A Journeyman’s Travels

Shane Orion Wiechnik (pronounced “Wichnick” by some and “Vee-eck-nik” by others) first came to my notice through his posts on Instagram. I wasn’t sure whether he was Australian, or an American in Australia (he is both at this point, as an American who married an Australian citizen), but we cleared that up when he asked me to be a guest on “This Crafted World,” the podcast he runs with English furniture maker Harry T. Morris. From the first time we spoke, I was impressed by the breadth of his interest in artifacts and the activities of making, as well as restoration – possibly even more so than in the objects he produces — as well as the ambitious ways he has devised to further his skills and knowledge. “I’m very excited about processes and materials – how humans work and have worked,” he says, “how we experiment with materials around us to develop techniques, the innate material intelligence we develop as we work with things, and how objects and crafts tell us about history.”

In this age of “take a class, then teach it,” I was charmed by Shane’s modesty about his skills, training and pretty much everything else, especially in view of the high-caliber work he shares through Instagram. It took me a few years to feel worthy of identifying myself as a cabinetmaker, even after my first-year training in furniture making through the City & Guilds system in England, where I was living at the time, and a few years’ experience of work in others’ shops. So Shane’s humility resonated – though based on the work I’ve seen to date, he’s due for a recalibration of where he stands as a craftsman.

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Shane is especially interested in how craft “enables” – how it empowers us to function more responsibly and fully – especially those of us who have grown up in cultures that take the making of things for granted, and have accustomed so many of us to call others for repair work we might otherwise do for ourselves. “It’s a grounding for me,” he says of this enabling. “When you’re a teenager, you’re being a hooligan and making a mess because the world already existed [and was there for you]. You’re not really a part of it. But learning historic craft and engaging with materials and seeing that the world came from something, through a variety of processes by people just like you, grounds me in a kind of reality and makes the world something I can care about more and understand.”

Apothecary-style box Shane made as part of Mark Elliot’s “Essence of Cloud Art” Exhibition

Early life

Shane and his father.

Shane was born in 1987 at Fort Wainwright, a military base in Alaska near where his father was posted. His dad recently retired after a career in the Army. His mother worked in administration at medical offices for much of the time he was growing up, though he adds that when he was in high school she took a position as an emergency medical technician, which he says was “probably her favorite-ever job.”

Shane (center) with his (from left) brother, Damon; spouse, Andy; mother, Liana; and father, Stan.

When Shane was a kid, his father repaired cars as had his own father, but he didn’t train Shane to do that kind of work. Shane’s introduction to tools came through his involvement in theater at high school, after which he studied film and television production at college. That introduced him to set building. “I found set building and prop work to be enthralling,” he says. “I mostly watched others work, and it seemed so creative and like there were no rules, but still you ended up with something beautiful. My interaction with tools was poor and without any respect and understanding for what they were doing. If it wasn’t working you just forced it more or blamed your strength. If I wasn’t able to screw something in, as a scrawny kid, I assumed it was because I was weak, even though I was using a power drill or driver. Always wanting to hide weakness,” he adds, in a bit of customary self-deprecation. “I was never smart enough to ask someone how to use the tool properly.”

Shane (center) with his father and Damon.
The family in Indiana. Shane is the small one.

“I was a very frustrating high school student,” he says, adding that when he asked a teacher for a letter of recommendation to submit with his college applications, she said she couldn’t. He was obviously very smart but did not apply himself. Determined to get a degree, he started at a community college in Lebanon, New Hampshire, then attended classes at Keane State in New Hampshire. His older brother, Damon, had moved to Sydney several years earlier, at the age of 18. While there on a visit, Shane met Andy, an Australian who would later become his spouse. He moved to Sydney at 21 and graduated from Edith Cowan University in Perth.  

