Kate Swann, the force behind the Florida School of Woodwork, first came to my notice via an Instagram post in 2018. Who is this person? I wondered. How have I never heard of her?
When we crossed paths briefly at FWW Live the following year, I wished I could sit down and pepper her with questions. I knew just three things about her: She was English, she had recently opened a woodworking school in Tampa, Fla., and she had partnered with Fine Woodworking to host a week of instruction with several renowned woodworkers in the coming February. Clearly this was someone with chutzpah and ambition. Little did I know that in addition to these qualities she has an honors degree in French, Russian and linguistics, is the mother of a grown son and spent several years as a professional shepherdess.
Kate, the younger of two daughters, was born in Aldershot, southwest of London, in 1965. Her parents had both been born shortly before WWII in London’s East End; both left school by the age of 15, as was typical among working-class families. Her father began his career as a milkman, an important job at a time when most families had bottles of dairy products delivered to their doorstep each morning before dawn. Her mother worked as a secretary.
In the early ‘60s Kate’s parents left London, where the cost of living had become unaffordable. Her dad had trained in foundry work at trade school; the family moved to Aldershot so he could take a foundry job there. In 1967, when Kate was 2, he took another job, this time in Reading, to London’s west. “Work was scarce and pay was based on work produced,” says Kate, “so the employees at the foundry would physically stage fights – yeah, like fist fights – to decide who would get the work.” When he learned about a job at British Airways, which paid him 22 pounds a week, reliably, he leapt at it (and worked there for 25 years). He drove a tug, one of those powerful, low-slung vehicles that push aircraft back from the terminal so they can taxi to the runway.
As anyone who worked for a major airline in the 1970s can attest, it was a golden age for travel, and one of Terry Swann’s job-related benefits was free flights anywhere in the world. “So we went everywhere,” says Kate matter-of-factly. “Of course, I was completely unappreciative at the time.” Singapore for spring break. Cypress for a weekend. “We’d eat sea urchins while staying in a caravan [a camper van] on the beach and the wild dogs would come around and we’d feed them. My mum would say ‘Don’t feed them, Terry! It’s dangerous!’”
“He never planned anything,” Kate continues. “So it was all very off the cuff. We’d arrive in Rome and my mum would go, ‘Where are was staying?’ He’d say, ‘We’ll find a place.’ People would come up to us and say, ‘Can we help you?’ and my dad would say, ‘Yes.’ So this lady comes up [she didn’t speak English, and the family didn’t speak Italian] and says, ‘Can I help you?’ and he says, ‘We’re looking for a place to stay. Can you suggest a hotel?’ We followed her through Rome and got to this apartment building, and she gestured for us to be really quiet. She led us up to about the fifth floor and asked for some money, and we stayed there. She asked us to be quiet the whole time, and we eventually figured out it wasn’t her apartment. She was the housekeeper! That [stuff] would happen all the time. It would drive my mother batty.”
After graduating from high school Kate took a gap year, then attended the University of Sussex in Brighton to take an honors degree in French, Russian and linguistics. “I really took the degree because I wanted to understand the language of birds. The songbird population of England and Europe was quite something, and I was interested in the dialectical differences between the birds of one country and another. Do French sparrows say something different from British sparrows?”
She was getting by on virtually no money. “I was living on potatoes and riding a 25-lb. cast iron bike seven miles to school every day. One time I was looking at myself and saw a line down the middle of my stomach; I didn’t realize that because I was so thin and climbing rocks and riding this bike I was starting to develop a six-pack. I don’t have that now!”
While attending university, she also lived a parallel life as a shepherdess, an avocation since the age of about 14. Picture Kate going out with her crook and her staff, tramping across the hills, tending to her flock — sometimes with a dog, sometimes on a horse. This work took her to the South of France, where she was employed as a farm laborer with a small flock of sheep and picked peaches in the Camargue.
Kate’s interest in rock climbing led her to apply for a spot with Operation Raleigh, a non-profit organization that combined adventurous opportunities for young people with scientific research and philanthropic work intended to benefit local communities. Those selected were sent on a three-month stint as the expedition worked its way around the world. The project was run by Sir John Blashford-Snell. “The last of the British Empire,” Kate quips. She recalled, “he literally showed up at my portion of the expedition in a pith helmet and putty boots. ‘What ho!’,” she laughs—”very upper crust. The epitome of the British in India.”
Kate was selected for the section of the expedition that would visit Chile. She was in her second year of college at the time. Thanks to her father’s job and their shared love of adventure, she’d already traveled extensively. All of which should explain why she wasn’t the least bit daunted by the prospect of being posted in a desolate region at an elevation of 10,000 feet, where the soil has been compared to that on Mars. “The Atacama Desert is a very interesting place,” she comments, “one of the driest deserts in the world, with salt plains and flamingos. That was the science thing, to study the flamingos.” There were volcanoes, as well. “We were going to climb them.” Thanks to her climbing experience, she was going to lead.
But the whole thing crumbled under the weight of reality. The scientists on the expedition couldn’t use her group because they lacked adequate transportation. The local community didn’t need (or want) their help. So they spent their time exploring. A couple of local policemen had horses, so Kate went riding in the desert.
The expedition was supported in part by military troops from each country they visited, as well as troops from other parts of the world — in this case, the United States and New Zealand. “It was a complete boondoggle for them,” Kate confides. While there, she met and fell in love with an American Green Beret. He invited her to visit him in Massachusetts for Halloween. After she returned to university in Brighton, the two wrote letters and talked briefly by phone once a week because of the cost. (This was still before the internet.) Because her father worked for British Airways, she could fly round-trip to Boston for 50 pounds, so she visited her Green Beret over every break. It was a transatlantic love affair.
Kate finished her degree when she was 21. She was so excited about moving on to her new life that she skipped the graduation, a decision she regrets. “My mum and dad had skimped and saved for me to go to university. I didn’t realize how important that experience of the graduation process was.”
She flew to the States and was married.
By 1989 her husband had left the military and the couple moved to Portland, Oregon. They bought a house built around 1919.
“It was a money pit. Every weekend it was, ‘What’s the project this week? Well, let’s fix the broken toilet. The tank was cracked; it had to be replaced. Then we found it had been leaking. The leak had ruined the floorboards. When we pulled those up, we found the joists were damaged.” The work on her home is what turned her interest to wood and tools.
Next up: Part Two: A Career in Woodworking
— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work