Woodworking | Origin Stories | Getting Started

Last week we shared a sampling of your origin stories. This week, settle in with your favorite beverage, because what follows will be a much longer read! Thanks to all who shared their introductions into woodworking. – Editor

“I got started by watching ‘The New Yankee Workshop’ on Saturday mornings, and it just grew from there.” – John Stephan

“(My)wife bought a 6″ shelf from a home decor store for $10. I told her that I could make more shelves for less than that. She challenged me to do it, and I’ve been doing it for 35 years now.” – Frank Romero

“I was stationed at a military base that had a hobby shop for woodworking. One Saturday, I enrolled in one of their beginner’s classes as a true newbie, and I simply got hooked. The volunteers were extremely knowledgeable – and very talented – and the shop had every woodworking tool available. While I couldn’t compete with the volunteers’ projects, I made several for my home and my kids’ homes, and the volunteers were with me every step of the way. I’ve retired from the military now, and I don’t quite have the space that hobby shop had, but I still enjoy getting sawdust all over me!” – Mitch Holmes

“In 1980, when I was fresh out of dental school and trying to build a private practice, I had both more debt and more spare time than I had hoped for. But one of the good things about being broke (and there are several) is that to get either what you want or to where you want requires learning new skills. Having an old house in rough shape and lacking the funds to hire a contractor, I bought all the Time-Life ‘How-To’ books (no YouTube in the late ’70s) and just plain went at it with a heavy dose of youthful exuberance and ignorance. I enrolled in a night-time adult education class at the local high school, bought a big pile of rough-sawn white oak ‘on the cheap’ and built all the cabinets for the kitchen, dining room and baths. By the time I was done with that, I figured that with my 10″ Craftsman table saw and a router, I could conquer the world. Forty-plus years later, I am still in the same house. I have added and upgraded some tools, but I still learn something new nearly every time I am in my shop. And you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing about the road I took to get here.” – Brian Cornell

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. We had no money for toys but lots of imagination. At four years old I found nails and various wood scraps around the house that we were building and made a small car. Then a bunch of things with wheels. After that, life was a succession of tree houses, go-carts and crude forts. My nickname was ‘Hammerhead.’ I learned that if you can work with wood, you can do anything. I have now built more than 60 homes and have retired to my shop to keep on creating.” – Gary Irwin

“I was a masonry contractor for years. Here in Southern California, my work was year-round. Well, illness hit me in 2012, and when I started a new life in March 2014, I had a couple of masonry projects to do. When I was done, I scratched my head for a couple years until I finally went to a Rockler store and started something new to me. Having to retire early, I started learning all different types of woodwork that helps me stay busy doing and making things for family and friends. Nice cutting boards for all the men for Christmas, with all happy to have one. I’ll be hitting Real Lumber in the morning for cherry for a couple custom gates and then fascia on our house. It is nice to start something new just to have a nice retirement.” Lee Dodge

“I went to a trade school during high school and took cabinet making. It was great. I spent 3-1/2 years learning the trade. From woodturning to veneering. Not to mention cutting dovetails by hand. I really enjoyed it. Now that I am retired, I still make furniture and on occasion some toys for my nieces and nephews.” – Richard A. Trevisan

“I retired in 2005 and wanted a small hobby. Did small projects at home and discovered scroll sawing. The rest is history. I spend the better part of most days in the shop, and I’m not about to stop.” – Dave Lutton

