This week we hit a big milestone: the completion of recording and editing an audiobook version of “Shop Tails.” I’m so relieved. The project has been a joy to work on and has given me the juice to keep going for the past several weeks.
The recording alone was an experience. I don’t think I’ve previously recorded an entire book, but this book, in terms of length and content, seems to lend itself to an audio edition. For one thing, it’s informal. Second, having been introduced to one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris, through his recording for NPR of “Holidays on Ice,” I know how effective it can be to introduce readers to new titles and authors through this medium. It’s a great way to capture the author’s peculiar voice, which, in the case of me and Mr. Sedaris, can lead to a long-term relationship between author and reader (albeit remote; we haven’t met), and in this case evoke important details of the context in which we are doing the recording. While my voice has never been smooth or sexy, it now implicitly conveys the realities of six-plus months of chemo and a soupçon of the exhaustion that typically accompanies radiation and other cancer treatments. (This is not intended as a downer. To the contrary – though admittedly the subject of the book is not the happiest ever.)
And big thanks to my friend Bert Gilbert for the final push that moved me to look into what’s involved in making an audiobook.
I could write reams more but will instead leave you to the the audio book itself.
Editor’s note: “Shop Tails,” the audio book, will be available next week.
— Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think,” “Making Things Work” and “Shop Tails.”
“This past weekend, I knew I needed to test a new pasta board design…but hadn’t had time to sort out what I’d do with the pasta. Then when I’m out running errands, I spot some beautiful in-season asparagus at the local farm, which was nice and thick, just about the diameter of the cavatelli I was going to be making! Quick blanch and ice water bath on the asparagus, simple butter sauce with lemon juice and splash of white wine, finished with burrata, lemon zest, and of course an olive oil drizzle. Late spring on a plate!”
This paragraph from a recent Instagram post pretty much explains why I wanted to interview John Welch for the blog. John is a guy who primarily makes beautiful things out of wood for the preparation and serving of food. He’s not a furniture maker (though he certainly could be); his posts are not about dovetails, or techniques for finishing. Rather, he is motivated by a desire to “take something ordinary and make it special.”
When asked what brought him to the world of pasta molds and boards, he answered simply “I love food. I love cooking food, eating, all kinds of food.” Add to this his observation that “too many people have beautiful things that are too precious [to use],” and you’re on your way to understanding what drives this man to finish most days at the office with several hours of work in his shop. What could be simpler than pasta – a basic dough of flour, salt and water? But roll a pinch of that mix across a board carved with decorative patterns, and you’ve elevated the plainest of pastas to an art form – as pleasing to the eye as it is effective at capturing a spoonful of saucy goodness and conveying it to the mouth.
The origin of his interest was basically curiosity, John said in reply to my question about what got him started.
“I wanted to know if pasta could take and hold an impression. I assumed it would but had never seen a textured ravioli. I made my own mold first, then I did some Googling to see if anyone already made something like that.” John could have ordered a mold to use as an example but decided against doing so for a few reasons. “I am always very afraid of inadvertently ‘borrowing’ someone else’s idea, so I thought that the less I looked at them, the less likely I would happen upon a similar pattern or idea. Also, the motivation to make them was…a curiosity [as to whether] it’d work, then how to make it work; if I had one in hand, it’d be easier for me to reverse-engineer and that would have taken all the fun out of it! I didn’t make them with the intention to sell. It was just a fun project.” It took John a few attempts to figure out how deep the carving would have to be to show up on the pasta and remain sharp after cooking.
The first one he was happy with featured a wheat pattern loosely based on an example of Art Deco ironwork. Made in walnut, it had leaves in the corners; he put stars between them.
Woodworking This is not a story about someone born into a family of woodworkers or generations who have made their own pasta from scratch. John’s forebears are not Italian; most are Irish mixed with French-Canadian. The “Francis” in his business name is his middle name; he’s John Francis Welch V.
John, the eldest of three siblings, grew up in a late-1800s house where his father always seemed to be engaged in repairs and maintenance. Although his dad didn’t compel or even expect John’s help, he exposed his older son to many aspects of home repair and restoration simply by carrying out household repairs and improvements.
