Woodworking in America: Erin Bell

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We are interviewing producers from all 50 states. Today we introduce you to Erin Bell, a carpenter and small business owner in Vermont.

How did you start working with wood? Who were your mentors?
About 5 years ago I quit my job and started working on some residential construction projects with my father. On a whim, I decided to sign up for a crash course in furniture at Yestermorrow Design / Build School in Warren, VT. I immediately felt like I was finally doing what I had to do. In fact, I told my dad it was like I took a deep breath for the first time in my life. For 6 months I absorbed everything I could about woodworking and furniture making, 7 days a week, 8 hours a day. After finishing the intensive I knew I wanted to continue, so I started my business as a side business, growing more and more with each job. I originally had a business partner, a friend from the past, but it fell apart a couple of years later (another lesson learned). I continued to run the business on my own, while retaining a full-time job as a craft liquor distiller. During the pandemic, I decided to leave the distillery and devote myself full time to woodworking.

I grew up helping my father. He was not a carpenter but he was an engineer and very practical. He has been my mentor in business and life since I was a little girl. Beyond that, I was truly inspired by the guidance and joy of my Yestermorrow professor, Justin Kramer. He was an absolute inspiration as an educator and supported me in pursuing woodworking as a career path.

What do you think is your best or favorite job? What kind of work do you do the most?
I’ve done a lot of different things over the past 5 years. As this has always been a personalized business, my clients’ interests tend to be everywhere. But some of my favorite jobs have been the bars I’ve done. So far I have made 4, and not small residential bars, but full-sized commercial spaces, and each one is sensationally unique. From live walnut; to a river of 36 ‘pour; to a 16 ‘x 10’ beast among all the salvaged barn beams, I found real joy in finding creative solutions for local businesses. As someone who has spent many years “behind the pine” and earning a living as a bartender, I feel confident and comfortable creating these spaces that are both beautiful and useful to establishments. And it’s great to be able to come in as a patron and sit down to something I’ve done while I eat my dinner or have a drink!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start woodworking or pursue it as a profession?
Be prepared to work, but also learn which clients are worth taking and which ones you should turn away, both for your own sake and theirs. Look forward to the challenges that come with new customers, but don’t let them destroy your joy at what you do. This applies to many working lines, not just woodworking. I found that a great deal of stress, in the beginning, was managing customer expectations. I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by being a yes man and trying to be too nice. Be clear from the start with what you can and cannot do, or where you draw the line of what you want to do, not just with them but with yourself. If you lay too thin or take a bite too large, be prepared to eat your humble pie at the end as well. Frankly, I’m glad I had those difficult accomplishments myself, but man, they were really difficult. Plus, everything always takes more time than you (or your client) might think.

What’s your best practical advice or woodworking technique?
Jiiiiiiiiiigs. I’m starting to use masks for everything. At first I thought it was a waste of time, but damn! Once I started spending time slowing down and figuring out a few things ahead of time, whether it’s a story stick or a detailed scale drawing or a mask I’d only use once, my life became less. frustrating. he is less likely to cut the wrong side or put a mortise on the wrong face if you tag things and make your layout fool proof! Patience is not at the top of my list of virtues, but lately I practice it A LOT.

And I meditate. Don’t laugh: I use the Headspace app or go to Spotify and listen to some really smart people talking. Especially when I ran into a hitch in the shop. I stop and breathe for a moment and remind myself that I love what I do. It’s not practical advice, but I would definitely call it a career technique!

Is there anyone you would like to shout out or advise us to follow? Who inspires you? (It doesn’t even have to be related to woodworking.)
There are so many people I follow that I find inspiring. I find the images and work of @siosidesign and @ woodbee.woodworks the substance of woodworking dreams. I love the attitudes (and works) of people like @oakhillmillworks, @crowcreekdesigns, @ sarah.sawdust and @lohrwoodworking. My carpentry teacher @jkramer_studio is such a badass.

But I would also like to shout at my girlfriend (she would kill me if I raised her IG handle) – she was a source of support, inspiration and enthusiastically encouraged me with every step. Every day he tells me “do beautiful things” and I hope that everyone can feel this too.

See more of Erin’s work on her website or on Instagram @curiositywoodworks.

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