Shop Conversations: Sarah Lu

Nathan Smith: I guess the main question I have for you is how do you find yourself here in woodworking? How do you find woodworking? How does it fit into your life?

Sarah Lu: I like making useful objects, and I like using objects that I’ve made myself. So for me it starts from a utilitarian place, though it’s more than just function, it’s pleasure, too. Wood is also beautiful to look at and feels good to touch. The grain patterns, colors, and textures that nature makes are interesting, and unique. Ever piece of wood is different, so there’s discovery built in to the process of working wood—there are surprises, it can be exciting.  And, I like the smell of sawdust, too. Well, I think that woodworking, because it is tactile, really adds something to my life that I wouldn’t get otherwise because I work a day job, like a desk job behind a computer kind of job. And I like physically making things, and I can get kind of, sort of like lost in the grain of the wood while I am working on it. Yesterday I sanded a tabletop I was working for two hours. Tracing the grain pattern and feeling the surface get more smooth and even after the passes with the sander was kind of flowy, kind of hypnotic. So, you know, I just kind of got lost. It’s work that doesn’t feel hard or annoying or anything like that because it is something I’m creating or making for people I like.

NS: Maybe this isn’t accurate, but maybe it seems like you actively found this as an adult rather than just as a continuum of you making things always. . . .

SL: Yeah, yeah! Like, I really never took any art classes . . . pretty much ever, except the normal required ones.

NS: Which is pretty small.

SL: Which is pretty small, and I’m a shitty drawer, so I always kind of thought that I didn’t have a lot to say visually, or I didn’t think of myself as somebody who wants to make stuff. I came at it through a practical way of rehabbing a house, and also at certain times in my life wanting to have furniture, and things like that, without a lot of resources.

NS: So was that in your own house, the initial—when you really started doing it?

SL: I think I started refinishing thrift store furniture when I was still in college, and in my first apartment off campus. It was a way to make my first independent space my own, to make it feel homey as opposed to an industrial feeling dorm. But yeah, when I rehabbed my house, I hired a carpenter who taught me how to do some of the stuff he was doing. . . .

NS: Ah, awesome! Handing out trade secrets. . . .

SL: When this carpenter met me for an estimate, I was pulling staples out of the stairs. (We ripped off this gross carpet to find great old pine stair treads, and I had hundreds of carpet staples to pull out.)  So when he started working on our house, and I was curious about aspects of the work, he taught me a lot of stuff about trim carpentry, so that I could work with him. One day, we were sitting on buckets taking a break from trimming out doors and windows on the second floor and eating pizza, and I was like: do you do this with all your clients? And he said, no, but because when I met you you were happily pulling out hundreds of staples from your stairs, it seemed like working on your house would be fun for you, so why not. He’s right, it was fun, and it’s deeply satisfying to be in a space that I helped shape and bring to form.

NS: Was it like, additive? Or rehabbing stuff that was already there?

SL: The house ended up being a total gut rehab. So we had to literally strip all the trim and moulding, in the process and had to do it over in a way that tied together. So, yeah—[the trim] actually looks a lot like that tapered rectangle shape [motions toward CIADC trim around the entry to the woodworking finishing room]. That’s a good way of doing . . . that headboard is a good way of covering up the gaps between a door and a wall in a way that looks nice, but it’s still really simple. And we did that in our house where there were additions from different time periods, and different things going on with weird-sized openings. So, something like that, you can customize to every door, but then it all ties in because it’s the same shape.

 CIADC door trim

CIADC door trim

NS: When you started getting into your house—but also just like, putting your hands on the grain I guess—did you start looking at things in the world differently? Or was it closer, in your immediate environment of interior space and projects?

SL: I guess if there is a theme that ties those two things together it’s working with things that have flaws, and either fixing those flaws so you wouldn’t even know, or working with those flaws, and presenting them, and they are [part of] the visual history of the object. If you walk into my house there are some things that you can see that are unintentional flaws that I don’t really want there to still be . . . I kind of want it to be better than that. I have some holes in the wall to patch, for example. Don’t look in my laundry room.

