“I was born smack in the middle of the war,” says Drew Langsner, a traditional woodworker and author of several books, including “Green Woodworking,” “The Chairmaker’s Workshop” and “Country Woodcraft: Then & Now” (Lost Art Press).
It was November 13, 1942, and his mother was living with another woman and her small child in Los Angeles, California, while his father was working as a psychiatric social worker in the army, stationed in Texas. After the war his parents divorced, and his mom remarried.
Drew’s stepfather was a classical violinist and his mother was a serious pianist. Drew also spent many afternoons with his father, an art historian, visiting artist studios, galleries and museums.
He and his half-brother, who was 8 years younger, spent their childhood in West L.A., which Drew says was then a nice place to grow up in. A self-described quiet and shy child, Drew struggled with rote memorization at school and never yearned for a paper route in order to buy things like most of his friends. He preferred making things, and his parents always made sure he had access to art supplies.
“Nobody had much money in our family at the time so I was always encouraged to do art things and try making stuff,” he says.
Instead of having him study for his bar mitzvah, Drew’s parents signed him up for weekly art lessons with Adalaide Fogg and Mary Gordon, liberal progressives who painted, made jewelry and prints, and supplemented their income by opening up their studio to provide lessons for children.
After high school, Drew enrolled at San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge) to study anthropology. He had always been interested in the topic and while the school wasn’t his first choice the anthropology department there had recently hired Dorothy Lee, “a really brilliant woman who was fed up with teaching at Harvard to be the department head,” Drew says. Lee was interesting, connected easily with young people and eschewed standardized, formal education. Drew thrived and in two years took enough courses minus one to satisfy an anthropology degree.
Drew disliked the San Fernando Valley and was falling in love with San Francisco. (This was San Francisco in the 1960s after all.) So he transferred to San Francisco State, which he loved – except for the anthropology department. In one class Drew stated an ethical objection to a field method used by anthropologists. The instructor, who was the department head, suggested that it would be a good idea for Drew to consider work in a different field. Drew managed to pass the course and earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1964.
While at San Francisco State, Drew had fallen in love with the university’s dark room and ceramic studios. And in 1966, he earned a master’s degree in painting and sculpture. Although there was a woodshop on campus, there were no instructions on how to use the tools, Drew said. And while Charles Haywood was writing in the U.K. at the time, Drew had never heard of him and publications like Fine Woodworking didn’t exist.
“Interestingly, while I was in the art department at the graduate level at San Francisco State University, I had no idea that they had an industrial arts department,” he says. “I literally didn’t know it existed.” Turns out John Kassay, who later went on to write “The Book of Shaker Furniture” in 1980 and “The Book of American Windsor Furniture: Styles and Technologies” in 1998, was teaching on campus at the same time Drew was a student. “It wasn’t until 30 years later while on the phone with him one day that I found out he was teaching right where I was,” Drew says. “For me it was all learning on one’s own and sometimes woodworking was part of it and sometimes it was not.”
In graduate school Drew became friends with a guy who grew up in a “real all-American middle-class kind of family,” he says, which was quite different from the way Drew grew up. The dad in this family had a little woodworking shop, complete with a table saw, and together, father and son were building a boat. Drew would visit this family often, and says he learned a lot about woodworking while helping build the boat.
1960s San Francisco
After graduation Drew, who at this point owned a small table saw, started a small business making stretched canvasses for professional and more well-off artists. He also started to make some sculptures and, as funds would allow, would occasionally buy a new tool from Sears.
Drew loved living in San Francisco in the 1960s, and that decade proved formative.
“It’s part of my story,” he says.
He was involved in civil rights and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, and drawn to people who were producing the Whole Earth Catalog.
“Back then we would walk everywhere,” he says. “We would walk across San Francisco. I lived in a neighborhood, it was pretty much a slum, and we would walk to China Town and say, ‘We have $3 for dinner. What can you make us?’ And they would make us dinner. It would show up. And there were all kinds of stuff happening in various arts and it was all accessible. It wasn’t a pricey play to live like it’s become.”
Around this time Drew met his wife, Louise. He had heard about a woman named Ann Halprin who ran a modern dance studio. He and Louise met at one of the studio’s summer workshops on experimental dance theater. “A couple years later we were living together and then a couple years after that we were getting married,” he says.
