Works and Days

Learning How To Learn: Northwest Woodworking Studio, Jacob Hayman, Winter Shadow 2016

Even though I wasn’t sure what to expect, I had been looking forward to my shadow at the Northwest Woodworking Studio all winter break. I did some research on the studio, and found some YouTube videos of Gary Rogowski, the Reedie English major turned expert woodworker who was to guide me and Emily (a fellow Reed student and new friend) for the week. I soon realized I wouldn’t learn much about woodworking on the internet.

Entering the studio didn’t change my feelings of total ignorance. Emily and I talked with Gary briefly about his nonlinear path to becoming a premier woodworker and teacher, and we quickly got started making dovetail joints. Gary gave a demonstration and explained the mechanics of the tools first, but he didn’t want us to learn by listening. We had saws and chisels in our hands within minutes of first entering the studio. We hit the ground running, and the week didn’t slow down.

After going to Gary’s house and grabbing some lumber, Emily and I were assigned to construct a door for the studio office. Gary gave us an idea of what he wanted, but he left us to figure it out for the most part. We measured, cut the particleboard, made mistakes, and measured more. We had to frequently ask for help and guidance, but we eventually got it installed. It wasn’t the most attractive door, but it was a fun project and (hopefully) Gary won’t have to replace it any time soon.

The bulk of our week with Gary was spent on an extremely challenging project: chair design and prototype construction. Two of Gary’s students in his Master Woodworking program were in the studio for the project, and Emily and I had to keep up with their advanced dialogue about all the intricacies and challenges of the chair. We spent a lot of time discussing the necessary components and characteristics of a good, sit-able chair, and moved on to the drawing boards. I had never designed a thing in my life, so staring at the big blank sheet of brown paper was extremely intimidating. After Gary reiterated that sketching doesn’t have to be perfect, I made some sketches. But I still felt stifled and unsure. Before we started the project, Gary told us we were entering the “deep end.” And that’s exactly what it was.

My uncertainty continued throughout the week, and the many mistakes I made in designing and constructing (not always in that order) didn’t help. I struggled with the band saw, the handsaw, the chisel, and all the other tools. I measured and calculated incorrectly throughout. I frequently got help and guidance from Gary and his two masters students, who were well on their way to constructing some impressive looking prototypes. By the end of the week I had my prototype too, but it was far from pretty. Some nails stuck out and one of the legs was backwards, but it passed the “sit test” of five butts. I had actually built something. And although it’s not super comfortable, it’s the best piece of crappy furniture I own.

Although Emily and I were “shadowing” Gary, we didn’t follow him as much as we followed his methods; Gary is entirely self-taught, and I think he intended for us to get a sense of what learning from experience is like. It was hard, but it gave me a new perspective on design, craft, furniture, and learning. At the end of it, Emily and I lamented having to go back to the classroom. Making something with my hands was truly remarkable, and I hope to do it again. 

Tags: winter externship, winter shadow, craft, art, woodworking, portland, local