Tag Archives: Women in woodworking

Simple American

Hiestand kitchen in progress

Nearly ready for paint. This cabinet is in the kitchen of a 1915 house. The casework is made from formaldehyde-free, American-made veneer-core plywood with solid maple doors, drawers, and finished panels. The counters on this and its partner across the room are reclaimed heart pine finished with Osmo Polyx oil. In the interest of having this cabinet in particular flow seamlessly into the original fabric of the kitchen, I replicated the top section of the window trim to use as a crown.

The other night I arrived home from my current kitchen job in Indianapolis to find a piece of mail from a friend. Inside was a clipping from the New York Times of November 7 titled “Craving a ‘Downton Abbey’ Scullery.” I gave the article, written by Penelope Green, a quick read; it deals with last year’s opening of a stateside showroom for British cabinetmaking company Plain English.

I’ve been aware of the company for a few years, thanks to Remodelista, which often features kitchens furnished with Plain English “cupboards,” as the company’s branding would have its wares be known. The work is beautiful, with spare, solid lines and admirable attention to detail. But I found the article disturbing. Throughout the night I awoke repeatedly, perplexed as to what was eating at me. I analyzed my feelings over the next two days while fitting doors, then priming for paint, at my current job site, then read the article again, this time with greater care.

Hiestand kitchen_painting (2)

Applying the first coat of color after dark last Friday. The doors and drawers have been removed to my workshop for painting under controlled conditions. The yellow as it appears here is not the actual color; it’s Benjamin Moore’s Rich Cream, which has a deeper, warmer, old-fashioned kitchen look. This image shows the crown, coped to fit the original window trim.

As a professional cabinetmaker who trained, then worked, in England, and as one who has specialized in period-style kitchens (and has a forthcoming book about kitchens for publisher Lost Art Press), I’ll admit that one of my first thoughts was I hope no one thinks I’m one of those cabinetmakers copying their kitchens–not because their kitchens are anything other than strikingly lovely, but because I hate it when people assume things about me and my work that are not true. More importantly, my interest in period kitchens and my work inspired by them predates not only my awareness of the company, but the company’s very existence. No potential client has “waved pages from World of Interiors magazine” at me; I owe my interest in Georgian and subsequent kitchen styles primarily to my first woodworking employer, Roy Griffiths, who hired me in 1980 to build cabinetry at his workshop in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, as well as to his accomplished painter and woodworker friend Dan Dunton. While I worked alongside Dan in the old stables at Roy’s Georgian house, the two of them introduced me to the wonders of old architecture and inspired a deep appreciation of all things chilly, damp, cracked, worn, and enduring.

I’m still parsing out the aspects of the article that disturb me. Let’s start with the characterization of “slot head screws and brass hinges, pulls and latches, and hand-painting the cabinetry instead of spraying it” as “dog whistles to those who care about such things.” Dog whistles? I’m gagging. I won’t claim to speak for the principals at Plain English, but attending to such details has nothing to do with marketing, at least for me. It’s simply an expression of discipline on the part of a craftsperson who has taken the time to research, then honor, her subject’s history.

And then there are the names the company has chosen for its colors. Green cites a few: “Mushy Peas, Dripping Tap, Boiled Dishcloth and Boiled Egg.” Like many of the company’s signature names, most are faintly disturbing*, as though intended to connote a down-to-earth, “below stairs” realness that may well elude some of those who spend upwards of $45,000 to furnish their kitchens with these undeniably lovely products. I wonder whether Soiled Nappy, Mouse Dropping, and Monthly Blood will ever find their way into these offerings. (Perhaps one of these is already there.)

Another question for me concerns the nature of the basic materials used for cabinet construction. Are the carcase interiors made of sheet goods, and if so, which type? What’s the source of the hardwoods used for face frames, doors, and other parts? I ask as someone who once worked for an English business that imported most of its timber and sheet goods. Kudos to Remodelista’s Julie Carlson for noting the potentially “problematic” dimensions of shipping entire kitchens’ worth of cabinets from the English countryside to distant corners of the United States at a time when there is newfound emphasis on the importance of food and other products with origins close to home.

