In the late 1990s, when JoJo Wood was just a few years old, her parents moved from the county of Essex, northeast of London, to Edale in the Peak District of Derbyshire, between the industrial cities of Sheffield and Manchester. A tiny village in a remote corner of north-central England, Edale attracted hikers, especially during late summer and fall, when its hills were cloaked in purple heather. Many of these visitors also turned out to be interested in another local offering: spoon carving courses taught by JoJo’s parents, Robin and Nicola. When JoJo was about 13, the family moved from a stone cottage “in the middle of nowhere – the last house on the Pennine Way” – to the village center, where they taught their craft in the village hall. “Rob would do all the axing and rough carving, and then Nic would finish them. She has a design background and eye for aesthetics.”
They often roped their daughter into helping. JoJo can’t recall exactly when she started using a knife, but she knows it was when she was “definitely very young. I had quite a short attention span,” she continues, “so I never really made objects. It was mostly swords and spears to fight my brother with.” (That’s her younger brother, Ollie, now 24.) People would come for the courses and stay in the village, carving spoons during the day, then tack on a couple of days to go walking in the hills.
Robin’s teaching wasn’t limited to the village hall in Edale. He taught in other parts of England, as well as internationally, and always tried to take the family with him when he traveled. That’s how JoJo came to meet famed Swedish woodcarver Wille Sundqvist, whom many consider one of the fathers of green woodworking, when she was just 8 or 9. While she appreciates the honor of having met Wille in person, she admits that as a kid, “all the talk about knives got boring.” Still, when their hosts brought out knives as gifts for her and her brother, she accepted hers graciously and says “That was my first knife of my own.”
Fast forward a few years. “Every teen-ager goes through a stage where everything their parents do is the least cool and they want nothing to do with it.” So she explored other things. JoJo took the GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at 16, then went to what Brits call college – usually what’s known as technical or community college in the States – in Chesterfield to study art. “I struggled a lot with my mental health,” she says, acknowledging a challenge faced by many at the transition to adulthood. As a result, she didn’t get far before dropping out. The following year she tried A-level studies (roughly equivalent to junior and senior high in the States) but dropped out at the start of her second year due to depression and anxiety.
“I was later, in my early 20s, diagnosed as autistic,” she explains. “That probably has a lot to do with my struggling…. This undiagnosed autism made me not fit in very well. It helps me be kinder to myself about some things, because I really struggle in a lot of situations. I remind myself that it’s not my fault; it’s just the way my brain works.”
At 18 or 19 she dropped out the second time. “I spent time in my depression hole,” she continues. While JoJo was growing up, her mother attended graduate school, where she earned a doctorate designing multimedia resources for teaching craft skills. She always spoke about how great it was to go back to university as a mature student. Thanks to her mother’s perspective, JoJo understood that she could return to the world of formal education someday if she needed a qualification. “That was a different opinion,” she says, from the prevailing assumption that anyone who did not complete a degree straight after high school was something of a failure. “It’s kind of sad that that’s how everybody viewed me when I didn’t go to university.”
She spent a summer assisting Mike Abbott, who teaches chairmaking in Herefordshire, southwest of Birmingham. “You’d spend a week living in the woods, cooking on wood fires, sitting around the campfire, and you’d make a chair. Assistants help with projects, make tea, and so on. There I spent more time doing woodworking and also my first big teaching, although informally.” After helping people to make chairs and understand how wood “works,” she showed them how to carve spoons in the evenings.
When her dad was organizing the first Spoonfest with his friend Barn, she found herself once again roped in to help. She’d carved a few spoons by that time but “nothing that seriously.” One of her jobs was to put together the festival T-shirt, which had to list the instructors. “They’re all men,” she noted. It struck her as odd – those who’d attended her parents’ courses were fairly evenly mixed by gender. But there didn’t seem to be any women carving spoons professionally at that time, she says. “So…in a fit of feminist stubbornness, [I] decided that by the following year I would be good enough to teach.”
She spent the year practicing, and sure enough, was teaching that following year, 2013. “I was hooked,” she says. “Couldn’t put it down.”
If it seems a stretch to go from a remote village in the countryside of northern England to teaching internationally, all without the benefit of conventional higher education, JoJo’s trajectory is a little easier to comprehend when you go beyond her parents’ example and how they immersed their daughter in craft from her earliest years to consider the passionate interest and ambition her father demonstrated in researching and reviving a branch of woodcraft that might otherwise have been lost to history. Google Robin Wood and you’ll find he has “MBE” (Member of the Order of the British Empire) appended to his name, a great public honor recognizing his contributions to the survival of traditional British craft. For much of his life, Robin has made a living by turning bowls. No ordinary bowls, these; Robin revived the craft of pole-lathe turning last practiced by George Lailey six decades earlier. After Lailey died in 1958, his workshop was moved to the Museum of English Rural Life. Robin studied Lailey’s lathe and tools and reverse-engineered them, in effect teaching himself from scratch. He took his foot-powered lathe with him to craft fairs to demonstrate the process. The power of such an example, as well as the opportunities Robin shared with his family, should not be underestimated.
Going farther afield
JoJo stayed in Herefordshire during her early 20s. By that point she was teaching internationally; one year she taught courses in England, France, Germany and Sweden, in addition to the United States, where she was one of the instructors at the first Greenwood Fest in Plymouth, Mass. She’d visited the States a couple of years before with her dad; they spent a few weeks with Jarrod Dahl in Wisconsin, building a birch bark canoe, an experience she describes as “amazing! Really cool.” They also traveled to a spoon gathering in Milan, a tiny town “in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota and to Northhouse, where Robin taught a course. Peter Follansbee took that course. “In the evenings we did spoon carving,” JoJo goes on. “Peter’s spoon carving background is from the Swedish bent-branch world; at Northhouse, he was carving from a straight piece of wood. “I probably said something fairly unflattering – I can show you a better way to do that.” Instead of being insulted, he was impressed, she says. “We got on great.” So when he was organizing Greenwood Fest, he invited her to teach spoon carving.
The spoon carving world is quite a small one, JoJo says, though it’s getting bigger. “Everybody seems to know everybody. We were all on Facebook and Instagram, posting about our various things.”
“I’ve been very lucky. I grew up around amazing craftspeople and have been lucky to get to know everybody. A lot of the woodworking community is dominated by old men. When people are looking to book some people to change the demographics a bit, I bring the age significantly down. And I don’t have a beard, which is a change,” she laughs – “ticking two boxes at once!”
Pathcarvers: enhancing mental health through making
With her partner, Sean, she operates Pathcarvers in Birmingham, where she moved in 2017. Pathcarvers teaches woodcarving as a way to help people with mental and physical health challenges – “a tool for positive social change.” Through Pathcarvers, they set up events that give people access to craft. “The act of making is intrinsically human,” JoJo points out. “A lot of people don’t have creative outlets that can really help. Jobs are becoming more screen-oriented. People get home and put the telly on or Netflix because we’re so tired. Making is something that can be beneficial in so many ways.”
They work with groups as well as individuals, bringing together people from diverse backgrounds. “You sit down and do some carving. It helps you talk about things. You have to concentrate on that sharp thing in your hand because you don’t want to hurt yourself. It gives you space to quiet your brain down.”
When she was teaching elsewhere, she says, she’d notice that there always came a point where “everybody goes silent because they’re so focused on what they’re doing. The world disappears. At the end of the course, they’ve got this thing in their hands that they’ve made. They can go away and use that in their kitchen and be reminded of this experience. So many people never get to experience that. They don’t even know it’s an option. Pathcarvers is about making this as accessible as we can, and making it affordable. With craft courses there are endless [opportunities] to go away in the woods, but there’s not that much in the cities. [Thanks to Pathcarvers], people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to do it can do it.”
