Why tech workers start new hobbies like woodworking, sewing


They came from an era of ‘move fast and break things’ and are learning to slow down and do things.

Last month, Lydia tested the bridle joint prototype at the Clearroom Woodshop in San Francisco to see if the pieces fit together. She and her husband are building a dining table from scratch. (Kristen Murakoshi)

SAN FRANCISCO — On a typical workday, Haomiao Huang spends most of his time on pitch calls, poring over spreadsheets and pitch decks, and trying to make smart decisions about which robotics and hardware startups to fund and which to skip.

He and his wife also spent months practicing ancient woodworking techniques that allow two pieces of wood to seamlessly interlock. After each failed attempt, these amateur woodworkers tossed another precious piece of white oak into the trash heap.

“We’re patient,” Lydia said after carefully running the wood through the table saw. We are making a dining table that we will die together.

Huang, 40, and Ze, 37 — who work in the pharmaceutical industry — could easily walk into an upscale furniture store near their woodworking shop on a Saturday and spend $4,000 on a pre-made table. But like many modern workers who are attached to digital devices throughout the day, Huang and Ze are finding stress relief — and a sense of connection and accomplishment — in working with their hands.

“It’s very grounded, and meditative,” Huang says of his time in the wood shop. By day, Huang was a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, a powerful Silicon Valley firm that first invested in tech giants like Amazon, Google, Twitter and Uber. “When you have power…you can’t think about uncollected finances. … If I don’t handle it differently, I’ll lose my hand.

In an age of technological advancement, many wanted to “move fast and break things,” a slogan made famous by Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and spread to Silicon Valley for growth at all costs. Now, in an age of layoffs and cost-cutting, employees feel the urge to slow things down and get things done.

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In recent years, woodworking shops have opened around the city, for those who want to work with their hands. Startups are scheduled to build units in groups, and employees of two tech giants say there are woodworking spaces on campus (the companies have not confirmed or denied).

“The tech guys never believe me when I tell them to take it slow. They do it quickly and they screw it up,” says Jake Kleinsmith, a 31-year-old part-time software engineer who runs the Clayroom wood shop, a spacious front-end ceramics studio in a San Francisco suburb.

The desire to develop craft skills goes beyond wood. The maker movement, where people use do-it-yourself techniques to make things, has been growing in the Bay Area for about a decade. When the epidemic happened, some of the technology workers woke up again Lego obsession. Glassblowing, welding, pottery and other arts also took off.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently posted on Facebook how his daughters learned to sew while making 3D printed clothing.

Venture capitalist Arie Zuckerberg, one of Mark’s younger sisters, and 40 other friends recently gathered at the Lake Tahoe campus for a tutorial. Over the weekend, complete with custom swag, there was a studio game on Fireman; Attendees taught each other how to sew, DJ, whip up the perfect French omelet and more.

“Even tech workers aren’t just passionate about technology,” Zuckerberg said, sharing her DJ skills with the audience. When Zuckerberg figured out how to sew a learner onto her Patagonia coat, “she had this profound sense of accomplishment, and it was incredibly satisfying.” She was so happy, she bought a sewing machine.

And that’s a big part of woodworking’s appeal, says Clairome, 37, who owns a large space in the Soma neighborhood with a ceramics studio in the front and a wood shop in the back. For example, a software engineer can publish code and edit it as necessary. But, Gershgorn says, “If you make a mistake with your chisel … it’s totally done.”

However, these hobbies don’t come cheap – woodworking classes cost hundreds of dollars, studio memberships and materials quickly balloon into the thousands, feeding the elitist nature of the tech world, engineers paying salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Compared to other niche hobbies like baking and racquet sports, “woodworking has a slightly higher barrier to entry in terms of tools and access,” says Klingensmith. Huang and The Guess spent about $10,000 on woodworking classes, studio memberships and materials.

Working slowly and deliberately can be difficult to focus on with the speed and efficiency of trained people.

As 60-year-old software engineer Sharmila Lassen said during a recent class at Clairome, the experience comes with patience and woodworking. When she tries to “optimize” – tech jargon for making the process as efficient as possible – she has to stack two pieces of wood on top of each other, then adjust her pieces that aren’t right. In total, she spends $300 and 12 hours making a small serving tray.

Lassen’s friend, Alison Jones, A senior vice president at an architecture and engineering firm, she joined her for the service-tray division. “I come here with a headache, but working in a wood shop calms her down,” Jones says. “I like to learn how to be good at something,” she added. “Finally—here, I have this,” Triwan says, instead of a spreadsheet.

“When you work with wood, you are entering a history of human craftsmanship that has existed for our entire species,” Kleinsmith said.

Enthusiasts have found the hobby to be a great match for fall when many are out of work or taking intentional time off. John Szot, 30, who recently moved from Manhattan to the Bay Area while taking a break from a career in finance, found woodworking to be a “nice change of pace.” He gets opportunities to work with his hands “increasingly.”

Since Szot is new to the area, he came to the wood shop in part to meet people.

With nearly half of the nation’s white-collar workers returning to the office, tech giants are among the few remaining spaces, and office vacancies in downtown San Francisco are at an all-time high — so much so that some offices are being converted to apartments.

As people spend more time commuting, they have more time for hobbies, and a greater need for communication, says Gershgorn. “There’s this energy of movement that happens when you walk into the studio after 5 p.m.,” Gershgorn adds, as miter saws whir and tires spin as people work on different projects side by side.

Chris Steinruck, 38, owner of Wood Thumb, another woodworking shop in the neighborhood, says his hobby gives desk workers who spend all day staring at electronic devices some restorative energy.

Wood Thumb frequently has groups from nearby tech companies for one-on-one classes that double as team-building exercises. When people walk into class, “you can tell they’re zoned out,” Steinruck says, likening their behavior to that of “robot zombies.” At the end of the class, where participants made cutting boards or a little triangle shelf, he noticed that “everyone was just drawn and excited — and there was life in the room.”

Huang and Ze got into woodworking in part because they wanted a new way to communicate. The hobby is “a great bonding experience for us,” says Huang.

If the couple gets burned out when one person finishes something, the other will take the project over the finish line. Looking for a new piece of wood to mount a nightstand to the wall, Huang jumped in to do it. And when Huang felt defeated trying to master the awkward angles of the bridle joint for the dining table they were making, he dived in.

Instead of hacking away at wood that could soon be a table leg on Saturday, they’re going back to basics and building a prototype. Modeling with scrap wood is advice that took Kleinsmith a while to sink in.

“I’m so close,” he told Huang, proudly pinching it after running the wood through the table saw.

Huang suggests using a power screwdriver to turn the edges until they fit together smoothly.

“Then I’ll go too fast,” she reasoned. “It’s very close. A little more patience.

She pulls out a chisel, then sandpaper. After about 30 minutes of tinning, the two sticks fit together. It’s not perfect – there are small gaps between the two parts – but it’s nothing a little glue can’t fix.


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