One Short Plank: The Backstory
Hello there! Thanks for taking the time to visit my site and for your interest in my woodworking. My name is Alan Brouder and I am (as it were) One Short Plank (although in reality I'm 180cm - about 5'11 - so not that short really). I grew up in Galway on the west coast of Ireland and have been living in and around Oxford in the UK since 2010 after many years living in Germany, Kenya, Malawi, and Cambodia.
I set up One Short Plank in 2020 after losing my job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having spent more than 20 years as an aid worker focused mostly on climate change and environmental sustainability, I took the job loss as a spur to pursue my long-standing hobby and passion - turning beautiful trees at the end of their lives into beautiful objects at the start of theirs.
In my previous career, the day job was often filled with nebulous discussions about 'theories of change,' 'social innovation,' and 'transformative empowerment'. While I always believed in the importance of social justice and poverty alleviation, the actual day-to-day tasks that I undertook provided little or no sense of achievement. There were no objective criteria to determine the extent to which I was any good at my job, whether I was doing enough, or whether I was even putting my efforts in the right direction. And ego aside, there was scant evidence that we - as a sector - were making any significant difference on the ground, with a few notable exceptions.
And so I began to retreat from all this into my shed. I wanted to learn a craft, a skill, something that would take effort and patience, but that would allow me to create something tangible; something that didn't require a committee to approve or debate. Something I could simply point to and say, 'Look - it's there. You can touch it. That's my work'. And in doing so I fell down an engaging rabbit hole that has kept me enthralled for 15 years.
I love every aspect of woodworking - the trees, the tools, the techniques. And the cliché is true - the more you learn, the more you realise that you are still very much a novice. Nevertheless, over the years I have managed to make everything from pens to summerhouses, bowls to bunk beds, chairs to children's toys. In a world that encourages consumption at the lowest price, I feel that I have at least attempted to reclaim a sense of agency by learning the skills required to make things in the form that I want them to be, and that bring some joy to others.
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was discouraged from anything that might be interpreted as 'manual labour'. There were clear social lines between those who worked with their hands and those who (at least on paper) worked with their heads. In some respects, the gap has widened since then, with the 'professions' valued more highly in society than the 'trades,' many of which are sadly dying out. The illusion of meritocracy and its concomitant creation of a competitive market for university degrees have entrenched the idea that getting on in life through higher education is both morally worthy and strategically smart.
Nevertheless, the last 15 years or so has seen the emergence of a significant makers' movement. Some of this is an indicator of people wanting to reclaim some agency; some of it is a result of technology - people can now make astonishing things at home with 3D printers and CNC machines and sell them on sites such as Etsy. Much of it, I believe, comes from the realisation that bringing something physical to life requires working with both the hand and the head, and often the heart (although not necessarily in the sense of care work which David Goodhart eludes to in his terrific book Hand, Head, Heart). There have been some wonderful books written on the motivations for - and value of - handwork, as both a physical and intellectual pursuit. Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an obvious classic, but more recent contributions worth seeking out include Matthew Crawford's The Case for Working with your Hands, and Peter Korn's Why We Make Things and Why It Matters.
The movement has also been facilitated and sustained by online learning. Apart from a couple of short woodturning courses, I have learned almost everything I know from YouTube, and more recently Instagram. I get inspiration from Pinterest and other online sources, and I have been a member of the FOG (Festool Owner's Group) since 2007.
Turning this pastime into a full-time endeavour has been a daunting and often worrying project. I'm working out of our own two-car garage (or as our American friends would call it - a one-car garage). The space is not ideal for woodworking - it's draughty, the temperature and humidity fluctuate wildy, the big up-and-over door doesn't close and is about to fall off, I can never find the thing I had in my hand 10 seconds ago, it's hazardous for small kids, there are birds nesting in my ceiling and pooing on my tools, and I have gotten into debt in order to get the business off the ground. But I have also never felt more motivated in my life. I adore what I now do as a day job, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of that labour. Look - it's there. You can touch it. That's my work.