Making Her Mark: Furniture Designer & Maker

August 15, 2023

Making Her Mark: Furniture Designer & Maker

“I thought that I’d be a woodworking teacher forever. But when my wife got pregnant, my twin sister sat me down and said, ‘What are you going to do when you have a baby?’”

If a name is anything to go by, Lauren Wood was destined for fame in the woodworking community. But career progression is never that simple, especially for a queer craftsperson who is bombarded by outdated beliefs about a woman’s place in the world.

Lauren persisted throughout the years and now enjoys woodworking as a hobby that fits alongside her work and family obligations. Woodworking might have taken a back seat in Lauren’s day-to-day life, but she still proved that she’s the cream of the crop on Britain’s Best Woodworker, which she won. 

Out of all the crafty mediums, why did you choose woodworking?

That’s an interesting question because whenever men ask me that I think, ‘Would you ask a man?’ 

But to answer your question, I watched a lot of Changing Rooms and Ground Force when I was growing up. My twin and I went into the garden and thought, let’s do this! We wanted an instant impact. Luckily, our parents trusted us to cut wood and use drills. 

“I watched Ground Force and thought if they can do that, so can I.”

I’ve always been very practical. When I was a kid, I wasn’t good at any sort of imaginative role-play. I just wanted to build structures with my Legos. For me, that evolved into woodworking. Besides, I’ve never been interested in metalwork; I find it quite messy.

Tell us a bit about your journey into woodworking as a career

I knew that I wanted to do something with wood and create furniture, so I did a degree in cabinet making at a little college in Oxford. I got offered the Artist in Residence role, so I stayed on for another year and had full access to the workshop. While all this was going on, I built up my client base in Oxford. 

What was your self-employed life like?

Most of my customers were women and most of the pieces needed to be installed in situ. I’d spend three days in their homes fitting a wardrobe. Women felt safe with me in their homes, especially women whose husbands weren’t home. 

After a while, all that people wanted was wardrobes. Because of places like Ikea, people could go and get a coffee table or whatever they liked, but they couldn’t get a wardrobe to fit a weird space in their bedroom.

Did you face any barriers as a self-employed woodworker? 

In the past, I’ve come across a lot of men that don’t like the idea that a woman has built the furniture in their homes. But I don’t dwell on the negatives; I try to put a positive spin on things. 

“A few women said, ‘I’ve seen what you’ve built and I love it, but my husband said, ‘If she can make it, I can.'”

How did you go from a self-employed cabinet-maker to a teacher? 

I was fresh out of uni when I became a self-employed cabinet maker. I didn’t struggle to get work because I offered a good product at a good price. But I wasn’t earning enough to save towards a house. And with the way I was pricing myself, I wasn’t going to be able to sustain myself full-time.  

I remembered something that my old professor said to me. He said, ‘What are you going to do now that you’re finished? You’re either going to be the next Handy Andy or you’re going to be a teacher.’ 

I thought that sounded like a good idea. So I got my postgraduate in teaching and became a woodworking teacher. 

Did you enjoy teaching woodworking?

I was a woodworking teacher for ten years at a secondary school. It’s not the sort of subject that people dread like maths or English, and it was nice to share something that I’m passionate about.

Was teaching a pit stop? 

I thought that I’d be a woodworking teacher forever. But when my wife got pregnant, my twin sister sat me down and said, ‘What are you going to do when you have a baby?’ 

Teaching can be inflexible. I used to start at seven and finish at five, and with a baby on the way, it didn’t seem like the best idea. I ended up going to work with my twin at her architecture practice, and I’m still there. 

What’s your new job like?  

I do all the drawings for my sister’s architecture firm. It’s very computer-based, office-based, and different from woodworking. It’s nice to be on the other side of things. On a day-to-day basis, I see architectural designs on a large scale, which has had a big impact on the furniture that I design.

“Working at an architecture firm has influenced my ethos and style. Before, my style was very organic, very natural. Now, I’m conscious of things like scale. It’s about the overall impact that the piece has.”

I still work with wood, but mainly as a hobby.

I watched you win Britain’s Best Woodworker on Channel 4 last year, congratulations! What was that experience like? 

