Rockaway, N.J.

Consider these sample scenes from different eras:

The prehistoric age: The guy dressed in wolfskin clothing fashions a wagon wheel using stone tools.  The woman sporting similar attire sweeps the cave floor with a broom made from porcupine bristles and wonders which of the animals that they hunted down that day she should throw into the fire.

Fifty years ago: The man measures out some wood for a bench and then proceeds to cut it with his large power saw.  The woman dressed in a prim dress with a collar and a white apron covering the lower half, pats her neatly coifed hair while she deliberates over the merits of pot roast over chicken stroganoff as a main dish for the night’s meal.

Today:  The woman dons her safety eyeglasses and feeds the wood for a bathroom vanity into a compact table saw.  Sawdust fills the air as the machine devours it loudly.  The man who is watching a football game over a bag of chips comes out occasionally to investigate the cause of “the racket”.

Certainly, times have changed in the world of carpentry.  It’s no longer always the male of the species who shops in lumberyards or pores over plans for building a cabinet. 

Now largely due to the advent of easy-to-use power tools, more and more women have gained the confidence to tackle challenging woodworking projects.

A beginning woodworking course taught in the Morris Hills High School by instructor Harry Vitale provides an indication of how significant a trend this is.  Seven out of nine students in the class are women and their projects range from the deceptively simple picture frame to the obviously complicated storage trunk.  Other projects fall somewhere in between: a two-tone serving tray, a wooden gameboard with wooden playing pieces, a fireplace mantle.

On eight Monday evenings in a series ending on November 15, group members lug their pieces of lumber into the school’s workshop.  Then, under Vitale’s guidance, they miter, router, plane, sand, and nail while their projects take shape.  When they stop to discuss the “beauty of the grain”, it is obvious they are not referring to the winning appearance of wild rice or couscous.

Vitale, an instructor at Dover Middle School for the past twenty years, conducts carpentry workshops there as part of the Industrial Arts & Technology curriculum.  Though he enjoys the interaction with his 13 and 14-year old students, teaching this course for the Morris Hills School of Adult Education has represented a welcome change of scene for him, he said.

He said that it was nice to see the increased interest among women in woodworking, a trend that he attributed to societal changes.  “Women are becoming more independent.  There are single moms who have to fend for themselves.  They have to be knowledgeable about how things work”, Vitale said.

He added that in the early 70’s when he was in middle school, “the boys took shop courses while the girls took sewing”.  Now in his “shop” classes, he is impressed with the attention to detail and the precision with which the girls tackle their projects.  “The boys seem to be in a hurry to finish it [while] the girls are more careful about how it looks and how it turns out”, he said.

Linda Weshefsky of Rockaway who was working on gluing three large pieces of poplar together for a fireplace mantle said she took the class because she wanted the “professional expertise” and guidance that she felt was missing in her past ventures.  “Yes, I can read the book and follow the procedures”, Weshefsky said but she wanted an expert to assure her that her approach was sound.  She described woodworking as a hobby that she gravitated to naturally because she grew up in the Caribbean where her family owned a lumberyard.

Still, it was more recently, in the 90’s, that she started acquiring some of the power tools in her collection.  Then, while watching one of the many home improvement shows on TV that she religiously followed, she heard the show’s host, Lynette Jennings, endorse a set of new lightweight power tools introduced by Black & Decker.  “I went and bought my cordless circular saw then”, she said, and eventually acquired some of the other cordless tools in the line.

While Weshefsky was looking to enhance her skills, still others were hoping to acquire some.  Dawn Rosen said that she wanted to become familiar with some of the tools out there and their usage.  She and her husband had just purchased a house in Morris Plains, she said, and she was intrigued by the idea of “taking a course that would be practical and that [would teach me something] that I can use at home”. 

Rosen believes that the desire to take on difficult home improvement projects was a key motivator for a lot of others in the class.  “On the first day, everybody said they wanted to do mitering”, she laughed.  It was obvious that the thought uppermost in people’s minds was, she said, that most desirable of room enhancements: crown moulding.

To a large degree, women are drawn to woodworking because of the creative element inherent in fashioning items out of raw pieces of wood.  Rosen also said that she was amazed at how many steps were involved in even a relatively simple project.  “I now appreciate different pieces of furniture more”, she said.

Both Rosen and Weshefsky listed patience and persistence as key traits for someone who’s taking up woodworking as a hobby.  Citing the common adage in the field, “measure twice, cut once”, Weshefsky said, “I would make that measure four times”.  The room for error in most projects is so little, she said, that a person who doesn’t follow this golden rule would likely end up being frustrated. 

Still such meticulousness does not always guarantee success.  One misguided cut on a miscalibrated machine can seal the fate of the project and the wood has to be tossed in the scrap pile.  “There’s a lot of trial and error”, Weshefsky said describing the numerous birdhouses she built in her early woodworking days.  Each one, she said was a little different from its predecessor as she learnt things that she fixed along the way.

Home improvement stores are now tuned in to the female invasion of a field once considered a male domain.  Lowe’s, in particular, does a good job of catering to its female clientele with Home Depot playing a close second.

There is no dearth of resources for the woodworking novice.  Rosen said that before she took the course, she went through numerous how-to books at Barnes & Noble to get ideas for projects.  Weshefsky said that Home and Garden Television (HGTV) with its many do-it-yourself shows are also great sources of inspiration.  And as can be expected, a google search on the internet yields a slew of websites with helpful information on the subject.

This Monday evening as Weshefsky dragged her fused pieces of wood out of the room, Rosen finished sanding parts of her tray, and other class members packed up their projects until the following week, the sense of accomplishment in the room was very real.

Of course, the table saw defied easy adjustment; the miter saw was unforgiving if the angle settings were not exactly right; and the jigsaw could not easily be tamed.  But, despite all this, these women had still made some progress.