A quick look at Jenny Bower’s Instagram page will leave anyone who hasn’t met her in person wondering just who this woman is. A glamorous beauty with flawless hair and makeup, she usually appears in the kind of clothes most woodworkers only dream about – form-fitting sheaths, or retro mid-century dresses with poofy skirts when she’s renovating the interior of a vintage camper she purchased in 2020. But along with the glamour, a pervasive wholesomeness animates her posts – expressions of gratitude for family, friends and good work; visits to military veterans and vintage car enthusiasts; hand-crafting some of the most elaborate Halloween costumes you’re ever likely to see, only to lament the early onset of winter, which requires covering up all that hard work with a full-length coat; cooking around a fire pit with her daughter; late-summer cannonballs in a bathing suit off a dock into Lake Michigan’s chilly waters – the essence of down-to-earth pleasures. She peppers her posts with hashtags such as #workwithyourhands, a bit of encouragement to others based on how she and her husband, Nathan, earn their livings, as an engraver and clockmaker respectively.
“Which is the real Jenny Bower?” you may ask. Answer: all of them.
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Jenny was born in Alpena, Mich., in 1980 and has deep roots in the area. Both sides of her family are from the same town. Her father is a retired chemist whom she describes as “very scientific, a super-perfectionist.” He worked at a paper company when she was little, then created new formulas for a company that made hot-stamp ribbons for products, such as the sell-by date on a bread bag. The hot-stamp tool was essentially a branding iron. “It was the weirdest job,” she recalls. “I never could explain it to my friends.” Her mother was a cosmetologist who worked at salons and also did hair for friends in their house. “I grew up around older people because she specialized in those old-lady hairdos with the hair sets.” Jenny has one brother, Jerry, who is two years younger.
When Jenny was about 6, her family moved to Michigan’s west coast. She has lived in a few towns since then, mainly between Kalkaska and Traverse City, where she and Nathan live today. She went to public schools, other than a couple years at private school between moves, and graduated from Traverse City Central High School in 1998 before attending college. To make college affordable (she paid for it as she went), Jenny did all her work through a “university center program,” basically a satellite campus, and graduated in 2004 with a BA in English Language and Literature and a minor in Elementary Education from Grand Valley State University; she planned to become an elementary school teacher.
That plan changed when she and Nathan married. “We had no money and one car. Most of the teaching jobs that were available were in surrounding districts. I had interviewed at a couple of surrounding districts, but by the time we thought about getting another car – we didn’t want to go into debt! – I thought ‘I’ll just wait a bit and work in my husband’s business.’” She liked it so well that she didn’t pursue teaching, despite her love of that work. Instead, she started her own business.
She and Nate met at a New Year’s Eve party in the winter of 2002-2003. She found him intriguing – he’d been home-schooled, then taken a few college business classes without feeling the need to graduate from college. In his spare time, he had fixed an antique clock for his mother and become increasingly obsessed with mechanics in general and how things work. At the age of 18 or 19 he cold-called a local jewelry store and asked if they needed someone to help with clock repair. They did; he started working there as an apprentice, then eventually opened his own business. Fixing old clocks was one thing – he found antique European clocks especially fascinating. But then he started making his own, a whole new world of creative mechanical endeavor. He now does both clockmaking and repair.
“My dad was concerned about me dating Nathan,” Jenny says – his primary concern was whether Nathan, being self-employed, would have a sufficient income. “My dad had always had a company job with benefits,” she explains. “[He] always worked a Monday-through-Friday, nine-to-five job.”
“(Nate’s) really mechanically-minded,” she told her dad. “I’m sure if the clock repair goes bust he’ll find something to do.”
While Nathan was single, he saved up as much money as he could. Those savings disappeared in short order once they were married and began renovating what Jenny calls their “junky old house,” a single-story built in the early 1960s. They bought the house because it was zoned as a residential home while being on commercial property, which made it affordable. They spent the first chunk of their marriage running their business and renovating. When they moved in, the house had fake wood paneling on the walls and shag carpet on the floors. One room had silver wallpaper with blue roses. They put in new ceilings – the dining room ceiling had caved in due to water damage caused by poorly planned rooflines. When they pulled up the flooring, they found the subfloor there, but Nathan had suspicions. “I just feel like I should pull up this floor and see what’s underneath,” he said. A good thing, too – the floor system consisted of boards simply stacked on bricks. There were no floor joists. They had to completely rebuild the floor system.