Around this time Drew and his friend, Jay Beckwith, began building adventure playgrounds for kids, essentially sculptures for kids to climb on. “We were using our art-school mentality to cut up existing structures with funny angles and put it all back together in a totally different configuration,” he says.
One night, while watching a friend of a friend’s slideshow from a trip to Nepal, Drew says he felt an attachment to the landscape and Nepalese people, and how closely they were living to an outdoors life. At the time, a lot of young people were traveling to India and Nepal, and Drew and Louise decided they wanted to do the same. Drew, a fan of Bernard Rudofsky’s “Architecture Without Architects,” wanted to take photographs of people and write a book about the vernacular architecture they found along the way. Louise also became interested in the book, with a focus on finding out more about the people they met and how they lived their lives.
“I was a little kid who marveled at the building of the Hollywood Freeway and I even thought I’d be an industrial designer someday but somewhere in my teenage years I became more interested with what you could make with your hands without a bunch of machines and big bucks and spending a lot of money,” he says.
The two saved a little money, “way too little,” Drew says, and began driving east. Along the way they spent a summer at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, then continued on, visiting Louise’s parents in Chicago and dropping off their old Chevy truck in New Jersey on a farm owned by an artist friend of Drew’s father. And then they flew to England, intent on reaching Nepal.
A Year in Europe + an Apprenticeship in Coopering
Initially Drew and Louise wanted to do their entire trip on public transportation and by hitchhiking, thinking that would put them closer to the people they wanted to meet.
“But we found out we were lousy hitchhikers,” Drew says, laughing.
So they traveled by bus and train. Their first big stop was Greece – winter was coming, so they decided to stay put. Drew took a train back to Munich, bought a used police motorcycle and brought it back to Greece. The motorcycle, it turns out, was a lemon and although Drew says they spent half their winter in Greece trying to fix it they enjoyed their time in places they were stuck.
Once the weather began to warm they took a ferry to Turkey but soon they realized their motorcycle wasn’t going to make it. Back to Munich they went (tax regulations made it impossible to sell or even give away the motorcycle in Turkey) where they found some American soldiers willing to buy it. They saw a “for sale” sign on a Volkswagen Beetle, “a really good one,” Drew says, and they bought it. By now they had given up on Nepal and instead had their eye on Scandinavia. “We thought we could explore some rural parts of Western Europe, starting with the Swiss Alps,” Drew says. And that’s where they met Kufermeister Ruedi Kohler.
Ruedi was one of the last traditionally trained Swiss coopers and he made wooden, open buckets for use in Alpine dairies. “They were really quite beautiful and very specialized to the area where he lived,” Drew says. Drew and Louise bought a bucket and put it in the back seat of their Volkswagen. Every day, as they headed up to Norway and Sweden, Drew looked at that bucket and wondered how Ruedi made it. “I knew enough about making stuff to realize I couldn’t do it,” Drew says. “And I had no idea how he did it with his tools.”
Drew and Louise drove around for several weeks, considering a permanent move to Norway. Ultimately they decided against it but before moving back they had an idea: Maybe Drew could apprentice with Ruedi. “Ruedi seemed to be really kind and definitely very skillful and he lived in this beautiful log chalet in a kind of obscure corner of the Alps,” Drew says. “And I thought maybe he would take on a student.”
Ruedi agreed and Drew began a 10-week apprenticeship in single-bottom coopering, working six days a week. Because of the language barrier, Ruedi would simply show Drew how to do something, Drew would try, then Ruedi would show him again, over and over, until Drew improved. Drew wrote down questions on a little pad of paper and every once in a while a local schoolteacher who knew rudimentary English would come by and translate Drew’s questions and Ruedi’s responses.
“I still have never found anyone as skillful as Ruedi,” Drew says. “And he turned out to be even nicer than we had thought – his wife and family also.”
Planting Roots in North Carolina
Once Drew’s apprenticeship ended, he and Louise were ready to move back to the U.S. Although they loved the San Francisco Bay area they wanted to experience a different kind of environment, something less urban – but they weren’t sure where. So they picked up their old Chevy at the farm in New Jersey and began driving it back across the country.
While in Greece a publisher from Harmony Books, a division of the Crown Publishing Group, who Drew and Louise meet at the Lama Foundation, sent them a letter stating interest in publishing their book. So once back in San Francisco Drew began writing, processing film, making prints and even working on the book’s layout. Louise worked on it, too.
