You Don’t Need a Beautiful Shop to do Beautiful Work

February 24, 2013 § 4 Comments

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Next weekend I’ll be attending a class on building a blanket chest, with an emphasis on dovetailing techniques. The chest will employ full and half-blind dovetails, and both hand-cut and machine-made techniques will be taught. I’ll give a synopsis of the class in the next few weeks, and (hopefully) show a nice, completed chest. Yesterday class participants were given the opportunity to come in a week early and help with some glue-ups in preparation for the class. The instructor of the class is Austin Heitzman, a professional woodworker who sells custom furniture through his company Five Fifths. In addition to putting us to work with the glue-ups, he also gave a quick tutorial on sharpening chisels, mandatory pieces of equipment if you are going to cut dovetails by hand. For a few of the power tool-centric students, a sharp chisel had a been an afterthought before now.

The class will take place in Austin’s shop in central Portland. His shop is not at his home, or at a storefront with his name hanging from a shingle. Instead he rents space at Shop People, an Industrial Arts Community Workplace that provides him with a small dedicated area to work, as well as the use of shop equipment and communal space. Much of the wood shop space is located underground in huge warehouse-like rooms. Other artisans call the place home, as there is a ceramics studio, jewelers studio, and areas for metal working among others.

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Part of the communal shop space that includes woodworking machines, clamps, and layout space.

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The big bandsaw.

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A luthier’s shop space.

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Austin Heitzman produces gallery quality work from this shop. (He did admit that he forgot to tidy up a little).

I’m always fascinated to see the differences between the shops of professional woodworkers and their amateur counterparts. Looking at the pictures above, a hobbyist woodworker might think these “shops” look to be far from ideal. The last picture is the shop space of Austin Heitzman. A hobbyist well-versed in the blogs and discussion forums of the online woodworking community might ask – Where’s the large north-facing window? Where is the Roubo? Or the fancy tool cabinet? This space seems inadequate to house all your Lie Nielsen and Lee Valley planes, Bad Axe saws, Blue Spruce chisels, and Auriou rasps?

Well, the two pictures below are examples of Austin’s work.

The two disparate sets of images of Austin’s shop and those of his finished pieces can be difficult to square in one’s mind. Shops such as this are not what we see in the pages of Fine Woodworking, and yet everyday so many things are created in spaces such as this all over the world. Portland has a vibrant local artisan community, and many places such as Shop People exist that allow artists to rent space. As peculiar an arrangement as this may seem to some people, for professionals this setup has some distinct advantages. I asked Austin if he had a home shop. “Nope, this is it”, he replied. He said that having a shop here and not at home helps to separate the two. Even an artist such as Austin who obviously loves his work doesn’t necessarily want to bring work home with him.

It is difficult to make a living in the creative arts. The initial outlay of cash for certain tools makes starting your own business difficult, if not impossible for some. Many artists live in impracticable places to work, such as small apartments or condominiums. Opportunities like Shop People can provide access to necessary tools to get someone making things right away, and provide them with valuable space from which to work. Are the surroundings glamorous? Well, no. Would anybody mistake these shops for the timeless elegance of Colonial Williamsburg or the Dominy Shop? Of course not, but ask these artists trying to make a living if they care about that. Their entire focus is on creating works of art that leave the shop, not on things that are in the shop. Hard work, talent, creativity, persistence, dedication, integrity – these traits contribute far more to the success of an aspiring woodworker, whether they be a professional or amateur, than the perceived beauty and authentic look of the shop.

More:
The blanket chest class is being taught through the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers. I had been meaning to join the Guild over the last few years, but recently they have really started to broaden their class schedules. After looking at their class offerings over the last few years, it was an easy decision to join.

For three years running Cape Falcon Kayak, based in Manzanita, OR, has been holding a skin-on-frame kayak building class at Shop People. One student, Alex Wetmore, blogged about his class two years ago.

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§ 4 Responses to You Don’t Need a Beautiful Shop to do Beautiful Work

  • Rob says:

    A very timely post Eric – just when I am thinking my bench is inadequate, my tools are second rate, the light is coming from the wrong direction! Thanks. Wouldn’t it be great if everywhere had a place like Shop People. The video at their site is well worth watching. Looks like you will have a great time there.

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      Hi Rob,

      Shop People is a great community resource, and thankfully there are other such opportunities here in the city as well. Other cities have similar work spaces, and hopefully it continues to grow.

      -Eric

  • Tico Vogt says:

    Excellent piece. I beat myself up all the time because my basement shop will never generate ye-old, sepia-toned images of shop work. Nice to be reminded that that’s okay.

    Hank Gilpin, noted East Coast furniture maker, has opined that the only way possible to make it work is to live where you work. In my case, being able to walk down and change out clamps, put a coat of finish on, do some drawings or prototype set-ups in th evening is crucial. Much easier to do if you live in the country.

    The Shop People paradigm is encouraging. The Third Ward in Brooklyn and Philadelphia Workshops are offering similar possibilities for urban folks to be creative. More power to them.

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      Thanks Tico. It’s a personal decision I suppose on where to place the shop. I think I heard Gary Rogowski also mention once that he didn’t really have a home shop. Perhaps it’s the keeping things separate theme as well. And yes, if you live in the country you are probably far more likely to live where you work. What I like about Shop People and the other places you mention is that it breaks down barriers for people. They can start a career or invest in a serious hobby with minimal start up costs.

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