Gary Rogowski’s 2017 book, Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction (Linden Publishing), is part proverb, part memoir, and part instruction manual. It’s the sort of book that I geek out over. He writes in the pre-amble, “This is the story of a life given to a craft.” And what you might expect as a treatise on woodworking also becomes a discourse on the quality of life.

The book is written like a tightly woven fabric; each thread bearing the weight of the others. The back and forth interplay of stories from the shop and of exploits in climbing and hiking come together to form a collective wisdom—nature and experience teaching the same lessons. Rogowski shares memories of success and failure in both craft and life– the kind of admission and transparency that helps to confirm that you are, indeed, normal.

A good example is the recounting of the pride he felt having hoisted sheets of plywood onto the top of his station wagon only to see them delivered to the middle of the interstate. The story itself is entertaining and instructive, but it also serves to remind the reader that some things in life are unforeseen.

In the chapter titled Beginner’s Mind, Gary recounts the trials of setting out to become a woodworker. From the struggles with learning to use the tools to an attempt to look competent at the lumber yard it is a grand reminder that we all have to start at the same place, the beginning. Shortly after reading the book I made a trip to the lumber yard. There was a guy there who reminded me of this chapter. He darted from one thing to another filling his arms with small pieces of exotic turning blanks. At one point he went to the lady working at the counter to ask what the species of a piece was. “Padauk,” she said with a dryness that bordered on the line between disinterest and disgust. “That’s right. I’m used to it being a deeper red,” he says. Then he proceeds to tell the disinterested cashier all about the wood he has on is desk, and how many exotics are in his collection listing about a dozen or so species. He wasn’t trying to impress her, he was trying to demonstrate that he knew what he was talking about. I don’t know why lumber yards elicit this sort of behavior, but I do know that Rogowski’s book influenced my reaction to the situation; I was less irritated and more understanding.

I find it interesting that the personalities of woodworkers tend to be similar. Even similar hobbies outside of woodworking are common. But Rogowski nails the psychological essence of a woodworker. I’m sure this is a result of his years of experience teaching the craft to others, but it’s as if he had taken a trip through my mind. If you think I’m crazy, go read chapter 13 and let me know if you think he is describing you.

Should you buy the book? If you are sick and tired of hearing people talk about why they do what they do and tend to think that everything is over-analyzed, then you should probably steer clear of this one. On the other hand, if you enjoy learning from the experiences of others, like getting a good dose of inspiration and wisdom, and find the tone of reflective writing pleasing, this book is worth every penny.

Here is a link for your convenience.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Hawkinson says:

    You peak my curiosity with the challenging description.
    I have enjoyed Gary’s contributions to Fine Woodworking for years.
    Are you familiar with Peter Korn’s book?
    Just thinking on those lines.


    1. Eric Key says:

      Korn’s book was excellent too! I should actually reread it. Gary’s book is a little less reflective on the craft and more narrative driven.


  2. Paul Hawkinson says:

    Ah, I was going to offer you Korn’s book if you you didn’t have it.


    1. Eric Key says:

      That is very kind of you!


  3. Village Woodwright says:

    Ironically, I just started reading this book this week. Found it in jsnuary at the William and Mary college bookstore while at the Working Wood symposium in Williamsburg. I consumed Peter Korn’s book last summer. Also recommended.


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