It was the beginning of the Foxfire books era and having spent a year traveling in rural Europe, both Drew and Louise knew they wanted to live in a less material world. They considered Vermont, but didn’t want to be involved with its winters. Other places they deemed nice were too expensive.
While at the Lama Foundation they had met a guy who owned 100 acres in North Carolina who had the intention of starting a craft community. Drew and Louise happened to run into this guy again and he said they were welcome to stay in a small house on the property while they looked for a place to live. So, they did.
“We got everything done with the book,” Drew says. “Winter was over and we took that old Chevy truck back across the U.S. to exactly where I’m sitting right now.”
The guy’s plans fell through, and Drew and Louise, who had fallen in love with the seclusion and beauty of the southern Appalachian mountains, bought his 100 acres. And although they eventually built a new house, they’ve never moved off the property.
Initially they had no idea how they were going to earn a living but they were confident they’d figure it out. “We always figured things out,” Drew says.
While they never wanted to farm for a living they were interested in small-scale farming and making a bit of income off of it. Drew was interested in farming using draft animals, and they wanted to grow their own food. “We just wanted to experience it,” he says. “We wondered what the possibilities were, what we could do.”
In 1977, Wille Sundqvist visited which, in part, prompted Drew and Louise to start a craft school focused on traditional woodworking. “But I don’t want to talk about Country Workshops,” Drew says. “Too much has already been written about Country Workshops.”
That’s fair. Still folks equate the name “Drew Langsner” with two things: “Country Woodcraft,” the book he first released in 1978 completely reviving hand-tool woodworking in the modern world, and Country Workshops. In 1978 Drew and Louise opened their home and farm to students to learn about traditional woodworking. Instructors at Country Workshops included Wille Sundqvist, Jögge Sundqvist, Jennie Alexander and John Brown. Peter Follansbee, who spent time learning and teaching there, had this to say on his blog when he learned Drew and Louise were closing it down, 40 years after they opened: “Many green woodworkers in America and beyond can trace their roots to Drew & Louise, even if they don’t know it …”.
Although it may seem like it, Drew says it’s not always easy for him to connect with other people. “I’m not that gregarious or maybe kind,” he says. “But I’ve always been attracted to that kind of thing. One of the best things that ever happened during the 40 years of Country Workshops had to do with meeting the people who came as students and as teachers.”
During the last 20 years of Country Workshops Drew organized and hosted 17 international craft tours where people not only looked at craft work but met craft people – in their homes. “It seems to be something that Americans want to do but a lot of other people don’t understand that attraction at all,” Drew says. “They don’t particularly care if this potter has three kids who all play musical instruments or they’re just cuter than hell. They just want to get in that guy’s studio, buy some stuff and go. People like myself and a lot of the people that I took on those craft tours, we wanted to spend the day with the potter and meet his wife and see what his house was like and check out their neighborhood and have a meal with them. And we often succeeded in doing something like. It was my love of anthropology pasted into craft.”
Country Workshops shut down for good in 2017.
“During a lot of years Country Workshops, particularly, was a struggle but because of the people we were dealing with it was a pleasure,” Drew says. “A really good ride. And we survived. We did five years longer than I had ever thought and we were able to put together enough savings so that we’re able to live out here and not worry much. Instead we worry about the country and the world.”
A Love of Learning – And Sculpture
Today a typical day for Drew starts with a shower then reading, first some news and then 20 to 30 minutes of something more serious. “I’ve become much more interested in what I sometimes think of as getting the education I should have been paying attention to in high school and college,” he says. “I’ve been doing some, not heavy-duty, but definitely serious reading the last 10 years – philosophy and various things to do with the arts and history and thinking and stuff like that. I’m liking that a whole lot.”
Next comes exercise, something he’s been doing for years but given some recent health setbacks he’s now more focused.
“I make my own breakfast,” he says. “Then I take a walk, which is something that Louise has been encouraging forever but is more important now that the cardiologist has prescribed it.” He typically walks around their property for an hour, including down to the mailbox and back, which is two miles.