As a woodworker, John is self-taught. When he was a kid his family didn’t have cable, but John could watch PBS, where he became a regular viewer of “The Woodwright’s Shop” and “The New Yankee Workshop.” He found the content interesting but had no intention of ever applying what he learned in real life. Even so, some of it sank in.
His parents loved handmade gifts, things from the heart. John dabbled in woodworking during high school; he was going to give his girlfriend a teddy bear and had decided to make an oak chair for it. His dad helped him cut the parts to size; then John built the chair with mortise-and-tenon joints. His mother had woven some baskets, so based on her example, he decided to weave a seat.
After that, woodworking went on the back burner as his interests shifted to motorcycles, fast cars and weight lifting, which led him to certification as a personal trainer. On his website you’ll find a portrait of John with bulging biceps that might lead you to wonder whether he’s more interested in appearances than substance. Not a bit of it. In middle school, other students had pushed him around, grabbing his books. His dad encouraged him to develop his muscles saying, “If you were strong enough to hold onto those books, they wouldn’t be able to rip them out of your hands.” So, as with most things that piqued his interest, John picked up that ball and ran with it.
He worked as a personal trainer in college, then, in his late 20s, he got into competitive power lifting. “I tend to be very goal oriented,” he explains. “I was losing focus – ‘Why am I going to the gym at 5 a.m?’ I’ve always been a very curious person, both [in terms of] ‘how does that work’ and ‘can I do that?’ Power lifting was very different from anything I’d done before.” The goal of competition provided just the oomph he needed, not just to keep going, but to excel. He won his first competition.
When John bought a townhouse in 2009, he had some home improvement projects in mind. He bought a miter saw and put up crown moulding, then replaced some doors. After the first few projects, he ran out of things to do. John was godfather to the daughter of a good friend; for her first birthday, her mother put in a request for a toy box. “I think she was expecting me to throw something together with plywood,” he remembers. “But if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well.” The toy box became his focus that summer. John had bought some handplanes on eBay; his brother deals in antiques, and John had tagged along on some of his adventures, which exposed him to more tools. He learned to sharpen. He bought some rough-sawn lumber and got started, building the toy box with stub tenons and solid wood panels. If it lasted, he figured, someday it could be used as a chest to store things other than toys. He worked in the garage, with a pair of sawhorses, a router, miter saw, circular saw and set of Kobalt chisels from Lowe’s.
In his day job, John designs extrusion dies for pasta at De Mari Pasta Dies. He was the first employee in the business who was not related to the founding family. Most of their products are in large chain grocery stores around the United States. “Every cartoon [mac and cheese made by one of the nation’s largest food corporations] for the last 15 years, I have personally designed all of those.”
While he appreciates his work and gives it his level best, he says, “I work my 8 hours and leave. With woodworking I can make what I want to make. It gives me the freedom to do what I want to do.”
For a time, he used his garage as a woodshop. He had to come up with some items to make that would need little space and very few tools. Spoons were one candidate, a handmade item that would “add a lot of love and care” in the preparation of a meal. His business took off from there.
As part of his day job for a time, John oversaw the installation of major pasta-making machinery at facilities around the North American continent, mostly in the Midwest, but with a few trips to Washington State and Canada. The travel for work underscored that his decision to buy a townhouse with his wife, Kara, a training specialist for a property management company, had been sound; their home required far less work than would have been required by a house with multiple rooms and a yard to maintain. While traveling for work, he had to use the garage for his car, not woodworking.
When the travel for work slowed down and John again had time for woodworking, he needed a studio space to rent – either that, or he and Kara would have to move to another house. The first studio he rented and the couple he rented after that were at Western Avenue in Lowell, Mass.; in June of 2021 he moved to his current space, 240 square feet in a repurposed textile mill that had been turned into artist studios. As he later learned, the building is the same one where his great-grandfather had worked decades before as a “grease monkey,” maintaining machinery for one of the mills that made Lowell, Mass., such a late-19th-century economic powerhouse that many still think of it as “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution” (at least in North America). John’s great-grandfather also did some woodworking on the side. He built the house where John’s paternal grandmother grew up, followed by his own father, and where John’s parents continue to live. His great-grandfather had made a grandmother clock as a gift for John’s parents; today John keeps it in his studio.
