Why woodworker (and actor) Nick Offerman wants you to unleash your inner crafter
Nick Offerman is a romantic. He has been known to cry while making Windsor chairs and describes working with his hands “as a substantial way to say ‘I love you.’ ”
Offerman is also an accomplished woodworker who has the rare distinction — for an actor — of having been featured in Popular Mechanics, This Old House and Martha Stewart (he showed her how to make a canoe paddle).
The actor has had a busy year, which is something of an understatement. When not working with live edge slabs and building ukeleles in his Offerman Woodshop, the actor starred in “Hearts Beat Loud,” “Bad Times at the El Royale,” co-wrote the book “The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History” with his wife, Megan Mullally, and co-hosted and produced the popular crafting competition show “Making It,” which was such a hit with viewers that NBC is bringing it back for a second season.
His appreciation for handmade goods is sincere and is something that was not lost on the reality show’s contestants. “Nick was incredibly invested in the makers’ process,” says Los Angeles participant Robert Mahar. “There was a level of enthusiasm and curiosity that’s indicative of shared interest — the interest of a fellow maker. If he’d been able to hang out with us for the entire length of each challenge he absolutely would have.”
In an era defined by “buy it now,” Offerman is trying to highlight the value in slowing things down. “If you find the right handcraft it becomes a form of leisure,” Offerman says. “It’s the same thing as watching sports. But at the end of the day you have a table, a lasagna or a stained glass window.”
“Making It” is returning for a second season in the spring. Why do you think it resonated so strongly with viewers?
When you put all that time and effort into the produce of your hands, it means you are giving someone hours of care. I feel like that was at the core of “Making It.” We weren’t so much trying to create a saleable commodity but instead using that opportunity to focus on the message that it’s really fun and healthy and positive to make things. I think people are really thirsty for a simple, positive message. Instead of shaking your fist at lying politicians, you can go make some outdoor seating.
What does working with your hands mean to you?
When we make things with our hands, it uses a part of our brain and our human coordination that would otherwise lie fallow. If we just succumb sheeplike to the luxuries of a consumerist society, there is a whole magic kit that lies there gathering dust. It’s possibly the most valuable characteristic of Homo sapiens — the ability to problem-solve. Making things allows you to solve puzzles and adapt as necessary.
And your woodshop?
I tell people that making things with my hands keeps me out of the pub. I mean that both literally and figuratively. In a wider sense, I feel like making things with your hands hones your problem-solving skills in a way that improves the rest of your life. Working in my shop makes me better at finance, better in traffic and in my relationships.
Do you have any woodworking heroes? George Nakashima?
Nakashima is less John Lennon and more Brahms. I do have a couple of woodworking heroes: The chairmaker Peter Galbert and furnituremaker Nancy Hiller. They are both Obi-Wan Kenobi level masters who continue to innovate and explore and heighten their own mastery. Christopher Schwartz and Megan Fitzpatrick are two old-school woodworkers who are keeping the ancient traditions alive while adapting to modern times. I’ll throw Roy Underhill in to the mix too. These are all characters who are staunchly keeping the old handskills alive. They are all relevant and entertaining.
Instead of shaking your fist at lying politicians, you can go make some outdoor seating.
In a recent interview on “Fresh Air,” you described the desperation actors feel. Is it any different for makers?
I would never encourage anyone to make a living in show business or as a maker. People often tell me, “I want to quit my job and become a woodworker.” I tell people to become a woodworker first. Even with my “Parks and Recreation” fan base, it’s all I can do to give my five or six employees at the woodshop a living. It’s hard to break even as a studio artist. I’m more about encouraging people to make their craft a part of their life and then perhaps their candle making will go so well it will take over their life.
A lot of makers credit Instagram as a successful marketing tool.
Absolutely. Etsy has been a huge influence too. I’m on my way to London right now and I have three knit beanies in my bag that I ordered from Etsy. They are amazing.
What is the Offerman Woodshop like before the holidays?
I’m thrilled with the way my shop is running. We employ two men, three women and one gender noncomforming woman. I’d love people to check out our website for the holidays. We try to make it all Offerman-flavored. If people have a look, they can have a giggle. Also, one thing I’d like to point out — and “Making It” does a good job of this — our products are not gender specific. The stereotype that if something requires a hammer and saw it means Dad made it are such silly and dumb arbitrary rules. To no effort of my own, I’ve always had more women in the shop than men. Some of the best sewers and knitters and cooks I know are straight men. Look at Billy Kheel. He’s an amazing athletic guy from Boston who sews things from felt. I love the fluidity of the world, and I love to see it blend in to the staunch traditions of craft.
Speaking of gifts, can you talk about your partnership with Would-Works?
Would-Works is an amazing woodworking program started by Connor Johnson where homeless and skid row folk can sign up for work, create items for sale and sign up for credits. If someone needs a pair of glasses or clothes or first month’s rent, they will receive recompense based on their credits as well as a work reference. That’s where the name comes from. When you don’t have an address people are shy about hiring you. We’re thrilled that we can be a part of it. It’s such a good-hearted program. I would love to see it in every city.
Why are crafts having a resurgence now?
I feel like it’s a reaction to the darkness, superficiality and cynicism that is present today. I can address it better in terms of TV comedy: “Parks and Recreation” resonates so strongly because it is optimistic and hopeful and it’s decent. It focuses on the shared good in all of us instead of the embarrassing flaws.
What advice would you give DIY folks who are inspired to try and make something?
I encourage people to find somebody who knows what they are doing. An aunt, a grandma, a neighbor, anyone. You’ll be amazed by what you learn. Peter Galbert’s class on Windsor chairs is the only class I’ve ever taken. Every day, I’d start to cry because I never had a teacher. To feel the effect of his teaching was so profound for me.
Do you have a shop playlist?
We sure do. On any given day we will have four to six people in the woodshop. Every person takes a turn. Krys likes gospel and rhythm blues — very Luther Vandross. If I show up, it’s Jeff Tweedy to Iron & Wine to Randy Newman to Nancy and Beth. Kool and the Gang is one of my shop favorites because it makes you move. When Matty takes his turn it’s John Prine. Jane, who runs our office, is prone to Harry Nilsson and Talking Heads. We can’t listen to podcasts because we’re doing math and focusing on tool safety.
Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?
I’m just grateful that you’re doing this. I’m thrilled to be a part of any effort to shine a light on local handmade goods. I think if every household made something, we’d be a lot better off.