I read most of Nancy R. Hiller’s “Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life” in the laundromat. Our washing machine was broken, parts strewn all over our basement floor while we tried to figure out the problem. Forgive me, as I realize what I’m about to say next is very much a first-world problem, but I missed having a working washing machine. I have three children and we’re thick into the stains of summer: dirt, grass and popsicles. Suddenly, lugging overflowing laundry baskets down our tight basement steps (oh the dreams I have of a first-floor laundry room!) seemed downright luxurious.
But, I was making things work.
I love a good memoir. I tend to overshare (sometimes rather unfortunately) so I deeply respect gritty honesty. We currently live in a world of filtered Instagram posts, our lives made beautiful, easy, golden even, with a few clicks. None of the essays in Nancy’s collection are filtered. She strips away the gloss, highlighting the truths of furniture making. She writes:
“We may do what we love every day, to paraphrase the marketing pitch of a well-known school, but as with most long-term love, ours deepens from the passion of new romance to the mature familiarity of marriage: sometimes tedious, occasionally exasperating, as much taskmaster as muse. Passion, after all, is equally about what we bear as what we embrace.”
Nancy’s tales of jobs, clients (oh, the clients!), living conditions, working conditions, employees, the minutiae of (solo) business-owning and business-running, romance, learning, personal growth, worry and problem-solving allow you to immerse yourself into the life of a talented cabinetmaker who has managed to make a living—and life—out of bettering and beautifying client’s homes with her hands, her skill, her craft.
I thought of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” while reading Nancy’s book, everything I’ve read by David Sedaris, and Nick Offerman was exactly right when noting the predicament in how one should shelve Nancy’s book: fine woodworking? Philosophy? Self-help? Etiquette? Religion? For “Making Things Work” is one of those rare reads that could easily be found in anyone’s bookshelf. Woodworker? Must-read. Small-business owner? Must-read. Graduate? Must-read. Artist? Must-read. Feminist? Must-read. Collector of fine, handmade furniture? Must-read.
Maybe it’s because I’m currently immersed in the philosophical writings of the late Charles Hayward, but Nancy manages to do what I believe many woodworkers, in particular, feel but sometimes can’t quite express: the way we work, the way we make things work, speaks greatly about who we are and how we live. Nancy’s anecdotes of a cabinetmaker’s life, her life, speaks to all of that. Because behind all the humor, flaws, talent and grit in each of her essays lies a simple truth: “It’s all problems.” How we approach our problems speaks much more about one’s self than ingenuity. And when problems do arise, we should only be so lucky to have a Nancy at our side during something as small as a tricky installation or as big as a leap of faith—if not in person, then in spirit, in the form of mantras extracted from this book.
“The man nowadays who is able to do a job at his own pace is one of the fortunate ones. Then to one he’ll either be a craftsman with a small workshop of his own or a man working at a hobby. A feeling of enjoyment so much more often accompanies work that is freed from outside control, when that control takes the shape of a nagging foreman or an impatient boss. The queer thing is that when these no longer have to be encountered, our own moods and temperaments want to take charge, as variable as the weather and just about as dependable. It is then that the craftsman has to assert himself and put the mood in its place, knowing very well that it will play high jinks with his work if he isn’t careful. Once he has really started, no matter how lazy or disinclined he may have felt, the odds are that the mood will recede, the work will catch hold of him and bring an enjoyment of its own.
“The pace and the manner are the things that count. If we fling ourselves into any job with a “Let’s get it over and done with” feeling, the chances are that we shall soon be running up against snags caused by own impatience. If we take it up at an even pace, then a regular rhythm of work develops, hand and eye are co-operating in friendly unison, and if we come up against difficulties we shall be all set to tackle them. At least they will not have been created by our own frenzied desire to get on, which is at the root of the most botched work.
“The sense of haste in the modern world is infectious. We must always be wanting to rid ourselves of the work in hand so that we can start something else. It may be because already we can visualise the new things as having more perfection than the old, or because we very quickly tire of a job and want novelty. Or it may all come round to the same thing, that we do not give ourselves utterly and wholly to the work we are doing, because that means putting that little bit of extra pressure on ourselves which is necessary for work of the very best kind. It is, I believe, an almost universal shirking and it keeps us working at second-best.
“And yet the opportunity is there for every man who knows how to handle a tool. Knowledge alone is not enough, skill alone is not enough, for the perfect use of them depends on what a man can give of himself. For when all is said and done he is not a precision tool, or a robot, or a machine, nor even—by nature—a machine minder. Something he is of all these things, but he has also that gift which is so utterly his own, his restless, eternal, questing spirit, which keeps him ever searching for beauty and everlastingly trying to create it. This is the power behind his technical capacity if he learns to harness it, the power by which he can attain to the sense of balance and good judgment which are among the first requisites of beauty. The rest will vary with the man himself. This is the great glory of our personality, that each individual touch is different, so that throughout the great ages of craftsmanship the work of each worker stood out from its fellows even if it was never stamped with his name. Nowadays the individual touch is swamped in mass production. But it still lives on in the small workshop and in the home, wherever there is a woodworker to remember that tools are excellent things, but that it is a man with a tool in his hand who is the hope of the world. He will always be the one to keep his own courage alight and that of his fellows, because he will have discovered some of the things he can do and know that one life is not long enough to find them all. Always there will be for him the perfection that lies in wait just round the corner, to reach which needs every ounce of the effort he can put out. And even in his failure he may pass on to his fellows those glimpses which the world will treasure, seeing in them its dearest hope.”
