I began in woodworking as a kid, helping my father build custom furniture for his hobby. Like many kids, I started out holding the end of a tape measure and hand-sanding parts. After a couple years I was trusted with a power sander. Over the years I progressed to that most hallowed status of being "allowed" to run the tablesaw by myself. Heady stuff for an 12-year old.
As a teen I was strong enough to help my father deliver his custom furniture. Here began the valuable lessons of how to deal with customers. I came to appreciate how proposing a solution to a customer's tricky furniture problem was how you got business, and doing quality workmanship was how you kept business.
I worked my way through college, taking a meandering path involving 4 colleges, eventually getting enough credits for degrees in Architecture and Mechanical Engineering. During these years my spare time was limited, and any woodworking was confined to repairs. I learned all about how regional humidity affects woodworking as my Engineering career lead me to live in several states.
With my first real house came my first real workshop. Every Christmas abounded with my handmade wooden gifts. Then about 15 years ago I bought my first lathe, a piece of equipment my father's shop never had. I spent a couple years making highly decorative pieces of firewood before becoming skilled enough to pass my Turnings out as gifts.
A divorce in the mid-90's left me penniless and shopless for 5 years. It was rough only being able to read woodworking articles, attend woodworking group meetings, or visit friends shops. In 2001 I moved to Colorado and married in 2002 with the promise my wife Darcie would not become a "workshop widow".
It wasn't until I started having children that I discovered my real niche, my real love in woodworking. Wooden toys. Simple or complicated, most with moving parts, using a great variety of woods and sometimes other materials. The Engineer inside me came up with increasingly more complex designs, all to the delight of my 4 kids. The toys I make are meant to be played with, and my kids give them the "distressed" look you see. Everything you see in my online gallery is an original design.
A highlight this year was when I visited my kids pre-school to present for their “career day”. I said “by day I’m just an Engineer, but when I get home I MAKE TOYS”. I laid out all the toys you see in this display cabinet plus some larger ones, and the kids went nuts for an hour. That’s when I knew I was on to something. High-end wooden toys are mostly made and prized in Europe. “Walmart pricing mentality” keeps most US makers to a small scale.
In 2004 I founded Original Approach LLC to turn my lifelong passion in woodworking into something more than a just a profitable hobby. As more and more Engineering jobs being lost to overseas and Social Security going bust before I retire, I wanted to have my own woodworking business make the mortgage payments! I'm still a ways from meeting that goal, but you have to start somewhere. If you don't start chasing your dreams now, when will you?
Any regrets after 40+ years of woodworking? A few, mostly related to shop safety where I knew better but did something anyway. Or experimenting with a new technique or material or finish on something I had planned to sell. I started photographing my works only in the last decade, I really wish I had started sooner. I think of the shop I could have had 20 years ago if I had not spent everything getting my pilot's license. I wish I had bought commercial-duty equipment sooner; next purchase is a small CNC router.
Magazines articles abound with the hazards of wood dust, finishing fumes, or safety injuries. Yet I found a health benefit. Several years ago I started having blood pressure problems and had to monitor my BP frequently. Amazingly my BP was always much lower after an hour or two in the workshop, no matter the time of day. I've enjoyed woodworking all my life, but never realized how GOOD it was FOR my life.
Mike Pientka, 7-April-2011