Minneapolis Women’s Woodworking Shop, Non-Binary Crowd Reopen Stronger Than Before

The pandemic has shut down countless community spaces for the arts and creativity. In Minneapolis, Jess Hirsch’s DIY woodworking shop for women and non-binary people isn’t immune.

Known at the time as Women’s Woodshop, it went from teaching nearly 1,000 students how to use power tools each year in a small location in the Standish community to doing its best to bring woodworking lessons to Zoom. They left the Standish location in April 2020 after closing during the lockdown.

Now, Hirsch and other teams are rebuilding what may be the only place in the Twin Cities dedicated to learning woodworking for marginalized genders — this time at a site three times the size of Prospect Park, and under a new name.

The “Store Warming” party at the Fireweed Community Woodshop is Saturday. Its mission remains the same: to teach the art of woodworking to those who are not normally brought into a male-oriented industry, no skills required. The store offers sliding-scale classes, and most have two reserved seats for people of color to attend for free.

“It’s kind of like going home,” Hirsch said of Saturday’s grand reopening. Free events will include games, pop-up stores and visits to new spaces. Fireweed is named after a flowering plant that blooms after a forest fire, a metaphor for space’s long-awaited return.

Classes teach table making, engraving, woodblock printing, and more

Seven Fireweed students milled the wood they’ll use to make the table in Wednesday night’s table-making class. Milling is the processing of wood into flat, straight, square and parallel pieces for woodworking. This is the third of six table making classes. The smell of sawdust and the hum of power tools filled the space.

Students take turns confidently using saws and joints to perfect their materials. During the teaching break, the group gathered around lecturer Stephanie Lunieski, a local furniture maker, to learn the next steps. They take notes and exchange ideas and questions with each other.

A man demonstrates a wood cutting technique

On Wednesday, instructor Stephanie Lunieski demonstrated a wood cutting technique in a class at Fireweed’s new Prospect Park space.

Nicole Neri for MPR News

“It’s a no-judgment space. I think all teachers and students are on the same team,” said Gabi O’Connor, now a student in the table-making class, Fireweed’s second student. She is making a side table for her living room. “It feels like you can fail and learn and it’s a safe space.”

In November, students will learn spoon carving and printmaking; make wooden picture frames, xylophones, bowls, baskets and rolling pins; and learn home improvement skills such as installing decor. Dozens of lecturers, mostly women and non-binary woodworking, teach at Fireweed, including Hirsch, who has 19 years of woodworking experience and a background in sculpture.

Alternatives for people who are judged or harassed elsewhere

Hirsch and others say Fireweed offers women and non-binary people something other woodworking spaces don’t — a supportive and nurturing environment for both new learners and experienced craftsmen.

“I’ve been in the co-educational space and have taken the tools out of my hands,” Hirsch said. “I was spied on, judged, harassed — not by my mentors, but by my classmates. And I think people who have that interest, or who just want to have an empowering experience, really will be attracted to this space.”

Many Fireweed students have similar backstories, Hirsch said. Sometimes it’s friends taking classes together, or those looking to break into the industry and seek experience. Many times, students find the store after being rejected by woodworkers in the past.

“I’ve had a lot of people who tried woodworking classes in high school and got kicked out for being unpopular — especially the older generation,” she said. “We also have a lot of people who say, ‘My dad’s a woodworker and he’s a terrible teacher.’ They have access to all these tools and want to learn from someone who can teach them safety.”

Depending on the instructor’s preference, some classes are open to people of any gender. The key is to maintain Fireweed’s vibe and teaching style.

The store uses what’s called non-hierarchical learning, which means everyone’s voice and opinion count, regardless of experience. Teaching is geared towards new woodworkers, but can be adapted for all skill levels, Hirsch said. A particular class might have a professional carpenter sitting next to someone who has never been exposed to tools.

“If you have skills, you don’t get bored, and if you’re a novice, you don’t feel unwelcome,” they said.

“A less masculine place”

Hirsch was initially unsure how much interest women and non-binary people in Minneapolis would have in community woodworking shops. She spent two years renting a gallery space to teach woodcarving classes. Course sold out within 48 hours.

“Not only do I want to do this, the world wants to do it. Minneapolis wants to do it,” they realized. By 2017, she had turned her Standish studio into a storefront woodworking shop, hosting nearly 100 classes a year until March 2020, when classes were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vanessa Walton came across Fireweed while Googling “women” and “woodworking shop.” She completed her Masters in Historic Preservation, where she met a lot of architecture and industry people and wanted to learn the tools on her own.

A man measures a plank

On Wednesday, Vanessa Walton, an instructor and co-chair of the Fireweed Board of Directors, measured planks in class.

Nicole Neri for MPR News

“I was like, ‘It would be cool to learn something from a woman, or just a less masculine place,'” she said. Walton started taking classes and four years later served on Fireweed’s board of directors and taught spoon carving to people of color.

“We’ve created spaces specifically for BIPOC folks so they can learn from lecturers who represent their community,” says Walton.

For many students, studying woodworking at Fireweed is just the beginning. The basic tool functions and problem-solving skills learned there can be transferred to other industries and beyond, Hirsch said.

“People can start doing other things that used to exclude them. It’s the entry point for a lot of things.”

The Fireweed Community Workshop’s shop opening party will be held on Saturday from 3pm to 6pm at 14 27th Ave. SE in Minneapolis. It’s free and everyone is welcome.

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