Through the Oculus: Interview with a Traditional Sash Joiner

As historic buildings age, the need for skilled restorers and repairpeople increases. Oregon resident Amy Harrington McAuley has taken up such a task through her company, Oculus Fine Carpentry, in a mostly unplugged woodworking way.

 

From lighthouses to churches, the clients and projects vary greatly. She works mostly with hand tools, opting to grab the hand saw instead of powering the table saw.

One of the moulding planes, a fenced rebate plane

Amy, thank you for taking the time for this interview. You stay pretty busy with Oculus Fine Carpentry as a traditional sash joiner. What does that mean? What led to the company name?

I restore and build historic windows and doors, using historic methods and hand tools. I also do window surveys and assessments and teach workshops.

I restored an oculus window in an old church when I was first working in Portland and it made an impression. It’s hard enough to build windows square, but to build them in a circular way takes some serious skills!

What’s a typical day for you? What kind of work & clients do you do & get regularly?

A long day! I’m usually up by 5:30 and out in the shop. In between fielding calls and checking on material, I’ll put in 10-12 hour days planing, sawing, building windows, putting them together, and trying not to make mistakes.

My client base is usually governments, nonprofits and state parks. I worked on residential structures for many years, but now most of my work is mostly commercial/public works.

Anything you can tell us about a current or upcoming job?

I’m currently working on the North Head lighthouse restoration near Long View. WA. It’s my fifth lighthouse. And recently the architectural conservator at Mt. Vernon approached me in June to see if I’d like to build six doors for the mansion and the spinning house.

Of course I said yes to that, so that’s an exciting upcoming project.

North Head Lighthouse

What’s a favorite project you’ve completed?

Heceta Head Lighthouse, now that it’s done, is something I feel proud of because it was very hard and I wanted to give up on it many times, but now that it’s finished it seems like important work. It’s a well-known structure and it looks good.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

 

Lighthouses are challenging because we’re always there in the off-season.  The weather is horrid, it’s dirty, you’re very isolated. But they’re unusual and the best part of lighthouses is returning the view.  Often the window holes have been bricked in, and restoring the view is some of the greatest satisfaction I get from working on those structures.

What started you down the journey of woodworking? Who were some early influencers?

I’ve been doing woodworking since I was a child.  We had a wood shop on the farm where I grew up in Eastern Oregon. On rainy days we’d spend our time making all sorts of things like little boats for the creek.

When I moved to Portland I needed work and my friend was working for a general contractor, so I started working for him. He did remodeling, and working on old buildings was appealing. Some of the first work I did was on some windows in St. Johns and that exposed me to window work.

The restoration of Windsor Castle was happening around this time and I saw a program on PBS narrated by Prince Charles about the restoration, and they talked about the tradesmen that they used, who were traditional tradesmen who used only the methods that were used when the Castle was built.

I was intrigued by their use of traditional techniques, especially their use of hand tools. That opened my eyes to a facet of construction that I thought was dead, and inspired me to decide to continue work in the trades.

So the unplugged woodworking mindset, working mostly without power tools, was an early influence for you. How did you come to actually make this shift?

I was working on one of my first historic preservation projects in a small town outside of Portland.  I needed to have some windows built because they were missing from the structure.

I went to our local shop that makes windows and got a bid for them to do the work. I brought the bid to a meeting and the timber framer said, “You know, those windows really should be hand built.  Not only are you providing a product to keep in character with the house, you’re also keeping a dying craft alive.”

That last part of the sentence stuck inside my head and I started researching how you go about building windows by hand, what kind of tools you needed.  I started experimenting to see how to do it. Once I was able to build the sash planes that make the profiles, that’s when I sold the majority of my power equipment.

Sash moulding planes

A common conception is that you have to have a table saw, bandsaw, and/or router to make a living woodworking. What do you say to that? Why on earth would someone want to do it with unplugged woodworking?

You don’t have to join a gym because it’s sometimes exhausting work; you gain muscle quite quickly. The things you gain are peace and quiet.

You need tenacity and patience.  Maybe you have to be slightly crazy.  You need to work long, hard days.

The moulding plane can remove quite a lot of material

You get to know the wood better because you’re not just powering through the grain.  You have to understand what it’s doing, how to orient the board. You gain the knowledge that you’re keeping the craft going, that you are part of a legacy of craftsmanship.

