Canadian Woodworking

A Woman’s Place is In The Shop

Author: Cynthia White
Illustration: Christina Chen
Published: October November 2011
A woman's place
A woman's place

I wish there were more woodworking women. Then maybe circular saws wouldn’t weigh 85 pounds and table saws would be height-adjustable (I can’t find any high-heeled shop boots).

Many thanks to Don Wilkinson for his heart-warming tribute to women in his Woodchuckle article last issue. He’s right; there aren’t a lot of female woodworkers. But there are a few. I’m a woman, and despite their occasional denial, I have two kids in their twenties to prove it. I took up woodworking last year at the ripe old age of 48. My friends thought I’d lost it.

And machines wouldn’t all be dead-frog green. I’m sure they’re great tools and all, but seriously, whose idea was that green colour? Unfortunately, most of the “ladies” tools I’ve found aren’t fit to hang a picture. I prefer the real tools, manly as they may be, thank you.

Women also face a disadvantage when purchasing materials and supplies. When I go into the local lumber supply place to buy something, the male employees talk to me as if I have the IQ of a banana. Perhaps I’ve arrived there by mistake – surely I must have been headed to the kitchen design place down the road. No, Einstein, I’m building my kitchen cabinets and not with your materials if you don’t smarten up. And that’s only after they get around to helping me, since they’re first going to help every other schmo in town who walks in wearing dirty coveralls, even if I’m first at the counter. But I’ve found a simple solution to that problem. I’ve discovered that cleavage goes a long way when it comes to getting waited on faster, and I have more of it than most men.

When it comes to power tools, I don’t jump and squawk but I do have a healthy fear (or respect) of all of them, especially the ones with sharp spinny parts. You see, I’m very attached to my fingers – and they’re very attached to me. I observe every safety rule I can think of in hopes of hanging on to all of them. (No such luxury with fingernails; I broke three in the shop last week.)

My penchant for safety amuses my retired husband to no end. I do silly unreasonable things, like wait until the blade stops on my mitre saw before lifting the handle, or always use a clamp to hold the wood when making a cut. “That’s not how we used to do it on the job,” he says, erupting in violent paroxysms of laughter. “You don’t know the power of the dark side,” I say in my best Darth Vader imitation through my respirator.

Regardless of gender, every woodworker should get his or her priorities straight, and the most important thing in my wood shop is the bed for my shop dog. He also gets the one shop heater I have. My production slowed to a crawl this past winter because the only warm spot in the shop was the dog bed. Instead of working on my bookcase project, I spent most of the winter having coffee and donuts while bonding with my dog on his cot.

It’s hard for women to learn woodworking if they have no one to teach them. My high school home economics class didn’t include units on sharpening chisels or buying lumber. Many of you guys reading this magazine learned from fathers or uncles or brothers or teachers. I bet you built step stools, boxes, tables and forts. My dad and uncle taught me about the five great Bordeaux wines, the history of the free world and how to play gin rummy. No woodworking help there.

The one skill I have that has prepared me for woodworking is sewing. Go ahead and laugh. I’m an expert quilter, and woodworking is a lot like quilting, just dustier and with more splinters. Quilting requires planning, accurate and precise cutting of materials, and understanding how the material behaves and moves under different conditions. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Seriously, if you guys want to be better woodworkers, take up sewing. I’d be glad to help you. Just don’t show up with a dead-frog green sewing machine.

And bring some treats for my shop dog, will ya?

Cynthia White - [email protected]

Cynthia’s table project is dedicated to her shop dog, who died during its completion.

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