f you’ve ever perused the forums at Womeninwoodworking.com or Woodcentral, you’ve probably run across the name Barb Siddiqui. Always glad to help, she’s an important part of what makes those forums such special places for all kinds of woodworkers. You may even have read her monthly Starting Points column in Womeninwoodworking.com, where her guidance combines unique common sense and solid woodworking know-how.
So, who is this Barb Siddiqui? She’s a serious woodworker and a serious writer who lives in Washington state. Despite her recognized skill, and after 30 years of woodworking, she still considers herself a beginner. She has a great, Krenovesque reverence for the wood she uses, yet feels each piece must serve a practical purpose. It all goes to back to why she got started in woodworking in the first place.
“When my kids needed nightstands and small items, I couldn’t afford to buy them. So I went out and bought some lumber, a hammer, and some nails and built my own.” Barb recalled, “The thing is, I used butt joints because I didn’t know any better, and it would take so much structural blocking to keep them from wobbling. I started thinking there must be a better way. I went to the library and that was a real eye opener. The 600 shelf — if I remember the Dewey Decimal system — was a world I didn’t know anything about. In our area, we didn’t have any classes and I didn’t have any mentors, you could say I was library launched.”
She reads copiously — one of her early favorites was by R.J. DeCristoforo — and she learned a great deal about joinery and movement and how to work wood. But it was probably ten years later that she came across the work of James Krenov.
“It was a real eye opener because it seemed to give me such a responsibility to the material. I remember thinking, there’s a lot more to it than just taking this piece of material, wrecking it, and just starting over again. That kind of turned me around into thinking about design and how the wood can be best used.”
Putting that sensibility into practice was, at first, intimidating for Barb. It slowed her down a little, but it also made her sit down and plan more clearly what she would do. Then she bought some expensive hardwoods and more exotic woods and tried to make more use of grain patterns and look more at design. She couldn’t afford the large power tools and relied heavily on handwork. If she needed long rabbets on the edge of a piece, she cut it with a handsaw. It could be agonizing, but it helped establish her conviction that you should first decide what you want to do and only then figure out how you’ll need to alter it to fit what you can actually do.
“When I think about a piece I want to do, I tear pictures out of a magazine that I like,” Barb noted. “Then I put them all on the floor around me and decide which elements I can combine and how the joinery or structure is going to work. The things I build have to function in a certain way or occupy a certain space. I really don’t work off plans … the few I’ve purchased all had flaws in them and just made me angry. I’m always floored by people who are so dependent on plans. With plans you’re not building or designing … I thinks it’s crippling in woodworking.”
During much of this same period, Barb owned a bookstore as her primary vocation. That literary background and interest in books also helped her develop her other passion … writing. She did some editorial work and was involved in writers’ groups, but at about the same time she realized the great American novel might be beyond her grasp, she got into woodworking and decided she could combine the two. She writes the columns mentioned earlier, reviews new woodworking books, and puts together shop projects, in which she documents building a piece, for print publications such as Woodworker’s Journal. Whatever she writes, she never forgets how important the information can be to someone just starting out and to the seasoned woodworker.
When she sold the bookstore about four years ago she used the money to properly equip her shop. She expected to start making her living as a commissioned woodworker.
“I had the same big dream that many people have. Then I went to some of the gatherings sponsored by the Badger Pond and Woodcentral Web sites where I had a chance to visit with professional woodworkers, people with large clienteles of moneyed people, who do $40,000 conference tables, and they’ve been very upfront in saying that without their spouses or partners paying household bills they couldn’t support themselves. Everything they made went back into the business. I also realized that I am too slow a woodworker to make it as a cabinet maker.”
Nowadays, Barb has taken a part-time job to help pay the bills. And though she wishes she could make more money at it, her commitment to woodworking and writing is just as strong as ever.
“Keeping it as a hobby allows me to choose projects that I want to do and give them away as gifts. I’m learning all the time and still feel like a beginner. A woodworker’s first obligation is to educate herself. There’s always more to learn.”
Despite her busy schedule, Barb always finds time for woodworking. For her next project, she’d like to build a breakfront buffet for herself. And since she inherited her father’s carving tools, she hopes to find time to carve some bead and berry borders and egg and dart molding. She’s looking forward to using some apricot wood she’s got drying in her little drying shed … the scent of apricot fills the whole shop. But all that has to wait for now … Barb found out this fall that she’s going to be a grandmother three more times in the spring.
“I have these high-minded images of the furniture I want to build, and all of a sudden I’m thrust back into pull toys and cradles.”