Gail Grycel: From music to woodworking, with classes for women

By Steve Noble

GailGrycelThe first time Gail Grycel tried to teach a woodworking class for women, she met more resistance than an axe hitting knotty pine.

“No way are women going to use my shop!” she recalls the shop teacher at the public Massachusetts high school where she was going to teach saying.

But Grycel persevered. She finally persuaded the teacher to let them use the shop, and the class was a hit. Now, nearly 20 years later, Grycel is still teaching woodworking classes for women _ and still pushing back against the kind of cultural small-mindedness that made people think that shop classes were for boys; girls could do home economics.

“I grew up in a family that’s very gender-specific,” said Grycel, a custom cabinetmaker whose business, Twin Birch Woodworking, is based in Westminster West. “By the time I got into my adult life, I didn’t think woodworking was a thing women can do.”

For a time, Grycel was set on a career in classical music. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music performance as an oboist and studied for a time with the English horn player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But even then, something about playing music for a living didn’t sit right. Call it the lack of anything tangible about it. Once you performed something, it was gone, to live on only in the memory of the listener or on a recording. But it was never the same.

Around then, in the midst what she calls her “reality” crisis, two things happened which sent Grycel on the path she’s still on. First, she stumbled onto a book about women carpenters, and it gave her an “aha” moment.

“‘What would it feel like to actually build my own home?’” she found herself asking.

Grycel TableA couple of years later, needing a job to supplement the income she earned teaching private music lessons, she answered an ad for a paid part-time apprenticeship with two men who owned a cabinet shop. She stayed there for 10 years, the position grew into a full-time one, and the two men proved to be patient teachers and mentors for what has become her life’s work.

“It’s so tangible,” said Grycel of making things out of wood. In her early days, she would often go to a table she had made and run her hands along it, appreciating the simple, real fact that it was still there.

“My skills as a musician actually transferred really well to woodworking, in terms of attention to detail … and practicing skills,” said Grycel.

She also discovered a gift for teaching woodworking to others. At first, it was a friend who recognized the gift she had. “You know you make this so accessible,” the friend told her. “Have you ever thought about teaching it to other women?”

The first class, the one at the high school shop in Harvard, Mass., was a success despite the initial resistance. She continued on, and when she moved to Vermont 15 years ago to live in the house she built, she started teaching the classes here.

Class size is kept small _ usually four to six women _ to allow for personal attention. The first class of each eight-week session is spent talking about the function and design of various items of furniture, showing participants how to use joiners, sanders, planers and saws, and getting to know each woman’s background and experience with woodworking. The stories are often similar.

“Most of the women who come to me have that story. They have societal messages that women can’t do the work,” said Grycel. “The come in, and they’re ripe to learn. … It still brings me to tears because I went through that journey.”

Along the way, they get a lot more than basic woodworking skills. Grycel cays on her website, http://www.twinbirchwoodworking.com, that her work is about “facilitating an environment for learning and empowerment.

Grycel lampOne woman’s story is typical. She came to Grycel’s class as an experiment, needing some fulfillment and a boost in self-esteem after going through a nasty divorce. By session’s end, she told Grycel, “I now feel I can go out and do anything.”

The women in the classes really do just about anything. Grycel encourages them to follow their own creative impulses. Students in the most recent set of fall classes designed and built small tables, boxes, picture frames, stools, a radiator cover and a set of animal shapes to accompany a favorite story one participant’s grandchildren love to hear.

“I really encourage them to go in any direction they want,” she said.

People in the class grow close over the eight weeks. It may start out as a workshop of strangers, but by the end, they are carpooling together or meeting for dinner before the classes.

Grycel does offer classes for men sometimes, and teaches classes for boys and girls through the Windham Regional Career Center and kids’ classes at her studio. She enjoys those, but there’s something special about the classes for women. That first class in a high school shop has turned into a mission.

IMG_1921“I didn’t realize this was going to be a lifelong commitment.” she said.

Of course, Grycel also remains committed to her own creative work as a cabinet-maker and custom builder who believes in the power of things made from wood by hand.

“One’s personal spirit is put into everything that’s put in our hands. Having something that was made especially for you by someone … that’s something that pulls you toward it again and again.”

Woodworking classes for women start again in the spring. Visit http://www.twinbirchwoodworking.com for details.

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