Carpenter Nicole Abercrombie’s secret to being a great carpenter? Think like an Egyptian. “The biggest tool you have is your body and your brain,” she tells a group of girls as she hoists a bundle of 2x4 lumber over her shoulder. “Just find the center and tip it on you, and you can carry it with basically no hands.”
Abercrombie has been a builder for 18 years. “I love it,” she says. “When you’re done you can look back at the end of the day and say, ‘That’s what I did today.’”
Abercrombie has reason to preach her love of carpentry to other women. As of 2011, women held less than two percent of carpentry positions in the United States — a number that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says has largely remained consistent over the last 35 years.
In a tech-obsessed city like Seattle, it’s easy to lose sight of the traditional trades such as carpentry. However, the ripple effect of a booming tech economy has resulted in a steady growth in construction jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Washington State added 14,100 construction-related jobs last year. Nationwide, the industry is expected to grow 20 percent between 2010 and 2020 (significantly more than the average job growth rate of 14 percent), with a median wage of $19 an hour.
Abercrombie doesn’t understand why there aren’t more women in the field. “All those women who craft, it’s the same part of the brain,” she says. “My boss loves to hire women carpenters because they don’t get injured and they’re very detail-oriented.”
This weekend, she’s teaching construction skills to a group of high school girls. They are on a weekend build retreat at Smoke Farm in Arlington, Wash., learning how to build a tiny house.
“It’s good to get a little female energy on the job site,” says Abercrombie. “It can get a little dude-y.” she laughs.
The build retreat is run through Sawhorse Revolution, a Seattle-based nonprofit that aims to empower youth through carpentry and craft. The project’s goal is to build and design a tiny house for the Nickelsville homeless community. While Sawhorse has built tiny homes with teens in the past, this is the organization’s first all-women design and build project. The teens, carpenters, mentors, architects and Sawhorse leaders are all women.
Map of Nickelsville Tiny House Villages in Seattle
“It’s a really pervasive idea that women might get hurt if they pick something up, and it produces this weird assessment of what individuals can do,” says program director Sarah Smith. “So by providing something that actually invites girls to just work together on something that they’re not traditionally invited to do — I think we can really make a difference in terms of how their peers are perceiving them,” she says.
Smith, who co-founded Sawhorse revolution, says she saw a real need to teach carpentry skills to high schoolers after realizing it was quickly becoming a lost art among teens.
“My high school was renovated in the year 2000, and they flipped the woodshop and turned it into an engineering room,” she says. “They’re foreseeing the need for computers and that’s a really important skill for young people to have, but it ended up being this big tradeoff.”
Out of 14 Seattle-area public high schools, currently only four offer a shop class.
Smith says carpentry offers a great opportunity for real-life applications of math. Fractions, geometry and quick mental math calculations are all used on a daily basis to ensure the project is built correctly. “Carpentry offers an amazing educational setting for this kind of critical thinking, problem-solving and applications of science and math,” Smith says.
Smith applies that real-world mentality to Sawhorse projects. The tiny house the team is building will be placed at the Nickelsville Tiny House Village in Seattle’s Othello neighborhood. The village houses residents experiencing homelessness, and the house is expected to be occupied soon after being relocated to the village.
For 17-year-old Lina Oppenheimer, helping the homeless community was a key reason for getting involved. “It’s fun to build and work with all the tools, but ultimately it is a house for someone who doesn’t have one,” she says. “It’s a great feeling to know that we’re doing this for someone else and that we can hopefully make them a nice house.”
Oppenheimer says the fact that the project is being built by an all-girls group was an unexpected bonus. “The community feels really great,” she says. “I obviously don’t mind being around boys, but there’s something nice that gets created when I work with girls and we have something in common.” she explains.
Smith says the intangible skills the girls pick up — collaboration, commitment, communication and teamwork — are directly tied to Sawhorse’s mission of fostering confidence and community-oriented youth through the power of carpentry and craft.
“If our girls just walked away with anything from this, [I hope] one is the sense that any profession is open to them, even if they need to work a little bit at it, because there might be doors that aren’t as easy to open,” says
Smith. “But they really can walk into any profession in any place in the world. … They have the skills to be there.”
The tiny house is scheduled to be completed by mid-June. It will be moved to the Nickelsville’s Othello Tiny House Village after completion and ready to welcome its new residents.
For more information:
Sawhorse Revolution: http://www.sawhorserevolution.org/
Nickelsville homeless community: https://sites.google.com/a/nickelsville.org/home/
Stacey Jenkins is the Managing Producer of What's Good 206. She is an Emmy-award winning producer who is passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital media and training the next generation of multimedia journalists. Stacey has been a Digital Content Producer at KCTS 9 for the past four years; her stories have been showcased locally on IN Close as well as nationally on SciTech Now and the PBS NewsHour's Art Beat. Stacey’s experience also includes working as a senior producer for KPTS, as an assistant media instructor and producer for Portland Community College and a TV news reporter for the CBC in Canada.
Fun Fact: Stacey’s guilty pleasures include over-the-top Halloween decor, eating sweetened condensed milk straight from the can and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video.More stories by Stacey Jenkins