Everyone is gathered in the kitchen with coffee and donuts in celebration of Nick’s birthday. He’s just returning from a long project in New York and everyone is happy to have him back. The kitchen sits in the center of the shop, partitioned from the rest of the space with walls of windows. Outside the kitchen in the quiet shop, sitting steadfast among the smell of sawdust and machine oil, is an assemblage of equipment, an old Powermatic planer, a joiner, and a massive table saw among others.
With donuts and caffeine consumed, the woodworkers leave the break room to coax the sleeping machines to life, and to start on the projects of the day. Some days there are only a few workers here, but today, the shop is busy, and the quiet quickly yields to the sound of work. Ear and eye-protection is donned, machines groan and awaken, and folk music fills the empty moments between drill and saw.
Michele starts to cut dovetails on a shoe shine box. Thomas is turning razor handles on the lathe. Josh is finishing up some commissioned workbenches. Matty and his friend are working on some bottle openers. Krys is finishing coasters. Lee is working on some commissioned cabinetry, and Nick is starting a ukulele. Today everyone is working on their own endeavors, but as Michele explains, Offerman Woodshop shines as a team: “All of us can come together and weave in and out of each other’s lives and run a business together as well as share a workspace that needs to be a working functional environment, and we do that exceptionally well.”
“Like any bad news bears story, we’re a ragtag bunch of weirdos that didn’t land any place else.”
Michele continues: “My favorite part about being involved with OWS is who we are together and how we make it work. We all are very inspired by one another, and when work comes in we hire one another or share the wealth, we all take care of the shop really well, so it’s great. It’s like the best working environment I’ve ever been in.” It’s a phenomenon of sorts. A group that operates like a family is rare, and that value isn’t lost on anyone here.
Nick explains how they keep it this way: “When we’re adding people to our group, the prerequisites are basically that they must have a pleasant demeanor, willing to work hard, and to be part of the group, to pitch in. Everyone has a chore to clean up the shop once a week, and it does operate very much like a family, which is sort of the reason this group was formed. I’ve always found a sense of prosperity and a delicious life from being part of a hard working community.”
Like Nick, the rest of the workers here find that the work they do is a chance to regain something that has been lost. The opportunity to create something of worth should be seized. It’s a value instilled in Nick by his father, and one that now guides OWS. Nick shares that he “was lucky enough to grow up with the constant knowledge that getting ones hands dirty is actually incredibly beautiful.” Lee sought this when she came to OWS: “I was ready to build something that was real, that you could lean on, and inherit.”
“I was lucky enough to grow up with the constant knowledge that getting ones hands dirty is actually incredibly beautiful.”
With all the workers bustling about and machines whirring to life, it’s hard to picture the shop quiet and dark as it was just a moment ago. The shop wasn’t always this busy. When it started it was just Nick, but when his acting career starting taking up more of his time he was faced with a decision:
“I got this shop in about 2000 and I was mostly operating by myself for seven or eight years. And then I got the job on Parks and Recreation, and I knew the lay of the land enough that if the show was going to be successful that I would have a lot less time to be in here making sawdust. And I was faced with the decision to lock it up and shut the lights off. That was sort of my first thought, I was like Oh I guess I’m going to have to shut down the shop for a while. And the shop sort of quietly said ‘Hang on.. please don’t do that, I’m amazing. Please let me live.'”
– Nick Offerman
After working at the Exploratorium in San Francisco building kinetic installations and sculptures, Lee came to LA for art school and discovered it wasn’t for her. She was “jonesing to get back in a woodshop,” and after helping another woodworker in town, her reputation for being a hard worker quickly spread to Nick: “I got together with her and had a meeting and I think I basically said ‘How can I seduce you into staying here forever please. And she was incredibly fortuitous. she’s quite heroic, and she has all the qualities I would want in a shop manager and friend.’ Lee quickly went to work on large tree slabs and helped Nick build Lucky boy, the canoe that now hangs in the center of the shop. Lee’s friend Michele, who also worked at the Exploratorium joined OWS soon after: “I was kind of floating around looking for a place to land. Lee hired me for a job she was working on and I was so enticed to stay involved with the shop I never left.”
Eventually the group filled out with Josh, Matty, Thomas, Krys, and some other talented workers that have come and gone. The lights at OWS stayed on, and it became something even greater than it was before. OWS became a place for those that wish to live deliberately. Not through an escape to the forest, but an escape into hard work. Something to be cherished in an era of desk, mouse, and screen.
As everyone works and Jeff Tweedy’s voice filters around the squeals of the table saw and into the side room where we are sitting, Nick explains the pride everyone here takes in their work: “These woodworkers, (he gestures out into the shop) these noble stalwarts here in my shop are all choosing to live with a pretty low income to find their recompense in other ways; through doing beautiful work and creating products they can take a lot of pride in.”
Not everyone has the desire to get back to these sensibilities. In fact, most don’t. Many of us have decided there are greater things to spend our time on then working with our hands. In thinking that the only benefit of hard work is the end result, we deprive ourselves of not only the beauty of a hard days work, but the joy that comes with it.
Nick elaborates: “People generally have the idea that if it involves a shovel, well that’s work, and I know better than to go out and do work, that’s something you hire people to do. If it gets my hands dirty, well that’s beneath me. That’s gross. I should sit inside and play video games and let someone else dig my fence or dig my well or plant my garden.”
People find respite in many ways. John Muir found home in the mountains. Wendell Berry rested with the wood drakes. Thoreau went to the woods near Walden pond. We live in a time where working can be a way to re-connect with ourselves, and like Thoreau said, to live deliberately, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to it’s lowest terms. Escaping to the mountains and creating something with our hands are alike in that they are relics – skills lost to antiquity concerning many of us that toil in front of a screen, yet skills waiting all the same to give fulfillment and meaning to those of us intrepid enough to pursue them.
“I was ready to build something that was real, that you could lean on, and inherit.”
We might not have mountains in our back yard, or a forest to escape to, but we can take reprieve through the things we create. We can reconnect to what it means to make something of worth, to embody our humanity in something that lasts – and as Lee eloquently put it – in something we can lean on, and inherit. Thoreau once said “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” At the end of the day, a handmade chair, bookcase, desk, or shoeshine box is greater than the sum of its parts. They are days, weeks, or months of life lived into something, and in that way, they are invaluable.
It’s a noble goal to make sawdust, to callous our hands, to take our rest in the fulfillment of days well spent. Because how poignant it would be to come to our end, only to discover we never lived.