Fixing the trim was one of the last things we did after correcting the house’s other major problems: burst pipes, a busted furnace, outdated electrical system, water damaged and buckled drywall and floorboards.  The trim is simple, and it looks good. The design is a nod to the original trim profile we found still intact in some spots.  To me, the trim represents the rehab more than anything. When it was done, it made the house feel whole, after a really long time of dealing with component parts that needed work. It’s all new, it ties the whole space together, and visually, it takes things back to where the house began. Back when it was first built and cared for, back before people messed it up and the house was damaged, foreclosed on, and abandoned.  When you see the inside of my house now, you wouldn’t know what it’s been through unless I told you, you might just be like: pleasant trim.

On the other side of working with things that have flaws, the bench I’m working on right now in the wood shop is full of flaws that are right out in front. The material is a reclaimed 2 x 12 douglas fir board from the ReBuilding Exchange. It was probably a rafter, holding up a roof in its former life.  There are markers of it’s history like screw holes and nail holes, and the wood surrounding these holes is stained black. There are knots that pop out. It’s not the material a traditional, fine wood worker would use to make a bench, because pine is soft.

There are also flaws in the bench that are my mistakes, and I’m keeping them right out in the open. I wanted to challenge myself to learn joinery, and this bench has my first attempts at mortise and tenon joints. There are gaps between the bench top and the legs, which is a joinery flaw. But those inexact, rough looking mortise and tenon joints tell part of the story of the bench, and are part of my story as a woodworker/woodlearner.  I learned so much in the process that I’ll take with me on the next project, and when I see those joints I’ll think of those lessons. And also, the gaps don’t get in the way of the bench’s benchiness. It’s a useful object. It’s sturdy, it’s a good spot to park it while you untie your shoes after you get in the door. The bench will function perfectly well as a bench, flaws included.

 Sarah sharpening up!

Sarah sharpening up!

NS: Yeah, I like the . . . I don’t know. I’ve talked to you a couple times sort of like about the flaws or fault lines and using them as an enhancement—or enhancing them so that they become the identity of each thing.

SL: Totally.

NS: It seems to me, like the purpose of doing it yourself . . . if it were just flawless—you could do that, but why would you do that?

SL: Right, yeah. I think it is fun to explore this like, this-isn’t-perfect, or that there’s something that catches your eye about this that visually you’re like–That’s not right! But then you’re like–Oh, but I like it! Because I have a job were people make things that aren’t real, like content, you know. . .

NS: You work. . . .

SL: I work at a radio station, yeah. So, there’s a lot of planning that goes into something that may or may not be what you intended or be any good. [Laughs] And flaws on the radio are bad. We’re not supposed to have dead air, or you know, when there’s a mistake, then I have to go investigate what broke down and why. And there are certain things like, someone with a gravelly voice or an interesting voice—that plays well on the radio.

NS: You’re not auto-tuning them or anything. . . .

SL: Right, but those are things where it’s like, we don’t want everyone to sound the same, or we don’t ever want to sound like a stereotypical perfect voice, but there are mistakes that are not good. [Laughter] And then, that’s a bummer. So this is a kind of . . . working with reclaimed materials, or just in general learning woodworking is humbling because you’re going to mess some stuff up, and you’re going to make some mistakes, and so—then what do you do with that? For me, it’s never been like—Ah! Dealbreaker! It’s like—well, how do we work with that? Or what’s the next move?

NS: I have no idea how many things you’ve constructed in . . . how long have you been woodworking?

SL: Well, this is my . . . I started at CIADC in December, or maybe Thanksgiving. I don’t know—let’s say November. But before that, I’ve been building furniture and stuff for a couple years. Probably like, three or four years, but none of it super well, but it got the job done I guess.

NS: Okay, yeah. So I was just wondering, is there something, is there a project you’ve done, or a kind of project that is an ideal of yours, or have you done things that are way out of your comfort zone? Or where that might be, I guess?

