Profiles: Gary Rogowski

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This article is from Issue 82 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Gary Rogowski

From mountains to bench, tales of a master’s journey.

Furnituremaker, teacher, author, playwright, photographer, mountain man… just exactly who is Gary Rogowski? To find out, I spoke with the man whose furniture lives in homes nationwide; who operates and teaches at Northwest Woodworking Studio in Portland, OR; who mentors high school students through his nonprofit organization Woodworking Ideas Northwest (WIN); who starred in four DVDs and authored three books, including his latest, Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction; and who likes to traverse the Cascade mountains as a counterpoint to working in his shop.

Perhaps it’s best to describe Rogowski as a modern Renaissance man—Leonardo da Vinci with a pen and a bandsaw, if you will. His hard work, curiosity, and the occasional walk in the mountains let him cut through the bull and busyness that define our day and age. Equal to his penned output is his furniture, which, much like the man, is straightforward and spare, with an angular functionality and a deep-rooted sense of purpose and beauty. It stands to remind you that, in masterful work, you see the master.

—Andy Rae

Gary Rogowski

Rogowski’s oak table is a study in simplicity and elegance.

WM: How did you learn the craft?

GR: In the 1970’s there was no one around to help knuckleheads like me, although early on I did have the good fortune to know and spend time with Art Carpenter, one of the godfathers of West Coast woodworking. You could call me completely self-taught—with the published assistance of two well-known woodworking authors: Charles H. Hayward and Ernest Joyce. In the beginning, design and construction were all trial and a lot of error. 

WM: Describe your preferred workbench.

GR: My ideal workbench is getting taller every year, as I get shorter. I don’t like to hunch over while carving, so I have a small carving bench that I clamp to my main bench. I never have to bend my back.

WM: What does Northwest Woodworking Studio offer that other woodworking schools don’t?

GR:  It’s a hands-on education covering design and technique. There’s no design bias or influence, so students can discover where their interests and strengths lie. Technique is also open to a wide interpretation, from hand-cutting joints and woodcarving skills to router joinery and table saw tricks.

WM: Your latest book, Handmade, talks a lot about woodworking and hiking. What’s the connection?

GR: It’s twofold. First, I found encouragement in my friend and hiking companion, Wheaton, who, despite his own tragedies, would take on any challenge. That attitude was inspiring for me, a budding woodworker. Secondly, time spent at the bench presents us with a lot of mental challenges. Hiking gives our thoughts a chance to sidle up to these issues, sifting their way to an answer. For me, there’s no better way to work things out than a walk in the woods.

WM: “I failed my way to success” is a quote from Thomas Edison in Handmade. Failure is a common theme in the book. Why?

GR: Mistakes are a constant at the bench. While we can minimize our blunders by front-loading the design process with models and prototypes, cutting sample joints, or building full-on constructions with screws, failure remains an important teacher. When you realize that errors ultimately guide you toward doing better work, you learn to handle failure in a positive manner.

WM: Living or dead, list the top five designers who’ve influenced your designs.

GR: Gustav Ecke, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Greene brothers (can we count them as one?), Jim Krenov, and Wharton Esherick.

Gary Rogowski

A signature piece. This walnut stool with through wedged-tenons is one of Rogowski’s most popular pieces.

WM: It’s been almost 20 years (whew!) since you, Lonnie Bird and I wrote the first three books in Taunton’s Complete Illustrated Guide series, including your bestseller, Joinery. Has the craft changed much in the last two decades?

GR: The rise of the Internet and smartphones has created some disturbing trends. Although the web is chock-full of great centuries-old woodworking information, it’s a jumble of unedited material. I see a lot of photos of cool designs that are unbuildable. And as for high schools, trade schools, and colleges they’re embracing CNC machines and other computer-driven tools—hand tools be damned. 

Making things means putting your hands on tools. You control them, they respond to your input, and you’re responsible for the outcome. At the bench, we connect with our authentic self. That much hasn’t changed.

WM: Any advice for the novice woodworker just starting out?

GR: Keep high standards, and forgive yourself when you don’t reach them. Learn from your mistakes. Back up a little, let go of perfection, and congratulate yourself that you’re working at the bench. There’s no better place to be. 


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