A Woodworker’s Tale
In today’s automated world, why bother toiling with hand tools and sawdust? In his new book, Gary Rogowski—a master furniture maker in Portland, Oregon—ruminates about lessons he’s learned “at the bench,” and the quest for mastery and creative focus, no matter what your calling.
By GARY ROGOWSKI
I am one of the loudest woodworkers there is. Don’t think for a second that my 40-plus years at the bench building furniture has transformed my nature. I am given to swearing at myself and my mistakes loudly enough that God can hear me without his ear trumpet. I am persnickety to exasperation with myself, with my obsession for precision, and like some player in a Greek tragedy I am chained to this rock forever. I can be stunned into silence some days by the new problems I create for myself at the bench. I should know better and yet I act shocked by each new error, the most recent design flaw, a fantastic misplacement of tool or mortise.
It may surprise you then that my stumbling, erring ways allow me to produce any work at all. Yet somehow I have managed to make some very good things. I have worked at creating a life building furniture, which is a hard thing to do anywhere, and I have lasted at it.
It is important for us to be at the bench for that is where the voices quiet, where the healing begins.
Handmade furniture is not a need. It is a desire. Those of us who try to make a living at it are stubborn, focused, and ill-suited for polite office company and its politics. We love tools and wood and to solve problems. We love wearing many hats, taking on all sorts of roles throughout a job. Finally and most importantly, we love to talk to ourselves. We need to have this running dialogue, this duet of yin and yang, our left-brain logic fighting our right-brain shenanigans. It is a delicate balance between determination and caution based on our past failures. It is also important for us to be at the bench for that is where the voices quiet, where the healing begins. My story is not about building furniture. Building furniture is simply a metaphor. My story is about practice and forgiveness.
I do not claim to be the best woodworker in the world. I can design and build well and I can write. To put it more simply, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. One came naturally and the other took years of training. But I can walk and chew gum now at least. After some decades of building furniture, I penned two books on joinery and wrote for several magazines. Along the way, I started a school for woodworkers, The Northwest Woodworking Studio, located in Portland, Oregon, a climate well-suited for work indoors, at the bench. This is where I have taught and inspired folks about this craft.
Over time I have learned how to forgive myself my errors, how to fix most of my mistakes, and how not to point out the flaws in my work. I have learned when and how to pick up the pace. I have gained a fluency in my hands with my tools. I can make things look simple at the bench and amaze my students with the ease of my movements. I can perform a task in minutes that for them can take an hour. I am a master at woodworking. It is no contradiction. Just as a writer or composer struggles with his or her own demons in writing a story or song, one always brings one’s quirks, one’s habits, one’s tics to the task of creating. The problem at the bench isn’t the work, the challenges, or the mistakes, it is always me.
People assume that mastery of any type is a place that one reaches. It is a glow in the air that starts to become visible and hover around you. Or it is a corner that one turns on some fantastic day. These are pretty fantasies. Mastery, of anything, is an accumulation of experiences that, if you have a brain instead of rocks in your head, points out to you the truth of these things: you will get old, you can learn from your mistakes, and you should help others to their own truth. The things that you make will also accumulate and survive you.
Do your best with each job. There will be evidence.
If you work with your hands, I know who you are. If you have the desire to create and to make things, I am just like you. Let me tell you a story.
Few of us have any idea where our choices will put us. How the twists and turns in our lives will place us on paths we never imagined. I came to the West Coast in the 1970s to study literature at a small school in Portland, Oregon, called Reed College. I had left the Midwest, where I had grown up in the fields outside of Chicago. Flat, steadfast, and certain: me and the fields. For my last two years of school I had transferred from the University of Illinois, a Midwestern university large enough to swallow a town inside its geography, with its 30,000 students.
I came to Reed with its 1,500 intellectuals without visiting, without knowing anyone, without ever having been to the West Coast. I was bored with my life. I needed to remake myself away from my past, my friends, and my history. As if we can ever leave all these behind. They come with us of course in those tattered memory suitcases that we all carry around, the past, our traces, our lineage in time.