SL: Since I started being involved here, this is the first time where I’ve been like, I want to devote time to developing skills, and also exploring ideas visually and physically. Before, the first piece of furniture I made out of nothing was a set of two benches when I was hosting Christmas dinner and didn’t have enough seating. Necessity as the mother of invention kind of thing. And they did the job and they were perfectly fine, but they weren’t—they were more utilitarian than they were anything else. And they were still pretty good looking, they were reclaimed two by twelves. Before coming here, it was like, I need a thing, how do I make that thing to do the job and not a lot of focusing on designing, you know, for a certain aesthetic or with a goal, or any aesthetic.

 Sarah with repurposed fence post

Sarah with repurposed fence post

NS: So, when you’re using reclaimed materials, like these candle holders you’re making right now, they’re from your fence post?

SL: Yeah, it’s right over there. [Pointing, laughing] It’s four by four cedar fence post.

NS: I think maybe I’ve asked you this on a different day, but how . . . reusing materials, do the meaning of the materials themselves inform what you do with them at all? Or is it a sort of a . . . ultimately you just reuse something because it is useful and on hand?

SL: Yeah, I guess I think there is a trifecta of good reasons for me to use reclaimed materials. One, they’re around, and it’s good to give things another life instead of throwing things out. And so there’s a sustainability and environmental ethos there. But on a purely utilitarian front, my rotted fence falls down, and it’s material for me to use. It’s easier for me to go in the backyard and rough cut the four by four that fell down than to go to the lumberyard. And the third thing is: reclaimed materials are beautiful to me. They can be interesting to look at, and the history of the material can add value to the thing you’re making, like a story.

NS: So there’s not really any strict sentimental value for you. It’s there, it’s just part of all of the things that are there.

SL: Right. I mean I think there’s some sentimental value to it too, because I do associate the old fence post with my house and my home, and the history of it. And so I’m making these little tea light things for a friend. They’re sort of a personal connection as well. And also it is just beautiful and interesting to look at—there’s little voids in the wood. I think one of these actually still has a bug, like a dead bug in it.

NS: Nice! I mean, maybe not everyone would like that, but I like that!

SL: Yeah, I might take it out before but, I think it was over here. . . . I mean I think, it looks like it was, like there’s . . . yeah, you see that white fuzzy white part? It makes me think that there’s a spider that laid eggs in there or something.

NS: Exciting.

SL: Yeah. Which I didn’t know until I cut into it. I couldn’t tell because these voids weren’t really visible. This one was, but most of the holes were not visible from the sides.

NS: So did your whole fence collapse?

SL: On one side, yeah. The wood rotted at the post and then it got really windy and it fell down in my back yard. It was an old fence, they don’t last forever.

NS: Are you going to make a new fence out of wood?

SL: Well, this goes back to the recycling stuff. I have this idea—we broke up a lot of concrete in our backyard so that we could let the rain go back into the soil.

NS: Sure, yeah.

SL: So we have all this busted up concrete, and I kind of want to make a gabion fence, which is wire mesh and you can make baskets or panels of it and fill it with loose material. So then I could recycle the concrete chunks.

NS: So it’s like, there’s wire in parallel?

SL: Yeah, there’s two wire mesh panels, and then based steel posts every six feet or so that the mesh panels are welded to or anchored to, and then you fill it with loose materials. And you can make like planters, or retaining walls out of it. . . .

NS: So it could include like, soil?

SL: Yeah, it could make planter box out of that and grow things in it.

NS: Do you know how to weld?

SL: No, but there’s a metal shop downstairs! Maybe that can be the next thing I’ll learn. Or, I could make a buddy. . . .

NS: You can probably do both those things, yeah?

SL: Yeah, probably both those things, yeah!

 Tea lights made by Sarah Lu – with occasional bugs (no flaws)

Tea lights made by Sarah Lu – with occasional bugs (no flaws)