They are a social enterprise (known in the United States as a non-profit). Until now, they’ve been self-funded. Course fees have made it possible for them to subsidize training for those who can’t pay. After woodworker, author and lawyerKieran Binnie took his life in April 2021, Christopher Schwarz, Megan Fitzpatrick and Rachel Moss (Kieran’s spouse) wanted to do something to memorialize him and create a positive legacy. “He’d brought so much to so many people in his life,” JoJo comments, “and we wanted to continue that. Kieran lived in Birmingham, too. It seemed a good fit. He, too, thought about community.” Chris and Megan put her and Sean in touch with Rachel Moss, Kieran’s wife. “It’s been really amazing, the amount of support,” JoJo says of the contributions brought in following a post about Pathcarvers and the Kieran Binnie Memorial Fund for Craft. The fund will enable them to do more work free of charge, and to work with other organizations to help people with their mental health.
Most woodworkers familiar with Derek Jones know him as longtime editor of the UK periodical Furniture & Cabinetmaking, a position he held for ten years. Those who follow Derek on Instagram will also know him as a maker of hardwood marking gauges and occasional instructor of furniture making and French polishing, most notably at Robinson House Studio in southeast England. But few of those who aren’t personally close to Derek are aware that, had he not gone into woodworking, he might well have become a chef.
There are many parallels between the kitchen and the workshop, he notes. Both are workspaces filled with dedicated tools, many of them sharp. Both require a commitment to cultivate deep, embodied knowledge of materials and processes while keeping your wits about you lest you curdle a custard or find you’ve created a drawer shaped like the letter Z.
Derek’s culinary interest sprang from his experience as a teenager, when he worked in pubs and restaurants managed by his father, but his dad advised him not to go into the hospitality field because of its “unsociable hours.” He chuckles at his dad’s caveat today; being a self-employed woodworker often comes with similar encroachments on what might otherwise be personal time.
After Derek left school at the age of 17, he took off for the south of France, where he spent a couple of years. There he developed an interest in French peasant food – “good, wholesome stuff,” such as a casserole he still makes today with pork belly or sausage (“quite robust sausage, such as chorizo”), butter beans, cabbage, mushrooms and leeks. “The cabbage goes on last. As soon as it goes to a vibrant green, out it comes, and you’ve got this steaming-hot plate of goodness. It’s heaven. I’d eat it all day every day,” though the rest of his family – his longtime partner, Tracey, and younger daughter, Mahli, who still lives at home – don’t share his enthusiasm for the dish.
While in France he worked in bars, restaurants and camp sites – and also as a tour guide on coaches (buses, in the States) bound for Monaco and St. Tropez: “You’d have this little script you’d read out” while pointing out landmarks.
Derek was born in greater Paddington, West London, in 1964. His mother has always been a dancer; she spent years on stage as a chorus girl in theaters on London’s West End. Early on, his father worked in property management for a private landlord who had mansion blocks around Maida Vale, north of Paddington. The family left London for Brighton, a city on the coast in southeast England, when Derek was still young. His parents split when he was 10 or 11.
That was when his father got into the business of managing pubs and restaurants. Today, management is widely considered a hardcore skill taught by business schools. But Derek understands that what really makes a good manager is the ability to relate to other people – to understand what matters to them, and provide it in the most satisfying way. Far from being primarily a number cruncher, Derek says, “my dad’s a wandering minstrel, really. Very congenial,” which made him invaluable to the owners of pubs and restaurants where he worked. He’d optimize each operation, then turn it over to other managers. Derek lived with his mother and worked part-time for his dad.
Today, Derek and Tracey live in the port town of Newhaven, about 12 miles east of Brighton. When they started to look for a place to buy, they couldn’t find anything in Lewes (pronounced “Lewis”), where they were living at the time. But in Newhaven, which Derek calls “the poor relation to Brighton,” they found a 1930s house with a garden and parking for two cars. He has a “tiny little shed” in back that serves as a shop. He insulated the structure, added electrical wiring and moved in his Roubo bench, along with hand tools, a drill press, router and Festool Domino. It’s a set-up that works well; while his “little workshop” is at the end of the garden, he has access to a full suite of tools “at the school.”
“The school” he’s referring to is the London Design & Engineering University Technical College, which operates in partnership with the University of East London Design and Technical College. Although Derek’s teaching currently focuses on engineering, rather than woodworking, his career as an instructor grew out of a venture when he was working as editor of Furniture & Cabinetmaking. In 2014 Derek arranged to bring Chris Schwarz to the U.K. to deliver two classes, the Anarchist’s Toolchest and Dutch Toolchest, at Warwickshire College. The classes were structured to allow young students to take part in sessions that would otherwise be beyond their means. The pieces made by the instructor were filled with hand tools donated by makers from both sides of the pond, including Lee Valley, Sterling Tool Works, Bad Axe, Texas Heritage Tool Works, Walke Moore Tools and Karl Holtey. The fully equipped chests were then auctioned off with the proceeds going back to the host college to support their full-time students. The following year the lineup included Roy Underhill, Tom Fidgen, Peter Follansbee and David Barron and covered two locations over two weeks.
An attendee at one of these classes, Geoffrey Fowler, approached Derek to run and teach at a similar event at a school he was planning to build in London. Derek wasn’t enthusiastic, in part because he was working full-time as editor of the magazine, but the two of them struck up a friendship. Instead of organizing more such classes and events, Derek offered his services to spec out the woodworking shops with tools and equipment that reflected those found in a professional shop. Changes at the magazine coincided with circumstances at the school which meant that Derek was able “come and lend a hand” for one day a week. He’d stand back and watch instructors who, he says, were doing a fine job of teaching but hadn’t necessarily had much, if any, experience in commercial work – i.e., earning a living from work in the field, as distinct from delivering what we know today as “content.” “D’you know what?” he wanted to say; “that’s not actually how we do it commercially.” He realized that he had real-world experience he could contribute to the curriculum. One thing led to another, and before long he was doing a lot more teaching.
Gradually, his teaching shifted to the subject of engineering: the principles of marking things out and making components to fit. The methodology is similar, whether you’re working in wood or metal, and these days he’s teaching more metalwork than woodwork. “It’s not a huge leap, is it, really?” he asks. “We’re still taking small amounts of material off. The vocabulary is very similar; the necessary skills to be able to generate drawings that other people can read, they’re identical.” And even though it’s 2021, he’s still teaching students to draw by hand. “They hate it!” he says. “But I won’t let them go anywhere near software until they can draw on paper. It’s the same with hand tools. I don’t let them go anywhere near a machine unless they can use a file and a saw.” Here he takes a moment to share an anecdote about a student who recently asked if he could use “the long metal sandpaper,” to which Derek replied, “You mean the file?”
Derek got his start in the trade as a “Saturday boy” around the age of 15, when he had a job restoring antiques. In those relatively dark days, restoration meant stripping, followed by French polishing; there was still scant respect for the patina that develops with use. He also learned to repair furniture, which entailed replicating parts. “I don’t think there’s a better training ground…than to take things apart to find out how all the parts go together,” he remarks. “You learn about joints intimately. You learn about proportions – without realizing you’re soaking up all this information.” His boss, John, taught him to look closely at the subtle differences between Victorian and Georgian furniture. You’d expect Georgian, being older, to be more clunky, he thinks. But it was just the opposite. Anyone familiar with the history of furniture will appreciate why.
On completion of his “French Sabbatical” in his later teens, Derek returned to John’s emporium to complete his training as a cabinetmaker, supplementing his income with an early-morning window cleaning round in the city center so he could save up money to buy woodworking tools. He got his own shop, a garage behind Hove Station, at “the posher end of Brighton,” and restored pieces to ship by the container-load to the North American market. Brighton is full of antique dealers, he notes, and he was constantly hunting through secondhand shops and auctions for pieces with potential. The city was also home to a thriving furniture making trade; in one square mile he could find French polishers, upholsterers, gilders, carvers and more – all the areas of specialization that make up the traditional furniture industry. An American dealer purchased everything Derek made or had bought for resale, then arranged to receive the container when it reached the United States.