“Then I usually fool around for a while and we have lunch,” he says. “And then I try to do some outdoor work on something and usually there’s chores or things that need to be fixed and then before supper I try to get in a couple hours in the shop working on my sculpture projects. I have a hard time working on that stuff until I’ve cleared my mind of what needs to be done around this place which is too big.”
When the weather’s good Drew spends time working with the young forest that’s developing on the edge of their fields – lots of pruning, thinning and weeding. And then there’s always firewood work and work on the driveway and other light farm work.
“I just don’t worry about what I can’t do anymore,” he says. “Louise, she hasn’t made peace yet with the fact that she can’t keep up with getting rid of the bittersweet and the poison ivy. I do what I can, I get help when I can and I don’t let that bother me.”
In the evening he does more reading.
Prior to the pandemic Drew would try to sail one day a week on a nearby lake. He and Louise also enjoyed spending time with their neighbors, and visiting their daughter, son-in-law and grandson in California. Now those visits are FaceTime.
Drew has been spending a lot of time with his “Bhuto Dancer II” (which he talks about in “Country Woodcraft: Then & Now”), a sculpture made from a fallen remnant of a scrub apple tree.
“Right now I’m involved with the real painting on it,” he says. “It’s no longer just flat white and it’s been a really tough one to paint to get things right. I didn’t have an exact vision at all how it’s going to be once painted. I’m getting there, I’m almost there. And then I have some other old pieces of wood that were hollowed out that I’m saving. There are some that are real easy to work on but the one I want to do next is another one that is very unique. It’s a hollow log with dried fungus all over the surface which I’ve stabilized with lots of glue and epoxy. I have a form and what I’m trying to do is work with it to the point where the observer doesn’t think it’s a piece of a tree anymore. It’s an experience that you have visually and tactilely that has actually nothing to do with how it started as a tree except that it can only be thought of as that as it is a tree that grew that way. And that’s that.”
Drew has made many small sculptures, including bowls, and several big outdoor ones.
“My hope for the future is that I get some kind of exposure and success with these things,” he says. “And so far I’ve had absolutely none. And I’m unwilling to try to market myself as an artist. I’m hoping to be discovered.”
‘I Like Life When it’s Good’
When talking about a life philosophy, Drew says he simply tries to be honest and fair.
“Just the golden rule,” he says. “I don’t like to see people get cheated and I don’t want to have anything to do with that kind of thing. And I want to participate as much as I can and try to feel. I like life when it’s good. It’s a struggle. This year, of course, was an extra tough one with two big medical things plus America and Covid. But I’ve done pretty well.”
Drew dealt with both prostate cancer and quadruple bypass surgery this year. His bloodwork has been very promising where the cancer is concerned. Heart health, he says, never ends. Drew’s father died from a heart attack at age 56. And while Drew has lived a pretty heart-healthy lifestyle the last 30 years, he knows he carries those genes.
“A phone conference with my doctor ended with him saying I want you go and get a stress test this afternoon,” Drew says. “I foolishly put it off for a week but I did it. And at the end of the test the evaluating doctor said, ‘I have some bad news for you. You flunked the stress test. The doctor and I want you to go to the hospital right now.’ By the next morning I was getting woken up from four bypasses. So that’s something.”
Living 50 miles from the nearest hospital, Drew says he was very fortunate the doctors ordered him to go to the hospital when they did.
For years Drew says he was involved in organizations trying to change politics in their area, environmental pursuits and peace pursuits.
“I still support those things as much as I can but now I just want to live,” he says.
In the meantime Drew is approaching life with the same anthropologic curiosity he’s had since he was a college student.
Right now he’s reading a 500-page biography of Francisco Goya, the painter. He’s excited to finish “Bhuto Dancer II.” He loves listening to music late at night – mostly jazz, but also some blues and rock-and-roll – often with headphones.
“It’s so easy for me and Louise,” he says. “There’s so many things that we’re interested in that are so fascinating to learn about. Just seeing how plants grow, what goes on. Did you see the popular movie ‘My Teacher the Octopus?’ Our world is just full of that fabulous kind of stuff. I don’t want to get dragged down by the things that are dragging us down.”
You can order “Country Woodcraft: Then & Now” (Lost Art Press) here. “Green Woodworking” and “The Chairmaker’s Workshop” are available from Drew personally, here. Simply include a note with the title(s) you wish to buy, and your mailing address. Payment is accepted via PayPal.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl