Editor’s note: I was recently intrigued to discover the Instagram feed of a young woman who is blazing an inspiring trail for others. Barbie, of Barbie Woodshop, is fearless in the face of new joinery challenges; while always ready to acknowledge the difficulty of new things, she jumps right in, understanding that the most important key to mastery is practice. She is strategic about collecting high-quality hand tools and other equipment, has a supportive partner and manages to combine genuine niceness with razor-sharp wit. I recently requested permission to publish a Q&A interview for the blog, confident that readers would be delighted and enlightened by Barbie’s thoughts on woodworking and other topics.
— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
NH: Barbie, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let me start by asking what got you into woodworking. How old were you? What kind of shop space did you start with? (I ask because my first shop set-up was in what should have been the dining room of the house I was renting.)
BW: Thank you for having me.
I’ve been crafting my whole life. All things you do with your hands support other types of hand working. I have small hands so I guess they excel in detailed working.
I started woodworking before I went to school. I spent my summers in my family’s summer house. I was always outdoors whittling and tinkering. I especially liked working with pine bark because it was soft and easy to work with, and I didn’t know how to sharpen my tools. Later I discovered power tools. At some point I thought a power router and a pocket screw jig were the most fantastic tools ever.
Before I moved in with Ken, I was first living with two of my friends in a shared flat. We had a shared kitchen and bathroom and we had our own small bedrooms. My room was always filled with tools and dust. I made all kinds of things using all kinds of materials – wood, MDF, aluminum, plaster, you name it. I worked on the floor because I didn’t have any kind of workbench or even a little table space. Luckily my friends were really easy-going. Sometimes in the morning they asked something like, were you sawing something at 2 am. And I was like, no… I was filing. I can’t stop when I get in the zone. I love how the momentum grabs you and doesn’t let go.
NH: How do you feel about being a role model for other girls and women?
BW: I don’t know about being a role model. I’d like for people to see me as a person woodworking, instead of a woman woodworking. Chromosomes have nothing to do with your abilities or potential in a woodshop. I believe many of my IG followers are kids or parents who show their kids what I’ve been working on. I hope to see more kids, both boys and girls, get into woodworking instead of only gaming and consuming social media. When you get into making things, you won’t ever feel bored in life.
At first I cleaned the shop before taking pictures but changed that pretty quickly as I felt it was the wrong approach. It’s the easy way out, to make things look a bit better than they actually are, on social media. A real role model wouldn’t do that. So, I stopped cleaning. It’s like an American ninja warrior track in there but with sharp objects.
NH: In one of your posts, Ken was delivering dinner to you in your workshop (or perhaps it was lunch?). You said it was because he knew better than to disturb you when you were working. He seems extraordinarily supportive! Can you tell us a bit more about how he encourages your work?
BW: It’s not like I eat all my meals in the woodshop, but from time to time Ken brings me lunch or dinner or a cup of coffee when I’m on a roll. I fed him once like a baby when he was working on his car and he was all covered in grease and filth.
What would you have thought if it was Ken who was working in the woodshop and I brought him dinner? Life should be a balance of give and take, wouldn’t you agree?
NH: How did you and Ken meet each other?
BW: Local hardware store, aisle 12, miscellaneous screws and fasteners section. We both reached for the last threaded insert. Our hands touched…
NH: Is woodworking your hobby or your profession?
BW: It’s a hobby. I wouldn’t want to do this for living. I’d starve.
I admire the makers who can support themselves woodworking, but I’m afraid only a handful of people can make a living out of handmade furniture and objects. The rest of us can enjoy it as a hobby. I’m not going to sell any of my creations, but I enjoy making gifts for friends and family. Money changing hands only creates stress.
NH: You have some really nice tools, as well as a great workbench. Those things don’t come cheap. How do you prioritize spending?
BW: She who dies with the most tools wins! I love tools. The shinier the better. I’d rather spend my money on tools than traveling.
There’s no such thing as too many tools. If you feel like you need a bigger tool cabinet or a second tool chest, get one. I’ve read you don’t need all the tools in the world, but you shouldn’t believe everything you read.
My dad always says it’s better to buy one good tool instead of a thousand bad ones. It’s true, but sometimes it hurts too much to pay the price. But then it hurts every time you use a bad tool. Everybody knows that, but sometimes we forget. The first plane I bought was a new Stanley SB-4. Later on, I sold it to someone. Does that make me a bad person? The thought still haunts me at nights.
Experienced woodworkers say that you first need to learn how to sharpen your tools and the next thing you need is a good workbench. When you buy or make a good workbench it will last the rest of your life. I love my workbench. I haven’t regretted going “all in” on that purchase.
Ken criticizes me for buying new tools, but I keep telling him it’s the tool fairy that keeps bringing me new toys. He’s not buying it.
