What I love the most about woodworking is the combination of design thinking, immediate gratification, and the beauty of finished products. I have ideas swirling around in my head all the time, and it’s so gratifying to turn them into reality. When I’m in the shop, I get into a flow state where time flies by and I’m utterly focused on making the right cuts, observing safety, and smelling the soft scent of whatever wood species I’m cutting. My music plays in the background, my pooch Billie wags her tail exploring the shop, and my piece begins to take form. It’s absolutely gratifying to know that when I finish my project, I will have a stunning form that I took from concept to reality. I like to build most of my own furniture because I can get it exactly how I want it. The creation process, the customized piece, the beautiful results, and the endless room for design make it an amazing hobby that keeps pulling me back to the shop.
My name is Blake Carpenter, and I’m a 31-year-old Deep Learning/Computer Vision Engineer who has focused on developing self-driving cars. For the past four years, I’ve worked at a small start-up, where I helped develop self-driving long-haul semi-trucks. As an early engineer at the company, I helped build the model that detects the location of lane lines in images taken from cameras mounted on the truck. This allows the truck to stay in the highway lane and know where it is going.
I was inspired to choose a career in tech when I was in high school, and I got involved in a fun robotics competition called Botball. I spent many hours in my school’s basement with friends building small autonomous Lego robots that were designed to collect floofy, colourful balls on a playing field. I had so much fun designing, creating, and programming these robots that I decided to go to Stanford University to study Artificial Intelligence (AI). From there, I searched for jobs that could leverage my AI skill set!
I live in San Francisco, but I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. I travelled out to California for school and found myself enamoured by the innovative and exciting tech scene present in the Bay Area. Not only does the area have amazing opportunities for building robots, but the region’s diverse landscapes allows me to stay in touch with nature. Whether it’s swimming in the San Francisco Bay, hiking through the enormous Redwoods of Muir Woods, or biking in the Stanford Hills, the Bay Area is a beautiful place to relax and explore.
Outside of my job, I love woodworking and crafts projects. I like to say one of the best things I got out of my Master’s degree at Stanford was my passion for woodworking. While there, I had the opportunity to take some design courses in the design school. One of those classes got me into the school’s woodshop, and I created my first cutting board: a beefy maple and purple heart board, with a teak inlay that looks like a tree branch. From there, I was hooked. The combination of precise planning, 3D problem-solving, and gratifyingly beautiful results led me to spend many hours in the shop. Since I left school, I’ve always found a way to continue growing my hobby in maker spaces or in apartment basements. In 2019, I rented out a space to put a woodshop, and have built tables, bed frames, cutting boards, bowls, and many more beautiful hardwood pieces for my home and friends.
If you’re a woodworker, you’re probably also a tool hoarder – every project has the need for a tool that makes your life easier or allows you to shape and finish the wood perfectly. I started out using hand chisels, saws, and planes when I worked in public maker spaces that provided some of the bigger machinery. Once I had my own space to work, I invested in a jointer and planer for taking rough lumber and making sure all sides are precisely square, flat, and parallel. Well-dimensioned lumber is a must for any project. From there, I’ve gotten a hold of a table saw, drill press, wood lathe, and hand router. Each of these tools allows me to cut large material, shape intricate designs, and turn a design in my head into reality. Being someone who loves taking on new challenges, having a full-fledged shop is a must.
There’s a different process for crafting every woodwork piece, but how about we take a mid-century modern coffee table my cousin and his wife recently commissioned from me as an example (seen in the Feature Photo). I work hand-in-hand with clients and begin the majority of my pieces by finding similar works and using them for inspiration. I worked with my cousins to create an idea board of all the coffee table designs on the web that they liked. From there, we determined what aspects of each one we liked and I mocked up a quick sketch. Once we settled on the general design, I took the design to Autodesk’s Fusion 360 3D modelling software. Here, I created a 3D mock-up of the table, complete with the walnut grain they were interested in. I use 3D models to really get a feel for how the piece will look before I build it, as well as get a precise understanding of how the parts fit together. We used this model to make alterations and test out different design decisions. After a few interactions, the design was perfect and I set out to build it. I went to a local lumber yard and spent about two hours scouring through their walnut pile to find the most exquisitely figured boards. I then take the designs from the 3D model and step-by-step craft each piece and assemble them together. The finish is the most exciting part – once you put an oil/varnish on the piece, the hazy grain of the table pops out, revealing its shimmering beauty.
