Learning to Build
By Nathalie Zur Nedden
A self-taught builder mentors other women as they learn
skills and independence, and encourages them to expose their children to
the same self-reliance.
After years of being tired of
not feeling confident enough to use a drill or an electric saw, I
recently attended a full-day workshop held at a tools store, entitled “Women and Power Tools.”
I had no idea of what to expect or of what I was about to learn. When I
entered the store I must have had an inexperienced look on my face
because the salesclerk directed me immediately to the seminar room; she
knew I wasn’t there to buy tools! The seminar room was set-up with
tables and stools, and there were pictures mounted on a white-board. One
set of pictures consisted of a beautiful humidor and a large wall
cabinet with a caption that read, “Betty built this.” The other set of
pictures were of a woman sitting on a house frame and the second photo
was of a small, beautiful cabin with a caption that read,
“Jen built this.” “When do I get to build that?” I asked pointing to the
photograph of the cabin. “That’s power tools III,” Jen, our instructor,
“Today you are going to learn
how to use a miter saw, a table saw, a drill press, a jigsaw, a band
saw, a router, a circular saw, and a router table. By the end of the day,
with the help of these tools, you will each leave here with a toolbox,”
Jennifer said to the twelve women sitting in front of her. I whispered
to my friend, “What the heck is a router?” “I don’t know,” she whispered
back. After we were briefed on safety issues and apparel, Jennifer
guided us to a large, high-ceiling room with twelve workstations, each
armed with a different power tool, most of which I didn’t recognize.
When five o’clock rolled around,
I couldn’t believe that I was leaving with a wooden toolbox that I had
made using all the tools. What an exhilarating feeling; I experienced
such a sense of empowerment. Why am I writing about this? Because when
Jennifer introduced herself she informed us that she was self-taught.
She is a terrific example of a self-directed life-long learner and I
wanted to hear more of her story, and to share it with you. I think part
of the deschooling process we engage in necessitates re-skilling
ourselves. And the safe use of power tools is a valuable skill for
anyone to have. So the next day, Jennifer graciously consented to an
again, Jen, for such a great workshop yesterday. So how did you get involved with power
J: I got
interested in power tools fifteen years ago when I was married and we
had country property. We were building a big storage shed and I wanted
to help and to understand why and how things were done. And so I would
constantly ask my husband, “Why do you do that?” I was like a child. I
kept asking questions to the point where he got angry. I think he felt I
was second-guessing him but I just wanted to understand. That was
probably the beginning of my interest. We eventually separated and he
took the place in the country and I got the house in the city. When you
live in a house, there are always things that need to be done. I had
gained some knowledge from passing the tools, holding the wood, watching
and observing, and I thought, “I have to try this. I’m here alone and I
can’t afford to pay anyone; I’m going to try fixing things first and if
I can’t do it then I’ll hire someone.”
N: How did you
get from fifteen years ago to what you do now, to be a contractor?
J: I found out
that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I was doing well and
realized it was a luxury to work on your own home because if you mess it
up there is no one to see; so I learned on my own home. As people saw I
could do this they said, “Hey Jen, can you come over and help me do
this?” That’s certainly where I gained more interest; the jobs started
to get bigger and bigger. The next step was starting to charge and
deciding if that’s what I wanted to do. At the time I was a sign
painter. I had had enough of that and I quit after fifteen years and
thought, “Okay, I’ve gathered some tools, there’s work out there, and I
feel confident with my knowledge and skillset. I’m going to give it a
whirl.” My partner had a job, so I had that to fall back on, which was
nice. I just went for it.
N: Why do you
think women may initially be intimidated by the idea of building?
that’s what we’re led to believe. Building is a male domain, and while
that is slowly changing, there certainly aren’t a lot of female role
models as of yet. Chances are you won’t walk by a construction site and
see a woman swinging a hammer. Women see this, so when it comes to
building we are intimidated before we even start. What I tell women is
that anyone can do woodworking, building, and repairing; the only
difference between men and women is sometimes the strength factor.
N: Did you ever
consider taking formal courses?
J: Not in
woodworking, but I did take a one-year sign painting course at a
college. That was about twenty-two years ago. I worked for someone for
six months and then started my own business. I did that for fifteen
N: Do you feel
there were any differences between the kind of learning you did on your
own and the learning in a structured environment?
J: In fairness,
when I started teaching this workshop I felt I should take a beginner
woodworking course for comparison. I stayed for a few weeks and it
didn’t impress me at all. I saw so much lacking in the course, like
safety. There was never an introduction to tools; there was never an
overall this-is-what-we’re-going-to-build part. I suppose the
instructor assumed people should know this. At that time when I took the
course I knew a fair amount, but I didn’t know how to use a hand-plane,
and I certainly didn’t understand it any better after the instructor
spent ten minutes on it. He thought we should know how to adjust it, how
to use it and what it’s used for. The course was very dissatisfying for
me and I thought that if that was what formal learning was about, I
opted to continue learning on my own. When you have to pay rent and
support yourself, the money you set aside for schooling is precious. It
isn’t good if that money is being wasted.
N: What were some of the best strategies that assisted your learning?
J: I asked a
lot of questions of anyone I could find and trust. Here’s a person
who knows what I want to know; I’m just going to ask, and ask and ask,
until they say, “Okay, you can’t ask anymore.” I learned from men.
N: Did you meet women mentors?
J: Not really.
N: Are you stepping into that role, then?
J: I suppose.
When a friend asks me to change all the light fixtures in her house,
what I do is show her how. For example, I go over to her house with the
appropriate tools. I change a light fixture as she watches. Next, she
changes a light fixture while I watch, and after that she’s on her own.
Okay that’s not entirely true, I leave my tools – that’s one less
expense, and I let her know that she can call me if she’s unsure or runs
into a problem.
N: What’s the
one thing that stands out for you in helping women learn?
J: I’m always
amazed at women’s ability to help each other. We laugh and make jokes
about the buddy system but it’s so great to see how women help one
another out all day. I think it’s a “woman thing” because they know what
it feels like to be in that situation and they make sure to help the
person they’ve been asked to help. One of things I love most about
teaching women is their realization that they can do it. I explain the
correct way to use the tool, have them do a supervised cut, and then
stand back and watch as they come to the realization that, “Hey, this
isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I can do this.” And often they
can provide guidance to a group that hasn’t tried.
N: If you could
create a full-day workshop, what would it look like? What would you
consider the essential skills for a woman to learn?
question! Woodworking is a luxury. So I would set up a workshop that
would revolve around a house – plumbing and electricity, little jobs
like a leaking toilet, dripping faucet. Do you know how many people live
with leaking taps? It’s easy to fix once you know how. Another course I
would love to offer is car mechanics 101 – changing oil, tires, check
the fluids, change wipers, getting under the car and learning about the
muffler. When a mechanic tells me it’s my right ball joint, I know what
he’s talking about. I can talk the talk back.
N: Got any advice for women?
and repairing isn’t that hard; expose your children to it as soon as you
feel they’re ready for it. Knowledge is power and so is having these
skills. If you have the opportunity to have someone show you something,
try to do it, then help your kids learn it. Being at home, independent and
having this knowledge is a great foundation for women. Try to take care
of your own home so you don’t have to rely on others that you pay; it’s
Nathalie Zur Nedden
left her home in Montréal, Québec and quit school at the age of thirteen. She
has been learning ever since, both through life experiences and
university. Her work with at-risk youth eventually led her to a Master
of Arts in Transformative Learning from the Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. based on
telling the story of a Canadian woman who has theorized about the
virtues of alternatives to formal schooling – Life Learning’s editor
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