Nancy R. Hiller: Cold Hands & Difficult Handwork


The glaring disparity between my skills and those of most of my fellow students in the vocational school’s furniture making classes just magnified my sense of incompetence. So I felt a certain schadenfreude when the bench room, normally quiet, rang with an unfortunate reproach at some unfortunate fellow: “Pirtle! What are you doing to that plane iron?” Or “Spratt! Stop! You’re about to cut off your finger!” At least I wasn’t completely alone.

It was only my determination to make my stepfather eat his words that got me through the year-long training. During the first week I spent two whole days trying over and over to cut a simple lap joint with a saw, chisel, and mallet. Overwhelmed by frustration, I felt my face flush as tears filled my eyes. I hid behind my workbench, pretending to look for a tool on the lower shelf. I was clearly not cut out for this kind of work; I belonged in the world of writing and books. I should forget about learning to make furniture. But as I squatted behind my bench contemplating my options, it occurred to me that the prospect of admitting defeat to Joe was even worse than that of persevering in my effort to cut a straight line. By the end of the day I had made my first well-fitted lap joint.

The City & Guilds curriculum of the time focused heavily on traditional handwork skills. Even before the lap joint, we had learned to use hand tools to transform a rough plank into a workable piece of lumber with two flat faces and edges that were straight, square, and parallel, the kind of board commonly identified as “S4S” (square on four sides) that you might find shrink-wrapped at an indoor lumberyard today.

The main room was laid out with 10 or so workbenches, each long enough to accommodate two benchmates. A pair of doors separated the bench room from a larger room filled with industrial machinery, most of it manufactured in Great Britain. Only after we had learned to flatten and square up a board by hand were we allowed to use the machines to perform the equivalent labor. When the machine room was in use it was deafeningly loud, with a daunting atmosphere of purposeful activity. I made a paint of visualizing my fingers running into the blade every time I prepared to press an on switch to remember to keep my hands away from those areas.


Each weekday I rode my bike to and from the college. Between November and May there was no escape from the cold. I wore two pairs of socks covered by plastic bags inside my work boots, imagining the bags would provide insulation. Instead, I later learned, they hastened tissue damage by trapping moisture. Invariably, when I got to school my toes were throbbing, and my fingers shot with pain as the flesh revived in the warmth of the woodshop. Despite this daily revival, my toes turned purple and my fingers took on a reddish cast that lasted all year. I discovered that this precursor to frostbite had a name: chilblains. To this day, my fingertips tingle at the first hint of fall’s approach.

— Nancy R. Hiller, from “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life

Nancy will read from her new book at the Lost Art Press storefront at 7 p.m. Saturday at 837 Willard St., Covington, KY 41011. We still have a few spots left; get your free tickets here.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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One Response to Nancy R. Hiller: Cold Hands & Difficult Handwork

  1. Mark White says:

    What an excellent maker she is, an interesting journey into woodwork, just a shame the proofreader wasn’t on the ball.

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