March 15, 2010

Woodworking with a creative touch

— Q: How long have you been in this business?

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Woodworker Carolyn McDonough poses in front of some hardwood in her Biddeford shops, The Wood Connection.

A: I've been doing this for 19 years. But it's really only taken off in the past few years. I was raised north from here, in Andover, near Bethel, and just moved to (the) Portland (area) about eight or nine years ago ... It was about then that things started taking off.

Q: And before that?

A: I was a single mom. I raised Keagan (now 27) and Kasey (now 25). I divorced their dad when they were like 3 and 5.

Later, I was 30 at the time, I dated a guy who was a luthier, and he showed me how to do a few things. I made like a little chest and a beveled mirror. Otherwise, I'm self-taught. I started reading woodworking magazines and catalogues and saying, 'oh, if I had this or that tool, I'd be able to make this ...'

I was raising Keagan and Kasey and on my own; we were really poor. Yes, I was working, part time and sometimes full time in a pizza convenience store in Mexico. I worked there, oh, for a couple of years. Then I then started doing craft shows, probably, oh my gosh, it must be like 18 years ago.

Q: Where had you gone to school?

A: Telstar Regional High. I didn't go to college. I got married when I was 20 and became a mom at an early age. Basically I was a mom and Keagan and Kasey were my life -- still are, I suppose, but they're out on their own now. Kasey's in Montana; Keagan's actually working with me. He's been doing woodworking for about six years now and it's really exciting having him involved in this. He's becoming quite skilled, I must say. I think he will surpass me, and I look forward to seeing it.

Q: Did the craft shows go well?

A: It was hit or miss, doing shows. Sometimes you don't sell anything and sometimes you do. It was pretty difficult financially.

But I realized that I couldn't make a living (in that part of Maine) at my passion, which is woodworking. People are very self-sufficient there; they have to be, and I appreciate that. So after Keagan graduated from high school we moved to Gorham, and I started getting really nice work.

Q: So it's high-end furniture that you make?

A: It is ... at one point a few years ago Keagan and I went to Pennsylvania and worked in a house and it was like, building furniture on the walls.

You don't run into jobs like that very often. I could use my creativity and design pieces, and I felt very fortunate When we got back to Maine I had a hard time doing 'plain jane' stuff, but I have also been able to do more really nice work. Last winter Keagan and I worked in a loft apartment in Portland, on Center Street.

One of the goals I had, I'd always dreamed of someone just saying, 'see this wall? I need to put such and such here,' and let me design and build. I reached that goal and have been doing it for a time now -- sometimes it's my own design, sometimes not. What I'm doing now, and have wanted to do for five years, is to start making wall beds for people. They're space-saving and give you a lot of versatility, because you can use it as a table for writing, or eating ... So I'm excited about that.

Q: How did you get the Pennsylvania job?

A: I had built a deck for the guy a few years before that, because I'd done some work for a friend, a lawyer in Cape Elizabeth who was friends with him. (The lawyer) had started recommending me to people he knew, a couple of other people in his firm, and the work really took off from there.

It's been only by word of mouth so far, because I'm not very business-minded. I'm in the shop seven days a week. When I go to bed at night I very much look forward to going to work the next day.

Q: Are female woodworkers rare?

A: I'm told it's unusual. It used to be really unusual, but not as much, I think, today. There are a few other women out there ... Maine, I think, has quite a few.

Q: Ever had any accidents?

A: I've been very fortunate. I nicked my finger years ago, on a router, not any big deal -- I still have the whole finger. I'm pretty conscientious about the tools. One of the reasons is, I couldn't imagine not being able to do this.

Q: What's your favorite tool?

A: It depends on the wood, I guess. One of my favorite tools is a Lie-Nielsen rabbet plane, like a block plane. And then, I've got a new Panasonic screw gun. I really love that. It I'd rather shop at Western Tool Supply than at a clothing store.

Wood? I can't really say that I have a favorite hardwood. If I'm shopping for a particular piece for somebody I go to the wood place myself, (Premium Specialty Hardwoods in Rumford) rather than have it delivered, and pull the skid and they let me pick through the pallet. It's more about the figure of the wood ... My style is more Shaker, letting the wood 'speak.' It could be just a grain pattern that I'm loving, you know? Like a flame-red birch so gorgeous, it makes your eyes wrinkle.

Q: What would you be doing in another life?

A: This, absolutely ... It's funny, when I was little and rode in the car with my parents, I used to imagine that I had a long saw that stuck out the side of the car, and I used to 'cut' trees and hills down. If people were there, I'd go over them. Who would have thought that I should start using a saw?

But I'm not trying to get rich at this. If I could I'd do what I do for free, I totally would. But I have to pay bills and stuff. One thing I do think would be really fun would be to be involved in building a cathedral or something it takes a long, long time to build, but that would probably be in a different country.

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