Imagine this: You’re a teacher of woodworking. Your students are kids. The school where you teach is in a big city, and most of your students live nearby. It’s March 2020: Your school, along with much of the rest of the world, shuts down in response to the pandemic. But your job is to go on teaching. What do you do?
This is the reality that hit Yoav Liberman three months ago. His students and their families were in lockdown, confined to their homes in New York City, which has suffered some of the world’s highest numbers of infection and death from Covid-19. Instead of teaching face-to-face in a workshop at Manhattan’s Rudolf Steiner school, as he has for the past eight years, he was expected to teach remotely, via computer screen. “How do I participate in this in a meaningful way?” he wondered, aware that his students lacked access not just to workbenches and woodworking tools, but also to lumber. With parks closed, and few trees on the streets, “even getting them a branch would be almost impossible.”
Fortunately for Yoav’s students, their teacher has a lifetime’s experience of turning challenges into opportunities.
Yoav was born on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel, and has one younger brother, Dan. His dad, Eliezer, was a machinist, handyman and maritime officer who worked as chief engineer on a merchant ship. Thanks to his position, Eliezer could bring his family along in the summers; Yoav recalls two-month voyages from Haifa to the Mediterranean, then on to America and Canada. It was the late 1960s. Ships were small. The world was not connected as it is today. “Those voyages are a very important part of my childhood memories,” he says. They might stop in Athens, where they’d pay a quick visit to the Acropolis, then in a day they’d be in Florence. Another day would pass and they were in Marseilles; then they’d cross the Atlantic. In addition to providing a dazzling introduction to different landscapes and architectural styles, those vacations opened Yoav’s eyes to the world of engineering and mechanics. “I was seeing the world not from a luxurious point, but from a merchant ship perspective,” he explains – and as often as not, he was immersed in the guts of the ship, because it was his father’s job to keep things running, through storms as well as calm seas.
When Yoav was 6, his father died, an experience that had a powerful effect on the course of his life. Aside from the emotional wounds caused by such a loss, especially at a young age, he and his family were forced to learn a multitude of new skills. His mother (today, a retired school teacher) and grandfather were now responsible for fixing things around the house. Yoav has a vivid recollection of watching his mom mix epoxy. “In other homes the only glue that people used to use was silly contact cement, [but] my mom kept two epoxy tubes that my dad got from one of his trips to the USA and taught her how to use.”
“I was not such a good student in elementary school,” he says. “My mom said that I ‘withered inward’ after my dad died. Without any academic achievements to be proud of, I was destined to attend a vocational high school, which actually ended up as a godsend. With a curriculum that included machining, plastic and polymer studies, robotics and electronics, and most importantly, technical drawing, I was in heaven. At home I [built] scale models of ships and planes, and in school I leaned over a metal lathe to turn a hammer head or held an acetylene torch to build a small garden stool.”
Like all able-bodied Israeli citizens, Yoav did a compulsory stint in the armed forces – in his case, the navy – then considered going on to higher education. He didn’t want to study pure engineering, but he wanted to do something involving art that would also be functional. There were no furniture making programs in Israel at the time, so he thought “I’ll just try architecture. You design buildings and furniture, get training that’s lofty in terms of art and principles of design but also down-to-earth training in materials and construction.”
The summer before he started his studies at the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion), he worked for a family friend who had a woodshop. The work was low-level and mundane, but that shop launched him on his lifelong project of collecting wood scraps and other materials that most people throw away.
Yoav completed a five-year program in architecture at Technion. It was the early 1990s, before widespread publishing on the internet. His teachers were architects, not woodworkers. To get his woodshop fix he subscribed to Fine Woodworking and devoured the content. As his interest in woodworking grew, so did his collection of tools.
After graduation he “gave architecture a chance,” as he puts it, by working at a couple of small firms. But he spent his spare time building and restoring furniture. While he enjoyed some of the sketching and 3-D work in his architectural apprenticeship, he was put off by the layers of mediation between the clients, the work and himself. “You’re so remote,” he explains. “There are so many hurdles to jump over. So much red tape. Some are completely justified, [though] as a junior architect you’re even more remote. But working on furniture is so in tune. [You’re] so in touch with the material and the processes. It’s fulfilling.” An invitation to teach a class in furniture refurbishing and design at a small DIY center in Tel Aviv proved pivotal. “I was much more interested in that than in working in front of the computer to compile square footages for a building my boss designed.”
During his apprenticeship Yoav had also taught architecture, drawing and design as an adjunct professor at a community college. He kept that work going and began writing about furniture for a DIY magazine in Israel, as well as teaching classes in furniture refurbishing.
In the late ’90s Yoav’s (now-former) partner moved to Cambridge, Mass., to begin work toward a doctorate at Harvard. While visiting his partner, Yoav discovered the Worcester Center for Crafts; he made some inquiries and showed them his portfolio. Impressed, they accepted him as an artist in residence and sponsored his student visa. “It was a dream,” says Yoav. “The magazines were from New England, and many of the people [whose articles] I read were working in the Boston area.” It felt like destiny.
Yoav moved to Massachusetts in 2000. He lived in Cambridge and commuted to Worcester. His job: to build a meaningful body of work. He worked long days, grateful for access to the school’s resources and the opportunity to think about things he wanted to build. He also took classes in turning, jewelry making and glass. Looking back, he says, “I was in Candy Land.”
