Char Miller-King Is Changing Woodworking Perceptions

The Wooden Maven talks about the (saw)dusty road to her dream career and why she's on a mission to bring wood shop back to schools

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Image Credit: Char Miller-King

You might find someone who expertly throws around terms like "miter saw," "edge bander" and "CNC wood router" in a conversation to be a bit intimidating, but Char Miller-King is just the opposite. The Atlanta-based woodworker and wood shop teacher, who has appeared on TV shows like ‌This Old House‌ and regularly collaborates with companies like Home Depot, is warm, funny and approachable. It's no wonder people flock to her Instagram (@woodenmaven) for advice on all things woodworking. "I have my hands in many pots, but what I love most is just pouring myself into people," says Char. "I'm very clear about my mission in life: I'm just here to plant seeds everywhere."

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She's been doing exactly that ever since she took up woodworking as a college student. (She couldn't afford to buy the bed of her dreams, so she built it herself!) A few bumps in the road later, including a disastrous first project and a serious health event that changed her career, and she's more than earned her moniker of "Wooden Maven."

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We talked to the 41-year-old mom of four about all that and why she's on a mission to bring wood shop back to schools.

You are one busy bee! What are you working on right now?

CHAR:‌ Woodworking in my garage, of course! I also sit on the board of a multicraft makerspace called Decatur Makers, which has a wood shop and classes on every craft imaginable. I fell in love with the space when I found it, and now I teach and volunteer there.

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I've been traveling and teaching a lot too. I just came back from Vermont, where I spent a week teaching girls ages 10 to 14. I also lead a carpentry club at my kids' school once a week and in community centers in underserved Atlanta areas. I introduce young people to basic power-tool safety and lumber and different ways we can use it. It's basically me trying to bring wood shop back to schools.

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Why is that important?

CHAR:‌ I think a lot of us still believe the American dream notion that you need to go to college to be successful in life. But that path is not for everybody. You can end up deep in debt for no reason. So, it would be great if we brought back trades.

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How do kids take to your classes?

CHAR:‌ Pretty well. The first time a kid uses a miter saw, I can sense the fear. I'll put my hand over theirs if they're OK with it and help them make that first cut. Then I'll ask, "Do you want to use the saw by yourself?" Most of the time, they will say yes. I know that 99% of them will not become woodworkers, but I'm planting confidence in them and the ability to tackle something hard and scary, which will hopefully carry over to other areas of their life.

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Woodworking 101: How to Get Started

Start small.‌ “Find an easy project that you want to do, like something you need in your home,” Char Miller-King says. “A simple table or a birdhouse. Get some inspiration from Pinterest.”

Get some basic tools.‌ “The best tools for a job are the tools you can afford,” Char says. “There are many projects that can be created with a drill and a basic power saw. All you need to get started is something that cuts and a drill, and that’s it.”

Take a class or two.‌ “Woodworking stores and maker spaces have great classes where you can learn and ask questions, and community colleges and tech schools have noncredit courses,” Char says. Don’t forget to check out woodworking forums on Facebook to find community and learn from others, she adds.

Don’t compare yourself to others.‌ “Don’t get wrapped up with what you see on Instagram or someone using $20,000 worth of tools to make a $20 project," Char says. "The most important thing is to get started.”

As a Black woman, do you also feel you’re showing them that not all wood shop teachers are older white men?

CHAR:‌ Yes, I hope Black kids see me and think, "If she can do it, so can I." My kids go to school with white kids whose families don't have Black friends and haven't exposed them to Black culture, so through the carpentry club, I may be their first real connection. Whatever they assume about Black people, I want to change their mind.

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Your own introduction to woodworking was when you built yourself a copy of an expensive bed you couldn’t afford. Tell us about it.

CHAR:‌ I believe in myself a lot, even if it's not feasible. Nobody can tell me that I can't do something. I was like, "I have no idea how to construct a bed!" So I took a picture of it with my flip phone and sent it to my uncle, who is a carpenter, saying, "I would like to make this bed. What do I need?" It took me three months. Afterward, I was like, "Did I really just build a bed?" I thought, "I like to build stuff," and after a year of doing it, I was like, "I'm a woodworker, I am so legit! Like, I could build a house" [laughs].

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How was your first project, though?

CHAR:‌ It was so embarrassing. I really had no idea what I was doing. A friend asked me to build him a window seat. I put it together with a nail and hammer. I stained it too dark. It was a monstrosity. I had no idea how to fix it—and he had paid me $2,500. So, I called my uncle, and he drove from St. Louis to Atlanta to rebuild it professional grade. Somehow, I didn't let that deter me from building things.

What do you love about working with wood, and what are the challenges? I’d be eternally afraid of making mistakes!

CHAR:‌ When you work with wood, you're gonna make a mistake. You're going to cut something too short [or] jack up a bowl. Step one, say some swear words, get it out off your chest and keep going because wood is a living thing and it's unpredictable. I love wood because it is transformative. You have a tree and you say, "OK, this tree is gonna become a boat or a table." And it's up to the creator to transform it into anything you want with the myriad tools available.

You pursued a corporate career, becoming director of a large facility at a university. How did you make the change to woodworking teacher?

CHAR:‌ I had put the tools up for a little bit, got married, had kids, worked my way up the corporate ladder. But at some point, I said, "I have to figure out a way to just live and make sawdust." I was born to build. I don't like working for corporate America, answering to a boss, asking for a day off. I want to be able to run my own schedule and figure out a way to make money. But I was not prepared for what came next.

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What happened?

CHAR:‌ My husband and I had two kids, and we were medically done having kids. But then I found out I was pregnant. We go to the doctor [and] they tell us they hear two heartbeats. Twins. I got horribly ill. I had a home nurse, IV line [and] a subcutaneous pump giving me medication. I couldn't keep water down. The twins came very quickly. Everything spiraled fast. My husband lost his job. My in-laws moved in with us to take care of the babies, so we went from a family of four to a family of eight. Then, I went back to work and they gave my job to someone else.

I’m so sorry. That’s so much trauma and change. How did you cope?

CHAR:‌ I decided to leave my job after five months. I did not want to be a stay-at-home mom, but my mental health was in a seriously bad state, and my miracle babies needed me. And I loved being a mom. So we watched ‌Sesame Street‌, learned our ABCs and went to the park. Did all the things.

Then I got up, put on sweats and started building again. I got on Instagram, found the maker space, found a community of people [and] the twins got old enough to go to school. And I suddenly realized that everything that I had been wishing for for so many years—to go outside and make sawdust—had actually happened. I had to go through so much to get to that place. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Because I'm on the other side of it now, and it paid off in such a huge way.

That’s an amazing story.

CHAR:‌ I would have never guessed that it would lead to me being on TV, radio, magazines [and] being paid to travel around the country to teach. To get free tools and be in commercials. I would have never guessed that all of that would lead to where I am now. And I am so eternally grateful. Because of all that stress and struggle I went through, I know that I can say I'm not an overnight success.

For more woodworking inspiration, follow Char Miller-King on Instagram!

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