After a couple of years, the booming interest in “brown furniture,” as Victorian, Georgian and Regency furniture is often disparagingly known, waned. So Derek turned to smaller items, producing one-off pieces and sometimes replicating others, such as when he bought a pair of chairs and made two more to match, then sold them as a set.
In his late 20s Derek embarked on a two-year degree in 3-D design at Northbrook College in the coastal town of Worthing. After graduating, he rented workshop space, this time with a couple of other craftspersons, Paul Richardson (who became editor of The Woodworker magazine and would go on to launch Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine) and Anthony Bailey (editor of Woodworking Crafts magazine). By now he’d expanded his knowledge from period to contemporary furniture, in addition to having learned to draw and design. He built up the business, which grew to seven people. They built conference tables and other high-end office furniture for corporate clients based in London, such as the Bank of Canada. But “two events you’d never think would impact a rural Sussex shop” dealt his business a critical blow – first, 9/11, then the Enron scandal. Both events “just wiped our business out,” he says – their work was for the kind of clients who’d been based in the Twin Towers and operated internationally. And after Enron, shareholders became a lot more cautious about how the businesses they invested in were spending money.
“It was a disaster,” he remembers. To stay afloat, he and his partners had to turn on a dime. But pivot they did, this time to the custom kitchen market, a potentially lucrative business at a time when property values were rising dramatically, particularly in the south of England. Here, though, Derek found, “clients faff about over the color, the handles, everything. All the successful bespoke kitchen makers had a swanky brochure and showroom.” He and his partners couldn’t effectively break into the market, so they sold their business.
Furniture & Cabinetmaking
This time, Derek turned to drawing and drafting. “I was a freelancer, carrying out site surveys for high-end bespoke fit-outs [installations, in the U.S.], drawing up designs and running the project.” Every now and then he’d rent space in a workshop run by Marc Fish of Robinson House Studio in Newhaven, to build the odd project. Marc showed him a copy of Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine. “I was horrified,” Derek says. “Good grief, what’s going on here?” he wondered; nothing in the publication related to his real-world experience. “Everything seemed so twee and out of step with current trends and processes. I was used to having my work represented in a magazine format where the style, layout and content compl[e]mented each other. Woodworking magazines at that time were lacking in all respects.” Marc mentioned that the publishers were on the hunt for a new editor. Derek briefly considered applying, then dismissed the idea. A year later the publishers were still looking for an editor, so he applied. “I’d never written anything longer than a postcard before then,” he adds. He told them that while he had no background in publishing, he knew the topic well. Between his appointment to the post and starting at the magazine, Paul Richardson, the founder of F&C and onetime bench mate, had been killed in a traffic accident. “Paul had moved away from F&C by this time to launch several other titles. We hadn’t spoken in years but I was really looking forward to working with him again. It wasn’t to be, though, and as we hadn’t exactly parted on good terms. I felt that maybe I owed him one last favor to restore his creation back to its former self.”
He ended up staying in that position for ten years. Throughout that time, the world of print publishing was in trouble. Circulation was in decline; the length of the magazine was getting shorter. When he first took the job as editor, Derek and his colleagues had access to a workshop the publishers provided, which allowed them to generate significant content of their own, but after about 6 years the publishers decided to pay outsiders to produce content instead. The decision grated on Derek. “If you’re teaching, it feels wrong to be teaching a subject you’re not actively pursuing. I teach, and I make stuff. If you’re editing a woodworking magazine, not to be doing any woodworking is just wrong.” In addition, as a seasoned professional woodworker, Derek knew that writing an article and getting the photos and other illustrations took a lot of time, and what the publishers were willing to pay professional woodworkers was far from fair compensation. He had a hard time breaking the low rate to woodworkers who were interested in writing for the magazine – so hard that this challenge, above all others, finally convinced him to change course, which is how he came to his current teaching position.
Marking gauges and cricket tables
Derek started making marking gauges when he was editor at Furniture & Cabinetmaking. During his professional career he’d always made things in batches, so he did the same with marking gauges, gradually developing processes that minimized the need for handwork, which took far more time. “I’m at that point now where I’ve refined them and can do a batch of 20 or 30 quite quickly,” he says. “Quickly is a relative term, I rarely have consistent back-to-back days to work on any project these days so I don’t really count the hours. As long as it’s quicker than the time before, I know I’m making progress.” Finishing is the slowest part. “I start off using a couple brush coats of diluted shellac, not to fill the grain (although that’s a happy coincidence), but to raise it so that when I apply a shop-made hard wax paste, the surface is dead smooth. I aim to have the best finish with the least amount of product. It’s a long way from my French polishing background but something I probably wouldn’t have thought about without that knowledge.” He figures once he’s got the process so streamlined that it’s profitable, he’ll lose interest.
His current focus outside of teaching engineering is on cricket tables. Having started out with antiques in the laissez-faire Wild West that was England in the 1980s, he understood that the cognoscenti looked down on Victorian furniture, much of which had been manufactured in factories for a mass market. Back then, the pieces of greatest interest were Georgian (dating from the early 18th through early-19th centuries) and Regency (a short period in the early-19th century that followed directly afterward). But “you could take Victorian furniture and convert it with different hardware to change its style.” Sic transit gloria mundi. He apologizes for the deceit but acknowledges “that was the market.”
At the time, he had no interest in anything earlier than Georgian furniture. So it should come as no surprise that years later, when he saw Peter Follansbee and others making traditional English furniture from the 17th century, “I thought it was a bit wacky, not proper.” His opinion about these earlier furniture forms changed when he went to an auction a few years ago and saw “a cute little table” – symmetrical from one angle, but not from others. It was “so different to anything usually on my radar, it stuck out.” He loved it – and put in a maximum bid of £90. It eventually went to another bidder for £900. So began his obsession with the cricket table.
Along with marking gauges, cricket tables have been the focus of his production ever since. Explaining their development, he says “they go right back to being stick tables, and at some point they go over to being joined furniture.” He started with a couple that were “quite rough” but kept at it, learning from each one. The clamps we use today didn’t exist when cricket tables were originally made, he points out, but the tables still hold together. “That blows my mind.” These days he’s perfecting the techniques and familiarizing himself with the geometry. “I spent so many years making square boxes. You suddenly think, oh my god, I’ve got to make something that’s 60 degrees!”
His interest in cricket tables led to a book contract with Lost Art Press. He anticipates it will likely be published early in 2023.
These days Derek teaches engineering in London four days a week. On Fridays he works from home – grading, planning lessons, etc. – “terribly dull stuff that goes with being a teacher.” He spends most weekends and evenings on the book, though the last couple of weeks he’s been making some chopping boards, a tray, cutlery inserts and spice racks for a bespoke kitchen company, stuff he calls “bread and butter work.”
I asked Derek what advice he’d give to a would-be furniture maker. “I’d probably advise them to have an interest in something niche,” he replied. “If you’re doing something niche, it’s a small market, but the people in it will be loyal and tend to value what you can deliver, because they find it hard to find people who do what you can do.”
Many of Derek’s clients come to him because they can’t find anyone else to do what he does well, or within their time frame, a situation that helps make it possible for him to charge what he needs to for his work. Three of his customers have been with him for 30 years; they even stayed with him through a strange period during the late ’80s when he chucked woodworking for a job at Gatwick Airport, where he worked in the Dispatch Office coordinating the turnround of civil aircraft and calculating optimal weight and balance so that planes could take off when they reached the end of the runway. But even that professional diversion contributes to what he does now – it taught him about timekeeping, which is essential in the business of aviation.
He expands on his point. These longstanding customers “never query your price. They’re happy with your lead times. They never question your ability to do stuff. They pay on time. In the commercial world, you send someone an invoice and they pay you in 30 days, maybe 60 days. They may go bust [in which case you may not get paid at all]. You learn the value in those relationships. It’s a business relationship, but it goes deeper. You need to nurture those relationships and those customers because they’re the ones keeping the roof over your head, ultimately.”
Why Lowfat Roubo?
Finally, those familiar with Derek’s Instagram account may wonder why he goes by @lowfatroubo. Here’s the backstory.
