Reflections of a lifelong woodworker

by Gerald Winslow ’67, theology




Gerald Winslow graduated in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in theology. 

Like Jesus, my father was a carpenter. The fact that Dad was superb at building things from wood offered me security as a boy growing up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Dad needed to provide for my stay-at-home mother and six children—relying, in part, on his education of only seven years on the Alberta prairie. During the depths of the Great Depression, the only job he could find was digging ditches with the Works Progress Administration (WPA). One day the crew chief told the workers that WPA would pay for them to attend a trade school for electricians, plumbers, or carpenters if they were willing to take a 25% pay cut. Most of the men declined. But Dad signed up for carpentry school. After only six months, Dad earned a living building houses, barns, church additions, and even the bleachers beside the local high school football field. 

When I was about 10 years old, I started going to work with my father whenever I could. During summer breaks, on Sundays, or on other vacation days, I became a junior carpenter. I loved the work, and I loved the fact that Dad would trust me with more and more difficult or dangerous tasks when I seemed ready. I was sure that Jesus didn’t have a worm-drive circular saw like my dad’s. But I imagined they both used many similar tools, such as squares, planes, chisels, marking gauges, and hammers. And I imagined they both took pride in their work. It was satisfying to complete a building, to watch a family move in and call it their home.   

For my sophomore year in high school, I went to Columbia Academy, a boarding school just north of Vancouver, Washington. It was my first experience in an Adventist school. All the students were required to work what were called budgets, numbered one through four. Those from families with very limited financial means, like mine, chose budget four. This meant four hours of work each afternoon and eight hours on Sundays. I spent a few weeks on the lawn crew, mowing acres of grass while walking behind a huge Toro mower. Then Joshua Wall, the shop teacher, discovered I had experience with carpentry and cabinet making, and he recruited me to work in the cabinet shop. Mr. Wall was a masterful teacher and a gracious human being. To this day, whenever I go to work in my own woodshop, I use skills I learned from Mr. Wall and my father.   

Now more than 60 years later, I still love the aroma of fresh-cut wood. And I love the process of designing and then building projects from wood. Crafting a piece of furniture for a family member or turning a bowl for a wedding gift is satisfying aesthetically, physically, and spiritually. Woodworking fully engages all the senses simultaneously. With enough experience, the woodworker knows whether the sound is right or not, whether feel of the tool in hand is as it should be. 

Sometime in midlife, I read The Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima (San Francisco: Kodansha Publishing, 1981), an ingenious woodworker. The task of the woodworker, Nakashima taught, is to open the story of a once-living wonder we call a tree. Done well, the story of that tree can be appreciated in new ways: The tree’s good years and lean years, the stresses, and even the diseases can be opened to view to reveal the tree’s biography and the beauty of its life. What was a living entity may now live again—this time perhaps as a treasured part of a family’s life together. This is, I now believe, the right spirit for woodworking.

A theologian friend of mine who was also a woodworker told me once about a conversation he had about Jesus and carpentry. The theologian’s visitor expressed the belief that the furniture Jesus made would have been perfect because Jesus would never have made an error. The theologian huffed to me, “Obviously the fellow wasn’t a woodworker!” It’s true, of course. If one works with wood, there will be surprises, and there will be slipups. Excellence in this craft requires fixing mistakes. That’s what grace is for. 

Gerald carves a wooden bowl on a lathe.
Gerald’s wood creations are often time consuming and feature a variety of woods from around the world.
A wooden cradle that Gerald made.
This cherry cradle was made for Gerald’s grandsons.
Photo of a bench Gerald made.
A traditional Norwegian bench known as a sengebenk.