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Big Mike’s B-town: Nancy Hiller, Cabinetmaker and Author

Nancy Hiller went from “cobbling together” scraps of wood in her dining room in England to owning a successful woodworking studio in Bloomington. She has also written several books about her craft, including her latest, "Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life." | Photo by Jim Krause, <a href="http://ttop.com/" target="_blank">Tabletop Productions</a>

Nancy Hiller went from “cobbling together” scraps of wood in her dining room in England to owning a successful woodworking studio in Bloomington. She has also written several books about her craft, including her latest, “Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life.” | Photo by Jim Krause, Tabletop Productions

“If you want to do something, you do it. I’m not one of those people who are constrained by other people’s expectations.” So says Nancy Hiller, our town’s nationally recognized furniture-maker and designer.

Hiller got into the woodworking business largely as a rebuke to a harsh critic from her youth in England. “Back in the late 1970s when my then-boyfriend and I had no furniture to speak of and we couldn’t afford any, I just started cobbling things together,” she says. “I guess I wasn’t afraid to. I had no idea whatsoever of what I was doing, but that didn’t stop me. I didn’t have any tools; I just borrowed my boyfriend’s hardware store tools and literally sawed pieces of wood by hand on a chair or on our little gate-leg table that my mother had bought at a junk shop years before.”

A relative who’d made it a habit to scoff at Hiller for years sniffed derisively at her homemade bookcase and table. He cracked wise, Why don’t you go to carpentry school?, knowing women at the time rarely did so. He’d sold Hiller short.

“We had such a contentious relationship that, to spite him, I called up the local vocational college,” Hiller says. She enrolled in a City & Guilds (London’s trade school) furniture-making course and actually quit her factory job to attend classes. She threw herself into the craft with gusto.

“At that time, I didn’t have tools and I didn’t have a workshop. I set things up in our dining room. I started practicing and making little things to help offset the cost of our rent,” she says. “Gradually, when I could afford a new tool, I would buy one.”

A more supportive relative helped push her along. Her grandfather bought her a modest combination planer and joiner machine for her 21st birthday. “It also went in the dining room,” Hiller says. “I was constantly sweeping up shavings.”

From such a humble — and contrarian — beginning, she has become a highly respected woodworker, running her own successful workshop.

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“It’s true, I’m a ‘woodworker,’” she says. She’s also a perfectionist, no matter if it comes to fitting tenon to mortise or speaking precisely. “But woodworking is a huge category. There are woodworkers who turn decorative pens. There are woodworkers who carve spoons or clogs. There are woodworkers who are joiners and carpenters. I prefer to identify myself as a cabinetmaker.” That’s the traditional term for furniture makers and builders of built-in and stand-alone cabinets and bookshelves.

Hiller designed and built this kitchen in a "near-pristine" '50s ranch home. | Photo by Kendall Reeves, <a href="http://spectrumstudioinc.com/" target="_blank">Spectrum Studio</a>

Hiller designed and built this kitchen in a “near-pristine” ’50s ranch home. | Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio

Hiller’d moved with her mother and sister to England in 1971 when her parents’ marriage broke up. She spent 16 years there, attending middle and high schools, and even embarking on a bachelor’s degree at the University of Cambridge before dropping out. She came back to the United States after her own first marriage broke up. She’s now married to Mark Longacre, a builder and remodeler.

“Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life” is Hiller’s latest book. | Courtesy image

In the ensuing years on this side of the Atlantic, Hiller built up a reputation as a craftsperson, earning calls from potential customers around the Midwest and on the East Coast, hoping she’d help them create period-sensitive kitchens or build accurate Shaker dining tables. Her work has been featured in such industry-standard journals as Popular Woodworking, Old-House Journal, and Fine Woodworking. She’s also penned a few books, including The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History and A Home of Her Own, as well as editing Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field. Her newest book, Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life, hits the streets this month.

This latest manuscript has been percolating in Hiller’s mind for years. Lee Sandweiss, then a sponsoring editor at Indiana University Press, urged her to write the Hoosier Cabinet book, her first, more than a decade ago. Even then she’d already been contemplating writing about the funny characters, the frustrations, the joys, and the artistry of the woodworking business.

The idea of an irreverent look at her craft and at living never went away. Now it’s a reality in Making Things Work.”

“The title has a double meaning,” Hiller explains. “It is, of course, about the work of making things. But it is also an expression I use on an almost daily basis: Let’s just make it work.

“The book draws on stories and experiences from my life to make points about some of the realities of professional cabinetmaking.”

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Among those stories is one about her experience as a temp in the carpentry shop of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, England, some 50 miles north of London.

This hallstand, by Hiller, is based on an English Arts & Crafts original. | Photo by Kendall Reeves, <a href="http://spectrumstudioinc.com/" target="_blank">Spectrum Studio</a>

This hallstand, by Hiller, is based on an English Arts & Crafts original. | Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio

“It was a complete, fabulous blast,” she says. She worked in the wood shop with some crusty old veterans of the British civil service and military — “Unabashedly sexist co-workers who were uninhibited in their use of the English language,” she says of them.

Try as they might, they couldn’t ruffle the young person in their midst. “I was the only woman,” Hiller says. “They teased me relentlessly. We got along like gangbusters. I loved those guys.”

Some of the tales Hiller recounts revolve around her contention that a reputation for brilliance in a field — her own or any other — goes only so far. “The overarching theme of the book is pulling apart some of the fantasies and myths that surround a life of woodworking,” she says. “For example, the notion that if you’re an excellent craftsperson, you must be an excellent human being.”

She pulls no punches in describing some of the juicier tales of the heroes and villains in her world, save for changing the names of the less admirable characters. An agent had read an early draft and told her she was dumping on people. So Hiller toned down her rhetoric in the rewrite. “The agent was right,” she says. Sarcasm and snark are more acceptable for wits and wags whose work is known for those qualities.

“That’s fine if you’re David Sedaris,” Hiller says. “He can refer to a place as” — here, she drifts into that familiar Sedaris voice — “‘One of those tragic countries.’ But if you’re Nancy Hiller, people are going to be like, ‘Holy crap, did you hear what she said?!’ It’s not funny, then. It’s insulting. So the book got tamer. I am not by nature a mean person.”

[Editor’s note: On March 25 at 3 p.m., The Book Corner will host an appearance by Nancy Hiller to celebrate the publication of her latest book, Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life. She appeared on Michael Glab’s Big Talk interview show on WFHB on February 9.]

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Michael G. Glab
Michael G. Glab has been an independent writer since 1983 when he wrote his first article for the Chicago Reader about professional wrestlers. His in-depth personality profiles became a staple in the Reader over the next two decades. Today, he hosts a WFHB radio interview feature called “Big Talk” and is the brain behind the blog, The Electron Pencil. WFIU’s David Brent Johnson has described Big Mike as “a hip town crier” who writes “in a colorful, intelligent working class vernacular.”
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