When I was at [Furniture & Cabinetmaking], I commissioned a series of articles from David Barron about benches that were scheduled to run back to back. The first was a Scandinavian bench, the second a Roubo. We trailered the Roubo at the end of the first article – standard practice. David submitted his copy and pics on time, then left for the U.S. to attended Handwerks. We subbed the text, paid an illustrator for the plans and started work on the layout. Unfortunately David had sent all low-res images – totally useless for print. He’d erased the high-res files from his camera. With just two weeks in the schedule I decided to ‘reconstruct’ the bench with pine 2x4s (not the solid beech he used). I only intended making a short bench top and maybe two legs just for the photo sequence, but it was going so well I made the full version. The coverline was something like ‘Avoid the heavy lifting and build a Lowfat Roubo.’ About a week after it went on sale, I needed a name for my online accounts in a hurry and liked the sound of Lowfat Roubo. It fits in well with my ethos – trimming down the excess but keeping things authentic.
When the magazine closed the workshop, I brought the bench home, cut a foot off each end and installed it in my home shop. It’s what I work on now. I’ll never part with it.
Australian woodworker Carol Russell’s carvings of animals are a visual form of haiku. With a few judicious swipes of the knife, she transforms small chunks of wood into figures so evocative that it’s a challenge to avoid reading into them distinct personalities and tales of adventure. The curious cock to a dog’s ear, the satisfied curl of a cat’s tail – these and other details bring her animals to life. So when Christopher Schwarz asked whether I had any ideas for the dustjacket of “Shop Tails” (which we anticipate receiving from the printer in early October), an image of Carol’s animals was one of my three suggestions. As it turned out, Chris, Megan Fitzpatrick and Kara Gebhart Uhl are also fans of Carol’s work. So Lost Art Press commissioned her to carve a dog and a cat. She surprised us all by adding a second cat, this one orange; we instantly named him Tony.
Scattered among the animals in Carol’s Instagram feed you’ll also find the occasional rowboat. Carol grew up in Tasmania, a small island off the south coast of Australia known for its pristine wilderness and endemic timber species. Tasmania has one rare native species, Huon pine, that has been traditionally used in boatbuilding and high-quality furniture making; its high methyl eugenol content makes it resistant to marine borers. Carol says “it’s very rare now, and a protected species; there is definitely romance attached to it, partly due to its beauty and the fact that it stands as a monument to the amazing forests it grows in.” She finds a special charm in Huon pine boats – they evoke “that daydreaming aspect, that [English children’s book writer] Enid Blyton [thing] of [children] floating away for a day of adventure without their parents. And usually as a kid you’re accompanied by a scruffy dog that’s up for anything. That’s the dog I’m always trying to capture.”
“We always had animals,” Carol says. In the 1960s, when she was a child, her family lived on the edge of Launceston, right next to open fields. The area where they lived was far from prosperous. Many people couldn’t afford to have their animals spayed or neutered, so there were always stray, injured and abandoned animals around. Her family took in most of those who showed up at their house. In addition to dogs and cats, her brothers occasionally found other animals to rescue. One time they brought a little kangaroo home, where it joined the other animals in the house and curled up by the fire. “At one stage we had 13 cats, three dogs, a kangaroo and a sheep,” though the sheep had to stay outside. “It was completely mad! We just had a little suburban house with a veggie garden.”
It was another time, she points out. “We’re not encouraged to keep wildlife now, and many groups work hard to re-house animals back into the wild. It was a lovely way to grow up, though.”
Her father, Len, worked on telegraph lines for the postmaster general. One day, before Carol was born, he fell from a telegraph pole onto his back. The injury left him in terrible pain that became chronic. Although he was able to walk, he couldn’t walk far. Nor could he drive. In response to his dramatically changed condition, he planted a vegetable garden and grew most of the food for his family of eight – he and his wife had six kids, of whom Carol is the youngest. “He was enormously methodical,” Carol says. “The garden was the focus of his life. He couldn’t do a lot. A bit each day, though, mounted up. I grew up with the most amazing food.” All of his friends had served in the Second World War. He hadn’t gone because he’d had a double dose of the smallpox vaccination by mistake and had become so sick that he was repatriated home. Survivor’s guilt led him to drink heavily in the early years, though he eventually got that under control. “I never knew him to work [at a job], but he was a very wise, very gentle person, a lovely man. He adored my mother and would sing old love songs to her. It drove me mad, but now I can see how sweet it was.”
Although her dad received a disability pension, it was modest. “Which is why my mother was always coming up with schemes to make more money. She would send us door to door, selling cakes. We’d have big trays of lamingtons (a sponge cake rolled in chocolate and coconut) and highly decorated cupcakes and slices. They looked amazing; no one would refuse when confronted with these delicious goodies.” At Christmastime her mother sold dozens of her Christmas cakes and puddings; people would order them months ahead, and storing them took all the available cupboard space.
Carol’s mother, Valerie, had been born in Dublin. As a young woman, her grandmother had fallen in love and married an Irishman, who was “quite a devilish man.” The family emigrated to Tasmania, where Carol’s grandfather left them and went to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to grow tea. He never contacted them again. Valerie was largely raised by her grandparents and was a voracious reader, as she remains today at the age of 92. Carol’s father was born in Tasmania of Welsh ancestry. He and her mother met in Launceston around 1950; each brought children to the marriage, and they had three more together.
“My mother was enormously resourceful and enthusiastic about everything,” says Carol. “Always making and growing things.” None of this was unusual where they lived during the ’60s and early ’70s, she points out. Lots of people made what they could and bartered their work for that of others. “The lady who made clothes made clothes to swap for homegrown vegetables or preserves. That was just what people had to do to get by.” Her mother, to this day, sometimes says, “’I think I should go and get a job.’ She hates idleness.”
Given her love of animals, Carol wanted to be a veterinarian. Throughout high school she had a weekend job working with a local vet, a Scotsman “who distilled whiskey in the tearoom out the back of the consultation room” because his wife wouldn’t let him do it in the house. “I’d sit next to it drinking my tea and hear it gurgling away. I learned so much from him; he was so generous to people and animals and was never too busy to teach me what he could.” When they delivered puppies by caesarian section, the vet would hand them to her and she’d rub them to get them warmed up. “I loved it,” she says of this work. “It was just a delight, but it could be sad, too.”
As a child, Carol had been a huge reader and one of those kids who could pick up almost anything. She was particularly interested in drama, English and art and adds, “I had a healthy opinion of myself as well!” When she was 17, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) offered her a cadetship as a journalist, a type of internship that involved research and writing articles. All was going well until the day she was flicking through a newspaper and happened on an ad for a crew to sail a 35′ trimaran to New Guinea. She applied to be a crew member, forwent the cadetship and left Tasmania “on a little red yacht sailing off into the sunset in winter.” She quickly adds: “If my son tried to do [the same thing] now, I’d lock him in a room!”
She and her crewmates had a wonderful time. The Bass Strait between Tasmania and Australia has beautiful islands with bird rookeries and seal colonies; they saw “a lot of amazing things over the course of two months while sailing around photographing wildlife.” It was July, the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere. Unlike the other crew members, Carol had no previous sailing experience and found even the most mundane aspects of the trip rewarding. One of her jobs was to cook for the crew. There was also a routine in which each crew member spent two hours at the tiller while the others rested. They were on the water in what felt like “the middle of nowhere. I’ve never forgotten it, that solitary sense,” she recalls today. “You could see the phosphorescence in the water, and sometimes, dolphins would whiz past leaving a silver trail behind them. I think that’s why the boat thing is strongly ingrained in me. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of freedom.”
But it wasn’t all idyllic. The man who owned the boat was insufferable. If he lost at chess, he’d go to his bunk and sulk for days. “After four months or so I got really fed up with it.” By the time they arrived at Mooloolaba Beach in Queensland, she’d been in a quarrel with the captain. She got her backpack of clothes and said she was done, so he rowed her to shore and left her there. It was nearly 40 years ago, long before the widespread availability of cell phones. She had only just turned 18. “I watched the boat sail off and thought ‘What am I going to do now?’”
