ED – I’m Emily, I do furniture design, fabrication and general carpentry at Oxbow Design Build. I don’t have too much time for personal projects right now, but I have ambition to build my own line of furniture some day. I love working at Oxbow, it’s a mid-sized shop full of eager young people with a diverse background of experiences, so we are constantly being pushed to do things we have never done before and are given a lot of creative control.
As a female in woodworking, it’s intimidating to go and work in a shop.
EF – There are other women here, right?
There’s one other female carpenter, and our office manager is female. Generally,as a woman in woodworking, I’ve felt the need to compensate for my small stature and lack of strength – I’ve had to prove my worth in other ways. I imagine that this is similar to any female in any industry that’s male dominated, but I’ve always felt a need to constantly prove that I’m valuable. Working in this shop, I’ve never felt that way. My colleagues are very supportive and have helped me develop a real confidence in my capabilities and craft.
In fact, right after furniture making school, I originally went into furniture conservation because I thought, “this is more suited for women, this is detail work that doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting, and it’s more intellectual.” But ultimately, it did not fulfill me. I became nervous that I’d picked a career path that I’d never feel comfortable in. That’s part of why I’m so elated working here, feeling like I’ve made the right decisions that have brought me here, and I’m doing well.
I went to school for furniture making about three years ago in Maine, and when I finished that program, which was only nine months, I got a job working in furniture conservation and restoration in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I was there for almost two years. It was mostly doing repairs and cleaning up historically significant furniture for museums, auction houses, and homes on Fifth Avenue. That kind of work definitely exposed me to a different side of furniture making, because it has a lot to do with considering how to make construction last long, and still lend itself to be able to be fixed without destroying it. We talked a lot about the glues people use and the finishing people did, and the joinery, and what made some things last and what made some things fail. I learned a lot of older techniques, including french polishing. We didn’t use heavy machines very often, it was a lot of hand tools.
It was definitely a particular skill set, but I wasn’t doing any designing and I wasn’t doing any larger scale production. Simultaneously, my friend Noah (along with Carl and Chris) had just founded Oxbow, and he started trying to get me to move up here to work for them. At first, I was skeptical that I would have the skills they were looking for. But immediately when I came up here, it was very clear that this was what I wanted to be doing, and this was an opportunity to have my dream job before I was actually qualified to have my dream job.
Yeah, I remember that from when you first came up here! Anyway, let’s look around. Is this the place where you work?
This is the main wood shop. This is the glue-up table; it’s a glue-up table because we’ve waxed it, so glue doesn’t stick to it – you can tear it off. We have all the clamps around it. We also have most of our heavy wood machinery: the table saw, the bandsaw, the chop saw – when we use the track saw we use it in here. We have a lot of our lumber storage, mostly active project lumber, and all of our hand tools are in here. And then we mill our wood in a different area. Milling is taking the raw wood and dimensioning and squaring it off. So that’s where we have our planer and our big drum sander, and a huge Tannewitz bandsaw that we use for resawing lumber to thickness.
So, for the wood, you just, I don’t know, get a tree?
Not necessarily. We mainly collect our lumber two different ways – either we order it for a specific project, or we come across it and we store it as backlog. Because we’re in these old mill buildings and they’re all being redone, we end up coming across things that way sometimes. There were a bunch of huge pillars of southern yellow pine in the basement of the building across the street, and we found them and bought them. Now we have a large stash of southern yellow pine, which is gorgeous wood, although it totally destroys the machines because its very resinous. We use a lot of ash, because it’s local, and we’ve been using a lot of what’s called heat-treated ash, which is ash that’s been put in an oven. It turns brown, so it has more of a walnut-y color. It’s beautiful, but it’s not structural, so we’ve been using it more decoratively than as joinery or structural elements. But ash itself, the clear ash, it’s one of the strongest woods you can use. It’s straight-grained, it’s great for bending and doing laminations. The chairs [I made for the project we just finished] are clear ash, they’re hearty and sturdy.
This is all of our stashing of found wood, that we’re not actually using but we’ve collected because it’s become available. So there’s the southern yellow pine, and we have all of this oak, but I don’t remember where it came from. It must have come from some construction, some sort of residential construction, because it has all of these mortises cut out into it.
So yeah, every project begins with milling, which usually consists of planing the wood. We use this sander kind of like a planer.
Planing it is like…
Making it flat. Technically you’re supposed to put it over a jointer first, which flattens one side, and then you put it in a planer, which makes the other side parallel. But our joiner is too small, so we just plane it, which works well enough for our purposes. We also have a massive bandsaw. Pretty much all of our machines, we’ve gotten used. So there’s high probability of constant maintenance, we’ve all been using how to fix machines. This one, I have become very intimately acquainted with.
I always make jokes about like, being a robot gynecologist when I have to like fix outlets in our house or something.
Yeah, you develop a relationship. I know all of its little pockets and yeast infections.
What are some of the hand tools you use?
This guy, this is an angle finder. some angle finders are really big and bulky, but this guy is so perfectly sized.
These are hand planes: a block plane, a high angle number 4 plane, a low angle jack plane, and a number 6 jointer plane. Smallest to biggest. I have like four more planes but they’re not my favorite ones. They look good all together, though.
Here’s the angle finder again, also known as a T-bevel. Then I have a very small Starret square, a mid-sized Starrett square. This is my favorite drafting pencil.
Ultimately, if I had to choose a favorite tool, it’s that little one, the bay Starrett square. I call her my little buddy.
My chisels are very photogenic. I have a leather case for them, and all my fancy hand tools.
What do you chisel? Because I have an idea in my head of chiseling being solely sculptural but I’m sure I’m wrong about that.
Right. These are not carving chisels. Chisels are mostly used for joinery, so if you’re building a tenon by hand, or a mortise or dovetail.
And those are all kinds of joints?
Yeah, those are all different kinds of joints. They’re also good for cleaning out corners of things. For example, I made some chairs that needed sharper corners and used a router to profile them, but router bits are circular, so they can’t make sharp corners, only rounded corners. Afterwards, I chiseled it out, to make it a sharp corner.
All wood is enjoyable, in a tactile way. I love it. Except when you get a splinter.
Oh man, do you get a million splinters?
I wear gloves. Actually, that’s another major thing I use. I had to find these gloves in the gardening department. They were the only ones that fit me. They’re pretty disgusting at this point, but I’ve tried other gloves and none of them are as good as these.
Those definitely look like our garden gloves – I think they’re nicer, but…
They’re my number one splinter avoidance. Except, hilariously, when you feed something into a table saw, you put your hand next to it to keep it locked in and then you slide it, so I always get scrapes on the inside of my pointer finger and I’ve actually worn away the rubber there. So now I still get splinters there.
Emily Deutchman is a furniture designer and artist. She was photographed in the workshop at Oxbow Design Build in Easthampton, MA on July 9, 2016