The seven students in Jess Hirsch’s power tools 101 class circle up around a few work tables and a large, round miter saw. They begin by introducing themselves and their preferred pronouns.
The class, open to women and non-binary students, is one of nine different ones Hirsch offers at her new Women’s Woodshop in south Minneapolis’ Standish neighborhood. Hirsch begins that she prefers she/her pronouns, and laments that the guy at the lumberyard earlier in the day called her “sir.”
“They’re trying to get better,” she says.
She explains to the class that the shop and her teaching are the culmination of 12 years of work and study in sculpture, Scandinavian craft, and carving out space for people too-often marginalized and overlooked in the very male-dominated woodworking world.
The shop opened in February of this year, but Hirsch says the idea for Women’s Woodshop had been brewing for a while. In 2014, she and a friend spent a month at the Black Dog Hill Shelter for women and children in rural Minnesota working on a project, called Peace Haven, constructing a 12-sided dodecahedron to be used as a greenhouse and meditation space.
One of the girls living at the shelter came out to work with her everyday, and started to show more confidence and ownership in her work and herself.
Hirsch and her friend started to talk about making a more permanent place for this kind of education.
“We were sort of talking about how to hold a space for women to learn wood working skills. But it wasn't really until the political climate of this past year that I was like, 'Even though it's not figured out, I just need to do this.' I just decided now's the time if ever to start this thing and hold space; physical space that is for positivity and empowerment and inclusivity.”
Hirsch put up the website for Women’s Woodshop on inauguration day, found the location — magically in an area becoming known as the Witches District for the concentration of radical, women- and non-binary-owned businesses — and offered her first class a month later.
In power tools 101, instruction is structured around the end goal of making a cutting board. The students learn how to use a wood planer, a band saw, the miter saw, a table saw and a power sander. Hirsch answers all questions deeply and with patience, down to opening up the band saw to show what the inside looks like.
Jenna Rice Rahaim, a visiting professor at Macalester College, is taking her third class from the Woodshop.
“I think there’s just a sense of community and solidarity,” she says of the organization. “There's something about it that's really joyous and also freeing. Partially because you know you're not going to be unnecessarily corrected by anyone.”
Two of the students in class are good friends, one living in Minneapolis, one living in Northfield, who try to take on DIY projects and classes together. Claudine Barbetti, from Northfield, is the daughter of a former woodshop teacher and has a husband who does independent carpentry projects.
“He said, ‘Well, I can teach you that stuff.’ And I said, ‘Thank you, I appreciate that. But it’s really not the point. It’s about working with other women.’ But I’m sure I’ll go home and he and I will make stuff together and if I need help I can ask him.”
Hirsch stresses that Women’s Woodshop is not exclusionary towards men. She’ll teach men in private classes, rent them the shop for personal projects and she even offers some co-ed classes.
“On my website, I have a very long letter to men letting them know this is not about saying you're bad, that you're doing anything wrong. It's about increasing the number of women in this woodworking field because it's too small,” she says.
Hirsch stresses men in any woodshop should, “trust that the women know what they're doing. If you don't trust that they know what they're doing, men will watch you work or they'll try and correct you, and both feel awful.”
And for women who are getting into woodworking for the first time, she offers: “Remember that when you don't know how to do something it’s because you're a beginner, not because you're a woman. Keep at it.”
Sign up for classes at www.womenswoodshop.com.
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