Highland Woodworking
Interview: Gary Rogowski, Author of
Handmade - Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction
By Jim Dillon

Gary Rogowski's new book, Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction is a woodworking memoir by a born storyteller. It isn't exactly a memoir, though. It isn't exactly a "how-to" book, either, nor even a "why-to." It has elements of all those, and I suppose I'll go with memoir if you force me to choose. That's because by the time you finish Handmade, you feel like you know Gary as Gary (I could never think of him as "Mr. Rogowski" after reading it!), and that if you happened to meet him somewhere you'd not just recognize him, but be able to continue a conversation that began when you opened his book. And if you're a woodworker, Gary is worth knowing.

Why? For those of you who don't already know his previous books, his many magazine articles, and his appearances online in assorted videos, Gary Rogowski has made a living by making fine furniture since the 1970's. In addition to his writing, he has spent the past 15 or more years teaching at The Northwest Woodworking Studio, developing a curriculum of short courses and a lengthy Mastery Program which have started hundreds of woodworkers on their own paths as makers.

Gary has developed his approach to furniture design on his own, though he never denies the Asian, Shaker, and modernist influences that show in them. His teaching is similar: he has developed his own curriculum, and when you see him teaching (as I have) you see a master in direct dialogue with individual students, using their own specific workbench predicaments to impart what they need to know. However, all of Gary's self-developed pedagogy is in the service of age-old woodworking practices he's consciously training his students to do.

Which brings me to what this book is really about, its real hub. Rogowski shows you how he has "made it" as a self-employed woodworker making one-off pieces of the highest possible quality. "Made it" not in the business sense, but in the personal, spiritual, emotional sense. Handmade is strongest as a memoir when Gary tells about the hard parts more honestly than I've ever heard them described before: the wood that warps unexpectedly at just the wrong time; the load of lumber that falls off the roof of your car onto a busy highway in the middle of a torrential Portland rain; the sanding defect that doesn't show up until you're rubbing out the final coat of painstakingly applied finish: HOW do you keep going when this stuff happens? By very honestly taking us through his own tough times, Gary shows us how we might approach them ourselves, if for no other reason than because if he could do it, we might at least try. And even if we fail, or half-succeed, or wiggle out of the predicament by some unexpected stroke of fate, we'll at least have a good story of our own to tell a novice someday!

Gary Rogowski graciously agreed to answer a few of our questions for this review of his book. Here's a transcript:

Highland: I know we should read the book to learn your real answer, but in a nutshell: how can making something by hand deliver us from distraction in a world of smartphones, traffic jams, and social media?

Gary Rogowski: Woodworkers are the kind of folks who like tools, they like to problem solve, wear a lot of hats, and they like to talk to themselves. Best conversation of the day sometimes. Being at the bench, working with our hands, can take us to this quiet place where we can have a good chat with our self. It's here that we can get lost in the work, let our hands take over from our brain, or rather we put the two of them together in the work. It allows all sorts of other ideas to sift through. It is energizing and quieting for me all at once.

Highland: If time spent quietly at the bench can help us deal with this wildly overstimulating reality we live in, what does someone like you, who has chosen the relatively lonely job of woodworker, get distracted by?

Gary Rogowski: That's good. I'm like everybody else. My eyes have been trained to read more quickly. I want to see the replay of the bird taking off even when I'm walking down the street and not watching a ball game. We are conditioned now. I can't wait to see my email every 20 minutes. It's all this stuff that we've filled our lives with that 20, certainly 30 years ago didn't exist. Now it consumes people's consciousness. I switch radio stations as fast as the next guy. I just need a break from all this distraction now and then. I need quiet in order to recharge.

Highland: One way your book is different than many woodworking books is that you spend a lot of time showing us the bloopers. And I mean, worse than bloopers: shop accidents leading to injury. Mistakes that send you back several steps. Leaking roofs. And in those moments, you write detailed, accurate descriptions of that gut-punched feeling and the first racing thoughts of denial when something like that happens. Are you trying to scare readers away from woodworking?

Gary Rogowski: Oh heck no. Woodworking is as much fun as you can have by yourself. I love it. It just comes with a big caveat: be careful, cuz you're in charge and you can get hurt. When you do get hurt, then you need to stop and figure out what just happened and try to make sure that it never or seldom happens again. [Some of us take longer than others to learn.]

Highland: In your years of teaching, have you noticed any changes in what your students are looking for, or want to do, when they start woodworking?

Gary Rogowski: When they start? No. Everyone wants to build the Taj Mahal of furniture. I know I did. But reality sets in if you're in the business of it. And for that you need a marketing brain for some part of the week. You need a sales brain for another part, a design brain for yet another, and so on. If you can enjoy this mix of skills and challenges, then it's endlessly fun and provocative.

Highland: As a woodworker in 2017, is it easier to find a market for your work than it was, say, 10 years ago?

Gary Rogowski: The web is the greatest/ worst thing that has ever happened to humanity. It is the largest library in the world and yet it is not trustworthy because anyone can post there. So it makes it easier to show work that photographs well. It may not be well made. But it's far easier to show the world what you do now. In that sense it is easier to market. The problem is that people can touch your quality and the first thing someone does after liking the form of your work is to go up and touch it.

Highland: Speaking about either your teaching or your commissioned pieces, how do you see the "maker" movement affecting your work? Having been a woodworker, and a teacher, for a while, I have my own thoughts on how the people I see at the bench are a little different than they were in 2000, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Gary Rogowski: Well one of the effects of the web is dumbing things down since people want the fast result. They want the quick answer. As a result a lot of skill in craft gets lost. Good enough is not simply the American way, it's the web's way of doing things. Be a "master" in a year, take this class and become a "master." Everything has speeded up so much that it's tough to convince folks that patience and practice are the ways to mastery, not speed. The maker movement doesn't understand that in my opinion.

Highland: Your book spans the lifetimes of more than one dog, but you never specifically discuss their being in the shop with you. Anything to share on the subject of shop dogs, or would that be spoiling your sequel? ("Houndmade: Driven to Distraction by Bench Dogs")

Gary Rogowski: That's a terrible title that I'm laughing at. Well, I am writing about my Boys now, but not so much as shop dogs. They both hated the shop. I just happened to spend a lot of time there so that's where they hung too. Too noisy, too dusty for them.

Highland: Several other eminent woodworkers have told me that having a hobby other than woodworking keeps them fresh when they show up at the bench. I've heard of bonsai, calligraphy, sailing...after reading Handmade I assume yours is hiking. There are a lot of long walks in the mountains in here! How does being outdoors for long stretches help your time at the bench?

Gary Rogowski: Oh man, it fills up and empties my brain all at the same time. It gives me time to sift out ideas. My best lectures have come from walks where all of a sudden all the ideas line up in a row, the way they're supposed to be and all I have to do is have the sense to bring a pen to write them down. It's a huge blender is hiking, a blender and a sifter, it's an oven and sometimes it's the drain.

Find out more and purchase Handmade - Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction

Jim Dillon has been teaching at Highland since 2000. His day job is as Cabinetmaker at Fernbank Science Center, building exhibits. He was self-employed as a custom furniture maker for 8 years, and before that, taught college English. He finds that coaching other woodworkers to develop their problem-solving and hand skills is an inspiration for his own work.

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