In some ways, Nancy Romalov is a woodworker of dualities. She has two shops – one at her summertime cabin on a Montana lake, one as part of a woodworking cooperative in Iowa City, Iowa. She works with two sets of tools: one comprised entirely of hand tools which must operate without electricity; one which contains “state-of-the-art” power tool equipment. And, until recently, she had two jobs: one as Artful Bodger Woodworks; one as a college-level instructor in English and women’s studies.
About a year ago, Nancy gave up the college teaching jobs to focus exclusively on woodworking. “I wanted to do it more than just on weekends,” she said. “It became a passion.”
It’s a passion that began with the building of that Montana cabin about 15 years ago. Although a friend built the cabin itself, Nancy “tried to do everything else, from making beds, to chairs, to counters, everything, with no formal training at all.” She had always enjoyed making thing, and found “I really loved doing all that work.”
Back in Iowa, she spent a few months in a woodworking program then offered at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield. Although Nancy, the sole commuter student, was not fulfilling the college’s requirements and did not complete the program, she did learn some basic woodworking, plus “a reverence for your tools. At Fairfield, you’d spend an hour every day sharpening your tools,” she said.
She particularly appreciated the Japanese tools used both at the university and by the woodworker with whom she subsequently found an apprenticeship because she feels they’re suited for smaller people, with smaller hands. Plus, Nancy said, “I absolutely adore hand tools.”
In fact, in the summertime, that’s all she works with. The spokeshave, she said, noting that “not even half” of her collection is pictured in the photograph, is her favorite tool. “It’s so versatile, so great at shaping the kinds of curves and forms I like, and it has such a nice history – the bodger history – as an itinerant wanderer.”
While the specialty of the historical bodgers, itinerant turners in wooded areas of England, was chair parts, Nancy has found her own special piece to be music stands.
The first, she said, was accidental. Her Montana island is home to a lot of juniper driftwood, some of it sculptural in shape, and one piece, she said, “said, ‘I want to be a music stand.'”
Nancy herself is a musician, as are many of her friends and family (her son recently graduated with a degree in music), so all of her music stands are functional, with adjustments possible. Stylistically, there are “some zany, some conventional,” she said. “I’m most satisfied with the early ones. The cowboy boots one was fun to work on because it was carved out of one piece. One has rock toenails, and has a real attitude.” The rocks come from the glacial lake area of Montana and also serve as the knobs on Nancy’s music stands, as well as being incorporated into all of her pieces in some manner. “My signature is I tend to put a rock in everything I make, even if the customer can’t see it,” she explained.
The customers, in general, are for the work she does at the cooperative shop in Iowa City, where 80 percent of her work is on commission. “In the summer, I’m not working to deadlines. I’m always working to a deadline at the shop” – although she does keep some of her work done on spec on display at a gallery in town.
Lately, Nancy said, she’s been able to “bring more summer playfulness to my work and incorporate it into winter pieces as well. I know what I can do with power tools, and I take advantage of it, but I design pieces that are not that different.”
Currently, for instance, she is working on a hatstand made from juniper, using spokeshaves – but also using a power grinder to sculpt “so it goes quite a bit faster,” she said.
Although juniper is a wood she uses frequently for her music stands and summer projects, most of the things Nancy builds in Iowa come from local woods like cherry, walnut and maple. The shop she’s a member of has the advantage of storage space for lots of wood, and “we recoup trees that come down in storms” and tornadoes, Nancy said.
When building things out of those woods, the style Nancy particularly enjoys in either of her locations is a sculptural one. “I enjoy freeform, whimsical,” she said. “I think there’s a market for furniture that’s both furniture and a little bit of art, that speaks of something unconventional.”