In March, Chris wrote a post titled “The Best Job I Ever Had.” He joined Popular Woodworking Magazine in 1996 as managing editor. I joined the magazine in 2001 as assistant editor, and then moved up to associate editor and, later, managing editor. Before Chris left for Germany he gave me some ideas for posts, and with Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney slated to join Editor and Content Director Megan Fitzpatrick and her crew in July as the new managing editor, Chris thought it might be nice if I offered a behind-the-scenes look at the job, from my perspective. So here goes. (I’m fairly certain Chris didn’t realize I have pictures.)
First, a confession: I suck at headlines. Which is why I swiped Chris’s. But the words and the sentiment are true for me as well.
Some background: I graduated from Ohio University with a magazine journalism degree in 2001. A few weeks later I moved into a sketchy studio apartment in Alexandria, Va., to write for a b-to-b mag in the printing industry. The people were great, the topic was dull and I was in love with a guy who was still in school at Ohio State University. I found an ad for an assistant editor position at Popular Woodworking Magazine, and I applied.
Steve Shanesy (editor at the time) and Chris (managing editor at the time) interviewed me. They liked my clips. They needed a wordsmith, not a woodworker. I told them about the lamp I made in junior high shop class, and that I had dropped it while working on it and, with the school year rapidly ending, I had tried to hide the dent I had made by mixing sawdust and glue, and filling it in. I told them I got a “B” in the class (which, looking back was quite generous, given my lack of skill at the lathe as well). They still hired me.
“Behind-the-scenes” can mean different things for different audiences. According to my résumé, my managing editor responsibilities looked like this:
• Responsible for day-to-day operations of a 200,000 circulation magazine that competed with six different woodworking magazines for subscribers – developed line-ups; created and maintained photography and illustration schedules; tracked status of, edited and made changes to articles; made corrections to final binder; reviewed printer page proofs; attended press checks to ensure printing quality at all hours.
• In charge of special issues – additional responsibilities included conception; developed cover lines.
• Managed approximately 40 authors, photographers and illustrators per year—negotiated, wrote and tracked approximately 100 contracts per year; in charge of manuscript submissions; established and enforced deadlines.
• Primary editor for an $83,145 manuscript budget and a $66,650 art budget.
• Wrote five features, seven how-to articles, seven profiles, two reviews and Contents page; built projects.
But honestly? I had to look all that up to remember it.
I’m only 38, but so far my years at Popular Woodworking Magazine impacted me professionally and personally more than any other job I’ve ever had (and that includes the weirdness that occurred working third-shift at Meijer’s selling jewelry to folks at 3 a.m.). I’ve spent the past week trying to pinpoint why, and I can’t. But I have some ideas.
The editors at the time insisted they were looking for a new hire with a journalism degree, not a woodworker. And while they expected me to learn the craft, just as any niche magazine editor must do, they didn’t expect me to excel at it, unlike the expectations they did have regarding the responsibilities I have on my résumé.
At the time, though, I didn’t believe them. And so I tried my damnedest to do both. All of the editors regularly pulled me into the workshop to learn. Those seven how-to articles? I built them, but with an editor guiding me every step of the way. Never was a failure laughed at or mocked (at least to my face, ha!). Instead every single one was viewed as a teaching opportunity.
One afternoon I was working on a project with Chris in his basement home shop. I forget what we were building but it involved the table saw, which I had used many times before. I don’t remember exactly what happened (maybe Chris does) but for some reason the wood drifted away from the blade. One thing I was doing right: My body was positioned not in line with the blade. Which was good, because when I realized it was all going oh-so-wrong, I looked up to see Chris, white as a ghost, waving his hands at me. I’m sure it was frantically, but I only remember it in slow motion. The kickback was so powerful that it bent the blade of one of his chisels hanging on the wall.
We stopped. I was shaking. We went to Skyline Chili for lunch. He said it would be good for me to go right back to what I was doing. So I did, with no instances of kickback this time. And he kindly refused when I asked if I could replace his chisel.
They put me into classes. I took a weeklong course at Lonnie Bird’s School of Fine Woodworking, where I built a Shaker end table. I was nervous as hell, believing that Lonnie and the fellow students would have assumptions about an editor from Popular Woodworking Magazine. But everyone was incredibly kind and respectful, and seemed to understand something that I did not: I was hired as an editor, not a woodworker, and that was OK. In fact, the only unnerving part of the week was when I tried to build a fire in the fireplace in my chilly room at the local bed and breakfast, and woke up some angry wasps.
The Shaker end table I built at Lonnie’s still sits next to my side of the bed, and has two small rings of milk stained on the top of it. I feel terribly guilty about this, every time I look at it, but in some ways, it’s fitting. That table was difficult for me to build, and took a lot of courage. But so did pumping milk and bottle feeding two twin boys in a sleep-deprived state for a year while also caring for a 2-year-old.
