Pella Chronicle

December 28, 2012

Why women are now into power tools

By Libby Copeland
Slate.com

NEW YORK — Ana White, who runs a popular website devoted to woodworking for women, came out with her first book this fall. The cover of "The Handbuilt Home" showcases a huge hammer and a fair amount of pink. Inside, close-up shots of well-crafted, brightly painted sideboards, console tables and play kitchens, look like they were taken from a Pottery Barn catalog, only White includes instructions on how to build them yourself. There are photos of smiling young women who've used White's carpentry plans, alongside their testimonials ("This great console table, with the matching hutch, really is a simple project") and tips ("It helps to use a shelving jig from a woodworking store").

White isn't the first to target an increasingly visible demographic of women who want to build their own furniture, but she's one of the savviest. Her website, ana-white.com, is an amalgam of the ideals of American womanhood, blending a pioneer woman's can-do spirit with the intimate tone of a mommy blogger. White, once a self-described Alaska "housewife" and stay-at-home mom, says she was "afraid" of power tools until a turning point in 2007. She and her husband were broke, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and she realized that the only way they'd ever afford a well-made bed was if she made one herself. Five-foot-four and size 2, without the strength and heft one associates with home improvement gurus, White was also juggling the demands of a newborn baby when she designed and built that farmhouse bed. If I can do it, her message to other women goes, of course you can.

"I'm not a trained carpenter; I'm just a mom," White, 32, told me over the phone from Delta Junction, Alaska, which is so remote — seven hours from a Target — that she's had almost no choice but to embrace the DIY ethos for almost everything, from the paper banner for her daughter's birthday party to a tiny picnic table for her American Girl doll. "After I built my first piece of furniture, I realized it doesn't take an incredible amount of skill with the tools we have available today. It just takes a really good plan and someone telling you, 'Yes, you can do this.' "

White's message of power-tool-empowerment is echoed by a number of other women's carpentry blogs, some of which have winking names like Pink Toes and Power Tools and Pretty Handy Girl. Home Depot's free Do-it-Herself workshops are couched in the language of Weight-Watcherian validation, inviting you to come build "an interior two-tiered wreath chandelier" while building "confidence" in a "female-friendly environment." A line called DIYVA (groan) offers an "Ultimate Tool Kit" for the "girl-on-the-go," while a company called Tomboy Tools gets its saleswomen to host Tupper-ware-style "tool parties" selling pink drills and pink jumper cables.

Putting aside the irritating assumption that grown women will only purchase power tools in a color associated with toddler girls, the trend speaks to an economic reality. Single women made up 19 percent of all first-time home buyers in 2012, compared to 11 percent of single men. If women are buying their own houses, they're also the ones fixing them up. Their growing willingness to repair a loose stair themselves, or for that matter, build a custom coffee table, represents the latest in a long line of traditionally male areas colonized (and in many cases, dominated) by women, including professional sports and lucrative fields like medicine, pharmacy and the law.

I became interested in White's website, ironically, because of my husband. He's one of her rare male readers — 89 percent of White's Web visitors are women — and built a beautiful picnic table for our deck using one of White's free designs. When he bought her book as a kind of thank-you for that design, I started reading her. White's website, which mixes her own designs with a blog about her life and a bragboard featuring work by readers, is geared toward carpenters of all levels. In her section called "tips for newbies," she posts large pictures of tools with explanations of exactly how to use them. She also writes about doing carpentry when her daughter was just born — how she'd drive around till her daughter fell asleep, then park the car right outside the garage, where she kept her tools, and work furiously till her daughter woke up.

White's conversational tone is a far cry from many male-oriented woodworking sites like Popular Woodworking magazine, which tends to feature blog entries on wood-nerd topics like "All Oilstones are not Equal" and "New Crisscross Hardware — Very Excited!" Here's White: "The lumber aisle is huge, and everything might look the same. . . . Ask an associate to send you to the 'whitewood or pine board section.' " And: "Okay, so here's how to cut." She discourages her readers from buying more tools than they need, especially if they're just starting out. Eventually, she writes, you will want "an expensive compound miter saw," but to start, go with something less pricey: "I think a jigsaw is less intimidating than the circular saw."

When you think about it, it makes sense that woodworking would be the next extension of the contemporary DIY movement, much of which has been quite visibly female, from Martha Stewart to Pinterest. For a long time, DIY seemed to adhere to more narrow gender roles, with women sticking to small endeavors like making Christmas ornaments out of pine cones and spray paint. The more ambitious female DIY-er might paint a nursery mural, or refinish a bedside table.

But lately the DIY movement seems to be flattening gender roles. Men have gotten into artisanal mayonnaise-making and lampshade-crafting, and, according to The New York Times, Martha Stewart has become for a certain set of male hipster what Streisand is to the gays. Women, meanwhile, have wandered into the realm of sawdust motes. Once you buy a circular saw, you can no longer be considered merely "crafty."

Which is good, because why is using a power drill considered so much more complicated than, say, refinishing a table? A drill is, as White puts it, really just "a handmixer with a different bit on the end." The physicality of working with wood may be one of the reasons why it's taken women awhile to come around to it, even though you don't actually need great upper body strength to hold a drill, or to feed a 1 X 8 plank of pine into a wood saw. (If you had any doubt about this, scores of out-of-shape male handymen exist to make the point.)

I suspect female carpentry may also speak to a cultural shift in the way we see our own bodies, part of a larger trend toward what cultural historian Maud Lavin considers a more physical, action-oriented type of American woman. In her book "Push Comes to Shove," Lavin documents the rise of "positive representations of aggressive women," in realms as far-ranging as movies, sports and Riot Grrrl music. As The New York Times pointed out recently, Hollywood in 2012 provided a particularly good example of this trend, with a sword-wielding Snow White, a skilled archer in "Brave's" Merida, and, of course, the warrior Katniss Everdeen. These are not merely heroines, but heroines whose strong bodies are as essential to their victories as their wits. If Katniss wanted a new sideboard, would she really ask Peeta to build it for her?

Lately, I've started to reconsider the mental block I have against power tools, which is, let's face it, the same kind of gender-driven helplessness that leads some men to claim they don't "know how" to change a child's diaper. For years, when my husband was building things, including that picnic table, a flight of stairs and a closet, I've been happy to know as little as possible about the process. He's also started talking about building a bench for our living room that would double as toy storage for our toddler daughter.

The other night, when we were talking about activities we'd like to do together on free evenings, Dan suggested that perhaps I'd like to build that bench with him.

My first reaction was mild annoyance. I thought of all the time it would take, all the mistakes we'd make in measuring and cutting. Buying the darned thing would be so much easier. But then I paused. I considered the time I'd spend with him and the pleasure I've recently discovered in establishing mild competencies in new areas — sparring in karate class, riding a bike again after years of not riding. If Ana White could do it, I thought.

I said yes.

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Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.