You’ll have a hard time fitting Nick into any preconceived notions of the Hollywood glitterati. He grew up an Illinois farm boy, having helped in the raising of barns and repairing of houses before he was even driving age. He espouses woodworking (or similar humble, hard-working craft) for physical and psychological well-being. And he married an Oklahoman (Boomer Sooner!), which speaks very highly of his good taste.
On the farm, Nick dreamed of acting. And, in part, it was his woodworking background that gave him his foothold. “When I got into acting in the theater, I was really terrible in the beginning. But because I could build things, they’d put me in their shows when I agreed to build things for the set. Then in Chicago, in the mid-90s, I made a living building scenery.”
As his acting career flourished, taking him to California, Nick continued building things for friends—a cabin here, a deck there. A fascination with joinery led him to explore furniture-making. “I learned that an old trestle table has the same joinery as a post-and-beam barn.”
The Offerman Woodshop
Nick maintains a well-appointed shop in L.A. which he runs as a cross between a high-end custom furniture business, an artisan training ground, and a personal retreat. Journeyman students from nearby colleges act as Nick’s shop assistants and use the shop for their own projects. A small fee goes toward materials and shop upkeep. Nick passes commissions on to the students to keep the work flowing. And, in his increasingly rare free time, he gets the side benefit of a professionally-outfitted hobby shop. A full-circle sweet deal!
“I’ve made a studied effort over the years at keeping it a small operation,” he says, “I’m in this social situation where I’m in a circle of friends who have disposable income and want custom work. There’s never a pileup of business, but we have a steady stream of commissions.”
The Offerman Woodshop’s bread-and-butter product? Nakashima-inspired, natural-edge, trestle tables made from Nick’s inventory of salvaged wood slabs from Northern California. “All of my inventory is salvaged. I love to show people the pieces. 95% have never considered where the wood comes from.”
The shop has seen its share of air-time as well. When the writers for Parks and Recreation discovered that Nick was a woodworker, they wrote the hobby into his character. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll recognize it as the code-violation-beleaguered shop that puts Ron Swanson at odds with the city’s inspector. Nick insists that all of the code violations are added by the art department. “It’s a beautiful shop,” he says. “If it scores me any safety points, I went out and bought a SawStop.”
Paddling His Own Canoe
Nick’s most recent woodworking adventure: Boat-building in New York. Anticipating a long wait as his wife, actress Megan Mullally, performed on Broadway, Nick decided it would be the perfect time to tackle one of his bucket-list projects: a cedar-strip canoe. He picked up Ted Moores’ book, Canoecraft, widely considered the bible of woodstrip/epoxy canoe construction. (“Ted Moores is the Obiwan Kenobi of canoe-building,” says Nick). After he had settled on a plan, he called up Bear Mountain Boats, Moores’ company, with a few questions. Moores’ partner Joan Barrett answered the phone and, before he knew it, Nick had agreed to do an instructional DVD for the couple.
“I mean I’ve got some woodworking skills,” Nick says, “But now we’re going to build a canoe? I learned that some of the finest woodworkers are boatbuilders because there are no straight lines and your life depends on your glue lines. But it’s all really doable. And it’s really liberating. By the time you’re done, you realize that you could sculpt anything. I was very proud to have the opportunity to do that for them. It was one of the best things I’ve ever gotten to do. There’s no feeling like literally paddling a canoe that you’ve built.”
The canoe made its maiden voyage in the New York Harbor and has since appeared on an episode of Parks & Recreation. You can find more info on Nick’s Canoe-building DVD at bearmountainboats.com along with the journal he kept during the build process.
That Pesky Dream Job
With a prime-time role on a hit show, acting has supplanted much of his woodworking time. “It’s ridiculous what a dream come true it is. I never imagined that there would be a part like this for me on a big network show. But I definitely have taken a hit in the shop time with this pesky dream job. I come into my shop maybe once a week and look at all my tools sitting there forlorn wondering when I’ll get back.”
But Nick’s woodworking is more than a hobby. In fact, in our conversation, he was positively evangelical about the benefits of working with your hands. Citing agrarian poet and author Wendell Berry, Nick champions humble artisan work as a remedy for much of society’s ills.
Says Nick: “The central theme of Berry’s work is how, in our modern, disposable society, we’ve lost sight of our relationship with the land we live on.”
“It really resonates personally. All of his characters are my dad, my grandpa. My uncles still run this farm. My dad farmed then taught school. Their list of jobs is ridiculously salt-of-the-earth. To leave that fold and say ‘I’m going to try my hand at acting on the stage.’ There was a sense of frivolity to it. ‘You’re perfectly good at pouring concrete; why would you choose that?’ A lot of my choice to continue woodworking is so I can redeem myself with them.
“I feel that if people would work with their hands and be productive, we’d have a lot less time to become obese or medicate ourselves because we have all this energy and nothing to do with it. I cling to my woodworking. I feel like there’s a social consciousness to it. It keeps me from becoming another sad Hollywood guy with too much disposable income and nothing to do. It’s my church.”
What do Nick’s Hollywood colleagues think of his woodworking?
“They find it charismatic. Most people who get into acting have not done a lot work with their hands. They find it unfathomable. But it does make me a very boring celebrity. I’d rather buy a flitch of walnut than a weekend in Vegas. Or I say, ‘If I get this movie role, I can finally buy that Lie-Nielsen bullnose plane.’ That’s my bag of coke.”
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