The Philosopher of Sawdust

With chisel and hand plane, master craftsman Gary Rogowski ’72 joins woodwork and literature.

By Lily Raff McCaulou | February 27, 2018

The bench plane is what drew gasps from the audience. Gary Rogowski ’72 held the tool in two hands—one on a stout knob at the front, the other on a near-vertical handle in the back—and swiped it across a piece of wood gripped tightly in a vise. The motion peeled off a thin curl of wood, exposing a surface so smooth it glistened under the fluorescent lights.

A dozen hobbyist woodworkers had gathered around his workbench during a weeklong class last summer. They met in a Southeast Portland warehouse that he converted into a woodshop and woodworking school. Half the students had traveled from out of state to train with him.

The group oohed and aahed as they passed around the shiny board and the scroll that had been detached from it.

“No sanding at all?” one man muttered as he touched the board, then tilted it to admire its gleam. “Incredible.”

Gary explained that the ideal wood shaving is two-thousandths of an inch thick—about half the thickness of a dollar bill.

“It doesn’t depend on your technique so much as it depends on your ability to sharpen,” he added. “So if you want to make an analogy there, it’s the preparation that has to happen to lead to success.”

Welcome to Gary’s workshop: where practical instruction on the use of the hand plane dovetails with literature and philosophy.

Gary has become something of a legend in the woodworking community. His furniture has made its way into living rooms, galleries, festivals, and museums around the country. He has been a contributing editor of Fine Woodworking magazine for 14 years and has authored several books, including the bestselling Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery and Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction, published by Linden Publishing in December.

Gary grew up in the Chicago area and transferred to Reed in 1970 for two reasons. First, the small liberal arts school seemed the polar opposite of where he’d spent his first two college years, the massive University of Illinois. And second, it was as far away as he could get.

In a Victorian literature class taught by iconoclastic Prof. Jim Webb [English 1965–71], he unwittingly dismissed his future career path.

“Webb was very enigmatic and he wore mostly black and looked like a gaunt smoker, like a hipster, or I guess a prehipster. He was cool,” Gary said of the teacher who was nicknamed “Spider God.”

Class was usually held in Prof. Webb’s home, where the walls were painted black and drapes hung to block out daylight. In a conversation about writers such as William Morris and John Ruskin, who were also skilled members of the era’s Arts and Crafts movement, Webb urged his students to use his porch to set up lathes and turn blocks of wood into bowls. He argued passionately in favor of the Victorian philosophy of melding literature and craft, mind and body.

Gary scoffed.

“I imagined myself as a thinker, a writer—not a bowl turner,” he said.

He majored in English literature and planned to earn a PhD. But upon graduating from Reed, he instead spent several years looking for work that was more immediately fulfilling. He worked at an auto mechanic’s shop. He worked construction jobs. He enjoyed working with his hands but found neither pursuit to be mentally challenging enough.

One day, wandering in the overgrown backyard behind a house he was renting near Johnson Creek, he discovered two items that would redirect his life: an unusual type of hand plane, called a transition plane, and a big hunk of wood that someone had partially sculpted.

Looking back on this moment, he isn’t entirely sure what sparked his curiosity. The unexpectedness of suddenly finding evidence of an undertaking apparently abandoned midstream? The simplicity of the humble hand tool?

Whatever the reason, the new interest took root. He sought out woodworking books. He accumulated tools and set up a bench in his basement, where he spent hours teaching himself the craft through trial and error. Eventually, he began designing and selling furniture, at craft markets and by commission.

In 1997, he founded the Northwest Woodworking School as a way to diversify his income. Portland was becoming more expensive and it was a struggle to sell enough custom furniture, which costs thousands of dollars for one meticulously designed and constructed piece, to stay financially comfortable. And he saw an opportunity for his school—something between a finicky art school and crude vocational training.

Two decades later, he laughs at the thought that launching and running a woodworking school would be less work than making furniture. But he embraces the challenge and satisfaction of teaching. A few years ago, he founded a nonprofit, Woodworking Ideas Northwest, to teach the craft to high school  students. And his woodworking school now trains 300 aspiring woodworkers each year. One of them, Jamie Zartler ’88, first enrolled about seven years ago to escape the stress of his job teaching high school and being in a leadership role with the teachers’ union.