When I asked what had inspired his interest in the history and culture of making – not to mention larger questions such as whether we are making too many things, instead of repairing those that still have decades of usefulness to offer – he credited his brother, who he says is quite well-read, especially in history and geography, and their father. “Through listening to them I hear a wide variety of perspectives,” Shane says. But “traveling to Australia had a huge impact” as well. “It’s one of those things, moving to another country, when you have to question everything. I’ve had a lot of those moments and dig down in them.” For example, he continues, it’s important to recognize that the world is made; it didn’t just spring into existence. “Growing up in the States, I had no connection to food or where it came from. My first girlfriend in high school lived on an old farm. They whipped cream – it didn’t come out of a can. It was a revelation to me.”

He also credits his academic education. Studying film and television entailed immersing himself in psychological and sociological theory, which introduced him to new ways of seeing.

Getting into Woodworking

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Shane moved to Boston in 2010 because his study visa expired. In many ways, he says, he had a strong friend group and connection in the States that he hadn’t felt while studying in Perth. He’d moved to Boston hoping that he could return to that life and build from it. “I had been thinking about returning to the States and reconnecting with friends and colleagues there,” he says. He took a job with an event décor company that handled props and sets for events. “The business was run by an art director and his wife who’d worked in Hollywood. If you were [in charge of] some sort of corporate event and wanted to have a Christmas party in Boston, they would do the décor.” They specialized in décor that was Boston-related, with lots of set-type props. “I mostly painted things then,” he laughs, referring to hours spent with a roller. What ignited his interest in woodworking was not the work alone, but two colleagues who became his friends. Ken Decost, he says, “was very particular, with high standards.” Sam Gabrielson “was very smart; he got very excited about solving problems.” Sam, who came from a furniture family with ties to the furniture industry in the States, was also very encouraging.

He worked on setting up a film business, “but the film business plans fell through. I struggled to find new work opportunities, and I barely saw the people I’d missed. I missed Andy a great deal and felt quite lost in what I was trying to do. Financial prospects also looked better in Australia, so Andy and I decided I should move back to Perth. I left the job to move to Western Australia and be with Andy. We got married in 2011 and brought me back on another visa until I could get permanent residency.”

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Shane and Andy in front of the Ehekarussel Fountain in Nuremberg, Germany.

Of the time after this, he says, “I wasted five years of my life.” He struggled to find any kind of creative work in Perth and ended up working at a company that programmed radios (walkie-talkies) for mine sites, a job he stuck with for two years, even though, he says, “I absolutely hated it.” Andy had bought a house that was in seriously compromised condition and required a lot of work, but Shane says, “I was not nearly as capable a person as I wanted to be. Andy and I are not those people you see on YouTube and Instagram who really ‘tackle’ the house. We just lived in a crappy house for years.”

By the age of 26 he’d had enough of the job he hated. In search of work that would engage his interests and capabilities, he moved to Sydney and volunteered at a nonprofit environmental charity dedicated to reducing landfill waste. One arm of the operation involved repairing furniture, to extend its useful life. “I had no training other than what I had learned from the two carpenters, Sam and Ken, at the event décor job.” The workforce included some old farmers, along with one guy, Mitch Lavender, who was a big fan of Lost Art Press; they would share what they knew with Shane. “Mitch was a fitter and turner/metalworker, who was…setting up his own forge in his backyard. He was a big influence in transferring the prop building knowledge into grounded craft knowledge.” Shane and his housemate, Robbie Karmel, “a wonderful artist,” regularly watched “The Woodwright’s Shop” in the evenings, then worked on projects in the backyard until their neighbors yelled at them for making noise.

“I’d quit my job in Perth and been unemployed for two years. That was a genuinely awful life for me. When I came to Sydney I wasn’t certain that I was capable of working. Nine to five was something I wasn’t sure I could do for the rest of my life. But to pay rent I would wander around the alleys of Newtown [in New South Wales]. In Australia there’s a lot of furniture on the side of the road. So I would go around and find stuff that needed work.” Then he took it to the place where he volunteered and sold it through them. His rent was $250 (Australian dollars) a week; he lived off about $50 of groceries per week. With his income from fixing up old furniture, he just about broke even.

