We’re interviewing makers from all 50 states. Today we’re featuring Erin Bell, a woodworker and small-business owner from Vermont.
How did you get started woodworking? Who were your mentors?
About 5 years ago I left my job and started working on some residential construction projects with my father. On a whim, I decided to enroll in a Furniture Intensive at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, VT. I instantly felt like I was finally doing what I was meant to. In fact, I told my father it was like I took a deep breath for the first time in my life. For 6 months I absorbed everything I could about woodworking and furniture making, 7 days a week, 8 hours a day. After finishing the intensive I knew I wanted to continue, so I started my business as a side hustle, growing more and more with each job. I originally had a business partner, a friend from the past, but that fell apart a couple of years in (another lesson learned). I continued to pursue the business on my own, all the while holding a full-time job as a craft spirits distiller. During the pandemic, I decided to leave the distillery and pursue woodworking full time.
I grew up helping my dad. He wasn’t a woodworker but he was an engineer and very handy. He has been my mentor in business and in life since I was a little girl. Beyond that, I was truly inspired by the guidance and joy of my professor at Yestermorrow, Justin Kramer. He was an absolute inspiration as an educator and championed me toward pursuing woodworking as a career path.
What do you think is your best or favorite work? What kind of work do you do the most?
I have done a lot of different things over the last 5 years. Because this was always a custom business, my clients’ interests tend to be all over the map. But some of my favorite works have been the bars I have done. I have done 4 to date, and not small residential bars, but full-size commercial spaces, and each is resoundingly unique. From live-edge walnut; to a 36′ river pour; to a 16′ x 10′ beast out of all reclaimed barn beams, I have found real joy in finding creative solutions for local businesses. As someone who spent many years “behind the pine” and earning a living as a bartender, I feel confident and comfortable making these spaces that are both beautiful and useful to the establishments. And it’s great to be able to go in as a patron and sit at something I made while I eat my dinner or grab a drink!
What advice would you give to someone that wants to start woodworking or pursue it as a profession?
Be ready to work but also learn which clients are worth taking and which you should turn away, both for your sake or theirs. Look forward to the challenges that come with new clients, but don’t let it destroy your joy for what you do. That goes for many lines of work, not just woodworking. I found a great deal of stress, in the beginning, was managing clients’ expectations. I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by being a “yes”-man and trying to be too nice. Be clear from the start with what you can and cannot do, or where you draw the line as far as what you want to do, not just with them but with yourself. If you spread yourself too thin or take too big a bite, be ready to also eat your humble pie at the end. Frankly, I am glad I had those tough realizations myself, but man, they really were tough. Also, everything always takes longer than you (or your client) might think.
What’s your best hands-on tip or woodworking technique?
Jiiiiiiiiiiigs. I am starting to use jigs for everything. In the beginning, I thought it was a waste of time, but dang! Once I started spending the time to slow down and figure a few things out ahead of time, whether it’s a story stick or a detailed scaled drawing or a jig I would only use once, my life became less frustrating. you’re less likely to cut the wrong side or put a mortise on the wrong face if you just label things and make your layout idiot-proof! Patience is not high on my list of virtues but I have been practicing it ALOT lately.
And I meditate. Don’t laugh–I use the app Headspace or go on Spotify and listen to some really smart people talk. Especially when I hit a snag in the shop. I stop and breathe a moment and remind myself I love what I do. Not a hands-on tip but I would definitely call it a career technique!
Is there anyone you’d like to shout-out or recommend we follow? Who inspires you? (Doesn’t have to be woodworking related, either.)
There are so many people I follow and find inspiring. I find the images and work of @siosidesign and @woodbee.woodworks straight-up the stuff of woodworking dreams. I love the attitudes (and works) of people like @oakhillmillworks, @crowcreekdesigns, @sarah.sawdust, and @lohrwoodworking. My woodworking professor @jkramer_studio is such a badass.
But I’d also like to shout out to my girlfriend (she would kill me if I put her IG handle up)–she has been a fountain of support, inspiration and has eagerly encouraged me every step of the way. Every day she tells me “make beautiful things” and I hope everyone can hear that too.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
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