Her sense of pride kicked in. She couldn’t go home just four months after leaving, so she made up her mind to head for Brisbane, the nearest big town. She met some people on the beach who offered her a ride. “I didn’t choose Brisbane,” she says of the city where she’s spent most of the intervening 30-plus years. “It just happened. At that stage I was a blank slate with a little bag of clothes and no money, but lots of enthusiasm and self-confidence. It’s amazing how you can rebuild a life. I often think back to that little bag of clothes…” – quite a contrast with the many possessions and responsibilities that she, like many of us, has collected over the years.
For income in Brisbane she worked at Aroma’s Café, one of the first places there to roast and blend its own coffee. Sometimes she worked as a model – it was a great time for emerging clothing and jewelry designers. In time she met new friends, one of whom, Wayne Crotty, was a musician/furnituremaker. “That was it,” she remembers. “I saw what he was making and was so astounded that you could make a table. I’d never thought about how things were made before.” She asked him to teach her. He did. She worked with him for 10 years.
Her first job was a Shaker table with a tripod base. She learned about mortise-and-tenon joinery, dovetails, sharpening and setting up machines. “Wayne was not a fine woodworker. He was a good ‘practical’ woodworker. He knew a lot of people. He took me to meet people that owned areas of forest.” They would selectively choose and mill particular trees, being careful not to take too many. They also salvaged a lot of logs from forestry clearing, so she saw the whole process and developed a deep understanding of wood as a material. Of the men she worked with, she says “some of them appeared quite gruff and very blokey, not the sort of people I thought would take a young woman very seriously. I discovered, though, they loved the fact I was so keen. If you’re interested and you listen, the world opens up to you.”
She also ventured into the world of building theater sets. While working for a company that made stage sets for big events, she learned about what she calls “practical construction” – nothing precious or fine, but more “how to turn a ballroom in a grand hotel into a fantasyland or forest for a particular event or conference. You all worked together really hard on tight deadlines and drank a lot of cheap coffee.” The comradery was fabulous.
By her late 20s Carol was ready “to make things that were really special and would mean something to people.” She began to design her own pieces and developed her own customer base; people would come to her with an idea that she would sketch, then build for them. For about seven years she did one-off pieces, working in Wayne’s shop, with the occasional exhibition of work that was more creative. “I started reading all the [issues of] Fine Woodworking magazine I could get my hands on,” as well as books by James Krenov and George Nakashima. She was especially interested in Japanese design. Unfortunately, she has few photographs of her work from that time.
In her early 30s, when she was running her custom furniture business, Brisbane furniture maker Simon Hooper, whom she calls “a real hero of mine,” asked if she would come to work with him at Bell Brothers, an old Brisbane furniture making institution. Carol leapt at the chance. The company also owned a funeral parlor; the shop was next to the coffin makers, and they often needed extra people to help with funerals. Carol would have to change out of her shop clothes into a black suit and drive an old Mercedes hearse. After the funeral it was back to the bench. “It gave you this crazy perspective on life,” she remarks. “If this board was twisted, well… It’s not the end of the world; it can be straightened. Everything is really about people,” she realized. “It’s not about stuff. People have been very generous to me with their knowledge and I have encountered mostly kindness.”
“I’ve not had formal training at all,” she continues. “We have some amazing woodworking schools [in Australia] now, and I think I would just love an opportunity to dedicate two or three years to learning.” Lacking that option at the time, she traded labor for instruction. There were no apprenticeships available in the kind of work she wanted to do; it was the 1990s, the dark age of particleboard and MDF. She wanted to work with solid wood. She picked up any new skills she could. As a result, she calls herself “a bit of a Frankenstein woodworker.”
Carol had met her husband, Nick, in 1996 through a mutual friend. They met at a country pub, The Dugandan Hotel in Boonah – “a pub in a paddock,” she calls it. Nick was working as a consultant for an IT company and had just returned from an assignment in Sydney. It was unlikely they would ever have met, but their friend was celebrating a birthday at that particular pub that day. They married in 1998.
The year before, she’d taken a job working in the showroom of Carbatec, a woodworking supply company that had recently begun importing the kind of high-quality tools no one else was selling. They also imported traditional woodworking tools made in Japan. “It was a wonderful place full of beautiful tools and enthusiastic people,” she notes, explaining why she left her own furniture-making business for a job in retail. “The prospect of a steady job was pretty enticing, too.”
When her employers announced they wanted to offer classes, she decided to teach joinery. She went to night classes to learn teaching skills and her work shifted to teaching and writing. Carbatec also had a fabulous catalog that required Carol to write a lot of copy. The owner of the business, Geoff Lowe, had sons-in-law who were American and worked in the business; the new American-made tools were quite an attraction. “Geoff was very generous,” she recalls, “always giving me the new tools and beautiful pieces of wood to try [them on].”
Carol continued to read woodworking publications while working for Carbatec and was inspired by examples of work done by other women. She traveled with the company to Japan, where she met craftspeople and learned about Japanese woodworking tools, which prompted her interest in hand-tool woodworking. For years she’d worked with tools made by Stanley, Record and Marples, good solid stuff made in England of Sheffield steel. But “to pick up a Lie-Nielsen plane or a Japanese chisel…there was real poetry in that.”
Carol started to write for Australian Wood Review, published by Linda and Raf Nathan. She was thrilled to be the first woman on the cover – around 1999, she thinks. Australia had other woodworking magazines that she says were full of “more practical” stuff, but Wood Review was different – it published work of fine quality and cutting-edge design. The Nathans employed her part-time as an editor for a while, and it struck her that she’d returned, in a way, to the world of journalism where she’d started at the age of 17.
Animals & Life
When Carol was 38, she was sharing a workshop with two renowned Australian makers, Roy Schack and Robert Howard, as well as a few others. It was an inspiring environment with a lot of creative energy.
One day, 32 weeks pregnant, she had a brain hemorrhage. Fortunately, she survived, and her son, Hugo, was born without damage. But recovery took a long time and has changed Carol in so many ways that she now thinks of her life as “before” and “after” the aneurysm. Although she’s loath to use those changes as an “excuse” (her word), she hasn’t made much furniture since. The hemorrhage left her painfully sensitive to noise – routers, shapers, thickness planers and other machines all became unbearable. Her sense of sight was also affected. She tried to go back to furniture, “but it just wouldn’t come together.” Four years later, after Nick completed a doctorate, he was offered a post-doctoral position in the Netherlands and they lived there for two years. Carol didn’t make anything during that time; instead, she worked as what she calls a handywoman for the local school. But there’s a great tradition of carving in the Netherlands, which sparked her interest in that field.
After Carol and her family returned to Australia, Carbatec hired her back. One day she made a spoon in a class with Australian woodcarver Gary Field. “It was the first thing I’d really done in all that time [since the aneurysm]. The idea [is] that you start with a whole, and you take away. What you’re left with is the object.” After being wowed by the process of building a Shaker table in her 20s, she experienced a second epiphany in the spoon carving class. She decided to become a wood carver. “You’re going along and all of a sudden your life’s completely derailed,” she explains. “You have this partner who’s trying to make things right, but you can only make things right to a certain point. I was a furniture maker. But I wasn’t a great furniture maker, I never felt completely at home, I had moments where things were quite good. But [carving] was something I felt quite passionate about. It felt like coming home. Other than a band saw, I don’t use machines anymore.”
Whether you’re building furniture or carving a cat, she says, the work is “so much about people,” and never more so than when you’re teaching others to build or carve, as Carol does these days. “[Teaching is a skill] that you get to share with people. It literally saves people. It’s saving people now, in these really difficult times.” She refers specifically to Australia’s latest wave of lockdowns, which have filled many with a sense of foreboding. “That little bit of peace of mind people get from making something or growing something with their own hands can just keep them going. It’s the one part of their week that they can rely on.” They come to class and can – well, must – really focus on the work, because it’s so intense.