The front living room and bedroom became the clock shop and their office, and remained so for about 10 years. Then they built their dream shop on the same property; it’s connected to the house but no longer inside the house. “We were penny pinching on all sides,” Jenny says, “but it was worth it to have our own business. It taught us a lot. When we built the new building [for their workshop], lots of that confidence came from what we learned in the renovation of the house.”
Remarkably, she says, Nathan wasn’t raised to be handy. His mother is an oil painter; his dad was a pastor turned children’s book author. “His extended family are all business owners and very hands-on, so he grew up feeling like it was OK to have a business or pursue something that was not a typical job. He really understands the mechanics of things; he’s not afraid to take things apart and try to figure them out on his own. He fixes everything. We’ve never had to have a repair person fix anything.”
Nathan has passed that readiness to solve mechanical problems onto Jenny. Shortly after she bought her old Jeep Wagoneer, Nathan encouraged her to replace the radiator instead of paying someone else to do it. He’d planned to replace it for her, but asked if she might care to do it herself. He taught her how. “It was kind of cool for me, because car repair in general feels completely intimidating and so far out of my realm of understanding, but Nathan was really encouraging.”
For a long time I wondered where Jenny got her dark good looks. What was the source of that bone structure, those eyes? Were her ancestors from Italy or Spain? A post about fry-bread answered my question. Her forebears on both sides are at least partly Native American. “They were very quiet about their heritage,” she says of her grandparents when she was growing up. “It’s been hard to find out the story” – not surprising, if you know anything about historical efforts in Canada and the United States to erase cultural memory and traditions from Native American children. Her mother has tried to research her family history, but there’s little available at this point about which tribes her family members came from, along with related background. But fry-bread is a potent carrier of tradition; her great-grandma, grandma and mom all made it. “I loved it so much as a kid I thought my daughter would enjoy it,” Jenny says.
Jenny and Nathan wanted to be parents, but it took them about five years to get pregnant. “It was a very difficult time for both of us. But for me as a woman, it was very hard. My husband is the eldest of 12 children – lots of siblings, and his siblings had lots of kids. We were the first to have any issue. It was hard for me to see so many people around me getting so easily pregnant. It was a long journey. It felt like a lonely time for me. I didn’t like to talk about it much with other people. I didn’t know what the problem was; later on I found I had some issues that complicated it, but when we did get pregnant with [Maylin] it was a very happy time for both of us.”
Her daughter, Maylin, was born in 2009 and is now 11. They chose not to know the baby’s sex before birth; Nathan came up with the name Maylin, which has no gendered baggage. “Maylin’s great-grandmother’s middle name is Mae,” says Jenny. “My middle name is Lynn. We tweaked the spelling a bit to make it easier to read and pronounce, but the sentiment of a family name is there.”
Traverse City is a touristy, affluent, artsy area, especially when snowbirds return for summer. Many of Jenny’s and Nathan’s customers live within 30 miles of the Bowers’ home. Most of Nate’s customers come to him for clock repair, an art now so unusual that people will often drive from Detroit or Chicago and leave their precious clocks with Nate for as long as they have to, because they know of no one closer. Most of the clock-business customers are middle-aged or retired. They want to have their clocks fixed to pass them down to their grandkids.
Jenny came to engraving through the clock business. Many old clocks have engraved numbers and decorative designs on their faces. Jenny had collected a lot of antique jewelry; she had a couple of engraved pieces she found especially compelling. “I really was fascinated by art on metal,” she explains. Nathan saw many engraved clocks come into the shop for repair, some dating back to the 1700s. After seeing the gun and knife work of a local engraver whom Nathan had met through a customer, Jenny became interested in the engraving process. She ordered some engraving tools and tried her hand at the new skill; the timing was ideal, as Nate was toying with adding some engraved components to new clocks he was building.
