“Hammer Head; The Making of a Carpenter” and my new life raft…..

I just got a copy of the new book “Hammer Head; The Making of a Carpenter” by Nina MacLaughlin in the mail and I am totally inspired.

Sarah MacLaughlin with her book “Hammer Head: The Making of A Carpenter”

Below is the email that I shot off to her without even having finished the book. I am sharing it because so far it is the most honest piece of writing I have done about my experience trying to break into trades work.

“My name is Ali and I live in WA state but grew up in Vermont. I just finished working a year in in a custom woodworking shop here in Tacoma and am planning on attending a 3 month woodworking intensive at The Port Townsend School of Woodworking this fall.
I just really wanted to write you and say thank you. Thank you so much for your book. I will admit that I am only 50 pages in (ha!) but already your words have soothed my sawdusty soul. 
 It has been a rough but very educational year for me. We were in a small shop, 3 of us including me, on the shop floor plus the owner who consults with designers and does our drawings. I was under the direct supervision and guidance of the bipolar foreman who’s moods fluctuated more than the dimensions of damp lumber.  I spent the majority of the year learning and perfecting the art of finishing. The spray booth became my smoggy sanctuary and the spray gun my comforting tool of competency. Only in the last few months of my work there did I become comfortable enough with the machinery to begin the  ever satisfying and potentially frustrating process of dimensioning lumber for projects. I feel comfortable on a wide variety of shop machinery  including the chop saw, table saw, panel saw, joiner, planer, wide belt sander, hand sanders, routers and all number of other small tools. This feels like accomplishment for a years worth of work.
 I loved the work but  the passive aggresive attitude and paranoia of Our Foreman of Perpetual Disappointment was just too much for me.  The Rookie Learning curve ( such as taking too long to plane hickory stair treads to dimension because I was only taking a 32nd off each pass vs. a full 16th for fear of taking took much; having to ask how to change the belt of the wide belt sander; gluing the parts the wrong way for the grain because I was trying match the color on the faces; not tightening the router bit well enough and having it slip to take a bite out of the edge I was radiusing) resulted in melodramatic conversations in the break room in which I desperately  try to explain my lack of background with tools while he retorts with ” Your just not learning fast enough. Most guys that just come off the street looking for work learn faster than you and if they don’t pick it up quick they usually  move on.” Bastard.
Then there was the cardinal sin. Not being able to read a tape…..I have a cheater tape that is my crutch with all the increments spelled out but when it came to reading to an 8th or a 16th on a regular tape or on the machinery I was dead in the water, especially when under the weighty impatient glare of Our Foreman. If I couldn’t answer his condescending demand disguised as a question in an unpredictably short amount of time I was removed from the project and sent scampering back to the safety of the spray booth or broom and dustpan. Thus I spent a year in a custom woodshop and am still not wholly comfortable reading a tape on the fly.
But your words make this ok! Your words make all my struggles and lack of self confidence completely and totally understandable! I read a few sentences, I imagine the the white van covered in grouting dust and tobacco, the stately painter wizard, the buzz of the chop saw in the multimillion dollar architect’s house, the feeling of the grit in my hair after spending a day on some or other filthy but satisfy construction project. I am there. I know those sounds, those smells,  those thoughts, that fear and excitement, that feeling of I am not sure if I am really supposed to be here but oh well here I am!  Thank you so much for sharing that most vulnerable state of being with me and with the world. 
I have at fits and starts trying to break my way into the world of the trades; I’ve helped a  white haired vaguely sexist old hippy man install a skylight when I was 18, I took a woman’s carpentry training course populated mostly by lesbians who still enjoyed a good nailing studs joke, I spent a year with a disorganized peter pan of a contractor who still thought he was 18 or maybe 25 doing energy efficiency work (who are we kidding… insulation) that more or less let me take over half the operation since he was awful at consistency with customers and never brought the shop vac anyhow and now I have a year of shop ( more properly finishing) expierence.  Through all these experiences I have learned the most common illness of the trades industry is the affliction of ego. I believe it is one of The Commandments of the Hammer; ‘Thou shalt never admit to not knowing’ and another being ‘thou shalt profess to being the best at your trade and all others work shall not be fit to spit upon’.  Here is where I flip the sexist paradigm and go ahead and call this a construct of manliness.  It’s really hard to be the intelligent, whimsical, silly woman that I am within The Code of the Hammer. I feel dismissed ( hey, kiddo) or viewed as a threat (I better not tell my wife I work with you!) or sometimes I just really confuse the guys because I chose to pursue this career path and I am not a lesbian ( I couldn’t date her. She’s not girly enough).  The words I have read in your book so far are like the first crisp drops of rainwater hitting my tongue promising a downpour  as I drift around in the enormous salty sea of trades ego. You are pretty much a lifesaver and are helping remind me what I love about my work and how its worth every bit of the struggle. I can’t wait to read more!
Her book (so far as I have read!) is intelligent, whimsical, chock full of history and just down right delightful. I would highly recommend it to anyone (male or female or anywhere in between) who is even vaguely considering work in the trades.

