Girls Who Build is a series of profiles of women who build...like girls. Yes, that's right. Girls are powerful and so are these women, especially when it comes to creating beautiful and useful pieces from wood, metal, and more. These girls are kicking butt in an historically male-dominated industry, and we cannot get enough! Here we find out how they got started and how you can, too.
We recently had the pleasure of connecting with Katie Thompson, founder of Women of Woodworking. Through her platform, Katie works to highlight women, female-identifying, and non-binary craftspeople by sharing their stories through interviews and essays. We chatted about Katie’s own journey into woodworking, which projects she values the most, and the true importance of community in the world of woodcraft.
Meet the Expert
Katie Thompson is an artist, author, creative consultant, speaker, a disabled mother of two, and wife and partner to fine furniture maker Joseph Thompson. She's the founder of Women of Woodworking, originally an e-newsletter on her website and now a series of essays about women and art published on Medium. She's based in Lowcountry, South Carolina, and you can also find Katie on Instagram.
Her Early Inspiration
The first time Katie realized she wanted to be a woodworker, she was watching her dad in his workshop. While his day job was in healthcare administration, “Dad was a hobbyist,” explained Katie. “It was neat to see him on weekends with this as his way to destress.”
While watching him work, Katie thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if I could make something I thought of or something I designed?” While she was always seeking a creative outlet, that usually came in the form of performing arts and theater. It wasn’t until she was a freshman at Presbyterian College that she began to explore her love of design and visual arts.
A Life-Altering Injury
But in 2005, in the middle of her freshman year, Katie had a spinal cord injury and contracted meningitis, putting a temporary pause on her goals. Temporary is the keyword here: the accident happened in January and Katie was back on campus by July. “I was hell-bent and determined to be independent again.”
At the time, Katie was grateful to live close to her parents, but as soon as she recovered, she knew she was ready to spread her wings again. “I was like, I’m going to Charleston for the summer! And then, I just never left.”
The College Years Developed Her Passion
Katie enrolled in the College of Charleston. “I had a hunger to make something and use my hands,” she said. “I wanted to try everything, I was just hungry to learn.” She began with a drawing class and moved onto welding. It was woodworking that would eventually capture her heart—and introduce her to her future husband.
“It’s hard not to develop a relationship with our materials as woodworkers. It’s something that’s so personal and almost kind of sacred to a lot of us. We just have a lot of reverence for it and take it very seriously.”
In 2009, Katie faced another health setback with a third surgery. “I had my spine fused so I had big screws and two rods put in.” But much like in 2005, she didn’t let it hold her back for long. “By March, I was back taking express classes—that extended my college career a bit,” she said before revealing that she graduated from the College of Charleston that December—five years after she started as a freshman at Presbyterian College.
As she talked about her love for the College of Charleston, Katie’s face lit up.
“I was really frustrated creatively in my college years, and I remember leaving this one class. It was this typical rainy gray Charleston day, and I was walking by this really historical place called the Cistern. It’s where you convene on your first day and it’s where you graduate. It’s really important on campus and [surrounded by] lots of old, historic trees, and I remember just sitting there and I felt so helpless. I’m never gonna be able to tap into my creativity again, I’m a crappy artist. Just one of those total Charlie Brown days.”
In 2016, one of those old, historic trees fell and the school reached out to Katie, asking her to design and produce a customized collection for the alumni association as a fundraiser. Using the oak from the fallen tree, she designed and created earrings, necklaces, cufflinks, oyster knives, and a bottle opener—all inspired by the shape of the oval lawn in front of the Cistern.
“I joke about it coming full circle, but the Cistern is shaped like an oval and a lot of the pieces are inspired by that. And it really did close the gap for me. It took me back to that day and I was like, I made it! I wish I could go back and pat her on the back and say, ‘It’s gonna be ok!’”
2010: Meeting Her Husband and Growing Her Experience
After graduating with a degree in communication, Katie began working with local companies in Charleston, managing their marketing, brand development, and social media presence. This was when she met her husband, fine furniture maker Joseph Thompson. “At that point, all he had was a business card and a Hotmail address. No website, no social media, nothing.”
They began working together in the spring of 2010, and by the summer, things turned romantic. On a trip to Chicago, while out to dinner at an Italian restaurant, Joseph made an incredibly sweet and unexpected gesture.
“He said, ‘If you ever want me to build something for you or you want to design something together, I would love to do that with you.’ And I was like hold up! And I pulled out my sketchbook. I was like ‘Alright, here we go!’ And that was it.”
Back in Charleston, Katie began to join Joseph in the shop. It was there that she found herself.
“I felt like woodworking and learning from my husband and designing and building with him, it wasn’t going to be the thing I did for the rest of my life, like he does, but it really gave me room to find my voice and make mistakes and get kickbacks on the table saw. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, those long nights in the shop.”
A Burgeoning-Husband-and-Wife Partnership
For the next five years, Joseph and Katie worked side by side, designing, working on commissions together, traveling, and showing at exhibitions.
“I feel like I cheated big time. My husband had already been working for seven or eight years, so his full shop was set up. He pretty much had everything. My dad had given me his old scroll saw, but I can’t even think of my first tool. I had this full shop, I had this master craftsman ready to spend all this time working with me, teaching me stuff that people pay thousands of dollars for.”