NH: Fifty years ago, your forebears thought it was of the utmost importance to amass a vast wardrobe of stylish outfits – they had a special outfit for every occasion, whether playing tennis, horseback riding or going to the office. You seem to wear regular clothes in the workshop; I believe I even recall you working in a kilt one day. I think readers would find it interesting to hear your thoughts on this.
BW: It’s not like I choose to wear the clothes that I wear in the workshop. It just happens. A few weeks ago, we were having a night out and I thought I would just pop into the workshop for a quick visit before going to bed. I ended up applying some wood stain while wearing an evening dress. I don’t think I have any clothes that don’t have a little glue or paint here and there. My friends say it’s my trademark. I know I should wear an apron before I make a mess but I forget sometimes.
NH: Do you have a favorite style of furniture?
BW: I like anything I can make. Last year I stacked a few pallets together and called it a sofa. I was so proud of myself. I guess I’ve moved on from that now. Now I’m making my first kumiko. Maybe next year I’ll be making Louis XIV style furniture (not likely). I’m probably going to try my new dovetailing skills with a Dutch tool chest build. A greenwood chair is also high on my to-do list. What I don’t like is the look of mass-produced “perfect” furniture. That stuff lacks soul and character. And I can’t see myself ever making an epoxy river table.
NH: Do you find that men are intimidated by your woodworking skills?
BW: I hope not. The thing is that many people are scared of trying new things because of fear of failure. I boldly go where I have never gone before. I try to take my time with the first try. I’m using sharp, good-quality tools, and I’m being careful and patient. And I don’t use a pencil to mark critical cuts. A marking knife and the blue masking tape trick are the keys to my early success. If you approach the scribe lines patiently and don’t pass them, what can go wrong?
I always thought dovetails were impossible to make and only mythical creatures could make them. After watching a few YouTube videos, they didn’t seem so intimidating anymore. I must admit that before making the first attempt at dovetails I thought I needed to buy some sort of jig or sawing guide. Luckily my woodworking friend talked me out of that silly belief. I feel using a sawing guide is cheating on myself, but hey, that’s just me!
NH: On your logo, you describe the quality of your work as “mediocre,” but the joinery you show on your feed is exemplary. Do you plan to modify your logo soon, in light of your ever-increasing proficiency? It’s not that one needs to boast, but exaggerated modesty is arguably one of those traditionally feminine traits that are less than helpful to girls today.
BW: When I started to build up my woodshop, one of the first things I knew I had to make was a logo. I’ve been admiring maker logos on social media and I couldn’t resist designing a logo for my woodshop. Designing the logo was easy. I just downloaded an app and made it.
I designed the sign before I knew if I could make anything. I am happy about how my practice projects have turned out and the quality of the results have been delightful for me, too.
We can all benefit from a little humility and having a sense of humor about ourselves and the world can go a long way. I think the logo is funny and it draws attention. Just like it should.
NH: How has Instagram shaped your experience as a woodworker?
BW: I really like social media, but I’m not interested in seeing celebrity selfies or people showing off their imaginary wealth. I’m looking for inspiration and new skills. I’ve learned so much watching YouTube and Instagram content. If it wasn’t for the makers who share their knowledge or skills, I would never have found the joy of hand tool woodworking and I wouldn’t have any idea how to use them. I just want to chip in and share my story and show people that you can learn new skills if you just try. Doing beats mere intention, always.
I had no intention of posting anything to Instagram. My friends twisted my arm and so, I ended up setting up an Instagram account. I’m glad I started this. It has been a lot of fun. People are supportive, give me good advice and suggestions, which I’m more than happy to receive. Many people have offered to send me materials from their own stash. That’s really overwhelming. I really appreciate the positive vibe in the woodworking community. When I make something, I get a feeling of fulfillment when I behold the accomplishment. It’s even better when you can share the moment with the woodworking community.
48 thoughts on “An Interview with Barbie of Barbie Woodshop”
I never imagined I had so much in common with Barbie.
I AM IN TEARS!!! Whenever I feel defeated or ready to throw in the towel, I will get a dose of this article for the day. Oh, my word. So much wisdom here! Can’t wait to follow Barbie’s feed. Many thanks for this, Nancy and of coarse, Barbie.
BW is an inspiration! I never knew about the blue masking tape trick!
I will try it on some dovetails I’ve just massacred.
I need to return to reality for just the briefest moment. Who made those extraordinary workbench and tools?
Too funny (smile)!
I loved this article – way to make it real. approachable and funny all at the same time. I was astounded by all the little details. I loved how you poked a bit of lighthearted fun at all the latest trends; kumiko, epoxy river tables etc…. Who has time to make so many tiny tools. I was especially impressed by the tiny posters. I felt a little sorry for poor ken – his arms don’t look like they articulate.
My favorite quote: “It’s a hobby. I wouldn’t want to do this for living. I’d starve.”
Keep it up!
Barbie is real. The people behind this are multi-talented and devote prodigious attention to detail in their words as well as every aspect of the scene.
Could it be that the tools are real, but this Barbie isn’t the size of the popular doll?
