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‘We build each other up’: Carpentry classes for and by women

A student’s tool belt at the Hammerstone carpentry school for women in Trumansburg, N.Y. (Heather Ainsworth for The Washington Post)

I grip a piece of pale lumber, lay it atop a pair of sawhorses and nod at Siu-Sing Shantur, 66, a retired commercial banker. She aligns the blade to the penciled line and powers up her circular saw. The spinning blade roars. Sawdust flies and the discarded piece falls to the barn floor. We high-five, then she hands the saw to me.

A crew of women around us are hammering, drilling and raising the frame of a tiny house at Hammerstone, which is housed in an old red dairy barn nestled among rolling hills and apple orchards near Ithaca, N.Y. Hammerstone is one of a handful of small carpentry schools around the country where women teach other women skills that many of us missed out on, somehow.

Shantur has taken multiple classes here, building sawhorses, a bookcase and a picnic table, and framing a sauna. But she tells me she’d probably never take a class with men, “because my brain is hard-wired to feel less in a male-dominated field.” Here, among women, the vibe is different. “We build each other up,” Shantur said.

Interest and enrollment in basic carpentry classes for women have increased in recent years, spurred on by the #MeToo movement and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic, according to the leaders of Hammerstone, Wild Abundance in western North Carolina, and Yestermorrow in Waitsfield, Vt.

“I saw a big desire in women to claim what had been largely taken away from them,” said Natalie Bogwalker, 43, the founder of Wild Abundance. Bogwalker teaches tiny-house building and carpentry and said that about 2,000 students, ranging in age from 14 to 77, have taken classes at Wild Abundance in the past decade.

What questions do you have about taking care of your home?

Hammerstone owner Maria Klemperer-Johnson, 47, who has worked as a carpenter for over 20 years, believes the pandemic also played a role in the uptick, as people sought greater control over their lives, work and living spaces. The three schools arose independently of one another; Hammerstone and Wild Abundance launched about a decade ago. Yestermorrow, which was started in 1980, offered its first women’s carpentry course in 1999 and has since expanded its offerings and recently opened a second location, in Bluff, Utah.

The women who teach at these schools have learned to navigate the male-dominated world of carpentry, where just 3 percent of carpenters are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many have stories of sexual harassment they endured on the job.

“I know in my journey here, it was not easy,” said Lizabeth Moniz, 62, who teaches at Yestermorrow. “One of the ways that I have decided that I’m going to try to balance that is to teach women skills that I take very seriously.”

In class at Hammerstone, we talk about the reasons women are interested in these courses, whether it’s because they were corralled into cooking class instead of shop in school; because our fathers or brothers didn’t think to teach us these skills; or simply because persistent cultural tropes tell girls from a young age that carpentry is for boys.

“I’ve heard some misperceptions about how women don’t like to get dirty. Well, that’s entirely imposed upon us from the outside,” said Klemperer-Johnson. “The problem is that all of us have internalized these stereotypes — women just as much as men — and we all have to work to undo it.”

Breaking barriers

A key obstacle to claiming power in construction trades like carpentry is knowing the language. Words like gussets, joists, speed square and worm drive saw can feel unfamiliar.

“We give them a big glossary with the highlighted words,” said Patti Garbeck, 66, a carpenter who teaches with Moniz at Yestermorrow. “The first day we start building, you have got to know what a joist is, a stud, decking, all those words.”

Courses at the schools last a few days or a week. They aren’t designed for vocational training so much as to provide the kind of mentorship and learning opportunities in carpentry that boys and young men often get from their fathers and uncles.

“They just want a new skill. They want to feel comfortable with tools. They want to do some things around the house,” Garbeck said. “Maybe they’re building a house and they can’t learn from their partner. I’ve heard that a lot.”

The other women in my class at Hammerstone talk about this, too — having fathers or spouses who wouldn’t teach them or who would just do it for them, or feeling frustrated when men overexplain small details.

“It just feels a lot safer to learn from a woman,” said Alexandra Haynes, 30, a web developer who took the tiny-house course with me at Hammerstone and who hopes to build her own cottage in the woods someday. “I feel like I don’t have to worry about looking silly or asking silly questions or messing up.”

In my case, I never had someone to teach me beyond the one industrial arts class I took in junior high. My grandfather, Mel, was a skilled electrician and carpenter, but he died before I was born, and my dad was jeweler, not a tradesman.

Unraveling the mystery

At Hammerstone, students are encouraged to start with two days of basic skills. My class was led by Em Moss, 35, who began unraveling the mystery of the craft by telling us to examine the tools that lined our belts.

“Pull out your speed square. What do you notice about it?” Moss said. We raised our hands and shared observations about the triangular piece of metal with notches, degrees, a pivot point and a wider side made to hang securely over an edge.

Each time someone offered a detail, Moss nodded and offered praise and an explanation of the feature’s purpose.

It occurred to me that this was the opposite of “mansplaining.” Rather than listening to a (likely male) expert lecture us about how to use a tool — or how not to use it — we were being encouraged to figure things out ourselves. Another teacher at Hammerstone, Christina Alario, 36, said this is deliberate.

“We teach a very logical way of approaching these tools and a safe way of approaching these tools, but it’s really about letting students know that they have the ability to try and mess up and then fix their mistakes,” said Alario. “For me, it’s really about teaching the confidence that then lets them open up to learning the tools.”

At Hammerstone, the tiny-house building course includes learning some trigonometry: how to calculate the slope of a roof and how long the materials must be, based on that angle. The math and the spatial learning are a struggle for me at times.

We learn how to read plans, how to measure and how to find the true line for cutting. We learn the word for the space that the saw eats up in the wood — kerf — and how to operate circular saws, routers, drills and drivers.

For every skill we learn, we are also silently unlearning whatever it was that held us back.

Freedom to fail

Over a week, we build the frame for a tiny house that stands on a trailer. The client is a woman who plans to live in it and who has paid for the material costs, while we students pay Hammerstone for the instruction, then provide the labor while we learn.

As we nail together the pieces we’ve measured, Alario and Klemperer-Johnson coach us to hold our hammers loosely, rather than gripping the handle tightly. They tell us to swing them through the air in a natural arc, letting the weight of the hammer find the head of the nail.

I try, but I keep missing the nail, making crescent-shaped divots in the frame. I get tense, and my jaw clenches as I make pathetic flink sounds instead of the solid whunk that results when your hammer really connects. Alario slides in front of me.

“I don’t care if you hit it 3 percent of the time,” she said. “Just work on that arc.”

Given clear permission to fail, I stop trying to hit the nail on the head. I focus on my swing. Soon, the hammer finds the nail with much more power than before, and the nail disappears into the pine.

By the end of the week, I’m balancing atop a ladder, drilling screws into the sheathing around the tiny-house frame. Fears I had at the beginning — of heights, or of getting splinters — have dissipated. I feel strong, if exhausted, and more capable. As if most anything is possible.

Since my visit ended, my classmates have stayed in touch via text, sharing pictures of the tiny house’s progress over the summer as they installed windows and worked on the drywall, shingles and roof. I beam with pride, seeing women continue to work on what feels like our house.

“All of us came in with the fear of, ‘I don’t want to make mistakes.’ I’ve lost that fear,” said Ranna Bigdely, 36, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter.

“Hopefully her young eyes watching me will create a good framework, a good foundation for her to learn,” she said.

Kerry Sheridan is a freelance writer in Florida.