I love taking on new challenges in the shop. Some of the projects over the years that have really got my brain going were jatoba wooden sunglasses, an oak 5-string electric violin, and my gorgeous walnut king-size floating bed frame. Recently, I’ve been delving into creating bowls and platters on the wood lathe using green logs I’ve been gifted from local arborists. I’m using these logs to create a vase/bowl series that celebrates the life of and history of San Francisco trees and the neighbourhoods they grew in.
One of my favourite woodworking projects was a 5 string electric violin. I grew up playing the viola for 11 years, but stopped once I became busy with college. So once I got into the woodshop, I figured it might re-ignite my musicality by building myself a violin. The design had a lot of curves, required some wood bending, and was quite a challenge. I initially thought it would make sense to use a CNC Router (a computer-controlled 3D cutting machine) to cut out my 3D model of the instrument from a block of purple heart wood. However, after countless hours and 14 failed attempts at getting the violin’s body cut out, I opted to try shaping it by hand. Going back to the basics was way more gratifying and allowed me to shape the neck and the body perfectly. It took me half a year of working on it, but I finally finished it and it came out beautifully. It sounded pretty good too!
Right now, my goals with woodworking are to start taking my hobby to a more professional level. I love taking on interesting projects and working with people to create the perfect piece. I’ve been working on setting up a custom woodworking side business for the San Francisco area called Two Trees Woodworking (https://twotreeswoodworking.weebly.com/). The business is fun, but also requires a lot of time and non-woodworking work. I’m still exploring how to maintain a balance of relaxation, time in the shop, and time expanding the business. For the holiday season last year, I took a little bit of a break to refresh, and I’m now back in 2021 invigorated and ready to help people build their perfect wooden piece.
There are so many parallels between software and woodworking, it’s no wonder I developed a passion for both. I think one of the main differences is that software is digital and woodworking is physical. Projects for both require upfront design, creativity, and planning. Most software projects require churning out some required but basic code and following routine development patterns. Similarly, most projects in woodworking require the same rote tasks of dimensioning lumber to its initial size. Even throughout projects for both, there are bugs. Maybe some code isn’t working appropriately or maybe I accidentally nicked a wood board and caused a gash – both of these situations need to be debugged and fixed. However, once I finish a software or woodworking project, I get a sense of gratification and amazement.
I absolutely think woodworking has been a benefit to my technological career. The organizational and logical-thinking skills I’ve developed over the years in computer science have directly impacted my woodworking process. I’m able to deconstruct the piece I’m working on in my head and completely plan it out before starting. I think this allows me to be more effective with my time and have fewer mistakes in the shop. On the flip side, the appreciation for design and beauty in my woodworking has translated into a less robotic and more holistic approach to my career. Software isn’t just about code; it’s about people – not just the people I work with, but everyone in the company. I’m more than just a worker, and so are they. Discovering the woodworker inside of me has helped me appreciate all of my co-workers’ creative and fun outlets. We bond over the love of beautiful things or daydream about fun projects. It easy in a corporate environment to value people for just the work they do at the company – however, finding my creative side has pushed me to see the side of themselves that makes them shine, not just what they do to make a living (though sometimes that’s both!).
My best piece of advice for anyone interested in woodworking is to start small and simple. Buy a mallet, a hand saw, a nice chisel, and a clamp or two (~$100 total). This is all you need to make a beautiful box. I’d also recommend buying some inexpensive lumber and then some fancy hardwood. Watch YouTube videos and practice your skills with some pine. And when you feel good, use the hardwood. It’s amazing how beautiful a simple box can look with a nice hardwood. My other piece of advice is that you don’t need a shop to get started. Use your kitchen table or even a flat chair as your bench. I remember hammering away in my small grad student apartment working on a box that I still use today.
There is always more than tech, and I think it is IMMENSELY important to share our creative passions. Too easily are we being defined by our job, what we accomplish, and what company we work at. It’s easy to lose personal growth and a sense of self when we spend the majority of our time in front of a computer screen working for companies that value our output more than our personhood. Sharing your creative side with others gives people an insight into who you are and allows people to be more than just a tech worker. Modelling personal discovery and creativity for others helps encourage them to do the same and build an atmosphere where we value each other by our whole being, our inspirations, and what we bring to the community at large, not just the work we do for the companies that pay us.