Thank you, it was a great experience. The show aired in 2022, and I didn’t expect it to have such an ongoing effect. It’s opened up so many different doors for me. It was great to meet so many like-minded people. 

Whenever I’m in a pub I’m looking at the furniture, thinking, ‘Why have they used that material? Why have they structured that piece of furniture like that?’

It was nice to be around people who like talking about tools. I used to think that woodworking was quite niche, but it isn’t really. It’s one big community.

Lauren (far left) and her fellow contestants on Britain's Best Woodworker (Channel 4)

Have you faced any challenges during your career?

In general, I think that most women in the trades have experienced sexism. I didn’t face discrimination around being able to get on my cabinet-making course, but I definitely felt like I had to prove that I’m smart enough and strong enough throughout my journey. 

On my degree course, there was only me and two other women. One of the women was retired, and just doing cabinet-making as a hobby. The other barely came to uni, and I only saw her a handful of times. I don’t know if it’s because the course was so male-oriented.

“When I worked on building sites, blokes used to stop and stare at me, genuinely, just stand there and stare. I’ve also experienced homophobic discrimination. Less so now thankfully, because the world is changing.”

What piece of furniture do you enjoy making the most? 

I love chairs. A chair not only looks appealing, it needs to actually work well. If it’s not comfortable you won’t sit in it, and if it’s not built well it won’t last long. If it’s built well, your whole body is encompassed in it, and you sort of melt into it. 

“Sitting in a chair is an experience in itself. Sofas are lovely, but you don’t feel enclosed in a sofa. You can lose yourself in a chair.”

Chairs can be standout, singular features in a room. This is particularly true for rocking chairs and armchairs. There’s something special about chairs; they’re not easy to build. But with the cost of materials and labour, I’d need to charge around £300 a day to make a decent chair. Not many people are going to be able to afford that. 

What are you most proud of?

When I was on Britain’s Best Woodworker, I had to make a clock that represented a period of time in my life. 

“My clock represents IVF. The clock face symbolises an embryo, and it hangs inside the clock, which represents the lining of the womb. I gave the clock a rainbow base, which of course represents the LGBT community, but also the potential for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Ultimately, the clock was all about balance, and the uncertainty of my young family at the time. I’m proud of the concept from an emotional perspective, but I’m also proud that I was able to design and build it in the insane time constraints. 

With your full-time job, young family, and woodworking hobby, it seems like you’ve got a lot on your plate. What keeps you creatively charged? 

I’m definitely inspired by nature. I’m never short of an idea, because nature is all around me. 

I’m old enough now to really appreciate plants and organic structures. I love learning about the natural world; did you know that tennis balls are based on pollen? Pollen is the most aerodynamic shape that there is. 

I think about things like that, and then I ask myself, ‘How can I incorporate that shape or idea into something that I’m creating?’ 

Do you have a dream project?

I would love to build a day bed, but not as upholstered. I’d focus on the raw wood, structure, and joints. The way I imagine it, it’ll have an exposed framework and upholstered cushions. 

Woodworking is physically demanding; how do you look after yourself? 

I have a bit too much energy. If I don’t exercise in the mornings, I’m twitchy all day. I do a lot of running, cycling, and weights. 

We even exercise together as a family. My two kids have been using dumbbells for a while now; my wife and I joke that when they learn to count, they’ll start lifting imaginary dumbbells.

If you could go back in time, what would you say to your younger self? 

I would say, ‘Go for it, follow your passion for the wood industry.’ 

I feel like I took the easy option to become a teacher. Looking back, when my professor gave me the choice between two options, it had a real impact on me. I’d say to my younger self, ‘You have more than two options, Lauren.’

No one took me aside and said, ‘This is how you run a successful cabinet-making business.’ After uni, there was no post-university advice. University wiped its hands of you, which was a shame. If someone would’ve given me advice on the sort of equipment that I needed, it would’ve been a big help.

With a little bit of support, I might’ve had the confidence to go it alone and charge enough to sustain a full-time career as a self-employed woodworker. 

You can find Lauren’s projects on her Instagram @woodsmything

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