“I guess I really got started in junior high ‘industrial arts’ (shop class). We did some woodworking, plastics, leather, metal blacksmithing and quite a bit of mechanical drawing. In high school, I got in the ‘college prep’ track and ‘industrial arts’ was delegated to the males that were headed to blue-collar jobs. They were known as the ‘shop guys.’  Anyway, I did some brief woodworking and metalworking in the following years in Junior Achievement. College years pretty much took me away from it. But getting married just prior to getting my graduate degree and moving to our first apartment, we needed a few things like bookcases, TV stand, camping kitchen box and later, a cradle. All were made on the apartment balcony or in the storage locker in the basement. My tool kit consisted of a drill, plane, crosscut saw, hammer, some screwdrivers and a tape measure. Four years and three houses in three states later, I had a cheap jigsaw and circular saw and continued the work with home-center pine boards. From there, I gradually accumulated some power tools, lots of books and magazines, and I joined a woodworking club. Having an addition put on the house gave me a 16″ x 16″ basement space that could become my shop. Long rips went diagonally or through a door. My three girls eventually joined me in the shop and did 4-H woodworking projects. Everyone went to the state fair competition where they all received ‘outstanding of the day’ awards every time but once, when the project was deemed too complex for the project level. In the interim, I’ve built hundreds of things: boxes of all sorts, a couple hundred picture frames, beds, dressers, tables, cabinets, shelves and other things for my family. When I was getting burned out with my day job, I looked around and started a furniture repair business where I turned my long-term hobby to a vocation. Did that for 18 years until I retired. Now I’m back to hobby work and making things for family and friends and volunteering in two places where I make furniture or theater sets.” – Keith Mealy

“I got into woodwork when a large cherry tree limb blew down. Wow, what a trip. I was retired and spent next 15 years making great treats for me and friends. Now I’m 80 and get to go into my shop and reminisce. That’s all. My legs are too weak to trust for using my table saw. It was a good time.” – Phil Zoeller

“My grandfather and a bunch of uncles were carpenters (rough and finish). So woodworking just ‘rubbed off.’ The most influential event that really gave me ‘the bug’ was my seventh-grade shop teacher in 1956. Mr. Smith had us learn all the parts of Bailey #5 hand plane, adjust it and square a block of wood using a try square. With these basics and learning how to sharpen a plane iron and chisels, it has been a rewarding hobby and a money-earning endeavor.” – M.W. Tracy

“It all began when my daughter started teaching in a fairly empty classroom and needed bookcases! My wife, also a teacher, had some in her classroom which would work, so I copied them and started building them for my daughter and her friends (also teachers). To date, I’ve built 16 bookcases — I even have one! From there, I started building whatever the children needed for their apartments. A roll-top desk, a rolling kitchen cabinet, various other small items and tables. Woodworking gives me (a former pro photographer) things that photography also had, starting with raw materials (photo paper) and making something special that had lasting value. Woodworking continues to be a source of pleasure and wonder at how many avenues for creativity there are.” – Paul Bailey

“I got into woodworking in eighth-grade shop class. I modified the standard shop ‘gun rack’ design and did pretty well. I enjoyed it so much that I built a wall clock out of solid walnut. Both projects went to our local fair, and the wall clock still hangs in my mother’s formal living room. I was away for a number of years but got drawn back into it because of my job. I found working procurement in the military during the ‘90s, and the early 2000s didn’t let me see the ‘finished product’ while on tour, nor was I able to express my creativity! These days, I build furniture (e.g., entryway bench with shoe storage) and other practical items (e.g., a fly-tying bench including equipment storage). Nothing too fancy and all custom designed, but I get the satisfaction of creating the design and seeing the project through to completion. I don’t know if you’ll post this, but I was compelled to respond for some reason, even though I should be working on something for the house!” – Todd E. Wiest

“When I was around 10 (1961), I started going to my grandfather’s factory (water boilers). His neighbor and friend had a wood store and carpentry shop. I became attracted by the sawdust and started making cars, airplanes, boats and so forth. I made my first skateboard there with metal wheels taken from my Torrington roller skates. I have made many things including my first dining furniture, my bedroom furniture, the furniture for my children and many other items. I’m a mechanical engineer, and sometimes I have helped students and friends start woodworking. I like to design my furniture.” – Alfonso Barajas

“My dad was into woodworking repairing antiques, building kitchen cabinets, replacing a cellar entrance, building drawers for storage of workshop parts, etc. He had the usual power tools, and I was young enough to either be either his ‘hold-this-steady’ or his ‘step-and-fetch-it’ guy. When I became a home owner some 58 years ago, I too made a lot of things. I’ve built some furniture, bath and kitchen cabinets, a ‘man cave’ and full bathroom in our basement. I did most of the final trim out and final finishing in this house. I also turn things like pens, wine stoppers, kitchen tool handles and so forth as gifts, and I insulated and finished my basement walls amounting to some 2,000 square feet of floor space. I also have volunteered at a local wildlife refuge building waterfowl blinds, deer stands and a photo blind, cutting trees and grass, building small bridges over water ditches, repairing fences, etc.” – Charles Darling

