Ashlander: Itai Aaronson

Itai Aaronson is a renaissance man of woodcraft. The 55-year-old cabinetmaker and woodworker combines a reverence for craftsmanship with 30 years of computer engineering experience to shape wood in intricate ways.

Six years ago, Aaronson, a native of Israel, left a successful technology career in the Bay Area to live in Ashland and pursue a lifelong passion for woodworking.

Although he worries that our culture is too reliant on technology and is losing touch with many tangible joys in life, he also understands and exploits technology to design and craft cabinetry and wood art.

Ed Bemis, a general contractor and owner of Bemis Developments, said he has great admiration for Aaronson.

"Itai has top woodworking skills. He is very precision-minded. Actually, Itai is just like his work, very true, honest and clever. He's the guy you go to when you need high-end, high-precision work," Bemis said.

Aaronson spoke with the Daily Tidings about his work and its connection to people and the planet.

DT: How did you get started in woodworking?

IA: When I was in high school, I was an apprentice at a wood shop in Israel. But when I was older, I never had the space to do woodworking. In the Bay Area, we bought a house and my mother-in-law suggested I use the garage for some woodworking. The first thing I built was a high chair for my baby daughter. Then one thing led to another. I did a lot of woodworking, but I didn't start it as a business until I moved to Ashland.

DT: Why switch from computer engineering to woodworking?

IA: Although I made my living with computers, I've always loved working with my hands. Also, working with wood and creating furniture makes me feel more connected to people and the world around me. People are becoming out of touch with the physical reality.

DT: Was it a difficult career transition?

IA: If you are making a change from a high-paying job, there is a lifestyle change required. The other challenge was to acquire the knowledge required to do woodworking as a business. It may appear to the casual eye as a simple type of operation, but it is not simple. There are a lot of techniques and processes, a lot of details that need to be mastered to efficiently produce beautiful and long-lasting pieces.

DT: What is a favorite aspect of your work?

IA: With computers, everything is abstract, but when I make furnishings for people I work with physical forms. In the past 20 years, things have become very virtual and abstract in the way we live. Think of all the people you see connected to their electronic devices all day. In woodworking, I can create a tangible object. It could be anything, a box, a bowl, a table. I'm not discounting the importance of technology, but I felt the need for something more physical. I've always enjoyed working with my hands, and my work is good for the planet.

DT: How is wood work good for the planet?

IA: An item made from a tree should last at least as long as it took to grow the tree. The average lifetime of an Ikea product is about 5 years, whereas a quality piece made by a responsible woodworker will last 25 years or more. Even if you don't keep the piece for 25 years, maybe you will keep it for 10 and someone else will keep it for 10 and so on. Regardless, it will stay out of the landfill. Ikea should be banned. Throw-away furnishings have a negative environmental impact. If more people realize the connection between quality and longevity and climate change, they would refuse to buy the mass-produced items.

DT: Do you have a piece you are particularly proud of right now?

IA: Probably the piece I am most proud of is a bowl I made last year. It looks like a clam shell. I made it for my wife, Susan. In a way, everything I make is for her.

DT: What is your latest challenge?

IA: I am trying to leverage my technological skills to computerize a lot of woodworking activities. One of the things I enjoy most is manipulating software to transform abstract designs on a computer into actual wood pieces. I keep my eye open for high-quality computer-controlled woodworking machines, refurbish them, and create software to drive them.

DT: Do you have advice for someone interested in woodworking?

IA: I think one needs several years of apprenticeship to be a craftsman, to be independently productive. Unfortunately, a young person can't just come in and learn the craft in the old apprenticeship tradition anymore, there are too many legal restrictions. However, there is a woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka.

DT: What do you like to do in your free time?

IA: I like to spend time with my family, go to movies. I also like to cook, but I make complicated things like eggplant and homemade cheeses.

DT: Who inspires you?

IA: My children, my 2 daughters. They inspire me by asking questions. I see my children striving to be creative and it makes me want to be like them. I'm also inspired by beautiful creations in woodworking. In the Siskiyou Woodworking Guild there are some highly accomplished artisans. Woodworking is an ancient occupation, and people right here in the Rogue Valley are maintaining the tradition.

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