“I always look at animals,” Carol tells me. “I stare at them constantly. Nothing has ever brought me so much joy as creating these animal forms and trying to distill the essence into this little block of wood.” She compares the intensity of packing so much into a tiny form to the Japanese art of netsuke; it’s “an implosion instead of an explosion, an exercise in not overusing your skill – a couple of cuts in the right place.” In terms of her work, she says, “the world is shrinking into something small, but I’ve needed all the bigness of everything I’ve ever done to be able to distill it down into this small gesture.”
Carol and Nick have no animals of their own at present, which only enhances her appreciation for those other creatures who share many of our lives. There’s an Australian tradition of observing Anzac Day every April 25 to honor members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who participated in the Gallipoli Campaign early in the First World War, and all the wars where Australians have served since. It’s a national day of remembrance when people go to a cenotaph and listen to speakers and pay their respects. “We have a lovely local service that we go to, but it can be hard to hear because the PA system isn’t so great,” she laughs. What prompts her to mention the occasion is that “many people take their dogs, it’s in a park close by our home.”
This year she really noticed the dogs, “looking at their body language and how they’re looking at each other, wagging their tails, then looking up at their humans and waiting so patiently. There was this whole canine world below people’s knees. Watching them, I just felt that unadulterated joy that animals give us and we seem to give them – it’s like your heart is going to burst.”
Hugo is heading to university in Melbourne. Carol and Nick plan to move back to Tasmania. Both are looking forward to having four seasons, a pleasure Nick recalls from his native England, after so many years in Queensland’s tropical climate. And Carol’s looking forward to living with animals again, as well as developing her carving practice further.
In the meantime Carol has a beautiful workspace in Brisbane she shares with fine leather workers Blue and Grae and Andrea and Gary Fitzpatrick, who have transformed an industrial space into the beautiful Botanick Nursery. It’s a space where she can carve and teach. “It has an incredible atmosphere, I feel so fortunate to be there. About 35 regular students come through each week and carve, chat, drink coffee and share their stories. Life is good.”
Shane Orion Wiechnik (pronounced “Wichnick” by some and “Vee-eck-nik” by others) first came to my notice through his posts on Instagram. I wasn’t sure whether he was Australian, or an American in Australia (he is both at this point, as an American who married an Australian citizen), but we cleared that up when he asked me to be a guest on “This Crafted World,” the podcast he runs with English furniture maker Harry T. Morris. From the first time we spoke, I was impressed by the breadth of his interest in artifacts and the activities of making, as well as restoration – possibly even more so than in the objects he produces — as well as the ambitious ways he has devised to further his skills and knowledge. “I’m very excited about processes and materials – how humans work and have worked,” he says, “how we experiment with materials around us to develop techniques, the innate material intelligence we develop as we work with things, and how objects and crafts tell us about history.”
In this age of “take a class, then teach it,” I was charmed by Shane’s modesty about his skills, training and pretty much everything else, especially in view of the high-caliber work he shares through Instagram. It took me a few years to feel worthy of identifying myself as a cabinetmaker, even after my first-year training in furniture making through the City & Guilds system in England, where I was living at the time, and a few years’ experience of work in others’ shops. So Shane’s humility resonated – though based on the work I’ve seen to date, he’s due for a recalibration of where he stands as a craftsman.
Shane is especially interested in how craft “enables” – how it empowers us to function more responsibly and fully – especially those of us who have grown up in cultures that take the making of things for granted, and have accustomed so many of us to call others for repair work we might otherwise do for ourselves. “It’s a grounding for me,” he says of this enabling. “When you’re a teenager, you’re being a hooligan and making a mess because the world already existed [and was there for you]. You’re not really a part of it. But learning historic craft and engaging with materials and seeing that the world came from something, through a variety of processes by people just like you, grounds me in a kind of reality and makes the world something I can care about more and understand.”
Shane was born in 1987 at Fort Wainwright, a military base in Alaska near where his father was posted. His dad recently retired after a career in the Army. His mother worked in administration at medical offices for much of the time he was growing up, though he adds that when he was in high school she took a position as an emergency medical technician, which he says was “probably her favorite-ever job.”
When Shane was a kid, his father repaired cars as had his own father, but he didn’t train Shane to do that kind of work. Shane’s introduction to tools came through his involvement in theater at high school, after which he studied film and television production at college. That introduced him to set building. “I found set building and prop work to be enthralling,” he says. “I mostly watched others work, and it seemed so creative and like there were no rules, but still you ended up with something beautiful. My interaction with tools was poor and without any respect and understanding for what they were doing. If it wasn’t working you just forced it more or blamed your strength. If I wasn’t able to screw something in, as a scrawny kid, I assumed it was because I was weak, even though I was using a power drill or driver. Always wanting to hide weakness,” he adds, in a bit of customary self-deprecation. “I was never smart enough to ask someone how to use the tool properly.”
“I was a very frustrating high school student,” he says, adding that when he asked a teacher for a letter of recommendation to submit with his college applications, she said she couldn’t. He was obviously very smart but did not apply himself. Determined to get a degree, he started at a community college in Lebanon, New Hampshire, then attended classes at Keane State in New Hampshire. His older brother, Damon, had moved to Sydney several years earlier, at the age of 18. While there on a visit, Shane met Andy, an Australian who would later become his spouse. He moved to Sydney at 21 and graduated from Edith Cowan University in Perth.
When I asked what had inspired his interest in the history and culture of making – not to mention larger questions such as whether we are making too many things, instead of repairing those that still have decades of usefulness to offer – he credited his brother, who he says is quite well-read, especially in history and geography, and their father. “Through listening to them I hear a wide variety of perspectives,” Shane says. But “traveling to Australia had a huge impact” as well. “It’s one of those things, moving to another country, when you have to question everything. I’ve had a lot of those moments and dig down in them.” For example, he continues, it’s important to recognize that the world is made; it didn’t just spring into existence. “Growing up in the States, I had no connection to food or where it came from. My first girlfriend in high school lived on an old farm. They whipped cream – it didn’t come out of a can. It was a revelation to me.”
He also credits his academic education. Studying film and television entailed immersing himself in psychological and sociological theory, which introduced him to new ways of seeing.
Getting into Woodworking
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Shane moved to Boston in 2010 because his study visa expired. In many ways, he says, he had a strong friend group and connection in the States that he hadn’t felt while studying in Perth. He’d moved to Boston hoping that he could return to that life and build from it. “I had been thinking about returning to the States and reconnecting with friends and colleagues there,” he says. He took a job with an event décor company that handled props and sets for events. “The business was run by an art director and his wife who’d worked in Hollywood. If you were [in charge of] some sort of corporate event and wanted to have a Christmas party in Boston, they would do the décor.” They specialized in décor that was Boston-related, with lots of set-type props. “I mostly painted things then,” he laughs, referring to hours spent with a roller. What ignited his interest in woodworking was not the work alone, but two colleagues who became his friends. Ken Decost, he says, “was very particular, with high standards.” Sam Gabrielson “was very smart; he got very excited about solving problems.” Sam, who came from a furniture family with ties to the furniture industry in the States, was also very encouraging.
He worked on setting up a film business, “but the film business plans fell through. I struggled to find new work opportunities, and I barely saw the people I’d missed. I missed Andy a great deal and felt quite lost in what I was trying to do. Financial prospects also looked better in Australia, so Andy and I decided I should move back to Perth. I left the job to move to Western Australia and be with Andy. We got married in 2011 and brought me back on another visa until I could get permanent residency.”
Of the time after this, he says, “I wasted five years of my life.” He struggled to find any kind of creative work in Perth and ended up working at a company that programmed radios (walkie-talkies) for mine sites, a job he stuck with for two years, even though, he says, “I absolutely hated it.” Andy had bought a house that was in seriously compromised condition and required a lot of work, but Shane says, “I was not nearly as capable a person as I wanted to be. Andy and I are not those people you see on YouTube and Instagram who really ‘tackle’ the house. We just lived in a crappy house for years.”