His collection of salvaged materials grew; he was constantly thinking about how to save stuff from being destroyed or thrown away. Reclaimed materials became the hallmark of his work. The city of Worcester contributed to his stash: He scored a bunch of heart pine beams from a mill that had been demolished for a highway. The firewood bin at the craft school provided riches, too. As Yoav saw it, “I was happy not to allow this material to be lost to the landfill but regain respect from its users or viewers for as long as the furniture I built would last.”
He sought out other teachers and found his way to the Powderhouse Woodworkers – Mitch Ryerson, John Everdell, Judy Kensley McKie and Nathan Rome, who had set up a co-op in an old millwork building rented from Tufts University; there was a communal machine space and kitchen, with open studios. Each member of the co-op had his or her own style. Yoav worked with John and Mitch; he particularly admired John for the complexity and variety of materials with which he worked and calls him “a virtuoso in using bronze and copper and stone and ebony.” Yoav wrote an article about John for Woodwork magazine.
Yoav apprenticed with the group on and off for about six years. Asked how he made a living, he replies: “My partner got a stipend from Harvard. We lived in a grad dorm. I was riding my bike to my mentors’ studio. We survived on his stipend plus my savings and some family support. We were very frugal. Officially I was a student, so I was not supposed to work.” (He has since been granted a green card.)
Those years overlapped with other work. After finishing his residency in Worcester, Yoav found himself without a studio, but he was offered an artist in residence/tutorial position at Harvard’s Eliot House, which had a shop in the basement. There he would mentor students from Harvard who wanted to learn woodworking He created a program of instruction and launched an annual furniture show, took students on field trips and invited fellow woodworkers and speakers, such as Tom Lie-Nielsen and Albert LeCoff, to give presentations. The affiliation with Harvard opened other doors; he was invited to write a blog for American Woodworker; he wrote articles for Woodwork magazine; he pursued his own furniture projects. This was toward the end of 2009.
For four years he also taught three-month stints in furniture design, sometimes with cardboard as the primary material, for college interior and industrial design programs in Israel.
Around 2010 he was accepted to an artist in residence program at Purchase College. It was a prestigious position that came with a studio, stipend, room and board in exchange for teaching one class and spending the rest of his time on his own work. He calls the experience “formidable” and says that during those four months he built his most important body of work to date.
Just as that residency was drawing to a close, he met James, a psychologist in private practice, who is now his partner. “James is also a wonderful bread maker, knitter and gardener,” Yoav adds.
When American Woodworker was bought by Popular Woodworking, Yoav met Megan Fitzpatrick. He’d been thinking about writing a book about building furniture with reclaimed wood; Megan was enthusiastic and had Scott Francis, her books editor, get in touch to discuss possibilities. “That was an affirmation by two people I appreciate,” he says. “If she thinks it’s a good idea, I will put the time into it.” He wanted the book to include work by others as well as his own – people from all over the world, in different disciplines. “The purpose is to let us pause a little and think, how can we utilize any sort of discarded material that has still so much potential? Sometimes the potential exceeds that of virgin-cut wood.”
Yoav spent two years working on the book, “Working with Reclaimed Wood,” which was published in 2018. By then he had made a home with James in the greater New York City region, adopted their son, Asher, who is now 5, and was working at his current job as a teacher of woodworking in the city. Ordinarily, he commutes four days a week.
So here’s how Yoav faced his reality this past March.
He started with a process of elimination: What kind of woodworking-related activity can you do with your hands when you don’t have access to woodworking tools? He thought back to the design classes he’d taught in Israel, where students built pieces out of corrugated cardboard. It’s made from wood. It’s a readily available material – in fact, with so many parents confined to home and ordering products online instead of shopping in stores, there’s been an excess of cardboard to dispose of. And all you need to work with cardboard are scissors. (If you really want to go wild, Yoav adds, you could splurge on a $5 utility knife.)
His next challenge was to come up with a project that would be appropriate for each of the grades. He consulted the students’ other teachers. Fourth-graders were studying local geography; in Manhattan, that means skyscrapers. So Yoav decided to have his fourth-grade students make the Empire State Building. He found some plans of the building online, made a cutting list and templates, then sent the kit to parents to print out. Now the kids are making the building, right down to the spire and antenna. (You can read Yoav’s blog post about the project here.) He meets with students for half an hour a week via Zoom; sometimes he tutors individuals. “It’s such a shift in teaching,” he says, acknowledging the irony of the situation. “[Ordinarily] we say ‘No screens, no electronics!’”
The fifth-grade students are making animals – panthers, a dolphin, a penguin, a whale. Each student brings her or his own interpretation of the material to the project. For example, one wanted to sand the edges but had no sandpaper; she used her mother’s nail file instead.
Ninth-graders are tackling more complicated designs. They started with a box-jointed cardboard box. (Did you get that?) After that they moved on to furniture. Yoav has encouraged them to use notched designs, which can be elegant. Other designs involve layering the cardboard for stability. Origami, he notes, provides yet another way to think about using cardboard as a furniture-making material.
As they near semester’s end, Yoav has been teaching the older students (and some of their parents, who couldn’t resist getting involved) to carve simple designs in basswood purchased online – decorative patterns, animals, letters – with a carving knife. Constantly thinking about how to keep them from cutting their fingers, Yoav recommended that they invest in mesh tape. “You sit in front of a camera,” he explains; “the student is miles away from you.”
Odds are, he’s inspiring a new generation of makers who will design and build innovative furnishings out of this abundant waste material, cardboard.
— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.