At this point, he says, “My goal was to pay the rent for my studio. If money was no object, I would make mirrors, wall sculptures, hand-carved tabletops. But the ravioli molds caught on.” When he started, charcuterie boards were a transition after the toy box for his goddaughter.
John is constantly looking for ways to improve his processes – to carve the ravioli molds, he’s upgraded his tool chest with some chisels from Japan, and he now makes some of the decorative patterns with a router. “As much as I love carving,” he acknowledges, “it gets to a point where it’s not financially feasible. I don’t really make spoons anymore; it’s partly because I can’t charge enough to make it worth it.”
This concern with workflow is a holdover from his day job, where he’s required to maximize efficiency. “I’ve always been more Type A,” John remarks. “The other artists at my former studio would tell me ‘You’re not a real artist,’ because my studio was so clean. I’ve always been like that: If something could be better, why not make it [so]?”
Some might have burned out after 300 ravioli molds, the number he sold in 2021. Not John. He plans to keep making them. “Part of what’s kept me going is that with the internet, a lot of people who buy them make these incredible dishes. I can’t tell you the rewarding feeling it gives me to see people feeding their friends and family with molds I’ve made.” He hopes to do more carving – art pieces, textured mirrors and more – but acknowledges the struggle involved in “going from ‘practical’ things to things that are meant [primarily] to be looked at. I blame it on my Yankee upbringing not to engage in ‘frivolous’ things.’”
He also continues to make a smaller number of other wares, such as charcuterie trays and pasta boards.
“I mentioned that I like to cook, but I LOVE to cook, and most of all explore with food. I love that the possibilities are endless, there is so much to learn, so much freedom of expression allowed. I love that you can travel to distant lands that you may never otherwise get to experience, all through flavors,” says John. “So with that said, my kitchen adventures have been pretty thorough: sausage making, curing meats, smoking, bread baking, pasta making (obviously), pâté and terrines, sous vide cooking, etc… About the only thing I don’t dabble in are baked sweets!”
Selfishly, I’d like to think it’s just a matter of time.
Dan Phillips doesn’t advertise or have a website, so when Christopher Schwarz suggested he’d make a good subject for a profile, adding “he has a great eye,” I looked him up on Instagram. Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a fig for the accepted wisdom about social media, I thought; Daniel’s feed is a colorful mix of drawings, paintings, home interiors, music, kids and woodworking tools, all with a good dose of irony. Scattered among the variety you’ll find images of dovetails, other joinery details and finished furniture pieces. Not for Dan the segregation of woodworking from “life” or any of the other interests that characterize it, a different Instagram account for every one. How refreshing.
Given what I saw, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Dan, who goes by D.H. Phillips, is the son of artist parents. Born in Dallas in 1976, he’s the middle of three children. His father, Harvey Phillips, shifted from visual art to architecture early in Dan’s life. “For as long as I can remember that’s what he did, and still does,” Dan says. His mother, Susie Phillips, remains a practicing artist in paint.
Dan’s dad was also a professional carpenter who always had a woodshop of one kind or another. “As soon as I was old enough to work a bit, he would take me, first, to demolition sites,” says Dan. “Then I learned to frame houses and sheetrock and all that stuff. I really liked being in the shop more than at somebody’s house.” As he grew more interested in design, H.C. Westermann, a sculptor and two-dimensional artist, became a strong influence. “I wanted to learn that more fancy woodworking stuff, and that wasn’t really in my dad’s [wheelhouse].” Ambitious, he made a dovetailed box on the bandsaw “with lots of wood putty.”
Dan’s former wife is a paper conservator. One of her grad school teachers had trained in the book-binding program at North Bennett Street School. He looked the place up, took a two-week class in fundamentals of fine woodworking and says “That was it.” He applied to the full-time program. He was still motivated by two-dimensional artistic interests, “but once I was there, furniture making totally took over.”
Dan attended NBSS from 2005 to 2007. “I loved finding out about the early American decorative arts. We’d go on museum trips, and I loved the furniture. But all the other stuff – the quilts, paintings, folk art – that whole classical early American thing really did something for me,” he says.