And this matter of provenance, with the many values it represents, may underlie my biggest beef with the article, or at least with the business it describes. The company’s website credits the “life of genteel and bohemian aristocracy” that’s presumably integral to the history of its headquarters “deep in the Suffolk countryside” as an important source of inspiration for its work. Am I the only one rankled by the romanticizing of a life made possible by domestic service? Sure, many of those who worked as domestic servants were grateful for their positions and developed close relationships with those who employed them; a friend of mine whose grandmother was a parlor maid in Wales can attest to this. But still, I’ve read enough first-person accounts of this life’s realities to take a more critical view.**

In the States, we have our own history of handsomely designed historic cabinetry. You need only look to millwork catalogs from the early years of the 20th century to find handsome patterns for cabinets and other built-ins such as broom closets and telephone niches with genuinely American roots. At least these exemplars, which were manufactured for a burgeoning home-building market of middle-class families who did their own cooking and housework, have a more (if still imperfectly) democratic history than those that furnished the homes of aristocrats. –Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work


Another kitchen with genuinely local roots. Lauri Hafvenstein hired me to design and build cabinets for the kitchen and pantry of her 1917 home in Washington, D.C., to celebrate her home’s hundredth birthday. The cabinets are based on surviving neighborhood examples. The counters are made from reclaimed wood. (Photos by Lauri Hafvenstein, Old House Loves)


Lauri’s kitchen as she found it.

*Having savored my share of mushy peas over the years (along with tinned rice pudding and steamed Spotted Dick), I’m not calling the dish itself disturbing, but suggesting that many Americans may find the term, as a name for a color used by a maker of “bespoke cupboards,” charming in an ironic I’m one of the insiders who get this way that I, for one, find a bit galling.

**See, for example, Cott et al., Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women and Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Yes, these books both concern American service, and the realities of domestic service in 19th-century America differed in many respects from those of 18th- and 19th-century England.

Thank you for the opportunity

I’m thrilled to announce that I will be showing my work at the 32nd Arts and Crafts Conference at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn next February. I’ve long wished to exhibit my work at this splendid gathering, which I first attended about 16 years ago. It has been damn-near impossible to break in, partly because of a longtime policy whereby once an exhibitor has a booth, he or she may return annually. So I stopped trying and told myself to be grateful that I wasn’t making an 8-1/2-hour drive with a trailer full of heavy furniture and spending days standing around talking to strangers in a loud, stuffy room.

English A&C promotional pic

A string of events led to this chance. I recently put the publisher of my book English Arts & Crafts Furniture in touch with the operator of the conference bookstore. (Could there be a more ideal marketing venue for this book than this event at the Grove Park Inn?) Putting these people together involved contacting Bruce Johnson, the event’s director. When a furniture maker from California decided to retire from the show, he offered a booth to me.

Everything that happens is a product of numerous factors. In this case three editors who have worked with me to publish my Arts and Crafts furniture have my heartfelt thanks.*

    • Patricia Poore at Old-House Journal was the first to publish any of my writing. Over the years she has made space for my writing and furniture in Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival, Old-House Interiors, and related magazines.
    • Anissa Kapsales at Fine Woodworking has worked with me on several articles.
    • Megan Fitzpatrick, longtime editor at Popular Woodworking (who now runs her own business, Rude Mechanicals Press), invited me to write a project article on an Arts and Crafts bookcase inspired by the designs of English furniture manufacturer Harris Lebus. When her books editor, Scott Francis, pitched the idea of a book on English Arts and Crafts furniture, she referred him to me.

One of the best things about working with this trio of women, each of whom I admire deeply (for more reasons than would be appropriate to relate here), is that I now call each of them a friend.


Like writing a book, doing a furniture show is a major undertaking. Out-of-town shows involve long drives, heavy lifting, and talking to strangers for hours each day. Sometimes sales amount to far less than the cost to participate. (For Michael Fortune’s take on marketing through shows, read this.) My husband used to think I was mad to put in the work for no discernible monetary return. But now he gets it. You have to put in the work and the time to get opportunities to do the kind of work you love.

Too many people imagine that invitations to write books or build kitchens in cool old houses just fall in my lap (and the laps of others who do work that looks enviable). They don’t. These opportunities result from hard-core slog–and in turn they require more. Overall, as long as my back, eyes, and hands hold out, I say the slogging’s worthwhile.

*listed in chronological order

Patricia Poore and Mark and Nancy

After admiring Patricia Poore’s work for many years, Mark finally got to meet her during a trip to Massachusetts in 2017.

    • Anissa and Joey 2018

      Joey loves Anissa too.

