Design Week Portland Artist Feature: Wessinger Woodworks

Bill Wessinger in his woodshop
Bill Wessinger in his woodshop

Bill Wessinger in his woodshop

Bill Wessinger is a sixth-generation native Portlander. He grew up working with his grandfather, Clay, who was always building things in his garage workshop. From the 1st grade until he graduated high school Bill was in the school shop. After college, Bill began building boats and substitute teaching for his former shop teacher. In 2014, he began working for a local nonprofit teaching a mix of boatbuilding, woodworking, and math and introduced him to the community hub of ADX. Since joining the fabrication team at ADX, Bill has worked on his own company Wessinger Woodworks, providing custom made furniture and sculpture.

1. How would you refer to yourself? Woodworker? Artisan? Craftsman?
I think of myself primarily as a woodworker. There are a lot of folks describing themselves as makers these days, but I think of myself more as part of a continuation of the studio furniture movement that has been quietly going on for decades. The newer maker movement I see as being much more focused on integrating electronics and computer modeling into how they make things.

The use of hand tools features prominently in my work, and I think the traditional sense of craftsmanship applies to my work. I’m not sure you can talk in terms of craftsmanship, at least not in the traditional sense, when your pieces are cut out of plywood by a laser cutter or cnc machine. That’s not to say that the things made that way are of a lesser quality in terms of their function or durability, but I think there is something that has been lost when things are made that way.

2. How did you get started?
My grandfather was someone who was always building things, and he would often find ways to involve me and my brothers in his projects. He passed away when I was only about 13, but I think those projects helped me learn to love working with my hands.

Growing up I also went to a K-12 school that even now continues to have a woodworking program. They had me pounding nails into a stump starting in kindergarten or first grade. In high school, shop was an elective that I took all four years. This foundation gave me the skills and the confidence needed to start building boats and to take on a variety of ambitious projects after college.

One of Bill's boats from Wessinger Woodworks website

One of Bill’s boats
from Wessinger Woodworks website

 

3. Why wood?
It is organic and it has a warmth to it. When working with wood we are trying to make things as perfect as possible out of an imperfect material. Wood’s imperfect nature is both a constraint and a challenge; the design is incredibly important and must take things like shrinking, swelling, and grain direction. There is always more to learn, new challenges to be faced, and I enjoy that.

4. What was the first thing you made from wood?
I’m not sure its the first thing I made, but I still have a wooden ladder I made in first grade. It’s only about 5′ tall and pretty narrow but for all the nails in it only just two that are bent over—one where I tried to pound through a knot. There was a good lesson there.

Ladder Bill made in 1st grade

Ladder Bill made in 1st grade

 

5. What does being creative meant to you?
I think that one of the most important ways of being creative is being able to take lessons learned in different places and being able to put them together in new ways.

6. Do you have any rituals?
Not that I can think of.

7. What is your favorite piece?
I have a short bench I made during my junior year of high school. It’s made of just three pieces of wood, cut from the same board—a display at the old OMSI from when it was next to the zoo. It’s very tight, straight grained fir, and the pieces are arranged so the grain is continuous up one leg, across the top and down the other leg. The corners are joined with what is called a twisted dovetail. Its a traditional Japanese joint that is very rarely used and for good reason. Instead of having pins and tails where one piece fits into the other, sliding at a 90-degree angle, this joint has a series of fins which are compound angles, with each one alternating which was it is angled. The two pieces have to slide together at a 45-degree angle. Its hard to describe and probably harder to make, but it turned out quite well. It sits in the corner of my bedroom.

Bench from 11th Grade with Japanese twisted dovetail joints.

Bench from 11th Grade with Japanese twisted dovetail joints.

 

8. Who inspires you?
My love of the outdoors and of the material. I think all my designs are influenced by me feeling that while wood is a renewable resource, it is also often over-harvested, and even where it isn’t necessarily over harvested it will tend to have negative consequences for the environment. That sense inspires me to create designs that will honor the material while building pieces that are light without being delicate.

9. If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
If I’d known about it in college I probably would have studied industrial design, and I could see moving in that direction in the future. I love thinking about the place where the design of an object and how we experience those pieces as people meet.

10. The ultimate piece you want to create?
Hans Wegner talked early in his prolific career about designing “just one good chair.” I think he came to recognize that such a chair didn’t really exist, but there is still something there about trying to design and build a chair that looks good, is comfortable, lightweight and durable. Something that instantly feels like a classic. There is something elusive and seductive there.

11. What’s your favorite thing about PDX?
People are interested in applying their creativity towards improving so many things, I like that.

12. Favorite song?
I’ve been turning up Tiderays, by Volcano Choir

13. Favorite bridge?
I enjoy biking across the lower deck of the steel bridge, and I enjoy kayaking under Tilikum Crossing.

14. Favorite neighborhood?
A couple years ago I lived walking distance from that stretch of Stark between about 76th and 82nd with the Academy theater and all the different restaurants and pubs and such. If I could own my ideal home in any neighborhood that might be where I would want to be. Preferably just high enough to see Mt Hood on a clear day.

15. What’s your favorite tool?
Probably the chisel. It requires a lot of attention to the grain of the wood, how the tool feels and how it sounds as you are using it, and they must be kept sharp, but when those things line up the results can be so precise and so rewarding.

Bill holds the prototype for the chair he is making for Design Week Portland.

Bill holds the prototype for the chair he is making for Design Week Portland.

Bill Wessinger from Wessinger Woodworks at read:grain, works with reclaimed wood on Friday, April 28th from 4-7pm during Design Week Portland. For more information, go here.