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The Magic Hand Plane

By Randall S. Barton on June 01, 2012 01:54 PM

When people come to Gary Rogowski '72 with questions about making a living as a woodworker, he sets them straight.

"It's a terrible way to make a living," he says. "You want to drive a Porsche? Forget it. But it's a great way to live."

Throughout Reunions week, Gary led visiting alumni on tours of his studio in an elegant, old industrial building in Southeast Portland. Amidst the smells of wood, the scratch of sandpaper, and walls lined with hand drills, Japanese pull saws, and clamps, guests posed question about such things as wood pegs versus nails.

Gary is director of the Northwest Woodworking Studio, which teaches traditional woodworking skills to novices and people wanting to become masters. He has been building furniture since 1974, teaching classes for almost 30 years, and writing books like The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery and articles for woodworking magazines.

He had planned to get a PhD in literature and teach in college, but was experiencing academic burnout.

"It was the mid-seventies and I drank the Kool-Aid," he explains. "I wanted to try something different."

In the bushes outside of the home he was sharing with friends on Tenino Street in Sellwood, he found a piece of cedar wood and a discarded hand plane.

"It was like finding a magic wand," Gary says. "Tools are why woodworkers become woodworkers. They see a tool and say, ‘Ooh, what does this do?' Eventually you learn how to use it and then you say, ‘I need more tools.'"

The bench he crafted from that piece of cedar turned him on to the joy of working with his hands. Hands open the door to creativity, he says, whether you're using them to work wood, weave, or bake pies.

As a literature major at Reed he wrote a thesis about Dostoevsky and ran with a clique of physics majors. Their influence can be detected when he answers a question about whether cut wood is living or dead.

"I call it live," he says. "I wrote that once in a letter to the editor and someone busted my chops. ‘It's dead,' they said. Yes, it's dead, but it keeps moving. It's hygroscopic, so it absorbs and loses moisture."

Everyone loves wood, but working with it can be frustrating, an exercise in developing patience. It is a continual process of problem solving through trial and error and the problem always shrinks if you walk away from it, Gary says.

As alumni begin to take their leave, Gary mentions that the final thing woodworkers need is solitude so they can swear at the wood, talk to the tools, and expect them to listen.