From time to time EasternWhitePine editors interview leaders in the building space in a series we call Wood Geeks.
This issue’s Wood Geek is Andy Engel from Fine Homebuilding Magazine.
How long have you been working with wood?
If you include my earliest efforts, I’d say since I was about 4 years old. I was a charter subscriber to Fine Woodworking in 1975, when I was 14.
What is it about wood that you love and appreciate?
So much, but largely the fact that I can shape it to almost any purpose. And as I’ve grown older, wood has become a connection to my father, who died in 2001. He was also a woodworker, and the smell of pine takes me back into his basement woodshop when I was a kid. Wood has been the common thread that tied me to some of best folks in my life.
Favorite wood project?
I suppose that would be the winding stairs in my old boss Kevin’s 18th century house. They challenged me in multiple ways. The geometry of winding stairs can be a head scratcher on a good day, but added to that was the fact that literally none of the existing structure was plumb, level, or square. I felt honored for my work to become a part of that house’s story, as if I had gotten to write a chapter in its book. On top of that, Kevin, who was the long-time editor of Fine Homebuilding and the man who taught me to write, worked with me. Those stairs belong to the house, which in its future will likely belong to number of people. But those stairs will always belong to Kevin and to me in a kind of ownership that can never be transferred.
Best wood project story?
I was installing a railing on a formal stair I’d built in a new house, and I managed to drop my hammer and take a chunk out of wall-side stringer. The stringer was slated to be painted, and I knew if I let in a “Dutch boy”, it would never be noticed. (“Dutch boy” is a term for a wooden patch that I learned from Werner, the German carpenter who largely taught me my trade.) But I also wanted to get it fixed before Dan, the builder, showed up – Forgiveness is, after all, easier to get than permission. Still, accurately letting in a Dutch boy is time consuming, and time ran out. Dan showed up just as I was sliding the patch into place. I looked at him, he looked at me, and then at what I was doing. I’d built the stairs as a unit in my shop, and if he insisted on a new stringer instead of a fix, I would have to pull the stairs out, truck them back to the shop, tear them apart, and rebuild them – A couple of days of unpaid work. So, I dreaded the next words that would come out of his mouth. I underestimated Dan, though. Rather than condemn me to working a weekend for free, he gave me a saying that’s become part of my repertoire. “Anybody can get it right the first time. It takes a real mechanic to fix the screw-ups.”
There’s a real lesson there.
Where do you think wood fits into today’s home improvement/building industries?
Wood makes sense for the vast majority of home building. Sustainable forestry practices mean we’re no longer using lumber faster than it can be replaced, so lumber will be the go-to structural material for the foreseeable future. In terms of finish materials, although there’s competition from a variety of sources today, nothing else looks like wood, and there will always be people like myself who respond to it.