Nick Offerman (center) with the team of woodworkers who work out of Offerman Woodshop. Photo by John Lichtwardt
Nick Offerman has enjoyed a successful career as an actor, most recently playing the character Ron Swanson on the hit TV show Parks and Recreation. Those of you who watch the show know that Ron loves meat, whiskey and woodworking, but did you also know that the man behind the character has a deep-seated passion for woodworking? He even runs his own shop, Offerman Woodshop. We recently had the opportunity to speak to Nick Offerman on the phone. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
How did you get into woodworking?
I grew up using tools in a farm family. That translated well into a theatre career, because I wasn’t very good at acting when I started but I could build the sets and props. People would give me little parts in their plays so that I would use my tools.
And your starting point was the skills you had learned on the farm while growing up?
Well, sure. There were always things to be built — fences and barns and dog houses and what have you. My dad and my uncles and my grandfathers were really instrumental in teaching me to swing a hammer.
Do you remember the first project you built?
Probably the first thing that had four sides was a pretty rickety treehouse down by the creek that my friend Steve and I built. It was a place to read comic books and play with matches.
What’s the one thing you’ve made that you’re most proud of? Do you have just one thing?
There’s kind of a handful of answers to that question, but if I had to pick one thing so far it would be the first canoe that I built. It certainly took the longest of all my projects and I think it’s like comparing a bunch of coffee cups to a full set of china.
What was it that compelled you to build a canoe?
Well, because I saw myself woodworking through Fine Woodworking magazine, and then from the magazine’s recommendations I graduated to books by great woodworkers: James Krenov, Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, Tage Frid, Christian Becksvoort, Lonnie Bird, Jim Tolpin, and on and on. I devoured these books, and as you continue to graduate to more difficult joinery and new tools, one of the things that kept recurring was eventually you’re going to have to build a boat. [laughs]
Then I started looking at WoodenBoat magazine. I’m really a poster child for these publications. In the back was a plan for a baby cradle by a guy named Warren Jordan. It’s this beautiful little rowboat. My best friend … and his wife had just gotten pregnant and I said, “Oh great. I’ll build this Baby Tender.” So I built that, and it was really challenging and fun and very satisfying.
Then I said, “I’ve built a tiny boat, now I can build a full-sized one” and fate was just very good to me. My wife [actress Megan Mullally] got a job in a Broadway show. We agreed that we would move to New York for a year and a half and by moving away from my shop and my clientele, I was thereby freed from having to build any furniture for a year and a half. I took a bag of chisels and spokeshaves and block planes with me and said, “This is my chance”. So I rented a shop space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and undertook my first canoe.
"Huckleberry" built by Nick, is one of three canoes he has worked on so far.
You’re on a hit TV show now, which means your schedule is extremely busy. Do you still make time for woodworking?
Not nearly as much as I would like. I knew if my show took off and stuck around for a while, I knew what sort of changes were about to happen in my life. My shop is so beautiful and living and I couldn’t bear the thought of just locking the doors and shutting the lights off. So I’ve put together this group of woodworkers captained by a redoubtable young lady named Rebecca Lee, and we created this going concern, Offerman Woodshop. It’s like a co-op where everybody can build whatever they want to and then they just pay an overhead to the shop.
I do a lot of advising, I do a lot of administrating. I’ll design pieces that the woodworkers will then build. But they’re also very good, and so I often just hand off commissions to them if I’m busy.
Are you in every week?
I am, by and large. I still, you know, I cling to it like heroin, kind of like a heroin addiction. I’ve got to get in there and make sawdust at least once a week or I go crazy.
So it’s therapeutic for you. Is that what motivates you to continue with it?
Well, it is absolutely therapeutic. I mean the entertainment business is so crazy, especially in Los Angeles. To just escape into the autonomy of me, and some wood, and some tools is like an incredible vacation.
In interviews, you seem to really want to spread the word about woodworking. Is that important to you and why?
It is. When people started interviewing me, I immediately recognized that the last thing I wanted to do was what a lot of actors do, which is just talk about things like acting and movies and the makeup trailer, things that I find really boring to talk about.
I thought, “Well I don’t want to just talk about making a TV show. This is an opportunity, if I’m reaching a lot of people, to try to promote woodworking and even more generally just making things with one’s hands”, which is something that’s my own little soapbox.
I feel like the work ethic that I grew up with and the tool skills that I have, have served me in so many ways and made my life so much more prosperous than had I grown up in an environment where all I did was play video games and go to the mall. It’s something that I think I’ll always continue to promote. I talk a lot about encouraging people to make things with their hands because I think it’s a very healthy thing to do.
Do you have projects on your “bucket list”?
Sure. It’s funny, when people ask me as an actor what roles are you dying to play, I feel sort of the same about this question. I don’t have any sort of Hamlet or Gandalf kind of dreams. I just want to continue to get to do the best work I can and I don’t know what mask I’ll be wearing when I do. I never could have predicted the role I have right now, but it’ll be a long time before I have one that I feel is better.
My next immediate dream projects are some ukuleles, which will be a gateway project into some acoustic guitars. Hopefully my seventh or eighth one will sound okay.
How much did your personal interests shape the character Ron Swanson? Did they make him an avid woodworker because they knew you were?
They did, yeah. When we were creating the show, I was on the phone a lot with the writers, fleshing things out and figuring out what they thought was funny about me and what they could use. They eventually piled into a bus and came to the shop and said “Oh, this is really funny. You’re a huge nerd. We can wring great comedy from your love of woodworking.”
In the episode where Ron attends a woodworking show, employees from Lee Valley, Lie-Nielsen and Fine Woodworking magazine were brought in to take part. Why was it important to have real woodworking companies there?
That was a gift to me. They wrote that episode and said they were going to have this big woodworking show and I said as part of my mission to promote woodworking, I’d love to promote Lee Valley and Lie-Nielsen and Fine Woodworking. And so they brought them in. It’s a great thing about this dream job is that we can pull things like that off.
Last question— what’s something that few people know about you?
I do love to sew. I am quite handy with a needle and thread.
Yeah. Yesterday my wife had a very expensive coat and one of the flaps of the pockets ripped off, and I was very proud that she asked me to mend it. It was sturdy and invisibly fixed. If my shop goes belly up, I might have a future as a seamstress.
To see more of Nick’s projects and those of his colleagues, visit Offerman Woodshop at offermanwoodshop.com.