Profiles: Gary Rogowski - Full Interview

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Gary Rogowski

Furniture maker, 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; 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—whose hard work and curiosity, coupled with an occasional walk in the mountains, lets him cut through the bull and busyness that defines our day and age. Equal to his penned output is his furniture, which is much like the man: Straightforward and spare, with an angular functionality and a deep-rooted sense of purpose and beauty. In masterful work you see, the work of a master.

—Andy Rae

WM: How did you learn the craft?


GR: In the 70's there was no one around to help knuckleheads like me, although I did have the good fortune to know and spend time with Art Carpenter in the early days. You could call me completely self-taught—with the assistance of two well-known woodworking authors, Charles H. Hayward and Ernest Joyce. In the beginning, design and construction was all trial and a lot of error. 



WM: Describe your preferred workbench.


GR: My ideal workbench is getting taller every year 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 tablesaw 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— an inspiring approach for a budding woodworker. Second, time spent at the bench creates challenges. There's a lot on our minds. Hiking gives us a chance to look at these issues sideways instead of straight on, letting thoughts sift their way through to some kind of 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. “Oh, this didn't work. I can do better.” Learn how 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.


WM: It’s been almost 20 years (whew!) since you, Lonnie Bird and I wrote the first three of what are now 10 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 personal computers has created some disturbing trends. High schools, trade schools and colleges are embracing CNC machines and other computer-driven tools—hand tools be damned. The web is chock-full of centuries-old woodworking information, and that’s great, but it’s a jumble of unedited material. I see a lot of photos of cool designs that are un-buildable.


Making things means putting your hands on tools. You control them, they respond to your input, and you’re responsible for the outcome. We learn most at the bench, and 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. No better place to be.


WM: Your work—from writing and teaching to designing and making furniture—oozes quality. Why is quality so important?


GR: My dad didn't teach me much, but I did learn that if I was going to waste my time doing something, I should do it right. Our time is valuable. Why waste it on doing lousy work? Ultimately, quality for me is about balancing my desire for perfection with a healthy dose of letting go. When these two forces work together, I get to a place that feels like real Quality. That’s what makes a design endure over time. 


WM: In reading any one of the 23 chapters in Handmade, I constantly have the urge to put the book down and get to the shop. What’s going on here?


GR: I hope it’s because a reader feels like they’re missing out on something, and that they sense how much I love doing this work at the bench. It’s a gift, and I’m lucky to have made a living doing it.



WM: Thoughts on beauty?


GR: I study the world of design, which is everywhere! There’s so much to see in this world, and as a designer it is my job to be stealing, reverently, from all these sources.



WM: How do you parse your time between building furniture and teaching students?


GR: My time now is split between running the Studio, teaching my Mastery students, and the occasional commission. On my bench I have three or four carving projects that I noodle around with for an hour or two when I get a moment. 


WM: What’s your favorite piece of Rogowski furniture?


GR: A small box that I sculpted out of mahogany for Wheaton's mom, years ago. Very curvy. I love that piece. I also still love building my stool design.



WM: What are your favorite woods, and why?


GR: Here’s a few standouts: White oak because it's so nasty tough; cherry for its color; ash for its lithesome grain when quartersawn; walnut for its variability because I can do so much with it; and the King of all woods, mahogany, because it carves and shapes beautifully, is a joy to work, and doesn’t portray a lot of showy grain, just majesty. 



WM: What are your favorite hand tools?


GR: My 6-in. Starrett rule, 1/2" chisel, Lie-Nielsen low-angle block plane, and an old Stanley #151 flat-bottomed spokeshave. There are many more…



WM: Hand tools versus power tools: Is there an important distinction between the two?


GR: I’m not a hand tool purist, so I keep both hand and power tools in my kit. I routinely use the tablesaw, bandsaw and router so I can work accurately and quickly and get to the fun, hand-powered stuff, such as inlays and hinge work, or carving handles and refining the touch points on a chair.



WM: You’re a well-known bandsaw advocate, eschewing the tablesaw if you were forced to choose. (I happen to agree.) What’s so special about the bandsaw?


GR: The bandsaw is an important tool for furniture makers because we work in solid wood, and we work in curves. If you build cabinets, you need a tablesaw to handle sheets of plywood and make straight cuts. But furniture making requires ripping lumber and watching it move, making curved cuts, and roughing out joints (among many other tasks). Due to the downward force of the blade, cuts are inherently safer, so you can relax and think better while cutting, which makes for better cuts. By comparison, the tablesaw is an unruly beast. 


WM: Do you have helpers in the shop?


GR: I don’t currently have any helpers working with me building my stuff. But I do have lots of folks helping me during busy class times. 


WM: Describe what it means to be a master of furniture making.


GR: Being called a master of furniture making bestows a mix of confidence and humility in me. It’s humbling because there's much still to learn, and it's empowering because I have a wide vocabulary of tricks, tools and ideas to work with. That's fun. 


WM: After a lifetime of working with wood professionally, designing and building furniture, let’s say there’s another commission sitting in front of you, waiting for your input. Are you still excited?


GR: Oh sure, I'm excited—if it's a fun commission. But even doing a production run can be fun because there's lots of stuff to design and prototype before doing all the work. It's still a bunch of fun as long as my rent check isn't riding on it. That changes it a lot. To ease the financial burden, you can spend one week out of the year making cutting boards, or boxes, or stools, or anything that pays the bills, which leaves time for the fun creative work. It's tough to make it just building furniture alone unless you're a) famous: Sam Maloof or b) have a crew: Thomas Moser. Going it alone is nuts in today's small and competitive market. You need a brand, or you need help building.


WM: Pick three favorite woodworking books.


GR: Tools of the Trade: The Art and Craft of Carpentry by Jeff Taylor is hilarious and true and reverent and well written. It's about carpentry, but offers some great insights into the spirit of the trade. Adventures in Wood Finishing by George Frank is part great storytelling and part bull—and entirely fun to read. In Welsh Stick Chairs, John Brown notes, “add lightness and simplify”’—the best line in the book. 


WM: Any plans for more books?


GR: I have an idea about a design book, one that doesn't have many rules (most design books have lots of rules) and a book that talks about accessing the right (creative) side of your brain. Design is something everyone can do if they practice it, like sharpening. 


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