“As the founder of a small home-based business, Woodwork for Women, and the author of a book of the same name, I find I couldn’t have dreamed up a more fulfilling place to be as I enter my sixties.
I was raised on a small dairy farm in West Gippsland, Victoria in the late 1950s and early 60s, with my two older brothers. I longed to be roaming out in the paddocks, climbing trees and building cubby houses and doing boy things, but I was only encouraged to cook and clean!
Having been told off one day for messing with the tools in the shed, I was sent inside to help bottle the blackberry jam – and it was another twenty years before I picked up any tools again.
By thirty years of age I was an experienced secretary, but later trained in the UK as a private detective – and neither gave me the fulfillment I hoped existed.
A spark of desire
Then one day I spotted a one-line ad in the Bristol Evening Post that read ‘Woodwork for Women classes’, and my heart gave a little jump. I wondered if I could learn this skill. The class was held in a woman’s lounge room, with a few small folding portable work benches and some tools set out between the TV and sofa, creating a calm, friendly atmosphere.
I immediately adored the shiny, sharp blade of the plane as it licked golden curls off the wood and the smell of pine that filled the air. I was in love! So I signed up for an intensive carpentry/joinery course (similar to a four year apprenticeship) along with twenty-six other lads and men.
When I told my flat mates they fell about laughing. I was petite in stature and I was a girl! What was I thinking? I learnt everything from roofing and stair casing, to building a six-paneled glass door and a window from scratch, using mostly hand tools, and among other challenging projects I hand-made a large dovetail box for my tools.
Practice, practice, practice
I loved it and I never missed a day, but I struggled with maths and measuring, sometimes ending up in tears of frustration. But happily I graduated and spent the next Bristol winter in an old shed practising all I’d learnt at the course, using discarded recycled timber. I made shelves and frames and sold them at the local market. With practice in the quiet of my shed, I started to understand the nuances of hand and body position when sawing, chiselling or planning, and learned many other useful tips.
When I fell into a Government-funded teaching role with an organisation run by women, teaching women to help them get into the trades in the early 1980s I found that I could give my students all the tips and tricks that I’d learned in that cold shed. And I could see what a difference it made to the students when they were free to ask as many questions as they needed.
My reward was not only seeing them get it, but also seeing their enjoyment and that spark of passion for the craft. Often it would change their lives and they would enter the trades, or start building and renovating in their own homes with confidence. I’m still in touch with some of those students some thirty years later.
When I returned to Australia and later to the small sleepy country town of Mullumbimby, I put my own one-line ad in the local paper advertising woodworking classes, and to my surprise women came! And they have been steadily coming to my home workshop for the 23 years since then.
I recently was invited to the national celebration of 100 years of women in the trades, held in Wollongong by Fi Shewring, the President of the group ‘Supporting and Linking Tradeswomen’, or SALT, where 125 tradeswomen came together from different trade areas such as carpentry, rigging, mining, electricians, and more. It was educational, memorable and inspirational.
Listening to other tradeswomen at the conference share how it felt to meet other women in their own trades, some who didn’t know the other existed, was so powerful. Listening to their stories of isolation and difficult situations and stereotyping, reminded me how easily we get separated from each other in our present culture.
Sharing the passion
My beginner students inspire me at every workshop with their excitement and confidence after just a few days. At each intake, I tell them my wish, which is for them to return home with their new knowledge and skills and share them. Share with their partners, children, family, neighbours, with anyone, to help normalise the art of woodwork and make it available to all, no matter what age or gender.
Writing a book was never on my bucket list, but the idea of sharing what I knew about gathering skills in woodwork drove me to reveal the unexplained, the secrets and the nuances of woodworking which I’d uncovered and experienced over the years, and express that in plain English. I wrote the sort of book I wished was around when I was first interested in learning woodwork. I self-published ‘Woodwork for Women – Cutting a New Path for Beginners’, four years later in 2010 at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2010. Luckily, it has been received well across the industry.