Every so often it’s good to remind yourself that despite all the stuff that’s going, well, let’s say less swimmingly than we would prefer, plenty of other things are getting better.
When I started woodworking in 1980, there were few other women to be found among furniture makers in rural English shops. I certainly didn’t know any, though I’d heard that some were out there. The first professional woman woodworker I recall meeting was Faye at the Wall-Goldfinger shop in Northfield, Vermont, where I signed on in 1987 after returning to the States. Soon after, the company added another woman, who had worked as a patternmaker for Vermont Castings. In the late ’80s, three women in a shop floor crew of eight or 10 was a big deal. That proportion of women to men would still qualify as unusual today. (And Faye, if you’re reading this, I hope the “e” on your name is correct.)
Fast forward to the late 1990s on a jobsite in Bloomington, Ind., where a carpenter mentioned he was thinking about opening his own business. He was going to call it Venus Woodworking in the hope that potential customers would infer from “Venus,” a family name, that the business was run by a woman. That was the first time it had ever occurred to me that being a woman in this field might give one an edge, at least in the eyes of some potential customers. At that point I had spent years hiding behind the gender-opaque business name “NR Hiller Design,” concerned that people might assume the quality of my work was low because I wasn’t a man. If you think this sounds paranoid or bizarre, I’m here to tell you that I’d had plenty of experience by then to convince me that such notions were widespread, at least in our south-central Indiana locale. I hoped that this opacity might at least give me a chance to make a good impression by phone, which was how most prospective customers made preliminary contact in those days.
This preamble should go some way toward explaining why I found it rewarding to hear Alex Dolese explain that while, in daily life, she prefers to go by “Alex,” she named her business Alexis Dolese Woodworks precisely to leave no doubt that she’s a woman. In the past several years it has become downright cool to be a woman in woodworking, and women are doing some of the most dazzling work to be found today.
Alex was born in Missoula, Mont., in 1995. Her parents, Tom and Jennifer Dolese, are partners in their business, Terra Firma Design, now located in Bellingham, Wash. Tom designs and builds furniture; for select pieces, Jennifer creates marquetry and stained glass that complements it.
As a child, Alex spent lots of time in the shop. “My first memory is going to the workshop in Missoula…and pounding nails,” she says. “My dad would give me a scrap piece [of wood] and I would pound nails into it.” Other childhood memories of her parents’ workplace: “There were lots of parties at the woodshop. And I remember there being Wonder bread, which I wasn’t allowed at home. It was a real treat going there!”
In 2004, when Alex was 9, she and Tom built a cherry picture frame that she still has in her home. Although it was her first time building something with him, they made the frame with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints, adding faux through-tenons for decoration.
In middle school, Alex had a pen-turning business. She sold her pens at the farmers’ market and at a yearly show in which her dad took part. That business, she adds, “was heavily subsidized by my dad. We learned to turn together, which was really fun. My dad was never, like, ‘you should come and sand or build something.’ He wanted me to make that move. I was interested but never felt pressure to do it.”
Her interest in woodworking dwindled in high school. A competitive track athlete, Alex applied to college at Montana State University in Bozeman, which has a track program in Division I. She started studies in ceramics; many of her parents’ friends made their living as artists, so a career in creative work seemed within reach. But on a break a year and a half in, she discovered her perspective on woodworking had changed for the better; she remembers thinking “I love this medium so much more.”
At that time, she says, “I was living in this house and I would [pass] a house getting framed. They had a few women on their crew. I thought ‘That looks like so much fun!’ I called my dad and told him I wanted to build a tiny house; my parents had built quite a few homes while I was growing up, so I had seen the process.” She had an inheritance from her grandmother and thought about starting a business as a general contractor. Her dad asked “all the business questions” and encouraged her to start by building a house of her own. “I went down that path pretty quickly and thought, if I’m going to learn this, why don’t I learn what my dad’s doing in the shop?” Having access to her dad for instruction and guidance would be invaluable.
