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Gary Rogowski

Gary Rogowski, 67, set up his shop and woodworking school in a warehouse space in the Central Eastside Industrial District long before beards, brewpubs, and construction cranes swarmed the area. Decades later, he’s still there, and preaching the same message.

“We have not simply forgotten how to use tools and make things or fix stuff that is broken,” he laments. “We have forgotten how to feel the world except translated through the screen.” Step one in reclaiming our independence? Put down the cell phone. (He calls it a “symbol of reliance.”) Step two? Learn to use tools—real ones, like saws and chisels and spokeshaves.

To woodworkers, Rogowski is like Forest Park or Powell’s—a reason to visit Portland or, if one lives here already, another reason to give thanks. Take Jeff O’Brien, once a hobbyist woodworker who relied for years on Rogowski’s how-to magazine articles and books. The West Linn resident was mulling a plunge into full-time furniture making when he discovered that Rogowski lives in Portland.

“Then I looked him up and he had a woodworking school, offering a two-year mastery program?” O’Brien says, his voice trailing off. “I mean, wow.”

Rogowski moved here in 1970. A literature degree from Reed College set him adrift in the city’s hippie counterculture, where he sought a path that felt more authentic than academia but more intellectually fulfilling than construction work. In his overgrown backyard near Johnson Creek, he found an old hand plane and a partially sculpted chunk of wood. The seed was planted. (Rogowski still keeps the plane near his workspace and the wood, long ago transformed into a bench, in his bedroom.)

Rogowski taught himself woodworking by trial and error, eventually earning a reputation for designing and building fine furniture in a unique style that combines Asian modern and traditional Arts and Crafts. In 1997, Rogowski founded the Northwest Woodworking Studio, a furniture-making school that he envisioned as something between a finicky art school and an intro to carpentry.

“I was starting to see how Portland was changing and that it was going to be tough to maintain my current regal lifestyle as a furniture maker,” Rogowski jokes about the decision.

Twenty years later, he laughs at how naive he was to believe that a woodworking school would be less work or more lucrative than making furniture. But while riches haven’t followed, celebrity, of sorts, has. The studio now trains about 300 aspiring woodworkers a year, many from out of state who travel to Portland just to train under Rogowski.

Fans include comedian Nick Offerman, whose grumpy, antigovernment character on NBC’s Parks & Recreation mirrored his real-life persona of self-reliant, outdoorsy woodworker. In Offerman’s 2015 book, Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers, he called Gary a “pal” and “a true American master,” and credited him with teaching him the meaning of the word “gumption.” (“It’s an old Scottish word,” Rogowski told him. “A person with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness.”)

A class taught by Rogowski is both wood shop and philosophy seminar. He serves up an even more eclectic mix of anecdotes in his own new memoir, released this month, Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction—skipping from mountain climbing to jazz to lessons learned at the workbench. He breaks into poetry. He lists an entire page of ways to say no when someone asks to borrow a prized chisel. He takes deep, thoughtful detours into the artist’s balance between demanding excellence and accepting imperfection. 

“Woodworking is a tough way to make a living,” he says. “But it’s a great way to live.”

Rogowski reads at Powell's City of Books on December 4.

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