“I was raised on a farm in West Virginia with many acres of dense hardwood forest (oak, maple, walnut, cherry) — all the makings for prime woodworking, which was harvested twice to yield several thousand board feet of clear lumber. Dad was a skilled carpenter and sometimes woodworker, and he had a basic shop on the farm, so I learned the essentials of power and hand tools early on. Later, I picked up the hobby in Louisiana and Washington State and yes, I hauled or shipped a lot of that hardwood to those places where it does not ‘grow on trees’ locally. Much later in Pennsylvania, I have a full shop and am still using some of the old farm production, even after building most of the furniture in the house.” – Gary Mckown

“In the early 1970s I took woodshop in high school.” – Loren Heyer

“Growing up, I remember vacationing with my family and shopping souvenir stores. I was always drawn to the little cedar boxes, whose exteriors displayed a glossy lacquer finish and the interiors full of the scent of aromatic cedar. Those memories stayed with me, and by the time I reached junior high school, I jumped at the chance to learn how to build those boxes in shop class. From that point on, working with wood became my passion.” – gweb1958

“My adventure in woodworking, like most youngsters, began in the home workshop with my dad. My first violin teacher was a German immigrant who was also trained as a violin maker by John Friedrich in New York back in the 20s and 30s. At the age of 12 I became somewhat interested in his work and began buying junky used violins out of the newspaper. In those days they might range from $10 to $35. I would take them to his basement workshop, and he would instruct me on how to repair them. The fun part was that he was at the end of his career, so he mostly sat and talked to his parakeet (Joe) and drank Schlitz beer whilst keeping me under his watchful eye. I continued my violin studies through college with a BS degree in music education, but the passion for instrument repair and restoration only accelerated. After five years in education, the calling was too great, so I entered the retail end of the music business. 55 years later, I am still at the bench restoring some of the finest instruments owned by some of the world’s finest musicians. Not even COVID could destroy my passion.” – Jacob Cralidis

“My father was the guy in the neighborhood who would help or do the things that others would have to hire done. I would be at his elbow wanting to help him. Of course I would want to be just like him helping others, but my first fascination with working with wood was a hand-crank drill press in my grandpa’s cellar. I spent hours drilling holes in odd pieces of wood including tree limbs. I did not take up this as a vocation, however I have continued to build furniture, built-in shelving, household items, chests, and over the last 16 years, toys for my grandchildren. I just finished making tables for a high-school classroom.” – Tom Fuchs

“I am 100 years old, and I started woodworking when I was 10. I made items from old cigar boxes (they were made of wood). Later, whenever I found a loose board, I made something out of it. In 1953, I discovered the lathe. I have made many bowls, vases, cups, saucers, etc. I still work in my shop almost daily. And I can still count to 10 on my fingers.” – Frank Slagle

“I got a job in 1983 with a paper company owned by Pentair. At the time, they owned Delta and Porter-Cable, and they offered tools to employees for cheap. Everyone at the mill bought tools, so I started buying them. My first workshop was in our spare bedroom.” – Timothy Fiehrer

“My parents said when I was three years old, I would wear my cowboy hat and have my shop apron on with my hammer in hand, helping my dad. I always wanted to be a contractor up through high school, not going to college. My dad said I had to go to college for one year and pass, then I could have the rest of my college funds for my contracting business. I went to college to be a shop teacher. I taught for a number of years, moved and started to teach automation in industry. That’s when I started doing woodworking on the side, built my workshop and business. I’ve built furniture and put the finishing touches on home remodels. I’ve worked with many children building projects and teaching them to use tools. My grandchildren, 8 and 10, like the workshop and make a lot of ‘things.’ I still do a lot of wood/electrical projects. It’s a great hobby and source of work.” – Mark Erickson