“There’s an aesthetic that carries through the periods,” he continues. “A piece of scrimshaw looks just as awesome to me as a federal secretary. That pre-industrial stuff…. You can see the hand in everything. I love to draw – I don’t use computers for drawing – so maybe there’s something there…a tactile thing, a certain crudeness, no matter how fancy something might look. You can tell it’s handmade, and I love seeing the transition through the periods and the details that stick, the things that change.”
After his time in Boston Dan moved back to Dallas in 2007 and set up in his dad’s shop. Slowly, at first, he began to get commissions; the first was a coffee table for his mom. Then, he says, “It just kind of snowballed. It’s been pretty steady.” There are times he’s overwhelmed and others when “my fingers are crossed that something’s going to pop up. I just sort of made furniture making my reality, whether commissioned work was actually happening or not.”
Dan’s work comes mostly through word of mouth. Although he posts work on Instagram, he says “I’m not sure how much business I get from it.” He always asks people how they found him. It’s usually from a friend, or they saw something he’d made.
Today he makes mostly residential stuff – desks, sideboards, wall units, beds, chairs but mostly “loungey” chairs. “I don’t know that I’ve ever made any dining chairs.” There are dining tables…some work for offices, such as desks, about which he remarks, “you can have some fun with all the drawers and hidden compartments.” At present his favorite thing is case pieces.
He works in mahogany and walnut, primarily darker woods and says, “I draw the piece and it will become obvious what wood to use.”
He’s still a very active painter, too. His paintings, he says, “have evolved over time. I first did them as train graffiti tags, then moved to paper.” He paints in watercolors and washes but sometimes reverts to colored pencil and watercolors. Most are gouache on paper.
He sells in a gallery, though recent work has been commissioned. “I never just ‘make art.’ I’ve got to have a reason. There’s someone who’s commissioned a piece, or I have a show coming up. The furniture scratches so many of those itches. I do a ton of drawing, so I never miss out on drawing stuff,” he says.
Dan’s shop is in a former Ford Motor Company manufacturing plant, a huge building near Fair Park in Dallas. He’s been there about 10 years. Before that, he worked in a Quonset hut. “That was not good! Whatever the weather was outside, that’s what it was in there. I couldn’t make fancy furniture.” He moved into a friend’s jewelry studio, but it became too cramped. He currently has about 5,000 square feet in the whole shop, but that includes a couple of office/bench rooms, a storage room, a machine room and more. A Plexiglas fabricator uses half the space; Dan and his dad use the other.
Home is near the shop. In fact, Dan says, most of his existence takes place within about a 7-minute-drive circle. Even his kids’ school is within that radius.
Drawing on the Past Dan looks to antiques as a starting point. He has no interest in making period furniture as such but incorporates details he likes in his own work. “It’s an opportunity to participate [in furniture making] the same way the old guys did. You get these pattern books from Sheraton or Hepplewhite and use them as a starting point. The proportions…they worked it out! [Master those proportions, and your piece] already looks good. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” he says. Dan draws in pencil on printer paper and keeps refining designs, then makes a scale drawing and adjusts accordingly; for example, seat height is important when he’s making one of those “loungey” chairs, so he’ll base it on that.
He refines his drawings, which he calls doodles, until he’s satisfied. Then the challenge is “trying to get things to look like my ‘doodle.’ Sometimes things in the doodle are totally unrealistic, so I’m just trying to figure out how to get the same visual effect in the drawing. I like to draw stuff, and draw a lot of it. I’ve just developed a certain style from doing that. I probably have 8,000 drawings of furniture.”
Home & Family
Dan lives with Jackie Dunn Smith, an artist who paints and does tattoos, devoting about half her work time to each. They have two children; their daughter, Velena Phillips, is 10. Their son, Mugsy Smith, is 14.
Dan’s mother’s family moved to north Texas from Pennsylvania via Oklahoma. His father’s side came from Kansas, where they were asparagus farmers; then, in a turn of events worthy of his arch Instagram feed, his paternal grandfather won a contest held on the radio that came with flying lessons as the prize. After training, that grandpa became a pilot, flew in the Second World War and went on to a career as a pilot for now-defunct Braniff International Airways. That’s what brought his father’s family to Dallas when his dad was in high school.