It was with Joseph by her side that Katie truly learned the importance of understanding the foundations. In 2010, during one of her first days in the workshop, she decided she wanted to bend wood to create a headband. “I asked him to cut it out, but he said, ‘It’s not going to work, it’s just going to snap.’ I finally convinced him to cut it out and…sure enough it snapped!”
“That was my biggest lesson in being like, ok, I need to learn how wood moves. This is not how I think it is. This is a living thing. How I work with it has to be very intentional, very purposeful. Whereas before, you know, I was a very intuitive, creative type. But that taught me you have to have boundaries, you have to have structure. You have to have a good foundation of knowledge. Otherwise, everything is going to snap.”
In 2012, Katie worked with her husband to create what continues to be her favorite piece—and it was the first that she designed with Joseph. “It was a stool and we actually still have it. That was really special because it was the first time I felt like somebody saw my vision and it happened very organically. I was looking at this offcut in the shop and I flipped it over and was like, ‘That’s a stool,’ and he was like, ‘You know what, it is!’”
2013: Shop Challenges and New Opportunities
She took a moment to reminisce about their old shop, which they’ve since upgraded. “The old shop was a lean-to. Inefficient, hot, bad for the wood. We were trying to make fine furniture, but how it would sit in the shop would change in an air-conditioned room.” When they moved in 2013, a climate-controlled shop was a must. “I don’t know how we did it in the old shop.”
While Katie has tried her hand at all types of woodworking and furniture-making techniques, she found one of her truest loves to be jewelry-making. “I like to make stuff that I can wear,” she explained. “I like to make wood do what it’s not normally supposed to do. There’s a lot of room to learn, and a lot of room to play.”
When it comes to her future goals as an artist, Katie doesn’t rule anything out, but she also looks at things practically. “I really wanted to do larger installation pieces, but, with my health, I don’t know if that will ever happen. And so that was one of the things that I had to decide ok, you’re not going to be able to do everything.”
From this, Katie learned another valuable lesson. “There will be a lot of things that I want to do that don’t necessarily come to fruition, but I think that’s true for everybody. Sometimes you just have more ideas in you than you even do time on this earth.”
2015: Launching Women of Woodworking
Now, because of Katie’s incredibly fortunate introduction to woodworking and fine furniture-making, she feels passionate about elevating others in the same way. “Not everyone has that seamless entryway into the craft. Anything I can do to help open the door for somebody else, I feel like I’m obligated to pay it forward a little bit.”
In 2015, shortly after the birth of her first child, Katie started Women of Woodworking. Through this endeavor, she’s met some truly incredible fellow woodworkers. She beamed as she rattled off the names of some of the women she’s met as a result.
“Sarah Marriage, the force behind A Workshop of Our Own in Baltimore. Just so supportive, what she’s done for women and gender-nonconforming craftspeople and making everyone feel welcome. Leslie Webb in Austin, TX. So humble, so talented, and really focused on helping others, sharing their stories, and helping people feel comfortable in the craft. Motoko Smith! Everything needs to be in a museum, and she’s just so sweet, too.”
2020: Flourishing During a Pandemic
Up Since 2015, the community has grown organically, and it’s flourished in quarantine. “I’ve had to pause the project off and on over the years for different reasons, but this last year with the shut down I was like ok, great. This is my opportunity.”
Mary May, a fellow Charleston-based woodworker with a focus on fine woodcarving, inspired Katie to fire Women of Woodworking back up. Katie started with weekly Instagram live sessions, hosted Wednesdays at 7:30 PM EST. “I’ve been focusing on ways to grow and it’s been a lot of work but I’m really excited for what’s ahead.”
Along with teaching marketing, business development, and social media at the Charleston Woodworking School, Katie also started a monthly Women of Woodworking Affinity Group with The Furniture Society.
“They reached out about doing a series, and a monthly meet-up for women and nonbinary craftspeople was born. Thanks to the virtual programming, the response has been awesome. It feels pretty magical, actually. It just feels like a real honor to be a part of this special moment where we’re all… coming out of the woodwork, so to speak!” Katie laughed before adding, “Woodworkers love puns, I’m sorry. You can’t be a woodworker and not like puns.”
Katie's Advice for Aspiring Woodworkers
Along with honing a love of puns, Katie had other invaluable advice for women interested in pursuing woodworking.
“Try it out! Don’t let that stomach drop when you take that first step into the workshop. Don’t let that hold you back. That’s just a little voice you need to ignore. We all have it, especially us women in a male-dominated field. We often walk into the shop and think we have to prove ourselves. But you don’t have to prove anything to anybody other than yourself. Just by going in there and taking a chance to learn something new, that takes a lot of strength and courage. Don’t listen to that gut drop!”
As the conversation came to an end, Katie said she had one more thought to share with anyone interested in joining the woodworking community—whether it’s in-person with your local artisans, or online through the growing virtual community.
“You might feel like you’re the only person out there, but the woodworking community has a very communal spirit. And that definitely exists within the community of women, nonbinary, and trans craftspeople. There is a community out there for you. There are so many fabulous schools around the world. So go in there and find what speaks to you.”
“There’s room for all of us. Don’t be afraid to put your neck out there.”