“Some 40+ years later, the smell of fresh-cut wood in my own shop takes me back to my days as a child working in my father and grandfather’s roof truss (the A-frame part of a house) manufacturing plant. My first jobs at the truss plant involved sweeping up sawdust and catching cut lumber as it rolled off the component saw conveyor. Some years later, my dad decided to open up a cabinet shop, and I was completely taken with the process of taking various wood species in sheet and dimensional form and creating something both beautiful and functional. Today, though I enjoy woodworking only as a hobby (at least for now), the satisfaction of creating beauty and function from raw material has yet to lose its allure.” – Michael D. Millsap

“My first foray into woodworking was shop class in junior high in Minnesota. We made a wall-mounted knife holder. Far too little time was involved to master anything. Many years later, my wife and I began watching ‘The New Yankee Workshop’ on PBS. Of course Norm had every tool imaginable and made woodworking all look so easy. Most important were the useful projects like bookcases and tables instead of painted particleboard or other disposable options. In 1990 my wife became adamant that I needed to purchase a table saw. It was certainly an improvement to cutting sheet products. I’ve progressed to creating fine furniture. The learning journey continues.” – Dave Byerly

“I started my work life as a house painter’s helper, doing so while attending college. By the time I graduated, I was running a paint crew. The finishing techniques I learned came in very handy later on. Being in Texas made it unlikely that I would marry a great niece of Frank Lloyd Wright, but that happened. I didn’t know her family background until after we were married. All that is to say, I got introduced to design in an intensive way. I worked with my realtor sister to build a few small houses, in which I did all the carpentry, framing and trimwork. I started graduate school in architecture and received more design training. I decided that office work wasn’t for me and went back to building houses. Remodeling became a mainstay when the interest rates shot way up. Many remodeling clients asked for special cabinetry or built-ins. Since most cabinet shops don’t like to take on odd jobs, I began to do them myself. After a little of that I discovered I’d rather be in my own workshop building things that I delivered and got paid immediately for doing. That’s when I decided to focus on furniture and other shop work and stop driving around to remote work sites for 24 hours per week. That was in 1989. I’ve been building furniture, turning bowls and in the last few years, making acoustic guitars and ukuleles. The thing is, you have to keep learning and doing.” – Frank Clements

“My father was a skilled woodworker and metalworker. The family business was a hardware store and a John Deere dealership. I really enjoyed eighth-grade shop class, and my dad and I built a few things. After I got married and bought a house, I had an opportunity to construct a few things just using hand tools. My father died young, at age 64 when I was 40, and I inherited his power tools: a table saw, jointer, band saw and a very spartan lathe that he had built. I brought these plus his workbench to my home and began reading about how to use them. I was okay with the workbench but very nervous with the big tools. So I hit the library, bought some books, subscribed to some woodworking magazines, learned how to use the tools safely and got thoroughly hooked. When we added a family room to our house, we put a full basement underneath for my workshop. I have replaced the Boice-Crane table saw and the Wood Wizard band saw with more modern tools, donating the old tools to beginners just starting out. I enjoy building furniture and smaller decorative items. One of my bigger projects was updating our kitchen by building 28 new doors and 12 new drawers for the cabinets, a situation where the plywood boxes were just fine, but the doors and drawer fronts were dated. The other big kitchen project was a cherry hutch. I have used these skills in work trips through our church and through Rotary Club, both in the U.S. and abroad. I continue to learn, enjoy the articles and videos that your magazine and others provide and look to YouTube for ideas, instruction and inspiration.” – Don Gwinn

“When I was 8 years old, my grandfather gave me a jigsaw for Christmas — not a toy but the real thing. My parents were horrified thinking for sure I would hurt myself, but I was careful and started cutting up all the boards I could find for different projects until I finally burnt the saw up. This passion stuck with me though high school where I excelled in woodworking. Now to this day, more than 55 years later, I still enjoy working in my shop using a variety of skills from furniture and cabinetmaking to woodturning and making toys for my grandchildren.” – David Taylor

“I had made several knickknack and bookshelves early in our marriage. Then a hope chest for a granddaughter and a crib with 40 slats for a grandson took my woodworking to a new level. Making many wood toys for Christmas gifts when kids were younger kept the projects coming. I have learned a lot from your tips and project plans. Keep up the good work.” – Doug Selfe

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