“For me,” says Jenny, “when I’m engraving, I get into this zone where I’m really absorbed in my work. Three hours could pass in a few minutes. I’ve always been a very artistic individual; I enjoy drawing and hand-lettering. But with engraving, I like cutting the metal.”
Most of her designs incorporate an artistic flourish or scroll, with a lot of acanthus leaves, vines and flowers. She prefers natural forms – she doesn’t do much with Celtic or repetitive geometric designs, both of which are common among engravers. She describes her designs as asymmetrical but balanced. “I like to draw things out to fill a space and look balanced, but if you look closely, [the design is] often not symmetrical.”
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She started doing Instagram after she and Nate did a couple of TV shows “A Craftsman’s Legacy” with Eric Gorges and “Handcrafted America” with Jill Wagner. Jill and the cameramen on Eric Gorges’s show suggested that she share what she was doing. She looked into it. “I had started engraving some tools and posted some on Instagram,” she says. She quickly found twofold value in sharing her designs. “It became a way for me to document projects I was doing, for myself and to share with other people. Unless people know what hand-engraving is, they think it’s done by machine. I wanted to show [them] ‘I’m not a monogram machine or a CNC laser! I’m carving the metal with my own hands and doing my own designs.’ I wanted people to see that process. I didn’t want to get into teaching, but I wanted to show how I [create] a piece, so if you buy my work, this is how it’s done. There were a lot of assumptions, and the best way to explain was to show how I do it.”
Instagram, she finds, calls for a delicate balance. “I don’t want to come across as a braggart,” she says – ‘Look at me!’ It was more, the process might be interesting to people because it’s an unusual art form that people aren’t familiar with. That’s why my Instagram page isn’t just pictures of finished work. I include pictures of my car and my garden. I’m not just an engraver. I’m an artist, and that sprawls into different categories.”
At this point Jenny has engraved so many handplanes that she’s lost track of the number; other common engraving projects are squares, tape measures, hammers, straight rules and calipers. She also engraves locks, and nameplates for badges. And ferrules for chisels – lots of them. “Those are fun. It’s so silly, really. A chisel doesn’t need to be pretty.” In 2020 she took part in a project to raise money for Color of Change; she engraved the ferrules, and each woodworker involved in the project made a handle. “Every chisel was different. It was so fun seeing what different woodworkers came up with.”
Jenny’s hand-tool engraving led her to woodworking. Her posts on Instagram caught the interest of quite a few woodworkers. “From that point I got questions about engraving hand tools and got to know a lot of people through the Instagram community and formed friendships with these people.” New friends encouraged her to try woodworking. “I was very nervous about that but interested in learning more about it. Through building friendships, I got to see the delight they had in their work.”
She took a chairmaking class locally to familiarize herself with hand and power tools – “a nice way to learn some of the fundamentals of woodworking.” The class was titled “Chair Making for Women.” When she showed up, she found herself alone with one other woman. Fortunately, the instructor was willing to run the class, which gave them a lot of one-on-one time. After taking another woodworking class locally, she took one with Greg Pennington in the fall of 2019 in which she made a continuous-arm Windsor chair. That chair is now in the clock shop.
Nate has been turning a storage shed on their property into a small woodworking shop for both of them. “Woodworking and clockmaking don’t really go together well,” she notes. “The dust from woodworking – you don’t want to get [that] into the mechanics of clocks!”
Going back to the question of who, on Instagram, is the real Jenny Bower, she remarks, “If there’s a realness that comes through, it’s because this is my real life. This is what I do every day. I don’t have a fancy camera; I just use my phone. It’s a snapshot of what I’m doing today. If somebody’s standing next to me in the shop, that’s what they’re going to see.”
“When I was growing up it was always about going to college. I didn’t understand that there were craft schools, that you could go away and learn these different crafts. Now I can say to my daughter, ‘If you want a college degree, we’ll support you in any way we can.’ But I want to expose her to craft alternatives before she makes that decision. There’s a lot of opportunity open to her.”
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.