When Elliot Kenaston ’22 faced the prospect of spending his academic year confined indoors due to COVID, he opted to take a gap year instead to hone in on a new, tangible skill: woodworking. Elliot, who grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, clearly values the intergenerational connection to this pursuit. He recalls spending time with his dad and grandpa, building treehouses and similar projects as a kid, and experiencing an upbringing with a connection to the natural world and these physical structures. With a supply of tools in his garage, Elliot gradually entered the world of building and woodworking. What started as tinkering with his grandfather’s tools turned into a full-fledged artistic pursuit. Elliot began developing furniture designs, building and selling originals, and also creating pieces for his family and sometimes himself.
He began mastering the skill with smaller projects and gradually took on larger and more complicated designs. Elliot explained: “It happened pretty organically because it started out as just something I was doing to pass the time between online classes. And so I went and I was just working in the garage. And then, as the year ended, and nobody knew what was going to happen, I kind of realized that I could turn my gap year into something, something doing this and being a little more productive. I started out pretty small. First I made little things, like cutting boards, a laptop stand, trays, and coasters.”
Elliot reflected on pursuing an art form with daily utility as well as aesthetic value.
“It really appeals to me. I never really did a lot of art before. I like using my hands and building something that people will use a lot, like coffee tables and desks and stuff.”
Now, his careful creations are in his family’s home and the homes of others, physical reminders of the value and care of an individual construction.
This experience carries on traditions within Elliot’s family and connects Elliot to his grandfather through the continuation of this art.
“He’s the big woodworker,” Elliot said of his grandfather. “He’s been really happy to see us do work like this. And so every time I visit him, we go around his shop, and he’ll show me the things that he’s working on. And he’s offered some of his tools to me and my brother … So he likes to pass them on to us, which is nice.”
Elliot finds inspiration in the landscapes and forests that source his wood. He thinks about the trees he cuts in relation to his local environment, making sure to preserve the natural landscape and connecting to the creative process of woodworking from its origin until the final polishes.
“I’ve done a couple of little art projects that involve Alaskan spruce forests and also did a lot of work getting my own wood out of trees that we’d cut down on our property and cut up into lumber that I could use for projects. It’s cool to be able to cut up and then turn into kind of my own thing. One of the biggest things is I turned a big spruce tree into a workbench for the garage.”
To this end, where some would simply see different tones of wood, Elliot sees depth and complexity in his potential materials and medium, unraveling the subtleties of different trees and their best utilisations.
“I like working with birch a lot because it’s a really nice, light wood. But I also really like walnut. It has a dark rich color. And then cherry is also a big favorite of mine. It’s got a lot of warmth.”
Elliott has faced several key transitions in his woodworking, from tinkering in his garage to working on commissioned pieces.
“It was at the point where when I was starting off, it was just these little things. But then once I started making the larger furniture pieces and realized that people would pay me money for it, I started trying to sell them more. So I was making side tables and coffee tables and posting those on Facebook Marketplace. And people would reach out to me to then make stuff for them, which was pretty cool.”
As he transitioned back to the on-campus Swarthmore experience, Elliot carried with him both the physical craft of woodworking and the lessons gleaned from the pandemic and this constructive experience. While initially he did not have access to his range of tools compiled over the course of a year, Elliot got in touch with people in the makerspace and engineering shop members to utilize the college’s resources. He’s been able to build here, including a coffee table, a shoe rack, and shelves for his room.
An astrophysics major, statistics minor, and track and cross country athlete, Elliot is finishing off his Swarthmore experience with a new perspective carried over from his time focusing more exclusively on woodworking. He juxtaposed the cathartic and physical art of woodworking with the theoretically intense courses he’s been studying.
“It’s made me realize that I don’t want to do super theory-heavy stuff. It has made me really want to do more kind of hands-on engineering work and building instead of doing physics.”
Elliot suggests the value of creative formation and the significance of physically seeing the progress of a project and perfecting it to align with a vision.
“I think everybody should give a shot at making things. I’m a big fan of making physical objects and having the gratification of being able to hold something that you’ve made, so I’d encourage everyone to do something like that.”