All woodworking is a matter of scale. Some woodworkers build in huge dimensions – entire libraries of bookshelves, complete room paneling systems and kitchens full of cabinets. Others work on the small side – boxes, clocks and other small items such as toys.
While working large has its challenges, the small scale stuff can be even more intimidating. After all, it’s highly unlikely that someone will pick up a bookshelf and turn it in their hands, examining every small detail. In this small scale realm, one woodworker has made a name and reputation for himself.
Doug Stowe, a woodworker from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is widely known for his books and magazine articles on building awe-inspiring boxes from what many cabinetmakers would call scrap.
Doug has his father to thank for his woodworking roots. “My earliest remembrance of my father is being instructed by him how to hold a hammer and how to avoid hitting my thumbs.” While young Doug was honing his skills, his father recognized the potential he saw, and presented Doug with a Shopsmith for his 14th birthday. “The Shopsmith and I are both 1948 vintage,” said Doug, “and still going strong.”
The second part of his career – the writing of woodworking books and magazine articles – took a little more time to perfect. “I had studied creative writing in college and got some encouragement to go on with it. But I knew very little of enough interest for me to write about. Then I read James Krenov’s Cabinet Maker’s Notebook and realized that there was a lot more to say about woodworking than how to cut wood. So, I knew early what I wanted to write about, but also knew the depth of experience necessary to have anything meaningful to say. My first writing for magazines came at the invitation of Woodworker’s Journal in 1994, and my first book about boxes came in 1997.”
Doug has built a number of outstanding larger pieces, but his work with the smaller boxes is his calling card. His boxes are seen universally as creative, innovative and drop-dead gorgeous. While these masterpieces may seem beyond the abilities of an average home woodworker, they can serve as an excellent starting point for acquiring new skills and breaking out from beyond the norm. “Making boxes takes so little material, and so little space compared with larger work. You can learn so much from them. Nearly every technique associated with larger work can be learned through making boxes. You can more easily take risks in design making a box, so you get to be more experimental. When you make a box, you don’t have to think of the whole room setting the piece will compliment or dominate.”
While his boxes are striking and dramatic, his preference for materials actually brings his interest closer to home. “I have a very strong preference for using Arkansas hardwoods. I seldom find Arkansas woods with very dramatic figure like you may find in exotic woods, but that is not a problem. Nearly every piece of wood is suitable for box making. If you have plain wood, you have to apply more craftsmanship to come up with something striking. And what’s wrong with that?”
Given the small scale of these boxes and the outstanding results Doug demonstrates in his writing, woodworkers might stumble a while before they truly master the projects. “We all make mistakes, and we get better at things through practice. If your toddler takes his or her first three steps and then falls, you celebrate the steps, not the fall. Your toddler gets right back up and goes again. When we make a box, we know the first won’t be the best, but each will bring new skill. Don’t worry about your finished product. Learn something from each one and celebrate the steps.”
Besides the immense satisfaction Doug takes from building these boxes and teaching the craft to thousands through his writing, he also sees the big picture what people will take from these pieces years down the road. “We each can leave an important legacy in the things we make that tell more clearly than our words about caring for each other and for the planet. In the meantime, we become more potent, more creative, and more alive when we are engaged in making things from wood.”
To read more about Doug’s thoughts on woodworking, visit his Wisdom of the Hands blog.