Eventually the manager of the nonprofit created a bona fide job for Shane – fixing stuff for resale. This position grew into something much bigger. They had started in a tiny shed attached to a building, then expanded into offering classes in carpentry and furniture repair “based on my extremely limited knowledge,” he interjects emphatically. The furniture program moved to another building with five benches and more space; they also invested in some basic machines. Over the course of five years it became a full-time job for Shane, managing the woodworking department of the charity. He taught an introduction to woodworking four nights a week, as well as on weekends. He was working six days a week – managing volunteers, fixing furniture and making furniture with no formal training.

“When I was first starting to make a job at [the nonprofit], we were looking at products I could make and sell. I was opposed to anything that wouldn’t last and wouldn’t be used. As an example, the manager wanted to make those wine bottle holders that lean and balance. I figured no one actually uses those for any period of time and they just get thrown away so what the hell is the point and why would we spend energy making them. Our first product ended up being a basic wooden crate, like an apple crate. It allowed us to use all kinds of discarded timbers. Around that time I went back to the States and visited a friend for dinner. She and her friends were going around the table talking about these amazing developments in their respective impressive careers. Then she turns to me and says ‘so… tell me more about these crates’ and I felt so dreadfully embarrassed.” Pretty ironic, when you consider that wooden crates can be handsome and practical ways to move and store things, not to mention last for many decades, if not centuries.

By the time Shane reached age 30, he decided it was time to learn the proper ways to do what he’d been doing with no training. He applied to West Dean College to study furniture restoration/conservation and gave his employer seven months’ notice. “It was in the week before finding out [whether I’d been accepted] that I started to panic. I was already training my replacement, Luke Mitchell, by that point.” Fortunately, he got in.

Shane made his way to England and arrived at West Dean. “I did not feel like I was allowed to be in that building,” he says of the school’s august history and surroundings. “I felt very uncomfortable there for about a week, but the students are all amazing.” He showed up “reluctantly” to the welcoming party but started talking shop immediately and soon felt right at home. “Edward James, the founder of the school, was friends with Salvador Dali and had a surrealist history; it stopped feeling intimidating very quickly. The school has very high standards. I loved it.”

Practice project at West Dean. (Better Shane than me, I say. Yikes.)

He relished his time in a workshop where he worked alongside others who were equally interested in learning – not just developing new woodworking and finishing techniques, but cultivating such important skills as how to judge the age of an object, which entails understanding how finishes and other materials change over time. In Sydney, he’d become obsessed with furniture conservation but “didn’t know anyone else who was as interested as I was.”

Project at West Dean.

At West Dean, he continues, “We got to work on actual objects. We went to Vienna and got to go behind the scenes at a couple of museums to their workshops, [as well as to see a couple of schools]. We went into the conservation labs of the MAK, where we saw a guy working on a Roentgen cabinet.” The conservator who was working on it was “super excited”; he showed them everything. “It was a very cool trip. Coming from America and going to Australia” – both of which he recognizes as “young [countries] in terms of furniture work as I know it – i.e. with respect to European tastes and woodworking,” despite their ancient indigenous cultures – “going to work on stuff in England and going across Europe to see the variety of high-end pieces really was mind blowing. But also weird, because I knew that I was probably going to come back to Sydney and work at my environmental charity.”

Urushi lacquer box conservation project at West Dean.
Gilding iron work.

Shane was at West Dean for one year, as that was all he could afford. Echoing others who have had formal training, he adds, “As much as you put in, you’d get out of it.”

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Another benefit of his time at West Dean is that he met fellow student Harry T. Morris, who was in the furniture making program. More on that later.

Restoration/conservation of Boulle Desk.
Repairing a broken timber thread by hand.
Duplicate for a lost finial.

In 2019, Shane returned to Sydney. He picked up some work at the charity – “a very strange experience,” he notes, especially after his time at West Dean. He also started to work with a restorer who had studied at West Dean 40 years before. Shane tried to start his own business, but as has been the case for many of us, that didn’t work out.

