Featured entrant, Maker of the Year 2021: Blake Weber, USA
This year's Maker of the Year Awards, presented by Carbatec, have brought together a body of work created by designers and makers from Europe, Asia, Canada and the USA, as well as from Australia and New Zealand. The common thread is woodworking and the diversity of skills applied. Here we meet Blake Weber, a firefighter and passionate woodworker who lives in Santa Cruz, California.
A quick tour of your social media and workshop images says that you are an incredibly organised individual, expert on many levels other than woodworking. You work out of a single space garage – is this your day job as well? How did you get started with woodworking?
I’ve always considered woodworking to be a hobby and passion. Although I sell pieces occasionally, money is never the primary motivation. I make a living as a professional firefighter, but I supplement that with income from my YouTube channel. By making videos I get to share my work with the world and follow my curiosity wherever it takes me.
I have fond memories of building boats with my grandpa when I was a kid. But in 2006 I set up my first proper woodshop in an old horse stable (no joke) on my family’s property. I worked at an awesome used tool store at the time. Today my shop is filled with old tools that I brought home and restored from that store. I pulled every woodworking book off the library shelf and subscribed to every magazine on the subject. I started by building small projects like boxes, and eventually attempted larger and more complex pieces of furniture.
As a professional firefighter you must be must be used to dealing with the unexpected, and situations where things can get out of control. Is there any connection there between that and what woodworking means to you?
I love my job as a firefighter but in my mind, woodworking is the opposite in every way. Firefighting is chaotic, fast-paced and unpredictable. When I’m building furniture I’m in complete control, and can obsess over the smallest details. Woodworking often requires repetitive tasks like sawing, planing or sanding that are actually quite meditative to me. My time in the shop has become my therapy from the stress of my career.
Your web bio tells us that you are ‘process driven’. What do you mean by that, and what are your favourite things to make?
My favourite projects always have a technical challenge of some kind. I like to build things that are difficult, and that force me to solve problems. This usually means a lot of organic curves and odd angles. I also love nature and the great outdoors, so I pull a lot of inspiration from the natural world into my work.
How do you find time to make things, create videos, have a family life?
I don’t find the time for woodworking...I make the time! Although I have to admit my unusual shift schedule at the fire department is a huge advantage. It means that I have time to build things when my kids are in school. I also spend a lot of very late nights in the shop after they go to sleep. I use the loud machinery during the day, and save the glue-ups and hand tool work for night-time. Last but not least, I’m lucky to have a wife who is also an artist and understands how important it is to set aside time for creativity, so we try to balance it for both of us.
How do you keep your workshop so clean?!
I've spent a lot of time setting up my shop in a way that makes it easy to clean. The smooth floor tiles make it easy to see dust and vacuum with a brush attachment. If I have tools that keep getting in the way, I create a permanent home for them so they’re easy to put back. I try not to keep anything around that I don’t actually use on a regular basis. I have such a limited space that I have to be very careful how I use it. It gets cluttered quickly but it’s also quick to tidy up. Making videos also forces me to stay on top of the mess.
What’s the best way to get some skills happening?
Like a lot of people I’m a self-taught woodworker, and finding a book or article where I could learn something always felt like a treasure. I remember how excited I was when I first learned how to make a simple mitred box. And after that, a box with curves. And after that…dovetails! I became enthralled with adding new techniques to my work. And each time I did, I would design a project to show it off. To this day I’m still driven by a fascination with the process itself, and I love the challenge I get from trying something new in each piece.
What’s your best advice for anyone wanting to start woodworking, given that it can cost quite a bit to tool up?
My best advice for anyone getting started in woodworking is to design and build each project just slightly beyond your current skill level. Build something that you know you can be proud of and will increase your confidence, but also push you in some small way. You don’t have to throw every trick in the book at your next project. Just try one new trick. And keep an eye out for good used tools, most of the time they just need a sharp blade and a little tune-up.