You Don’t Need a Beautiful Shop to do Beautiful Work
February 24, 2013 § 4 Comments
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.
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.
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.