Intent on further expanding his skills, as well as his appreciation for aspects of craft besides making things, he contacted International Conservation Services, Australia’s largest team of private conservators. The organization’s CEO had also been trained at West Dean. Shane visited the organization’s workshop; they had one furniture conservator, Oliver Hull, who is English and had worked there alone for the four years prior. They asked Shane if he’d like to join Oliver, and he started doing three or four days a week in the furniture conservation department. Since then he has added work for conservator John Gubbings, in addition to continuing his part-time work for what is now known as The Bower Reuse and Repair Centre, the nonprofit devoted to reducing waste. He worked there for 1-1/2 years and is looking into possibilities to help them further.

Multitasking at The Bower.

The Bigger Picture

As students at West Dean, Shane and Harry “clicked early on,” even though Harry is 12 years younger. They’d discuss their respective projects and soon found themselves “on the same wavelength about so many things.” Many nights they talked until 2 a.m., “often while playing cribbage.” Harry found a lot of value in the conversations and wanted to keep them up after graduation. Hence the idea of the podcast, “This Crafted World”. They have also kept up their friendship – in 2019 they traveled to Japan, where they took a course in Japanese carpentry that Shane considers foundational to his current outlook and practice. The course began with an entire week of sharpening. To make the trip affordable, the two shared a living space. “I was sleeping on the floor,” says Shane, “because it’s Japan, and it’s expensive there.”

Harry (left) and Shane. I’m calling this “the album cover.”

Their podcasts vary broadly, depending on who’s involved. While topics range from how the two of them work in their own daily lives and what craft means to them, they also explore larger dimensions of making, such as how to deal with “making for making’s sake.” As Shane puts it, “There’s already too much stuff!” – a view too rarely heard amid the current celebration of all things making. In their podcast, they leave discussion of nuts and bolts to others and focus on ideas. “We thought if there was anything we could add to the conversation, it would be the thoughts we both had about the world. As we grow and develop, anything that pops into our heads we turn into a subject and make a podcast.” It may sound random, but it’s not; I was blown away by the caliber of questions they asked in the podcast we did together, weirdly and serendipitously based on Shane’s discovery of “Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field,” a book I’d put together and edited for the Indiana University Press about a decade ago.

Attending a Urushi/Maki-e session in Kyoto, Japan.
Souikoushya International Craft School in Kyoto, Japan.
Final joinery project at Souikoushya International Craft School in Kyoto, Japan. The name of the joint is Kanawa Tsugi.

Next Steps

Intent on expanding and refining his skills, as well as his exposure to other cultures and their methods of making and restoring, Shane is working on a “journeyman trip” of his own design, “provided that the world opens up.” Once again, he has given a generous seven months’ notice to his present employers. “There’s so much I don’t know how to do. Because I’ve found this [work] so late, I feel I need to rapidly catch up.” Next year he hopes to spend three months in the eastern United States, then spend some time in Europe, working in conservation and craft workshops for a minimum of two weeks each. So far, he has arrangements with shops in Virginia, New York and Boston, and is trying to arrange for a month in Netherlands, then France and the United Kingdom, in addition to Italy (and ideally also elsewhere). Again, to make this investment in his education more affordable – especially as he’s aware that he may not be able to get paid for his work in other countries due to the financial constraints at many shops, not to mention certain countries’ prohibition against non-citizens being paid for work – he is planning the trip around friends and craftspeople who can put him up in their homes.

“The journeyman thing doesn’t exist in this field,” he notes, adding that he applied for a George Alexander Fellowship through the International Specialist Skills Institute, which he just learned he has been granted. “In Australia we get a lot of stuff from different places,” he said, referring especially to antiques for restoration. The journeyman trip will help familiarize him with international differences, as well as subtleties in period and style, and so help him become a better restorer. He’s also keen to see how different people work. Beyond his interest in building his own skills, he would like to help others. “Every little thing I pick up, or every little thing I get better at, is something I can share with others. If I get better at that work, it informs another engagement with the world, whether teaching or writing or an Instagram post or the podcast. That makes everything feel so much more worth it.”

Harry (left) and Shane.

You can find the podcast we did together, “Not Capital-I Important,” here.

— Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work.” Read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.

Source: lostartpress.com

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