      Megan and Chris

      Megan with Chris Schwarz at the end of a work party, August 2017. (Chris was lending his sturdy, if exhausted, shoulder to his equally exhausted colleague and friend.)


Saving the sausage

Last fall the motor in my table saw died—for the second time.

It wasn’t my fault. I’m not hard on machines. I’m well versed in proper rates of feed and pressure. I was inclined to regard the motor’s demise as the result of poor design or manufacturing, not misuse—especially since I’d had to replace various other parts of the saw (which I had purchased new) within its first five years. The saw had been a major upgrade from any table saw I’d previously owned, but it was clearly time to make a change.

A friend mentioned that he knew someone with a 5-horse Powermatic for sale. The saw’s owner had decided to buy a Saw Stop, after, as my friend put it, “the Powermatic took off two of his fingers.” I thought this was a curious way to state what had happened–casting the saw as rapacious aggressor, as though it had intended to cut off those fingers, when in reality the accident, like most, had been caused by operator negligence.

You don’t get a chance to buy a 5-horse Powermatic for a song every day, and I was sorely tempted. Of course, the saw would come with a legacy. It wouldn’t be the first machine in my shop with that kind of record. Years before, I had bought an ancient 12-inch Crescent jointer from a furniture maker who was getting out of the business, having lost about an inch off a finger to that jointer’s four sharp knives before she even knew what was happening. I’d bought the jointer while working alone, but in the years since then, I’d had employees and students use my shop, and I was keenly aware of the need for safety. Even if most accidents result from operator error, a tool designed with safety in mind is less likely to be the site of a serious accident.

Since the Powermatic’s seller was looking at a Saw Stop, I took my own look at the company’s website, and I called my local dealer to inquire about price. I was impressed by what I heard from the dealer’s rep., who also happened to be the guy who assembled and delivered the saws to buyers. Having repaired and restored used woodworking equipment—big old industrial planers, drill presses, and the like—the fellow impressed me as someone who knew his stuff. But the 3-horse Saw Stop I was considering would cost $1000 more than the 5-horse Powermatic. Could it be possibly be worth the extra money?

I told my partner, a general contractor, that I was considering a Saw Stop. He was mildly outraged. “You can’t afford it,” he said. “Why would you spend an extra thousand dollars when you can get a great table saw for $2000?” He and his employee made jokes about the “Hot Dog Saw,” alluding to the marketing video in which Oscar Meyer stands in for an errant finger.

I wasn’t so worried about my own fingers. In thirty years of professional woodworking I had never had a serious accident. My worst lacerations had come from drill bits and utility knife blades. (Have you ever drilled into your thigh? Forstner bits are not designed to produce clean cuts in flesh. And even more painful than the injury itself is being asked by a smart-alec doctor, “So, why’d you drill a hole in your leg?”) But I was occasionally kept up at night by imagined employee injuries and what they could cost my business, let alone that they could result in an employee’s permanent bodily impairment. Now I found myself wondering whether, by simply considering the Saw Stop, I would be tempting fate. I might have gone thirty years without serious mishap, but that didn’t mean I would always remain unscathed.

In the end, I bought the Saw Stop. Yes, it was expensive, but I was immediately impressed by several features of its design in terms of basic table saw function, without even considering safety.

Last Friday I realized what a good decision I had made. I was cutting a beveled molding. The blade was set at maximum height, about 3 inches above the table, and it still didn’t clear the surface of the wood. I knew of no other way to produce the cut I needed. I had performed the operation numerous times on previous occasions without mishap, so I wasn’t worried. (Given the nature of the cut, it was impossible to use the guard or riving knife.) I thought I was exercising due caution—guiding the stock steadily into the blade while keeping it firmly against the fence with my left hand—when I heard a BANG, felt a slight tingle in my left ring finger, and realized, in a moment of fascination, The Saw Stop works! I was thoroughly impressed. Instead of cutting about 3/16ths of an inch from the end of my finger, I had only lost a thin slice of skin, about 1/32 inch wide by 3/16ths long. Even though the blade had not cleared the surface of the wood for the previous ten or so feet of molding I had ripped, it had poked through in an area that must have been a little under-thickness.

The worst part of the whole experience was removing the blade and cartridge, which had to come out together. That took almost half an hour. Cost of a new blade? About $100, with shipping. Value of knowing the Saw Stop really works? Priceless.