In 2008, Nina MacLaughlin had just quit her journalism job of seven years — with no plan for what to do next — when she happened upon a Craigslist job posting for a carpenter’s assistant. Though she had no experience to speak of, she was heartened by the tagline “Women strongly encouraged to apply,” and sent in her application. She got the job, and has been working as a carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ever since. In her new memoir, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, MacLaughlin chronicles the experience of abandoning her desk job and the satisfaction and joy of learning to work with her hands. She spoke with the Cut about what her career switch taught her about ambition, how working as a carpenter changed her relationship to her own femininity, and what it’s like to be a woman in a field that’s still 99 percent male.
How did you decide that it was time to leave your desk job and try something totally different?
The first job I had out of college was at the Boston Phoenix, which was an alt weekly — sort of like The Village Voice. It was an amazing first job. I loved going into work — it didn’t feel like work. I was surrounded by bright, curious weirdos, so every day was a pleasure. When I started, I was doing listings, and then my job evolved over time and I became one of the editors of the website, which meant I was doing a lot of clicking. Over time, the sheen wore off, and I wasn’t feeling the same kind of energy. Honestly, it took a year to summon up the courage to say, “I’m done here,” because it was a comfortable place to work and it was the only job that I knew. But at the same time, my gut was saying, It’s time to go.
Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do next?
I think sitting at a desk, feeling dulled by the screen, I had this big craving to do something that had more to do with tangible reality. I had no real experience doing anything with my hands, but I would see people like landscapers and think, That would be so great. But it seemed like a pipe dream. I had no experience, and I didn’t know anyone in the trades, so it was this very nebulous idea that this would be the sort of thing that I’d love to do.
Did carpentry ever occur to you as a possible profession before you saw the Craigslist ad?
No, absolutely not. It still kind of boggles my mind, because growing up, I would have never expected it.
What associations did you have with it?
I went to a fancy college, and I grew up around people who got very fancy, expensive educations, and I didn’t really know people who were in the trades. It seemed to me like the dudes that I was seeing — and they were definitely all men — were these tough guys who knew how to use their hands and had this sacred-seeming wisdom about them. It seemed so foreign to me — and completely out of the realm of what I would be able to do.
What about the Craigslist ad caught your eye?
It was back in 2008, and the economy was totally terrible. I was going through my morning routine of looking for jobs and feeling totally bleak, despairing, awful, and this morning, I decided to click on the “etc.” category. I saw this posting and my heart started beating faster. I thought, Oh my God, this is it, this is the exact thing I’ve been waiting for. And I immediately jumped on it.
Did the fact that the ad said “women strongly encouraged to apply” influence your decision to apply?
I think that’s the only reason [I applied]. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough if it didn’t say that, if I would have had the guts.
Were your expectations about what you thought it would be like to work as a carpenter accurate?
Yes and no. At first, everything was new, and it was overwhelming in an amazing way, like, “I’m using a tile saw right now, this is incredible,” and “Look at this floor we just put down, I can’t believe it.” And I still feel that powerfully. But after the initial feeling of being overwhelmed wore off, it took a long time to get good at it. There were a lot of frustrating days of the experience, of repeatedly feeling like, “God damn it, I’m not good at this yet.” I think we romanticize craft work, but a lot of times it can just be really heavy and boring and uncomfortable — but the satisfaction makes up for that.
In the book you write about how you found that working as a carpenter shifted your sense of self, particularly with regard to your femininity. How so?
I was never a girly girl — it was something I didn’t think about that much. But starting carpentry work in these grubby clothes — layers of shirts, hair pulled back, sports bra, sneaks — I found that it was harder to locate my feminine self. It was a surprise that wearing those clothes and holding a drill, all of a sudden, I felt my sense of womanness was rattled. It was really disorienting at first to find that clothes and the job had the power to shake that.
You also write about being embarrassed to admit that you felt this shift in your identity. Why’s that?
I think I felt like, Shouldn’t my sense of my own femininity be more stable than the clothes I have on my body and the work I’m doing? I was surprised that it was so easily shaken up — which maybe meant it was more fragile than we think.
You mentioned that you didn’t start wearing makeup until after you worked as a carpenter. Did you make other adjustments to your self-presentation?
I think that now, when I’m not doing carpentry, I’ll dress a little bit more femininely to create some balance. It’s nice after being covered in sawdust, with glue in my fingers, to take a shower and get really clean and put on a skirt and shave my legs and feel like a pretty woman.
You write in the book that carpenters are still 99 percent male. What has your experience working as a female carpenter been like?
The men that we typically work with — electricians and plumbers and plasterers — know [my boss] Mary, and they respect the hell out of her. It’s just a lot of friends getting together and working together. When we are out in the world, at lumberyards and stuff, we certainly get raised eyebrows and second glances. That’s hard for me, and I’m quick to get defensive, but I try to remind myself that it is peculiar for these guys to see women on the job — you don’t see a lot of women loading their vans or trucks full of lumber. We’ve had good luck. Some hardware stores or lumberyards are friendlier than others, and we try to avoid the ones that give us a little attitude, but mostly it’s all very warm and respectful.
You mentioned having gone to a fancy school. How did your career switch fit with the assumptions and desires you had around ambition?
When I would first tell people this is what I’m doing, I did feel a little defiant, like, “Guess what, I’m not doing the expected journalism.” That job made a lot of sense for me, and saying that I wasn’t going to do it gave me a feeling of pride and defiance. Most people were like, “That’s awesome.” I think some people were skeptical — and my dad, for example, was hoping I would go to grad school — but for the most part, people have been pretty supportive.
Nina MacLaughin will be reading tonight at Housing Works Bookstore Café, along with Kate Bolick, Cara Nicoletti, and Rosie Schaap.
This interview has been edited and condensed.