Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life (Second Edition)
by Nancy R. Hiller
You can download an excerpt from this book here.
As cautionary woodworking tales go, Nancy R. Hiller’s might just be the funniest – and the most sincere.
Standing in contrast to James Krenov’s “The Impractical Cabinetmaker” from 1979, Hiller’s book, “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life,” is not about waiting for a particular plank of wood to tell you its true purpose. It is not an exhortation to fuss over each detail, no matter the personal cost.
Instead, Hiller’s funny and occasionally ribald story is about a cabinetmaker who was trained to work at the highest level possible and how she has dealt with the personal anxiety that occurs when the desire and drive for excellence collides with paying the monthly bills.
The backdrop for “Making Things Work” is a cast of characters who could populate a Cohen brothers film – a Missouri furniture maker who masquerades as a Brit to impress his customers. A 30-something client and her older husband who seem hell-bent on cheating every trades worker in the Midwest. And Hiller’s British trainers, who through teasing, criticism and mockery finally let her know what “navy cake” really is.
At the center of it all is Hiller. She seeks to run an honest business, make beautiful things and be fairly paid. Doing all three things at once is an immense challenge, and she tells her odyssey in a series of vignettes that read like a modern-day Aesop’s fable. There is a lesson in each chapter about the craft, business or personal relationships. But it’s up to you to decode them. Her indirect approach is one of the great charms of the book.
If you are considering abandoning your cozy corporate job to make furniture, “Making Things Work” is required reading. It will illuminate you as to how difficult the profession can be. If you are undaunted after seeing the quality of Hiller’s furniture and reading about her struggle to make a living, perhaps you have a shot.
For amateur woodworkers, the book is a great read. Hiller is a fine and precise writer who knows exactly when to land a punch line (sometimes with a sledgehammer).
This is a book designed to last. Hardbound with a sewn binding, the book's boards are covered in a sturdy dust jacket. Made in the USA. This second edition features a new dust jacket one additional new tale at the end.
Table of Contents
1. The English Years
Living the Dream 3
The Accidental Cabinetmaker, I 9
The Accidental Cabinetmaker, II 17
Get On Your Bike 23
2. Dream On
A Thing Worth Making, I: Hunting-Badcocke 31
A Thing Worth Making, II: Hotel California 37
A Thing Worth Making, III: Human Factors Engineering 43
I Used To Do What You Do 51
The Excellent Craftsman 55
3. Making Things Work
Cat and Mouse 85
Don't Call Me Boss 101
A Case of Mistaken Identity 105
The Value of Nothing: A Play in Four Acts 109
It's All Problems 127
A Note About the Title and Jacket Design
Other Books by the Author
About the Author
Nancy R. Hiller was a cabinetmaker specializing in period-style work for late-19th- to mid-20th-century interiors. She trained as a furniture maker in England, where she moved with her mother and sister at age 12, and worked in shops there as well as in the States. She returned to college at the age of 30 and graduated with a master’s in Religious Studies, specializing in ethics. From 1995 to 2022, she operated NR Hiller Design, Inc., based in Bloomington, Indiana. Her work has been featured in Fine Woodworking, Old-House Journal, American Craft, Popular Woodworking, Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival and Fine Homebuilding. She has authored five books in addition to “Making Things Work,” among them “The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History,” “English Arts & Crafts Furniture,” “Shop Tails” and “Kitchen Think."