Biography - Gail O'Rourke
Woodworking for Women Magazine, May 2006 edition
By Tom Iovino
A Hometown Woodworker
When you think of the job a typical stay-at-home mom might have to supplement the family income, selling cosmetics or party candles might come to mind.
But, a cabinetmaker?
That's what Gail O'Rourke of Plymouth, Massachusetts does, and she produces outstanding pieces from her workshop in her home. Her business, Hometown Woodworking is doing very well, serving local clients from private individuals to businesses such as restaurants and health clubs. It's the kind of job that brings a smile to her face while making a contribution to her family's finances.
Gail is a strong woman with a fierce independent streak. She acquired that, by necessity, at a very early age. The youngest of seven children, both of her parents passed away before she turned 21. Relying on the support of her siblings, she put herself through college and has created a life she can be proud of. "Independence is empowering. Change forces you to grow in ways you never thought possible."
A refinishing job on a maple dining set got her thinking about woodworking. And, soon after buying her home, she became interested in building furniture. Her older brother helped get her started, and Gail jumped in, building a dining room wine cabinet. When her brother asked why she didn't start with something easy like a birdhouse, she shrugged and answered, "I didn't need one."
Gail's old school design techniques - and dedication to customer service - are a perfect fit for one of America's oldest hometowns. Her inspiration comes from sitting with her clients to discuss their vision of the final project. Then, she goes to her desk and draws everything out by hand, relying on the experience she gained from one session of drafting back in eighth grade. Gail even takes the time to transfer the drawing to graph paper to ensure that everything will look to scale.
Her construction techniques are also very down to earth. Gail is the first to admit that she has never hand cut a dovetail, but the skills she learned while working part time for a local master cabinetmaker follow her still. Everything is cut at the same time to exactly the right dimensions, so there are no mistakes or delays that will cost time and money down the road.
But, it will never be a job. To Gail, the workshop is more of a place of refuge than of business. "I love it, it's what keeps me going. My workshop is the only place where I can truly be me. I am no one's mother, no one's wife, it's the place where only I exist. Its suits me. What can be more fun than going down to the shop, ignoring the mess, cranking up the tunes and making exactly what you want?"
One of Gail's mentors is John Lucas, master of woodshopdemos.com. Gail had met John on one of the woodworking forums, and their friendship clicked. Gail later went to mentor with John, and she appears on many of the site's step-by-step photo tutorials. While honing her skills, and still dropping by from time to time to lend a hand, John's infectious 'can do' attitude encouraged Gail to get out of her comfort zone and stretch her talents. Her projects have become bigger and more complex - like the time she had a customer request a full wine cellar in his basement. "That was one of my biggest accomplishments, seeing all of that redwood ready to serve its owner for years to come."
How does this harried wife to her husband Michael and mom of three - a daughter in third grade and twins in first - find the time to build these wonderful creations? "Sometimes, it's just fifteen minutes at a time. When I was making a mission bed, I would sneak downstairs, change the laundry, run into the shop and cut five or eight mortises, then do it all again a couple of hours later. When you have three kids close in age, you become creative in piecing your time together." Of course, when her trio is in school, you can find her in her shop from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m.
What words of advice does Gail have for up-and-coming woodworkers? "Show determination. There are no obstacles that you cannot overcome. Believe in yourself - no matter what you do. It doesn't have to be woodworking and you don't have to do it forever - it's about what you want to do today."