Their home is furnished with all sorts of things, many of Dan’s own making. For one show he built a 12’x 18′ cabin and furnished it with a bed, blanket chest and lounge chair. The installation was for sale, but it didn’t sell, so he ended up with the three furniture pieces. He also has furniture he made in training. As for the family dining table, he got that back from a client who moved and couldn’t use it; the client thought that Dan might be able to sell it, but there were no takers. He wanted to keep it, and in the end, they said he could. The rest of their home is furnished with a mix of antiques and IKEA.
When asked to sum up his work as a furniture maker, Dan says,
Simply, it’s what I do. If I had to analyze it I’d say that I like the place I’m in, where people are aware of my thing and that they are choosing me for the thing they want. There is no shortage of available furniture. It’s almost ridiculous to be making more. But I’m glad to be doing it. I love the art form. I love hearing what the client wants and the spark that goes off in my brain and the subsequent pencil to paper to hash out the general idea. I love the first impression and the miles of yellow tracing paper refining the design. I love making a presentation drawing for the client to look at. Once they say yes, I love getting out the big paper and using the drafting table. I love the problem solving of turning the doodle into a set of working drawings. I love figuring out how much wood I need and looking at the available wood that will work.
I loathe figuring out how much something will cost. But then they say yes and the wood shows up and you agonize about how to break it down and then you break it down and then it’s a mad fever of strategy and efficient work flow until you don’t have anything else to do but get some photographs made and deliver it. Pretty damn fun. Glad to be able to participate in a centuries old way to make your way.
People come to furniture making via many different paths, but Leslie Webb is the first furniture maker I know who got into the field through a gig as a nanny.
“I had gone off to college [at Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine] and was completely lost in terms of direction,” she began, by way of explanation. “I found everything at college interesting. But when I thought about ‘do you want to do this for the rest of your life,’ it wasn’t THAT interesting.” She worried she might not have any direction at all.
So Leslie decided to take a break. Everyone she knew thought she was throwing her life away, and she remembers how scary it was to make her way forward against that disapproval.
It was around 2000, and she had to get a job to support herself. “I was looking through the newspaper at help wanted ads. I saw this ad; it said ‘childcare in exchange for an apartment.’” It was a start; at least she’d have a roof over her head, even if the job didn’t come with income. She wrote a letter of introduction, explaining that she’d babysat in high school, even if she understood that didn’t amount to much experience. It turned out that Julie, the mother, had family members from Texas, Leslie’s home state; she was born in Georgetown in 1978. Leslie thinks this seemingly tenuous connection may have been helpful. They hit it off at the interview, especially after realizing that Julie’s grandmother was at a nursing home in a small town called McGregor; Leslie’s mother was working with elderly patients as a physical therapist, and as it happened, she knew Julie’s grandmother. “It was such a weird thing!”
After a series of interviews Leslie got the job. She got along well with the family, who treated her well. She still keeps in touch with the boy she was caring for, who is now a young adult.
One day Leslie spotted a Moser catalog on the kitchen counter with a pile of mail. “At breakfast I was randomly flipping through and thought, ‘Oh, it would be so cool to build furniture, because it’s beautiful, but it’s useful too.’” Robert, the father of her charge, told her he knew basic carpentry and would be happy to teach her.
Robert was a fine arts painter who did massive paintings – 8’ long x 4’ high – for which he made his own frames and shipping crates. So she started helping him build crates in his Brunswick studio.
“I was cutting a 2×4 for a crate,” Leslie recalls. “I remember using a chop saw and seeing the blade sinking into the wood and I knew ‘this is it.’”
She worked as the family’s nanny for about three years. In her spare time, she tried to build some pieces of furniture but got stuck because she knew the quality she wanted to produce but didn’t know how to get there. There were no woodworkers in her family to ask for advice. YouTube videos were not yet a thing; the only resource she knew about was Fine Woodworking, which she read but found largely over her head.
Leslie concluded she was going to have to train through a program. She’d been in Maine long enough to know about the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, so she checked out its website and found the nine-month program was soon launching. The deadline was just around the corner, so she submitted an application and was delighted to learn she’d been accepted. Her mom was worried about Leslie’s ability to support herself as a furniture maker. Her dad, a doctor, was “not supportive at all.” As the youngest of her parents’ four children, she thinks she was his last hope for one of them to go to medical school.