By the age of 26 he’d had enough of the job he hated. In search of work that would engage his interests and capabilities, he moved to Sydney and volunteered at a nonprofit environmental charity dedicated to reducing landfill waste. One arm of the operation involved repairing furniture, to extend its useful life. “I had no training other than what I had learned from the two carpenters, Sam and Ken, at the event décor job.” The workforce included some old farmers, along with one guy, Mitch Lavender, who was a big fan of Lost Art Press; they would share what they knew with Shane. “Mitch was a fitter and turner/metalworker, who was…setting up his own forge in his backyard. He was a big influence in transferring the prop building knowledge into grounded craft knowledge.” Shane and his housemate, Robbie Karmel, “a wonderful artist,” regularly watched “The Woodwright’s Shop” in the evenings, then worked on projects in the backyard until their neighbors yelled at them for making noise.
“I’d quit my job in Perth and been unemployed for two years. That was a genuinely awful life for me. When I came to Sydney I wasn’t certain that I was capable of working. Nine to five was something I wasn’t sure I could do for the rest of my life. But to pay rent I would wander around the alleys of Newtown [in New South Wales]. In Australia there’s a lot of furniture on the side of the road. So I would go around and find stuff that needed work.” Then he took it to the place where he volunteered and sold it through them. His rent was $250 (Australian dollars) a week; he lived off about $50 of groceries per week. With his income from fixing up old furniture, he just about broke even.
Eventually the manager of the nonprofit created a bona fide job for Shane – fixing stuff for resale. This position grew into something much bigger. They had started in a tiny shed attached to a building, then expanded into offering classes in carpentry and furniture repair “based on my extremely limited knowledge,” he interjects emphatically. The furniture program moved to another building with five benches and more space; they also invested in some basic machines. Over the course of five years it became a full-time job for Shane, managing the woodworking department of the charity. He taught an introduction to woodworking four nights a week, as well as on weekends. He was working six days a week – managing volunteers, fixing furniture and making furniture with no formal training.
“When I was first starting to make a job at [the nonprofit], we were looking at products I could make and sell. I was opposed to anything that wouldn’t last and wouldn’t be used. As an example, the manager wanted to make those wine bottle holders that lean and balance. I figured no one actually uses those for any period of time and they just get thrown away so what the hell is the point and why would we spend energy making them. Our first product ended up being a basic wooden crate, like an apple crate. It allowed us to use all kinds of discarded timbers. Around that time I went back to the States and visited a friend for dinner. She and her friends were going around the table talking about these amazing developments in their respective impressive careers. Then she turns to me and says ‘so… tell me more about these crates’ and I felt so dreadfully embarrassed.” Pretty ironic, when you consider that wooden crates can be handsome and practical ways to move and store things, not to mention last for many decades, if not centuries.
By the time Shane reached age 30, he decided it was time to learn the proper ways to do what he’d been doing with no training. He applied to West Dean College to study furniture restoration/conservation and gave his employer seven months’ notice. “It was in the week before finding out [whether I’d been accepted] that I started to panic. I was already training my replacement, Luke Mitchell, by that point.” Fortunately, he got in.
Shane made his way to England and arrived at West Dean. “I did not feel like I was allowed to be in that building,” he says of the school’s august history and surroundings. “I felt very uncomfortable there for about a week, but the students are all amazing.” He showed up “reluctantly” to the welcoming party but started talking shop immediately and soon felt right at home. “Edward James, the founder of the school, was friends with Salvador Dali and had a surrealist history; it stopped feeling intimidating very quickly. The school has very high standards. I loved it.”
He relished his time in a workshop where he worked alongside others who were equally interested in learning – not just developing new woodworking and finishing techniques, but cultivating such important skills as how to judge the age of an object, which entails understanding how finishes and other materials change over time. In Sydney, he’d become obsessed with furniture conservation but “didn’t know anyone else who was as interested as I was.”
At West Dean, he continues, “We got to work on actual objects. We went to Vienna and got to go behind the scenes at a couple of museums to their workshops, [as well as to see a couple of schools]. We went into the conservation labs of the MAK, where we saw a guy working on a Roentgen cabinet.” The conservator who was working on it was “super excited”; he showed them everything. “It was a very cool trip. Coming from America and going to Australia” – both of which he recognizes as “young [countries] in terms of furniture work as I know it – i.e. with respect to European tastes and woodworking,” despite their ancient indigenous cultures – “going to work on stuff in England and going across Europe to see the variety of high-end pieces really was mind blowing. But also weird, because I knew that I was probably going to come back to Sydney and work at my environmental charity.”
Shane was at West Dean for one year, as that was all he could afford. Echoing others who have had formal training, he adds, “As much as you put in, you’d get out of it.”
Another benefit of his time at West Dean is that he met fellow student Harry T. Morris, who was in the furniture making program. More on that later.
In 2019, Shane returned to Sydney. He picked up some work at the charity – “a very strange experience,” he notes, especially after his time at West Dean. He also started to work with a restorer who had studied at West Dean 40 years before. Shane tried to start his own business, but as has been the case for many of us, that didn’t work out.
Intent on further expanding his skills, as well as his appreciation for aspects of craft besides making things, he contacted International Conservation Services, Australia’s largest team of private conservators. The organization’s CEO had also been trained at West Dean. Shane visited the organization’s workshop; they had one furniture conservator, Oliver Hull, who is English and had worked there alone for the four years prior. They asked Shane if he’d like to join Oliver, and he started doing three or four days a week in the furniture conservation department. Since then he has added work for conservator John Gubbings, in addition to continuing his part-time work for what is now known as The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre, the nonprofit devoted to reducing waste. He worked there for 1-1/2 years and is looking into possibilities to help them further.
The Bigger Picture
As students at West Dean, Shane and Harry “clicked early on,” even though Harry is 12 years younger. They’d discuss their respective projects and soon found themselves “on the same wavelength about so many things.” Many nights they talked until 2 a.m., “often while playing cribbage.” Harry found a lot of value in the conversations and wanted to keep them up after graduation. Hence the idea of the podcast, “This Crafted World”. They have also kept up their friendship – in 2019 they traveled to Japan, where they took a course in Japanese carpentry that Shane considers foundational to his current outlook and practice. The course began with an entire week of sharpening. To make the trip affordable, the two shared a living space. “I was sleeping on the floor,” says Shane, “because it’s Japan, and it’s expensive there.”
Their podcasts vary broadly, depending on who’s involved. While topics range from how the two of them work in their own daily lives and what craft means to them, they also explore larger dimensions of making, such as how to deal with “making for making’s sake.” As Shane puts it, “There’s already too much stuff!” – a view too rarely heard amid the current celebration of all things making. In their podcast, they leave discussion of nuts and bolts to others and focus on ideas. “We thought if there was anything we could add to the conversation, it would be the thoughts we both had about the world. As we grow and develop, anything that pops into our heads we turn into a subject and make a podcast.” It may sound random, but it’s not; I was blown away by the caliber of questions they asked in the podcast we did together, weirdly and serendipitously based on Shane’s discovery of “Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field,” a book I’d put together and edited for the Indiana University Press about a decade ago.
Intent on expanding and refining his skills, as well as his exposure to other cultures and their methods of making and restoring, Shane is working on a “journeyman trip” of his own design, “provided that the world opens up.” Once again, he has given a generous seven months’ notice to his present employers. “There’s so much I don’t know how to do. Because I’ve found this [work] so late, I feel I need to rapidly catch up.” Next year he hopes to spend three months in the eastern United States, then spend some time in Europe, working in conservation and craft workshops for a minimum of two weeks each. So far, he has arrangements with shops in Virginia, New York and Boston, and is trying to arrange for a month in Netherlands, then France and the United Kingdom, in addition to Italy (and ideally also elsewhere). Again, to make this investment in his education more affordable – especially as he’s aware that he may not be able to get paid for his work in other countries due to the financial constraints at many shops, not to mention certain countries’ prohibition against non-citizens being paid for work – he is planning the trip around friends and craftspeople who can put him up in their homes.
