Nina MacLaughlin’s story is unexpected and inspiring. When Nina quit her job as a journalist, she had no idea what she would do next. A job on Craigslist as a carpenter’s assistant with the tagline: ‘women strongly encouraged to apply’ peaked her interest. With no formal training, Nina did apply and got the job! Since then Nina has been perfecting the trade and working as a carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now, coming full circle as a carpenter and as a writer, Nina has chronicled her experience in her new memoir, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter. Nina is busy with the launch of her book, but took time to speak with me about her life-changing experience and why mascara is her new friend …
MKG: How long have you been working as a carpenter? Do you love it?
NINA: I’ve been working as a carpenter for the last six years. I’ve found that the satisfaction that results from building a deck, for example, or a set of bookshelves, is one of the deepest I’ve experienced. Carpentry is consistently challenging, and there is so much left to learn. Some days I love it. Some days are sweaty and dirty and boring. Like any job, there are stretches when it’s incredible, and stretches when it’s tedious. I’m grateful to have the combination of writing and carpentry in my life; for me, the two compliment each other very well.
MKG: What surprised you most about being a carpenter?
NINA: I didn’t anticipate how powerful the satisfaction of building would be. That continues to boggle my mind. I had a sense it would be rewarding, but had no idea how much so.
MKG: You are a woman, working in a mostly-male dominated profession. How have you been treated?
NINA: People imagine that it’s a hostile environment, that we’re up against tough, insulting jerks all the time. It hasn’t been the case. My boss has been in the trades for nearly twenty years. She’s a contractor, and the guys she hires — electricians, plumbers, plasterers, etc — all know her and respect the hell out of her. Occasionally there will be a sidelong look at a lumberyard and once or twice a condescending remark, but for the most part, it’s all been completely civil and relaxed.
MKG: What does that do to your sense of self and femininity?
NINA: How we’re treated hasn’t altered my sense of my femininity at all. The clothes and the work, at first, did rattle my sense of womanness. I found that wearing beat-up old clothes, holding a framing gun, a hammer, or a drill, did make it a little harder to locate my femininity at first. It was a surprise because it seems like such a core part of who we all are, that clothes and tools shouldn’t have the power to shift it up. But, for a time, they did. Now, though, I’m able to hold both woman and carpenter at the same time, and feel confident in both.
MKG: You say that you didn’t start to wear makeup until after you became a carpenter. Why is that?
NINA: It was an attempt at a balancing — I was feeling like a boy at work and wanted to feel a little girlier when I wasn’t at work. I only ever wear a little bit, barely noticeable, but I’ve come to really enjoy the practice of putting on eyeliner and mascara.
MKG: What role does clothing now play in your life?
NINA: I have work clothes that are utilitarian. They consist of pairs of paint-stained jeans, old t-shirts, layers of long underwear, a down vest, and sturdy shoes. And I have clothes that I wear outside of work: Tighter jeans, dresses, and turtlenecks. In both cases, I want to be comfortable. In the work clothes, I’m not too worried about what looks flattering on my body.
MKG: What inspired you to write your memoir: Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter?
NINA: I’ve always been someone who writes, and this seemed in some ways like the ideal way to marry the dual pursuits of my life – writing and carpentry. Though the book is about leaving my journalism job to become a carpenter, I think that it can appeal to anyone who has wanted to change the life he/she knows for something else.