“I so enjoyed the entire process,” she says of her training at CFC. “I really enjoyed being able to design my own pieces. The first two projects are teacher-designed, to build hand and machine skills, respectively. The rest you design yourself, up to a point. I enjoyed the process of having an idea and figuring out whether it would work or not. And I still do enjoy that process, so much.”
For joinery, she focuses on traditional mortises and tenons, dovetails and miters with reinforcement. “Nothing too out of the box. I gravitate aesthetically toward contemporary stuff – pretty stripped-back designs that don’t have a ton of adornment. Sometimes integral tenons, sometimes floating.” She usually makes her own floating tenons. “I don’t always let the tool dictate. Sometimes I modify what the tool can do so it’s not dictating.”
Today Leslie works in a small shop, a converted two-car garage in Georgetown, Texas, where she returned to live around 2011. Some of her work is commissioned, some done in small batches and some on spec. Outside of Instagram, I first became aware of Leslie’s work when I saw a few pieces on exhibit at the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, N.C. They were flawless – beautifully made and elegantly designed. She is also one of the women and woman-identifying makers whose work was juried into the Making a Seat at the Table exhibition in Philadelphia from October 2019 through January 2020. She has done lots of shows over the years, among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, Architectural Digest Home Design Show, International Contemporary Furniture Fair/ICFF, and Wanted Design.
Furniture making is an economically precarious field, especially for those whose livelihood depends on their own income alone, without help from a partner. By the time she moved home to Texas, Leslie had already weathered the Great Recession. “I went through the crash in 2008 with my furniture business and it was awful,” she says. So she’d been thinking vaguely about how she might add another income-producing dimension to her work. “One day the idea popped into my head: I wonder whether I could sell HNT Gordon tools over here.” There was no retail outlet in the States; the company is based in Australia. “I realized it would be a whole other thing,” but she reminded herself that furniture making has its own stresses. The idea stayed in the back of her head; it wouldn’t go away.
Over the years she’d bought some HNT Gordon tools for her own use. After pondering for two or three years, she decided to start with those. As part of her research she gauged interest among her woodworking friends. “People were hesitant [to buy HNT Gordon tools] because [the company] was overseas.” Some told her that the ordering process was unclear to them; others worried that there might be hidden fees for international orders and so on. Finally, she contacted the company to inquire. Terry, the head of the business, was on board. So she decided to try.
In late 2019 Leslie started Heartwood Tools, which specializes in high-quality woodworking tools. “It’s going really well!” she says. In fact, “it has temporarily taken over. If I had known that the pandemic was coming when I launched it, I probably would not have done it. But it has exploded – I think in large part people are spending more time at home and doing more furniture making.”
Do You Deserve a Good Caning?
Caning – for stools, chair seats and small tables – is another corner of the furniture-making world in which Leslie is making her mark. Over the years she has used pre-made sheets for caned work, but then she learned how to do it herself. “I’ve always liked caning,” she says. “We had dining chairs with caned seats when I was little. I remember being fascinated that they could hold people, child or adult. It didn’t seem like that should be possible.” She likes being able to introduce color into her work but hates to dye or stain wood. Caning (seat weaving?) offered a way to combine natural wood with eye-popping colors. “I don’t dye the caning. I have experimented with that, but was not happy with the results. That led me to look elsewhere for color, which led to cotton rope and paracord as weaving materials.”
She taught herself how to weave. “Once you know how to do Danish cord, it’s not that intimidating.” She’d taught herself to use Danish cord using “The Caner’s Handbook”. A couple of people on Instagram also let her “pick their brains.”
Why Furniture Making?
