Am I? My inclination is to answer in the negative. The term just feels so hallowed, a label earned through decades spent in the shop, gaining technical expertise and crafting heirloom-quality pieces. That’s not me (yet), so I’m hesitant to claim the title for my own…but I wouldn’t call myself a “writer” until after I’d finished my second novel either.
My name is Rodney Wilson. I’m the new Managing Editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine, a writer and, what the heck, a woodworker. On weekends I’m a farmer.
Five or so years ago, my wife and I decided our suburban side lot needed chickens. That’s where my history with wood starts: a quartet of Golden Comet laying hens. We placed an order with a local hatchery for our pullets, then panicked over where to house our impending additions – readymade products were either too shoddy or too expensive (and too shoddy), and we wanted a proper house for our ladies. So after perusing myriad examples of custom coops online, I sketched out a rough plan, hopped in our SUV and headed to the hardware store for a stack of framing timbers, screws and some tools. Prior to this experience, I was largely (and lamentably) tool-less.
And so I set myself to the task of cutting and assembling pieces of wood into a thing that didn’t exist before I decided to make it. I made a lot of mistakes, and the project took far too long to complete, but in the end the chickens were pleased with what my family dubbed “The Breakfast Club.” Throughout the experience I was struck by commonalities between making something with wood and writing: raw materials were like a dictionary waiting to be assembled into sentences. The finished structure was like that (first) novel I had just completed, both created in peril of falling apart without the maker’s dedication – and both existed only because I made them.
We had chickens, and I had tools, scrap wood and a curious new inclination to make things. I owned a coffee shop at the time and we sold slices of my wife’s pies: Surely we needed a countertop pie cabinet. And I should make my kids some toys; what kind of father was I, never hand making them toys? Oh, and a clock – I love clocks. I absolutely had to make a clock.
I built the cabinet and made too many toys and clocks, enough to haul to a few handcraft shows. I found the local lumber mill, explored new-to-me woods and fell deeply in love with black walnut. I built a screen door and my son’s bed, then a dining room table from plans calling for chiseled notches. I dug deeper into the history behind my new preoccupation and fixated on names like Nakashima and Maloof. I bought a handplane.
At some point in all this, I also sold my coffee shop and, having fallen under the spell of author Wendell Berry, decided to become a small farmer. My family moved to Kentucky, my home state, and we bought a lot of chickens; I built coops, troughs, gates, a milking stanchion and hog barns. In winter, our Civil War-era farmhouse relied on a wood stove for heat, and I split every plug that got shoved into its cast iron interior, developing an intimate connection with the trees surrounding our home in the process (I love the way ash smells when the maul separates logs on a crisp, fall day). One day I met the man who’d lived in our house years earlier, a respected carpenter who recounted aloud how he’d brought the deteriorating home back with cedar harvested from our woods. I looked around the house and noticed dovetails hidden throughout in secret, little places.
So, am I a woodworker? I don’t think it matters what I label myself so long as I keep digging into the grain. That I’m somewhat new to woodworking and haven’t yet built a chair I see my great-grandchildren cherishing: these are necessary steps on the path I expect I’ll follow until my time runs out. I’ll get there, and I’ll treasure every lesson learned between now and then.
As for my Managing Editor role here at the magazine, I’ll be the new contact for queries and letters to the editor, as well as any questions you may have. Subscription problem? Idea for End Grain? Drop me a line at Rodney.Wilson@fwmedia.com. I look forward to hearing from you.