“Respect, Restraint, Repair” is an important phrase to you. Why does it stand out?

It’s to remind me to always remember when doing restoration work that you are handling a piece of history, and you are adding your own history to that piece by touching it.  I want to make sure my legacy on that piece is one of respect.

Lovely little plow moulding plane

 

It’s important to me to keep the historic fabric of windows, in particular.  The quality of the wood is better than modern wood, the quality of the joinery tends to hold up better than modern techniques.  I don’t like the idea of everything being disposable; I don’t like to see things put in the trash when they are easy to fix and are better quality than what we have now.

Sometimes I think of myself as a white rhino; there are so few sash-joiners left. When I stop doing it, who will be left? I hope that young people will consider trades as an option.

At this point in my life I could go to any state and start working or start a business with the skills I have; you can’t say that about every occupation. It’s hard but rewarding work.

You’ve been called an artist. What do you think about that?

I do have a degree in fine arts, so it’s not too far off the point. Years in drawing and sculpture gave me confidence in working with my hands, in knowing that I could make something. A practice of observational and scientific drawing helped me analyze what I need to do to create something; I take it apart mentally.

Precision drawings of the work to come

Tell me about a important lesson or two you’ve learned in professional woodworking.

Don’t take on projects that are too big for you. You’ll get to know what your limit is by making mistakes, but when you know that threshold you try not to cross it. I’ve taken on some projects and realized I was in way over my head.

Infill shoulder plane

When your schedule goes completely off the rails or if you’re taking on too many projects at one time, you can’t focus on any one thing to get it done on time. Public works projects generally have a deadline by which the work must be done; if you don’t meet that deadline, you don’t get paid.

Like many trades, woodworking has a history of being a “man’s trade/hobby.” The “Pinterest Woman” is a strong stereotype. What’s your take on this? Any words of advice to men? To women? 

I was raised by strong women who knew how to get something done. My grandmother and great-grandmother were my greatest influences, and hearing their stories of struggle and perseverance helped me when I encountered difficulties along my path.

From a woman’s standpoint, the notion of women only dabbling in folksy hobbies is belittling and promotes this mentality that I sometimes come across on the job site; I can see in the eyes of tradesmen who think I can’t do it, that I’m not skilled enough or not strong enough. You develop a thick skin pretty quickly.

A window joint completed

My advice to men is to be open minded.  I have some great male friends in the field who are never condescending or belittling; they respect the work I do. They encourage me as a craftsperson; they ask questions and show interest, give advice, share their knowledge, compliment good work, connect me to other people.

I have to admit I have my own struggles with stereotyping.  When a woman shows up on the job site in a pink hard hat or with pink tools, I have been judgmental and not taken her seriously.

But if I followed my own advice, I’d let her work speak for her and not look at her on the surface.  Her appearance has nothing to do with her ability to do the work.

My ideal woodworking world is one where gender doesn’t matter to anybody, but where we all show respect for good work.

You’ve been in a movie, I hear! 

The Greenest Building came out in 2011. It’s about how maintaining our historic fabric is more environmentally responsible than building new construction, even to Green standards.

You might be able to find it on PBS. It was a small independent film from a local director who asked me to be a part of it. It definitely helped get my name out there to different parts of the country, and I was asked to some conferences I hadn’t been a part of before.

If you did it all over again, what would you do differently? Any advice?

I don’t think I’d do anything differently; every mistake was necessary.  I might get a shop that has heat. Keep your overhead low.

If people want to learn more about you, contact you, or see more of your work, where can they go?

The best spot for seeing my current work is my Facebook page.


Editor’s note: the URL for the documentary The Greenest Building is expired, so the movie is unable to be found online.

Author: Jordan

Jordan Quackenbush is a hobbyist tool restorer (focusing on moulding planes) and 100% unplugged woodworker. The tactility of woodworking contrasts perfectly with his mostly-digital day job, Creative Director for a Video Marketing Agency in Atlanta, GA, USA. He lives in metro Atlanta with his family. He is on the admin team at the Unplugged Woodworkers & Antique Tools Buy-Sell-Trade Facebook groups.

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