So she went ahead and built her own house. At 20, Alex began the design work, collaborating with Jennifer. A retired architect named Bob was taking a few classes from Tom and overheard some of their conversations. “’OK,’” he said. “’Where’s the sun coming from? Let me do some drawings for you. Let’s think about the mountains and the sun so you’ll be getting passive solar.’”
After hiring a draftsperson to whip the drawings into a form acceptable to the authorities, Alex applied for building permits from the city. In the meantime, she went to work for her dad, spending seven days a week in the shop. I absolutely love being here and doing this, she realized. She made a dining room chair, then a chair with an adjustable back. She took a dining chair class. There were lots of other jobs, from picture frames to beds – “just a lot of stuff to help my dad.”
She hired a builder, and they broke ground on her house in the summer when she was 21. Alex worked side by side with the crew, through the framing all the way to drywall. “We got a hard bid from [the builder] and then experienced him adding a bunch of costs to the bid without any change orders.” So she fired him at the drywall stage. (This should explain why she prefers not to share his name.) Then she went back to Bellingham, where her parents had moved when she was about 9, to build her cabinets and trim with her dad over winter.
Alex wired her garage as a shop but found that her tools didn’t fit well in the space. Instead, she rented shop space in Bozeman. The 3,000-square-foot building was originally split into three sections, of which she had some 700 square feet; with part of that space split between a spray booth and bathroom, she decided it wasn’t big enough, so she moved to her current shop, a 1,500-square-foot space with radiant heating in the floor.
Alex launched her business early in 2020, just when Covid hit. “It was kind of a blessing,” she reflects, “because I needed that time. I have a rental property in my house, so I was able to not have to make money right away. I needed that time away from my dad and my mentors to figure out Am I doing this right? and make mistakes without having someone there to correct them.” It’s easy to feel you can do anything when you’re in someone else’s shop who can set up machines for you and share advice about how to fix a split or help move a heavy carcase, but some of the most important learning happens when you find yourself having to solve problems on your own.
Bozeman is booming, so prospective customers began to find Alex quickly through word of mouth. “Being a young woman has helped,” she acknowledges. “People are excited to hire me because I’m young and female and it’s kind of a helpful marketing tool. There’s this [wide-ranging] conversation [about supporting] minorities and encouraging people. A lot of more progressive people are moving to Bozeman who are interested in furniture. I’m also communicative; I like working one on one with clients. One of my favorite things is co-designing with clients. That’s an experience a lot of older woodworkers aren’t really interested in.”
She teaches, too, and has a number of younger women interested in building furniture with her. She has worked as a teaching assistant for her dad in classes at the Port Townsend Woodworking School, where she has also taken classes. A couple of years ago, when the school asked Tom to teach another class, he told them he was retiring and suggested Alex teach it. They agreed. “They’re really encouraging and give people chances,” she says. In 2021 she taught a 10-person class. This year she’s scheduled to teach a women-only class. “The community that school brings in is really exciting,” she thinks. Her friend Annalise Rubida has worked as her teaching assistant.
Though Tom plans to retire, he hasn’t quite managed to pull himself away from the shop. He recently took on a couple of apprentices and continues to share his encouragement and expertise. His current shop is close to downtown Bellingham – “where all the breweries are,” Alex adds, right in the heart of town.
“I feel like I’m so new in this career,” she says. “I’ve only been in business two years, and I feel so lucky to be doing what I’m doing. There [are] endless possibilities in what I could do. I really enjoy teaching and have been blessed with wonderful mentors in woodworking. I’m excited to share. It’s this wonderful wealth of knowledge we get to tap into. I want to encourage that and hopefully grow more of a community. Instagram has been a tool to connect with woodworkers and get to know people. It’s really exciting.”
She’s looking forward to developing her own style and building her own line. “I just feel like I can make anything I want, which is really cool.”
For me, after fighting low expectations, ridicule and near-endless self doubt over much of my career as a builder of furniture and cabinetry, Alex’s freedom from gender-based obstacles is evidence that good things are happening all around us; in a culture that floods our waking consciousness with news of suffering and evidence of widespread despair, we have only to give these happy developments our attention.
(And in case you’re wondering how someone can get so much done, Alex will gladly acknowledge that her house remains “a work in progress.”)
Read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.