Carving a Niche: Meet Three Women Who've Mastered the Art of Woodworking
Step into their workshops, and see how these artisans are chipping and whittling away at a mostly male-dominated craft.
One of the oldest craft traditions in the world, woodwork—otherwise known as cabinet and furniture making, carving, joinery, carpentry, and woodturning—has been around for centuries. And despite some serious advancements in modern technology in the past millennium, many of the techniques used by woodworkers today are the same ones used hundreds of years ago.
What is changing in the world of woodwork, however, is the recognition of female artisans in the seemingly male-dominated industry. We spoke to three prominent women woodworkers across the globe about their inspirations, creative processes, and the obstacles they face in the field, and here's what they had to share.
A self-taught woodworker, Celina Muire, seen above, began learning the craft just four years ago while watching YouTube videos on how to carve wood. "I ended up learning a lot through trial and error and haven't stopped since," she says. Today, Muire creates an assortment of hand-carved items, most notably wooden spoons and combs, in her studio in Dublin, Ireland. "I love carving practical objects because you can take a raw piece of material (like a piece of wood that fell from a neighbor's cherry tree), and carve it into something useful with nothing but a few hand tools in a couple of hours," she says. "I think this transformation is the biggest reward the craft can offer."
The author of The Wood Carver's Dozen, Muire travels around the globe teaching a variety of intimate workshops. And while she says she's definitely raised a few eyebrows as a force to be reckoned with in a predominately-male field, she couldn't, quite frankly, care less. "Wood doesn't care if you're male or female," she says. "It can be a pretty challenging material to work with—one that requires patience and grit—so if you have that, and a good hand chisel, then nothing should stop you."
What originally began as a side gig at a community workshop quickly turned into a full-time love affair for woodworker Melanie Abrantes. In 2013, she left her day job as a graphic designer to launch her namesake company, where she spends her days woodturning bowls, cake stands, planters, and other hand-lathed home goods, as well as whittling spoons. "The best thing about working with wood is that although it can't change, with the right tools, you can mold and transform this hard material into something entirely different."
Along with hand-turning-and-carving wooden household items, Abrantes, the author of Carve: A Household Guide to Whittling also teaches her centuries-old woodworking techniques at workshops inside her Oakland studio. "It's nice to be able to encourage people to take a break from their computers and make a piece of practical art with their own hands."
Ever since Eileen Baumgartner carved her first wooden spoon three years ago, she's been working with the material nonstop. "I don't buy any lumber," she says. "I pick up trees I see on the side of the road or talk to arborists and lawn service companies to try to salvage whatever they've removed. Our driveway looks like a lumberyard."
In 2016, Baumgartner launched Nell Goods, named after her great-grandmother, for which she delicately handcrafts bowls, vases, and other wooden utensils from inside a 240-year-old barn-turned-workshop at her home in North Chatham, New York. "I want to make things that are useful, and I want them to last," she says. "I still use some of my great grandmother's old serving wear because the shapes are timeless and they still hold up. I try to make things with that purpose in mind."