The night before his first woodworking class, Jamie felt anxiety bubbling inside him as he climbed into bed. Woodworking was a foreign undertaking, and “I like to do things well,” he said. To calm down, he reasoned with himself: “It’s not like he’s going to ask me to cut a dovetail on the first day,” he thought before drifting off.

“On the first day, we finished the introductions and then Gary was like, ‘Okay, let’s cut a dovetail,’” Jamie said with a laugh.

The goal of this exercise—Gary asks his students to begin each woodworking session with what he calls “The Five-Minute Dovetail”—is not to produce a precise joint. Rather, it’s a quick and crude warm-up exercise that helps a woodworker clear the head and focus on the bench. To Gary, the challenge of woodworking is as mental as it is physical.

There’s the creative challenge of designing a piece of furniture—a step in the woodworking process that he addresses thoroughly in his instruction. Then there are all the little problem-solving challenges along the way—arranging the steps in the most logical and efficient order, selecting the proper tools for each cut, maximizing the strength and longevity of a finished piece. There are emotional demands, too—summoning patience when the current approach isn’t working and a project needs to be started over, or forgiveness when the chisel slips and splits a tenon that has already been painstakingly fitted to a particular mortise.

“Before the third day of class I had an epiphany: being in my body and having concrete thoughts was really grounding and satisfying,” Jamie said. “My thoughts tend to specialize in the abstract and the academic. As a teacher and a union leader who was more of a specialist in concepts and protocols, to have a physical connection to the world through what I was doing was very different for me.”

Gary is an intense, exacting mentor. He doesn’t hold back his strong opinions on everything from the design of a side table to the flavor of one’s tea. He disparages cell phones, which he calls “a symbol of reliance.”

After decades of penning how-to articles and books, Gary recently published his first memoir. Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction is an eclectic mix of anecdotes about woodworking and mountain climbing. He breaks into poetry. He meanders into lessons he learned from the life of jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. He lists an entire page of ways to say no to someone asking to borrow a cherished tool. The book reflects the philosophical exploration he encourages in his studio. At least once a year, he hosts a salon, in which artists and thinkers are invited to join a panel discussion on broad topics such as creativity or quality.

The cover of Gary’s new book features praise from Nick Offerman, a woodworker, author, and actor known for playing self-reliant, antigovernment curmudgeon Ron Swanson on the NBC show Parks and Recreation. In his 2015 book, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, Offerman credited Gary with teaching him the meaning of the word that titled his tome. (“A person with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things,” Gary told him. “He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness.”)

Gary credits Reed with “teaching me how to think,” and said that although it took a long time to learn the lesson, Prof. Webb was right all those years ago when he urged students to pick up tools and work with their hands.

Gary’s studio sells T-shirts featuring a quote by Ruskin: “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”

Jamie Zartler absorbed that lesson; he recently switched from teaching social studies to teaching woodworking at Portland’s Grant High School. His overarching message to students is the same in both subjects: that a person who is educated and dedicated can “make the world the way they want it to be.”

“When you make a piece of furniture you’ve got a concrete physical demonstration of your efficacy in the world,” he said.

Webb died in 2001, a few years after Gary bumped into him at a Reed reunion. He recounts in his memoir how he found the former professor sitting on a blanket under a tree, “selling beads and things from his New Mexico hideaway where he raised goats and who knows what else, peyote probably…” Gary walked up and reintroduced himself. He wrote:

“‘[W]hen you said you wanted to put lathes on the porch so we could turn bowls, I thought it was the most f—d up idea I had ever heard…’ I paused. He was quiet. He looked up at me.

‘I’m a woodworker now.’

He jumped up into the air off his blanket and held up his arms and yelled, ‘Education works!’”

Lily Raff McCaulou is a freelance writer and author of Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner. She lives in Bend.

Tags: Alumni, Reed History