagoda Studios, Inc. (customfurniturechicago.org) to design and  fabricate, and to restore antiques. He is active behind the scenes at Steampunk Chicago (and on stage in his strongman outfit).

He took time out of his never ending schedule to answer a few questions.

1.You graduated from SAIC. How did that lead to Pagoda Studios?

I’ve always created and knew that was my purpose in life. I soon realized there were not a lot of six figure jobs available for professional artists. So I did whatever jobs I could in the woodworking industry. When I got sick of suffering working for other people and being poor, I decided to found my own company, and be poor instead. The hours are better and the boss is slightly less of a jerk.

2. I have seen you cast sculptures and spend hours in your incredibly comfy wooden chaise lounge. Do you have a preferred medium?

I lean towards wood as a medium, primarily due to the ease of working with it and the low cost of tooling to manufacture. Metal fabrication tools are highly specialized, precise, and costly. But even a crappy woodworking tool can be made to work with the proper education. So, for practicality sake, I lean towards woodworking.

Pagoda Wine Racks

3. Where can we see examples of your work, other than the website? (e.g., local restaurants, galleries, etc.)

Most of my work is in private collections and homes. There are a few public projects out there. We designed the showroom at Chicago Brass, across from the Merchandise Mart. I have a public sculpture on 95th street by the Palos Hills Mayor’s office. We also did some prop work for the upcoming independent movie “Before the Fall”. Other props and set design work can be seen during productions by Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater and Steampunk Chicago events.

Oh. And there is a full sized Yoda sculpture I restored in the waiting room of a doctor’s office in River North somewhere.

4. You offer woodworking classes. What can your one-day students expect to take home with them, other than a spice rack or paper towel holder?

My class is designed for absolute beginners. Nevertheless, my students come in with little to no woodworking experience, and walk out with a finished product. Nearly every student tells me they never thought they could do something like this, and have it come out so well. The tangible take away from my class is a cutting board made entirely by my student’s hands, of their own design.

But the more important lesson is that anyone can do this, with proper instruction, and be successful. That the shop environment is not nearly as neither intimidating nor dangerous as one might think. As long as we have respect for the space, ourselves and the tools we are using– and utilize a bit of common sense– woodworking can be a very accessible and enjoyable hobby, or career.


5. How do you find your work tying into the steampunk aesthetic?

My personal work doesn’t, really. Not in style anyway. I do wear three-piece suits and fedoras, but I don’t call myself steampunk and I don’t brand my work that way. It’s more of a philosophical element of my life. The core elements of my life are what fit with the steampunk community very well.

I like making. I like to tinker and invent things. I’m the DIY guy from hell, who can diagnose and repair motorcycles, cars, machines, and the like. I build furniture and sculpture. Remodel houses and rewire lamps. I camp like a boss. I’m a student of all sciences – Physics, chemistry, geometry, geology, meteorology, naturalism, art and architecture are not independent disciplines in my mind. They’re what I need to know to be alive and do my work. If there is a problem I either know the solution or can work it out in a few minutes. Give me a knife and a hatchet and I’ll build you a shopping mall in the woods.

Beyond the swagger, I prefer using sustainable, organic, biodegradable materials such as wood, leather, wool, cotton, etc. I prefer to patronize local businesses for my food, materials, etc. When I need to outsource I look for a mom-and-pop shop. We try to design our work in such a way, that we minimize waste. These are the small ways I contribute to preventing society from going over the cliff, while still doing what I enjoy.

 Bonus question: How long have you had the mustache?

It’s come and gone for 13 years. It has a mind of it’s own.

Strong Joe

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