San Diego Woodworkers' Association

Wood crafted design

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Out of the Woodwork

For more than 1,000 people in San Diego, art isn’t just a product of paint and pen. In fact, this unique group combines a creative spirit with industrial skill, fabricating unconventional art from an age-old practice: fine woodworking. The San Diego Fine Woodworkers’ Association (SDFWA) dedicates countless hours to their craft, which melds the best of both beauty and functionality into high-quality pieces that can last a lifetime.

While most consider woodworking to be a trade or skill, many members of the SDFWA find that crafting a piece of furniture, an instrument or even a toy can easily become art. Common items are given a touch of artistry through intricate designs, remarkable inlay, carvings, and craftsmanship.

You may recognize some of the work from SDFWA. The local non-profit, which is the largest guild of woodworkers in the nation, organizes the annual Design In Wood competition exhibited at the San Diego County Fair. The competition is unlike any in the country, and people from across the nation flock to see the entries. This year’s winners included an electric guitar, a surfboard and contemporary furniture like the Tambour Desk that took Best of Show.

Besides providing an outlet for members of the guild and the community at large to display their craft, Design In Wood is actually the reason the association was founded in the first place. The group dates back to 1982, when a few avid woodworkers were hoping to display their finished work at the fair. But these handful of hobbyists had to become an official organization before hosting an exhibit—so that’s exactly what they did. The association’s current members fondly recall the founders standing outside of hardware stores on the weekends with a sign-up sheet, scouring the community for new members. Since then, the group has flourished and now boasts more than 1000 members.

Those members range from amateurs to experts, hobbyists to professionals. Some are passionate about the craft, others approach it casually. Regardless of skill, anyone is welcome into this community of creators as long as there’s an interest. Not all consider themselves artists, either. Woodworking conveniently exercises both sides of the brain and can be a creative outlet for some, or simply serve a practical function.

The fun part is when it combines both. Member Mike Davis admires the practicality of the hobby. Though he was first introduced in high school, the skill didn’t flourish until he needed to do work on his home. Now Davis dabbles in instrument-making. The other side of that coin, however, is embodied in member Mike McElhiney, who strives to create art with every stroke of the saw. He’s created several award-winning pieces for Design In Wood, as well as wooden sculptures, jewelry boxes and wildly unique furnishings. Member Shop Chairman Gary Anderson says it best: “There’s just something gratifying about being able to create”. “There’s a tactile sensation of being able to put two pieces of wood together that’s very rewarding.”

Though perhaps most well-known for Design In Wood, the association has quite a few other projects going on during the rest of the year, and all of them share a simple tenet: community. Firstly, there’s the Toy Program, which is the largest community service effort the association undertakes. Members work to create beautiful handcrafted wooden toys for needy children every year. Hundreds of toys, sometimes thousands, are donated to hospitals and charities. Community outreach coordinator Mike Davis estimates more than 40,000 toys have been donated over the life of the program. These toys are of the utmost quality and care, created from materials kindly donated to the organization by both individuals and companies like Taylor Guitar. One thing Davis is adamant about—the toys are never for sale. The organization makes sure that toys are only donated to children and causes that meet the committee’s standards of need.

Beyond the Toy Program, other areas of the community are able to receive pro-bono woodworking projects on behalf of the association. Take a look at the Central Library and its Library Shop downtown,  and you’ll see benches, computer workstations, display tables and bookshelves built by members of SDFWA. Fire Station 27, among others, now has a stately table for its common meeting room. The group has also made and donated chairs for children, display cases for Palomar College, doors for a Navy ship and plaques for the First Marine Special Operations Battalion. The list goes on.

The fine woodworkers of San Diego aren’t only working to grow the community here; they’re growing their own association too. Just this summer, SDFWA opened its all-new Member Shop—a 3,000 sq. ft. space dedicated to nearly every kind of tool imaginable.

“We’re going for a place where beginners can have a shop to work in but also a place where experienced woodworkers can use specialized machines,” Davis says.

The workshop not only has standard woodworking tools like table saws, drill presses, and sanders, but it also houses machines used for specialty projects that may be expensive, inconvenient or too large for the average woodworker to own personally. For example, the shop has two CNC machines (a saw controlled by a computer), one of which can fit a four-foot by seven-foot sheet of plywood.

“[Many] young people don’t have the space to have a shop or the opportunity to learn woodworking,” says Gary Anderson, who runs the member shop. Since the opening of the community workspace in June, Anderson says most of the new sign-ups are young adults, about half of them women. To put that into perspective, Anderson says that previously, only about 3 percent of members were women.

The Member Shop offers a huge opportunity and resource to creative individuals of all ages in San Diego County. It’s not only a place for building but also one for learning. The Member Shop provides regular classes in its own classroom on topics ranging from Woodworking 101 to the intricacies of creating dovetails. The shop also provides courses on safety and instruction so students can learn new machinery and general practices to create nearly anything imaginable in a safe environment. Classes are open to the public and do not require membership to sign up.

While there are classes offered and shelves of books and videos on specific woodworking topics, the group itself is a resource. Many members have been woodworking for decades and have a wealth of knowledge to share.

“Aside from being technically and mechanically knowledgeable, we’re a great group of people,” Anderson says.

For some, woodworking is an art. For others, it’s just a chance to make something cool. Either way, it’s a skill sometimes passed down through generations of woodworkers, and one that potentially faces the threat of extinction in the face of technological advancements and the limited availability of woodshop classes in schools. However, young people aren’t turning away from the craft just yet. Across the country, community workshops are popping up and seeing more popularity than ever in young creatives. With the new, affordable Member Shop open to the San Diego public and a multitude of experienced teachers at its helm, the torch will be carried on—and perhaps it could burn brighter than ever.