Meet a Former Finance Pro Turned Professional Woodworker

Against the Grain: Fiona Gilfillan

Photo: Fiona Gilfillan / Illustration: The Spruce

Against the Grain is a series spotlighting those who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction industry. We speak with people working on projects—from whole-home renovations to intricate wood sculptures—to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next.

Just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland, there’s a place called East Lothian. Along with castle ruins and lush green hills, you’ll also find a small but mighty woodworking and furniture-making community. This is largely thanks to the locally based Chippendale International School of Furniture, which is where our latest Against the Grain woodworker, Fiona Gilfillan, got her start.

We recently connected with the founder of Feemade to discuss everything she loves about woodworking and her chosen path to create. 

How did you first get interested in woodworking?

Fiona Gilfillan: I first got into upcycling and started making furniture out of scaffolding boards. I used to work in finance, as a self-employed worker, and I would take periods of time off—maybe six months or so. During that time, I would pick up new hobbies. I started making furniture with scaffolding boards, then I began buying more power tools, and it started to be a bit of a habit. 

I came here to the Chippendale School, did their introductory course, and really enjoyed it. That was my first experience with woodturning. After that, I bought myself a lathe and rented a small workshop. That was the start—going to a workshop, turning things in the lathe, and making bowls. I’d give them away to people and they would say, “I’d really like to give one as a present.” We would come down to the workshop to teach them how to turn a bowl on the lathe, and it just spiraled from there. 

Chilling chair.

Fiona Gilfillan

What was your next step after that?

FG: They started an intermediate course here, and I was the second person on the month-long course. During that course, I met a friend and confided in them, letting them know that I wanted to leave finance behind for woodworking. He encouraged me, saying “Well, here's something that will focus you. My wife has just been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. If you don't do it now, who knows what's around the corner?” 

And that was it. I went in the next day and signed up for the course. That's how I became a full-time woodworker, and that was my major pivot moment. I know I couldn't spend my life being a professional arguer—something had to change.

What project makes you the proudest?

FG: I'm a cabinet maker, but last spring, a very good friend of ours has a Victorian cottage nearby and he asked if I would turn the finial for the roof of his front porch. I'm used to making bits of furniture, like stools and cabinets and chests of drawers, but never a Victorian porch with a finial on the top! That was a bit of a leap of faith for me—I wouldn't have done it professionally on my own, but I absolutely loved it. I learned so much from my friend, and I never thought I could have done that. 

Scottish cottage exterior.

Fiona Gilfillan

I also just completed a home office. My wife works from home, and her office was cobbled together with a couple of benches and desks. Now, it has rows of shelves and bookcases, all in walnut with recessed lighting. That's been quite a good project for me to do. Those are the two things I'm proudest of, since I didn't think I could do that.

What’s one big fail or mistake that became a lesson for you? 

FG: My workshop was full of half-finished projects. My inability to complete things without asking for advice was a failure of mine. Being unable to ask for help—I really struggled with that. I'm a perfectionist, and I felt I should know the answers to everything. My failure was bigger than any one piece, it was the inability to ask people for help. But, don't get me wrong—I've had quite a few things fly off the lathe and go over my shoulder! 

What was the very first thing you ever built? 

FG: I built a media unit for my house from scaffolding boards, and then, I made a drawer. That was quite advanced for the stage that I was at—to make a drawer, put it on runners, have it run, and not fall out the front. That was the first thing that I made when I was in my scaffolding-boards phase. 

Over here, we use a lot of pine scaffolding boards. Once they get to a certain state, they get condemned, so you can get the wood for less than a pound a foot. I didn't have a planer, so scaffolding boards are already the right thickness. You just need to sand them and steam them. They’re easy to make square things from because they’re already the right shape.

Console table drawer.

Fiona Gilfillan

When did you realize that you could make woodworking your career?

FG: It was probably after the course finished. I've been here for up to three years as a renter, and I'm very lucky to be in a stable relationship. My wife still works full-time and can support us both. I treated the course as a bit of a sabbatical, and about eighteen months ago, I started to get people to ask me to make things, finally charging the right amount of money for them. That got the ball rolling...

If budget and time were no constraint, what would you love to build?

FG: A fully-fitted kitchen that I created from start to finish. I have completed some cabinets for the boot room at home as well as a cabinet for cat and dog food. That was my first bit of fitted units that I've done, but to do your kitchen from start to finish using natural timbers and not just plywood? And to make the worktops as well? That is what I would do. I think it would be quite stunning to make your own food in a kitchen you built from start to finish. It would be great, I'd like to build up to that.

What's one thing you wish people understood about woodworking?

FG: I think the conversations are going to get harder around money. As an example, the guy who works at the bench next to me makes chairs. Wayfair sells great furniture at cheap prices, but he’s been asked to make a set of dining chairs to match their prices, which is ninety-nine pounds a chair. 

It's difficult to explain to people how long it actually takes us. Some people think you can chop down a tree, cut it up into boards, and then make furniture. They don't understand that wood actually has to sit for up to two years to dry out, then goes into a kiln to dry, and then, you can start making furniture with it. We're not doing fast furniture—if someone is looking at IKEA prices, they're not our customer.

Table with sundial on it.

Fiona Gilfillan

What has been the most rewarding part of learning to build?

FG: Going home at the end of the day having made something that didn't exist that same morning. The rewarding part is twofold: one, there's something at the end of my bench that wasn't there two years ago, and two, I'm moving into teaching. I love getting people into the workshop and showing them how to turn a bowl on the lathe, it's just great to share that. That joy that you get when you've made something, taking something square and making it round and shiny and nice to look at—that's a great feeling. 

Rapid-Fire Questions

Favorite wood: Scottish Elm
Favorite tool or piece of equipment: Festool Domino, it’s a German brand.
Favorite piece: This console table that I made in the intermediate course, which is made out of elm and ash.
Biggest goal: To move into teaching. I would like to teach other people to do what I'm doing, and hopefully, that's going to come to fruition within the next year. 
Favorite accessory: This mallet I made myself. It’s made from a lawn bowl, from a wood called lignum vitae, which is very heavy. I made it when I was on the professional course, and it's super useful. It sits on my bench all the time. It's kind of grown with me, it's got the shape of my hand. 
Favorite step of the process: Milling the wood. I love getting a board, chopping it to the right size, taking the weathered surface of it, and seeing the grain coming through. 
Favorite assistant: The person on the workbench next to mine. He and I do very different things and it works really well. He was on the course the year behind me, and we got on great. He has a lot more confidence. He goes outside of his comfort zone quite a lot, and we're really good at finding ideas from each other.
Music on or off while working: I just switched my music off to speak with you. We have BBC Radio 6 on. My neighbor listens to that, and it's widened my music tastes.