I, along with several editors of the magazine, built a Welsh stick chair with Don Weber. This took place shortly after my honeymoon with the guy who was studying at OSU. We currently live in a 100-plus-year-old foursquare now, and my chair sits in the entry. My kids call it “The Evil Chair.” At the time I was working on it Chris suggested I break the edges a bit more. I didn’t listen. All three of my children and my husband have scars from the times they’ve run into it. But I refuse to move it.
My house is filled with many loved treasures from my time at the magazine.
Then there was the traveling. We were so lucky. And as a young 20-something, the trips had a deep impact on me. Although I grew up in a family that valued and was able to travel, never before had I stayed in hotel rooms solo. And I’ve since learned that long road trips are one way to truly know another person – I knew my coworkers well.
We ate well. I, along with Steve and Al Parrish, our photographer, once ate dinner at a seafood restaurant in Boston after visiting Norm Abram for the day. They ordered raw oysters. I carefully watched them take their forks to detach the meat, pick up the oysters and slurp them down. I followed suit, pretending I knew what I was doing. I had only recently stopped being a vegetarian. (I haven’t had a raw oyster since.)
We ate burritos with Sam Maloof. Don Weber introduced me to lemon curd. Lonnie Bird introduced me to shrimp and grits. The art director, Linda Watts, who I became dear friends with (and still am) invited me to her house for movie nights where she introduced me to slightly burnt butter on popcorn—it’s delicious. Chris invited us all to his house for dinner, many times. (He’s an excellent cook.) Once we visited Eugene Sexton, on the way to something else. Sexton had a wood-drying process shrouded in mystery called ESP-90. He offered us some green beans from his garden that he said would allow us to live longer (very Tuck Everlasting-ish). I even ate some of those and as for their success, only time will tell.
As a woman in a workplace made up almost entirely of men, I was respected. My gender was never part of the conversation. Once I was helping out at our booth at a woodworking show, and a very well-known tool manufacturer had a booth next to us. They had hired a bikini-clad model whose only job was to stand with a sign that said “let me grind your wood.” I was so irked by the whole thing that the following day I told my colleagues that I was going to go over and say something to the folks who worked for the company. My fellow editors didn’t bat an eye, even though I’m fairly certain that company was an advertiser.
The job was varied. After a day spent making editorial corrections to files and re-checking those corrections to make sure I hadn’t introduced a new mistake, I got to spend a day researching who built Pope John Paul II’s coffin. After a day spent sending contracts, writing check requests and updating our editorial calendar, I got to spend a day lugging around Al’s photo equipment two hours up north for a photo shoot at Troy Sexton’s. After a day spent reading seven manuscripts and making marks with my purple pen (we each had a different color when editing to know who to argue with when we disagreed with a change), I got to spend a day in the shop, sweeping, learning sharpening techniques or drilling so.many.holes for a Tool Test piece on cordless drills.
I often had guilt. Here I had a woodworker’s dream job and I wasn’t a (good) woodworker. I had a bit of, what I later learned was called, imposter syndrome. But with time I learned that what I had to offer was valued.
When I left and Megan became managing editor, I was in absolute awe. Here was a woman with an MA in English Literature and an exceptional knowledge of Shakespeare who poured herself into the task of learning the craft of woodworking. And only a few years in she was building the most beautiful pieces (and still is, today). She’s wicked smart and exceptionally kind. I never worked for her but still, when I was stuck in the hospital in the hell that is preterm-twin-labor-stifled-by-magnesium-sulfate, she stopped by, to visit. She’s one of my favorite people.
And Brendan, I don’t know you (yet), but after reading Megan’s post, you are a perfect fit. And know that it’s worth the move. Because editing and filing and contracting and invoicing and harping on (and on and on) about deadlines aside, this community is filled with great people. Getting to know them has been one of the great pleasures in my life. Welcome.
“I try to live right. I always try to adhere to what I think is right, and that, to me, is the most important part of creative work. So much of me goes into each piece that I make that in making each new piece, a renewal takes place. So it continues: a renewal in my commitment to my work and what I believe.” —Sam Maloof
“The completion of the new altar canopy in St. Paul’s Cathedral in May of this year  was an event of considerable importance in the world of woodwork. This great structure is 54 ft. high by 26 ft. wide and is supported by groups of corinthian pillars, amongst which are four spiral columns with wreaths of bay leaves carved between the bines. Each column was built up of twenty-two sectors put together cooper fashion and assembled with Aerolite 300 synthetic resin glue.
“The job of turning great columns of this size had its own special problems, not the least of which was a lathe big enough for the purpose. Much of the spiral was cut by a device travelling in a slide rest. This left on a sort of spiral collar (see hollow nearest camera) in which the projecting bay leaves could be carved.
“The completion of a magnificent structure of this kind is an effective reply to those who claim that there are no woodworkers left in the country capable of tackling some of the fine joinery and cabinet work left to us by past generations.”
— “Windmills of the Skyline,” Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, July 1958