Vince Filak

Vince Filak is a journalism professor, scholar and media adviser at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh with an uncommon talent for wood refinishing. He has worked on a variety of pieces for friends, family and even the Ernest Hemingway boyhood home.

Filak first got into woodworking after an odd window design in his old residence required short furniture. He found a suitable dresser at a garage sale but it was quite shabby. A friend of his recommended he refinish it himself. And so he did; he ended up with a rejuvenated dresser and a newly discovered passion.

“Everything I owned up to that point was basically Walmart pressed board,” he said.

He continued to pursue his hobby by refinishing his great grandfather’s old desk that his dad was initially planning to throw away.

“I really liked the desk,” Filak said. “What I started to find out was that the furniture that I really liked, you couldn’t buy because people didn’t make it like that anymore in terms of the style and quality.”

Filak soon furnished his house with his work replacing flimsy pressed board manufactured furniture with restored antiques.

“With the exception of one small table in my living room and this really ugly thing that my wife uses as a sewing table that disturbs me, every piece in my house is something I’ve redone,” he said.

After he filled his home with refinished pieces, Filak started refinishing pieces of furniture for his family. Soon, his parent’s friends were asking about his projects, and then their friends. Although he insists what he does is not a business, Filak eventually had to acquire business cards and develop a website because so many people were asking about his work.

Filak’s talent then caught the attention of one of his friends who runs the Ernest Hemingway boyhood home in Oak Park, Ill. She asked him to refinish Hemingway’s older sister’s rocking chair that Hemmingway himself had played with as a child.

“When I got it, it was basically just a pile of wood,” Filak said. “All I could think in my head was ‘Ernest Hemingway sat here. Don’t screw this up.’”

He said he was honored to be trusted with such a relic and was relieved that nothing went wrong during the project. The rocking chair is now on display in the house’s attic.

Filak continues to take on as many projects as he can handle but he has three basic rules when people bring him furniture. The first is that he will do whatever someone asks him to do with a piece, even if he disagrees with their idea. He’s happy to offer advice but will ultimately do his best to restore it to the owner’s expectations. Next, he insists that he work out of his own shop so he can control when and how he approaches the project. Lastly, he doesn’t want to be watched by anyone. Filak is more than happy to take pictures of his progress but said he works best when he is alone.

Filak described his passion for woodworking as a relaxing change of pace from his position at UW Oshkosh, where he teaches classes, leads the students at the award-winning Advance-Titan student-newspaper, presents at conferences and participates with outside organizations through roles on editorial review boards.

“I started to realize that all day long I sit in front of a computer and I type and I think,” he said. And having that physical thing that you can do where you still really feel like you’re accomplishing something is like therapy in a lot of ways I think.”

Filak said he thinks wood refinishing provides him with some balance in his life and has made him a more well rounded person. “It really does make me feel better, and I think that’s important.”

Written by Jake Batterman, Integrated Marketing and Communications STEP student.