My understanding is that Barbie is the size of a traditional doll, and the tools are miniature.
Delightful! My wife loves it too and is going to forward it to friends.
Great bench with holdfasts, tools, and shavings!
“Mediocre Quality”, Ha! Her workshop and skills shown look superior to many I’ve seen. And definitely better than me.
I’m jealous of Barbie’s shop. Nice selection of tools and are those Benchcrafted vises on her bench?
This is so cool. But I have to know more. How is this done? How long have they been doing this? Why? Who is the brains behind this? Who has this much time to do this stuff? Bravo!!
It’s top secret for now, but I can reveal that it is a serious labor of love.
Unbelievably funny! And packed full of wisdom! From an 80-something year old woman who’s been making furniture for about 20 years: all you men out there, get your wives, daughters and neighborhood girls into the workshop! Just in case they didn’t learn woodworking from their grandpa or dad!
Thank you Annie D! I bought a load of wood to practice joints and make a work bench during covid social distancing and my daughter asked to make a doll house with me and I told her she had to wait! I’m clearing the bench for her project!
“It’s like an American ninja warrior track in there but with sharp objects.” Hahahaha!
I’m in Love !! Thanks for introducing me Nancy
It’s not like I choose to wear the clothes that I wear in the workshop. It just happens.
ROFLMAO. Had to pull a net-ism from the IRC days.
This is great. I’m going to have to read it again, and again.
A great piece. Thanks so much for seeking this out and sharing it with us. An inspiration for us all.
I know! I honestly never realized what a badass Barbie is.
Every article for clothing I have has paint, stain or glue on it. That is a fact. When I was much younger I did a stop action movie with my daughters Barbie’s we had a lot of fun with that. I love working in my shop.
We all know that Barbie is American. But she was living in a shared flat with two friends — do all genius woodworkers move from the US to the UK, and back? Was Nancy one of the roomates living with Barbie? Was Barbie Nancy’s apprentice? I have so many questions.
Thanks for this post. Brilliant.
This Nancy has not met Barbie in person but hopes to do so someday.
“….proper stance and not a hair out of place….” – I got tears outta that!!!
I’m sorry, but I don’t get the joke? Are they making fun of certian women woodworkers on social media?
Not at all.
No! Not making fun of them at all. To the contrary.
Then why is her name on instagram “Barbie of all trades”? Could be a case of online bullying.
Her father, George, is an engineer. I’m sure she was exposed to a lot of different areas, in concept at least. Her mother, Marge, is devoted to her brood and made sure the girls knew that nothing was off limits due to mere gender. The Roberts clan are all pretty level headed folks, though I think something is off with cousin Stacie–always looking for her accessories at the bottom of everything. But that may just be me.
Now, Midge is really where you should look with suspicion. She plays at being Barbie’s BFF, but she always seems too upbeat and plastic to be believable. If you observe for a while, you’ll notice that the little pooch, Taffy, shakes and trembles when Midge gets close to her.
Don’t get me started on those rumors about Skipper and Midge…
You are just wrong. If you read the posts and watch the videos it is *abundantly* clear it is an homage. The creators are not making fun of anyone. There is not a bit of malice in that feed.
Sometimes people look for trouble when there isn’t any.
I can assure you that there is no bullying or making fun of others going on here. “Barbie” *is* expressing admiration for a number of woodworkers.
It looked targeted with the name “of all trades” but the posts are harmless. The original “ofalltrades” seems to enjoy on-line attention, so I’m sure she approves too.
Based on what I know about Barbie after arranging this interview, I feel very confident in venturing a guess that this is a case of admiration!
LOL! I love this!
Finally! Barbie has stepped up to the workbench!
I must be too old
What’s next LAP start selling coloring books?
They already did: https://blog.lostartpress.com/2014/10/02/andres-big-coloring-book-of-bois/
I love this. The perfect combination of silly and serious. Barbie is five times the woodworker I’ll ever be.
I can’t decide between “A few weeks ago, we were having a night out and I thought I would just pop into the workshop for a quick visit before going to bed. I ended up applying some wood stain while wearing an evening dress.” and “Luckily my friends were really easy-going. Sometimes in the morning they asked something like, were you sawing something at 2 am. And I was like, no… I was filing.” for my favorite line.
Brilliant interview! Who knew Barbie was such a badass??? Those tools, clothes, posters!! Blown away and shared.
I concur completely – just great, in every which way!
It also rather made me think of a Chris Schwarz blog post from 2014: https://blog.lostartpress.com/2014/08/09/the-anarchists-tool-chest-of-marco-terenzi/ …
Thanks Nancy. That was awesome. What a great father daughter project.
I relate to this sister. Arriving home from dinner, checking on and ending up applying, yet, another coat of finish is not the best thing to do in dress clothes. That realization doesn’t occur until 5 hours later. Thanks for sharing.
Just perfect! Barbie rules. ❤️
would open up whole new vistas for Barbie’s creativity
Comments are closed.