Featured entrant, Maker of the Year 2021: Jonathan Smith, USA
Jonathan Smith is an epidemiologist from Cinnicinatti, USA who entered his Through Dining Table in the World category of this year’s Maker of the Year awards presented by Carbatec. He mentions that it’s the first item of furniture he has made and features a central interlocking joint – challenging, yes, but surely not compared to his day job?
When asked about his choice of design for a first piece, Jonathan said: ‘Yes, it’s certainly been quite an *interesting* year for my profession, to put it nicely – which is actually why I tried to build a table so I wouldn’t lose my mind. I do a lot of the epidemiological modeling, so I decided to apply math to something more tangible! We asked him a few more questions about how and why he found time to do woodworking.
Q: Jonathan, you said this is your first piece of furniture! You’ve certainly jumped in at the deep end with a three-way interlocking joint and a panel lay-up with angles! How long have you been doing woodworking and what inspired the design of your table?
I’ve always loved and had the deepest respect for woodworkers because it requires the person to be artistic and innovative in design, but also have the know-how, experience, and skill to physically produce the work – all things I don’t necessarily have, but admire those who do.
So, as a wide-eyed fan of the field, I began looking for someone to build a table for our new house. I came across a furniture maker in Australia, Lars Laug (Leaf Handcrafted Furniture). His videos were like watching a woodworking version of Bob Ross – so calm and relaxed, even when he made a mistake.
As a stressed-out infectious disease epidemiologist during the height of a global pandemic, Lars’ whole ‘there are no mistakes, only happy accidents’, vibe was very calming and cathartic to me. That led to me seeing that all the Australian furniture makers (at least the ones I found) seemed to have such a genuine and supportive network – it wasn’t ‘who is better than who’, but rather ‘everyone’s work is great, how can we support each other’. They were simultaneously unpretentious and impeccable in their craftmanship. So I was just a big fan of the whole woodworking scene there. But since shipping from Australia wasn’t realistic, eventually I thought I’d give building a table of my own a try – I figured the worst that could happen is I mess up, and that’s okay!
As far as the design itself, I absolutely bit off more than I could chew, and it took quite some time to figure out and pull off. But the point was to really challenge myself. My job deals with a lot of epidemic modeling, so I love math and was eager to apply it to something constructive and much less depressing than the epidemic.
The angled top was because my three-year-old daughter wanted a ‘pizza table’, for obvious three-year-old reasons, and the base was designed because I didn’t want the legs to be intrusive (so people could sit anywhere around the table). But it took many, many practice attempts to bridge the design with the actual production of the table!
Q: Where do you do your woodworking? What sort of equipment do you have? What are planning to make next?
I only have a small one-car garage, so I sort of make-do all around the house (the glue-up for the top of this table was in the dining room on our old table, and half the stuff is put together on my kitchen floor). I took the money I was going to spend on a table and invested in some tools – a bandsaw, jointer, planer, and router table, among others (all on wheels, of course!).
The encouragement I’ve received from the dining table has motivated me to build more things around our house, so I’ve done a few renovations (currently remodelling the bathroom and building a floating vanity). I think the next more artistic piece I plan on, is to make an interesting desk for my home office (it is currently a piece of plywood, so really anything is going to be better).
Q: Compared to being an epidemiologist in the midst of a pandemic, woodworking must be a piece of cake! What's the best thing about woodworking?
Ha, I wouldn’t call it a piece of cake, but it was definitely an excellent outlet for such a stressful year. The best thing about woodworking is that there is always something new to learn. I am a novice, and I know so little about the field. I was so excited to learn the tools and techniques while building the table. And the encouraging thing is that I see that very same excitement in many professional woodworkers – they are always pushing themselves to be more creative, challenging, and beautiful. It’s refreshing to know that this is a field where you can never get bored and can always learn.
Jonathan Smith, PhD, MPH, is an infectious disease epidemiologist at Yale University in the United States. His work largely focuses on understanding the transmission dynamics of COVID-19, tuberculosis, and HIV in vulnerable populations.
The Maker of the Year Awards, presented by Carbatec, encourage and promote talented and innovative woodworkers from Australia and New Zealand – and, for the first time, our new category 'World' introduces the competition to an international audience. This year, winners and runners-up will share in a prize pool of $20,000, including $8400 in cash prizes. The best entries will also be showcased in a special Maker of the Year issue of Australian Wood Review magazine, and online, in December 2021.
Enter by August 22 to save 25% on entry pricing, see www.woodreview.com.au/moty2021