“Hammer Head; The Making of a Carpenter” and my new life raft…..

All in a days work…

Over the last few days I finally started to feel at least a little competent around the shop. Now the foreman can say ” hey we need some blocks that X wide by X long and X inches thick” and I can grab some scrap and create that piece. It’s extra satisfying when it comes from a raw board. I still can’t mill pieces of wood that are too big ( generally am just the tail when we are resawing) but I know that will come with time.  And I feel completely competent in the spray booth and with finishing. Here are some2015-07-09 11.04.28  are some photos of things I have finished.

This is a matching maple slab bench and table top. I did most of the epoxy work, sanded it, routed the edges and finished it. On previous projects I have used the  router sled jig to flatten up the top but on this one my coworker did it.

2015-07-08 09.40.07Here is a foggy photo of me working my magic. I am spraying clear on the legs of a cherry table that matches the cherry Tansu chest that is in the photo below. The cherry project is what I have been working on lately.

Today I learned how to attach beetle clasps which are neat little fastening apparatus that are apparently used on boats since they won’t pop open easily.  I had to create a little jig to make sure they were all placed in the exact same spot so that the clasping mechanisms would work correctly together (we will find out tomorrow how I did! gulp…).

I also learned how to adjust the placement of doors on the Tansu cabinet by adjusting the screws in the hinges. It was really tedious and frustrating at times but I finally got the hang of it all right. I had to use spacers to make sure the gaps between the doors were just right. I ended up getting to the last door and realizing I had given a little to much leeway on one of the first door I adjusted resulting in me have to adjust all the door just slightly more to one side to get my spacers to fit right (2 steps forward, one step back).
2015-07-08 16.59.26

Here is the assembled Cherry Tansu chest (minus the doors). I stained and finished the whole thing. Man, spraying inside boxes sucks! but thats a story for a different day….

All in a days work…

The long road to somewhere…

Hello world and welcome to my new blog. I decided to write this because I am a woman trying to crack into the world of woodworking, a predominately male profession. I wanted to share my ups and downs, struggles and triumphs with other people, especially other woman, who are interested or already in the building trades.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 8.06.26 AM  I am also hoping to track my progression somewhat and be able to look back on posts from here and see how far I have come.

A little about me. I currently live in Tacoma WA. I have been working in a wood shop for the past year as an apprentice.  They hired me predominately to do the finish work for the shop although over the past year  I have become proficient at using most of the machines and tools including the table saw, panel saw, chop saw, router, planer, jointer, the lathe,  sanders (a D.A. is what we call it in the shop), a giant wide belt sander, a lemelo-er ( also I think a shop name. A biscuit joiner) and as well as the guns I use in the spray booth for finishing.  I think the most important lesson I have learn so far is that THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN!

The long road to somewhere…