“The journeyman thing doesn’t exist in this field,” he notes, adding that he applied for a George Alexander Fellowship through the International Specialist Skills Institute, which he just learned he has been granted. “In Australia we get a lot of stuff from different places,” he said, referring especially to antiques for restoration. The journeyman trip will help familiarize him with international differences, as well as subtleties in period and style, and so help him become a better restorer. He’s also keen to see how different people work. Beyond his interest in building his own skills, he would like to help others. “Every little thing I pick up, or every little thing I get better at, is something I can share with others. If I get better at that work, it informs another engagement with the world, whether teaching or writing or an Instagram post or the podcast. That makes everything feel so much more worth it.”
You can find the podcast we did together, “Not Capital-I Important,” here.
Several weeks ago, John Scott, a woodworker friend and real-life brain surgeon, suggested that Betty Scarpino would make a good profile for this series. “Don’t know if you know Betty,” he wrote, “but I’ll place her for nomination in your series! She’s a fantastic woodturner in Indianapolis, with pieces in museums all over the country.”
As it happened, I did know of Betty; she’d been in my sights since the early ’90s, though we hadn’t met or even corresponded. Every so often I came across her name as a woodturner.
“Betty is super!” John wrote back, adding, “Susan and I have a couple of her pieces that we purchased from her when she had a small showing in her house many years ago, before she was represented in galleries. I almost choke when I see what her pieces sell for now!”
I was interested in Betty not only as a highly skilled woodworker, but also as a woman who has been practicing her craft for decades while raising two sons, for some of that time as a single mother. But what really got me hooked was her surprising statement that while she’s best known for turning, her great love is carving.
We spoke on a Saturday morning in March. Betty was in her garden in Indianapolis with Diesel, her son Dan’s chocolate Labrador, who’s under her care while Dan hikes the Arizona National Scenic Trail. With springtime birdsong in the background, she told me she was getting ready to deliver a work titled Gentle Impressions to the Indiana Artists Club exhibition at Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art) later in the day. The juried show had serious spatial limitations, which made it a challenge to decide which piece to submit. Betty’s small sculpture was awarded second place by the jury.
Betty has shown her work in many galleries around the country. A quick look at her website reveals an eye-popping list of museums that hold her work in their permanent collections, among them the Renwick Gallery, the Yale University Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Art Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum and Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood – an impressive achievement for an artist. No wonder her work is valued more highly today than it was early in her career. Until the last 10 years, Betty was far better known at the national level than in her adopted state of Indiana.
The second of four sisters, Betty was born in Wenatchee, Wash., in 1949. Her mother worked at home full-time; her father was an entrepreneur who ran a pawn brokerage and sold sporting goods through stores in southern Idaho and Kalispell, Mont. Because her family moved often, she describes where she grew up as no single location, but “all over the Pacific Northwest.” She attended five different schools in third grade alone; by the time her parents celebrated the 25th anniversary of their marriage, they had moved their family 25 times.
Betty married Phil Scarpino in 1971. Having spent two years in the army during the 1970s, Phil jumped at the opportunity to attend graduate school. They were living in Columbia, Missouri, where Betty worked full-time as a computer operator and was also training to program computers.
Phil’s evenings were always busy with school, so Betty decided to enroll in a night class. The only one available was woodworking; she signed up. Soon, she was so taken with the work that she quit her job to attend classes full-time. She graduated in 1982 with a degree in industrial arts, the curriculum for which included training in furniture making and the use of woodworking machinery. She had basic instruction on the lathe, turning a bowl and the pedestal for a table, but after that, she learned by doing.
During her time in college, Betty also took classes in the art department. She wanted to carve wood sculptures. After graduation, she considered renting a shop where she could build furniture, but soon discovered that renting a workspace would not be practical, especially after she had her first son, Sam, at the age of 34. So instead of investing in a shop, she bought a lathe. The American Association of Woodturners had started up in 1986, “a vibrant, active, inclusive organization that it was really easy to plug into,” she says. Betty edited their journal from 1990-1993, then started to make more of her own pieces, and quickly became known in the turning field.
Phil is a faculty member at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in American history and historic preservation. His job brought them to Indianapolis in 1986; their second son, Dan, was born there.
After Betty and Phil divorced in 2000, Betty continued to piece together an income from a variety of sources. She sold her turnings; she wrote a regular column about turning for Woodworker’s Journal for three years; for six years she was editor of theAmerican Woodturner Journal. She also made money – good money – from turning demonstrations and teaching, and has taught at Arrowmont and Anderson Ranch, to name just a couple well-regarded schools.
What Does ‘Round’ Mean?
“I just made regular bowls to start with, like everybody else,” Betty says. But before long, she began to adorn her bowls with carving. Her sculpting instructor at the University of Missouri had had a lathe in the back room of the art department; she talked with him about using the lathe to make sculpture. “I was 25 when I first went to an art museum!” she says. “I knew nothing.” Her instructor had always said, “’Round objects turned on a lathe are not interesting,’” so in her curious, boundary-pushing way, Betty decided to explore “the vast potential of what resides within ‘round’ objects,” in part by “deconstructing lathe-turned objects.” She’d turn a disc, cut it apart, do a bit of carving and explore what lay beneath the surface. She also appreciates the metaphorical dimensions of this technique, comparing the process of exploration and refinement to that of what some might call soul work. “We’re always working on ourselves, our lives,” she says. “My sculpture’s like that. I turn a disc, then cut it apart, then reconstruct that in a way that’s lifelike and energizing and satisfying.”
Making a Living as an Artist
Collectors of art in wood were key to Betty’s livelihood and creative development in the 1990s and aughts. “As soon as I made something, it sold,” she says. Betty increasingly worked on sculptures that had nothing to do with turning. “That’s really where my interest has been all along,” she points out. “Until then, I never had the opportunity to explore that kind of work fully. When you have 20 people buying things because they’re turned… I just plugged into that and made money. I enjoyed it. That’s why I ended up becoming known as a woodturner when really that’s not my main interest.”
Considering that her main interest is carving, it comes as a surprise to hear she didn’t study it at university. Her knowledge about the field was far more basic: “I knew that you used a gouge and a mallet.” Betty leapt right in, learning along the way. Today she carves primarily with power tools and generally prefers reciprocating tools to rotary carvers, “because I can find the line better,” she says. Her favorite is an Automach reciprocating carver; she also uses Arbortech tools.
Betty has been through some real twists and turns as she has worked to support herself as a woodturner and sculptor. “Galleries used to exist,” she says bluntly, alluding to the devastating effects on brick-and-mortar-based businesses due to the Great Recession, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. She used to be associated with several galleries that sold artists’ work around the country, but many have closed. Today, exhibits such as the one at Newfields provide visibility. She uses her website to sell existing works and garner new commissions. She also appreciates the value of plain old word-of-mouth. “Along the way, I have had two very generous women patrons who have helped me,” she says. The broader woodworking field has benefited from the Windgate Foundation, which supports the teaching of craft and art in many ways, such as donations to the Center for Art in Wood, a new dorm at Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts and support of woodturning at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.
Although Betty’s work is held by prestigious museums, many sculptures spend much of their time in storage and are only brought out for exhibit in the occasional show. Betty’s work is labor-intensive, so her limited output constrains marketing through galleries.
“If you’re a craftsperson you can market your work in a craft store or sell it online. There are also craft fairs, etsy, etc. But my work doesn’t sell well in those venues,” says Betty. Today, her work ranges in price from $3,000 to $12,000 – art-world prices that demand a specific marketing niche or connecting with just the right buyer.
Retirement is not on Betty’s radar. She intends to be carving a sculpture on the day she dies. Now that she has the time and resources to devote to carving, without having to worry about sales, she is excited to see her work evolving to in-the-round sculpture. Betty has come full circle to her first love: carving wood.