Reed was a small college, intellectually challenging yet oddly incestuous. I hated my two years there. I wish I had spent four. The students there stayed in this tempest, not venturing much into the city beyond, convinced of their intelligence and I tried and failed, as we all righteous in their arrogance. It was a place where one had to defend any idea, no matter one’s state of sobriety. Priming myself there for a long life as a writer and teacher, I studied the great books. I tried and failed, as we all do, to grasp the idea of time slipping through my hands. Twenty-five years later, still living in Portland, I attended a reunion event at the college. I came upon an old professor of mine there.
As a literature major I had enrolled in a class on the Victorians with the signature black sheep of the faculty at the time, Jim Webb. He was Badass, with a capital B, nicknamed “Spider God.” He had the gaunt look of a smoker and drug addict made so popular by the Rolling Stones. Mostly dressed in black, always wearing colored sunglasses indoors, he presented an image not quite in keeping with standard academic decorum.
If not hated by the administration, Webb was not popular with it for many things: his dress, his demeanor, certainly his attitude toward its authority and his disdain for its methods of education. Regarding the hiring of a new college president, Webb had rented a billboard and plastered it with the face of the current college president asking: “Would You Buy a Used College From This Man?” In a campus of outliers, he was the furthest out.
For Webb’s class on the Victorians, we moved out to his house near campus. To convene elsewhere was shocking enough. A class not held in the confines of school? As if bricks could contain this man’s ideas. The house itself stood as a nondescript small Tudor but inside the walls were painted black, the windows draped in black curtains. This made it seem that his class was more risky, more real, and we the students who had entered this world had it going on. “Yeah, man.”
We studied the mystics such as Blake, Rosetti, and others like John Ruskin, the 19th century polymathic artist, philosopher, and critic. As in most literature classes at my college, discussions were replete with argument, logical discourse, and both ascendant and conquered positions. Our leader was by his nature very appealing to college age students: mysterious, intense, very smart, and just a little bit crazy, or so it seemed.
Webb also wanted us, in our Victorian literature class, to get wood lathes, and to put these tools on his porch and start making wooden bowls and things just like Morris and Ruskin might have done. He lauded this approach of mingling literature and the crafts, melding mind and body. At the time, I scoffed at the thought. I imagined myself as a thinker, a writer, not a bowl turner.
When I saw Webb at that reunion, he was sitting under a beech tree near the Commons, legs crossed, spread out on a blanket, happy it seemed and wearing his characteristic enigmatic smile, his tinted glasses, and a cigarette. He was selling beads and things from his New Mexico hideaway where he raised goats and who knew what else, peyote probably, if you only asked for it. I immediately walked up to him, introduced myself and said, “I took your Victorian literature class back in 1971 and when 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.”
Webb jumped off his blanket into the air, held up his arms and yelled, “Education works!”
I believe in the value of failure in an education—and the idea that no one has life all figured out, particularly those who tell you that they do, and if you aren’t having fun by doing your work, you kill a part of yourself by doing so. Finally, as in most lives, the longer one hangs around, the more stories one can tell that can teach, make us laugh, and help illuminate ideas.
My own story is about stumbling onto the right path and staying on it. It is about the value of committing to an art and practicing skills every day until I got it in my bones. I simply propose that this can be your journey as well, even if you never touch a piece of wood but paint or sculpt clay or words instead. The struggle of the artist remains the same. You are not alone.
We are still humans, for all our digitizing of the world. Our needs, our desires, remain the same. We need to use our hands. We love to create. We can become very skilled. How we do this is both personal and universal. “When we build,” Ruskin once said, “let us think that we build forever.”
It is my belief that working with our hands is valuable. Connecting with tools to create things offers us a compensation that no electronic calculus can bring. The cacophony that is the Internet keeps us distracted, impatient, anonymous, and searching, but rarely satisfied. When we can see the results of our labor—paring with a chisel; using the needle and thread; creating with paint brush, soldering gun, or pen in hand—there is a different sense of accomplishment. It is a needed blessing in a hurried world to be able to say at the end of a long day, “I did this. Here are the results.” It may only be an attempt to create something that feels solid in a world of impermanence, but this kind of progress means something to me in a day. Perhaps to you as well.
© 2023 Gary Rogowski. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.