“I have spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating ‘why furniture making?’, says Leslie, “mostly because it still seems like such an ‘out of left field’ passion when I look at my life. I have never encountered another subject which so thoroughly engages all parts of my brain, creative and analytical. Dreaming up new designs while also agonizing over 32nds [of an inch] and adding fractions in my head? Sign me up. Time in the shop also forces me to be completely present in the moment. Drifting off in thought for even a brief moment can result in ruining a piece or worse, a shop accident. Grabbing a hand tool or turning on a machine is the fastest way to leave my worries behind. I think the thing that keeps me coming back for more, though, is the continual chase for improvement – and not compared to others, but to what I have accomplished previously,” she says. “Even after 20 years, I don’t feel like I have mastered anything, and I kind of like that. There is always a new specialized niche skill to learn or a mistake to be fixed. It is a humbling pursuit; there is nothing like messing up a process I’ve done hundreds of time to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground. I could come up with a multi-page list of why I love woodworking, but the truth is I am not sure how much logic controls the things we love; we simply do.”
I’m calling this a book report rather than a review, because I don’t have the gumption right now to write a proper formal review. So please forgive the relatively casual nature of what follows.
I love this book, which was recently published by Routledge. (I’m linking to the sales page at Amazon because the publisher’s ordering system has proven problematic. I am still waiting for the copy I ordered pre-publication.) The historical overview of women in woodworking is fascinating, including consideration of women picking up where men left off in wartime, and a wonderfully insightful discussion of the role played by the D.I.Y. movement in drawing women in. Earlier sections of the history include lots of information gleaned from research by Suzanne Ellison right here at Lost Art Press, a wonderful tribute to Ellison herself and to the Lost Art Press blog for publishing it. The international dimension is also noteworthy, though the book is overwhelmingly grounded in North America.
My favorite aspect of the book is the intellectual perspective that Deirde Visser brings to the subject, which she treats with welcome nuance. Many pages of my copy are covered with laudatory notes. I greatly appreciate that Visser and her colleague in the project early on, Laura Mays, saw fit to include not just art and studio furniture makers, but builders of custom work who happily refer to their workspaces as shops, and builders of buildings (albeit to a lesser extent).
The book is refreshingly free from top-down, supercilious attitude. Rather, its embrace of a diverse cross section of makers and making reflects beautifully on Visser herself. Kudos in particular to her and to the legendary Wendy Maruyana for including such gems as, “With characteristically self-effacing humor, Maruyama opened our conversation stating, ‘I’m not a great woodworker.’ She is talking about technique: ‘Making a perfect joint doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s quite a struggle, actually. So I frustrate myself because you always measure yourself up with other woodworkers and think ‘Oh fuck.’ In fact, Maruyama is perfectly capable of exemplary technique.” If you really want to invite people into a field, this is one way to do it.
It takes a strong spine to admit to imperfection in furniture making, and this in its own right is a welcome bit of iconoclasm. Furniture is made to be used, not just admired. In most cases the perfection of joinery or the attention given to finishing the back of a dresser or the underside of a table has far more to do with the maker’s conceit, or playing into widespread expectations of “quality” in the luxury furniture market (barf), than with actual durability or ability to serve the purpose for which a piece is made, which also has a bearing on who will be able to afford it. This, too, is for the underdog to point out, and women in this field have traditionally been underdogs.
I can’t imagine having to choose which makers to feature in such a project and am honestly baffled and gobsmacked to have found myself included. It’s a real honor. The sheer diversity of featured makers is admirable. So many others deserve to be included in a work of this kind, but as someone who has edited essay collections and copy edited Marc Adams’s “The Difference Makers,” I understand the need to make really tough decisions. That said, if there is one person whose absence is conspicuous in the discussion of particular women who have championed the cause of inviting women in and giving those women already in woodworking the visibility they deserve, it’s Megan Fitzpatrick, in particular during the years she worked as editor at Popular Woodworking; Megan has gone out on many a fragile limb, risking her own livelihood and fielding many an indignant comment from people who still don’t see the need to shine a light on members of specific underrepresented groups. Fitzpatrick would have fit perfectly into the part of the book that discusses efforts others have made in giving women woodworkers the recognition they’re due.
While this is by no means a formal review, I hope it’s clearly an appreciation and a strong recommendation. Thank you Deirdre Visser, Laura Mays and Phoebe Kuo, for conceiving this work. Looking back over the years in which I have been aware of this project, and the conversations I had early on about publishers with Mays, I recognize the massive investment of time and energy this book represents. I love it. What a joy!