I started my tiny house search by visiting a tiny house listed for sale on craigslist. The house was 60 square feet, had a fold-down bed that took up about 50 of those square feet, and a tiny woodstove tucked into the remaining strip of floor, with a scant few inches of clearance on either side. The house was sheathed in plywood and otherwise unfinished. It could be lifted by tractor onto a snowmobile trailer; I own neither a tractor nor a snowmobile trailer. Uninspired, I went to the library and checked out Lloyd Kahn’s “Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter” yet again, put myself on the waiting list for a tiny house introductory weekend course in Boston, and returned to the drawing board.
A few months later, still on that waiting list, I bumped into an acquaintance and local builder, Maria Klemperer-Johnson. As she picked out her vegetables at the winter CSA where I was working, I casually asked her about tiny houses. “I think I want to build one, but I’ve never built anything before.” I said. “Is it possible? Do you know of a good school where I can learn my basic carpentry skills?” Thus Hammerstone School was born.
For the past 12 years, working in a cabinetry shop, building straw bale and timber frame sustainable structures, refurbishing high-end homes with a local company, and running her own carpentry business, Maria was almost always the only woman at each job site. Feeling that half of our country’s design and building potential is missing, simply because women are not encouraged in or taught the building trades, Maria began planning her carpentry school for women. When we started talking about my tiny house, she was ready. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for years! Let’s team up,” was her response. “You provide the materials. I’ll teach a class. We’ll build your house, and you and the other students will learn the skills you need as we go.” Flyers were made. Designs were drawn and discussed and drawn again. Local green lumber was purchased and stacked to dry. Students signed up. I found and bought a rusty, broken down Shasta pull-behind camper, demolished it, and had the chassy sandblasted and repainted. On the first day of class, students arrived with new tool belts. Maria handed us crisp design plans, and my trailer was our backdrop in the shop, complete with a new license plate and ready to be transformed into my home.
On our first day of class, all eight of us students talked about our past experiences building. Aside from a chicken coop here and a refinished bookshelf there, most of us were beginners. A couple of women had already set up a small workshop and were feeling their ways through home improvements. All of us were wowed by our first lesson on accurate measuring with a tape, a skill with nuances we had never before considered. This simultaneously humbling and empowering start to the class set the stage for the build. Ready and eager, we jumped into every aspect of the course. Whether we were learning to hold a circular saw, adjust for the saw kerf, or countersink a screw, or we were taking copious notes on advanced framing techniques and wood grain orientation, we were sponges, soaking in all that we could learn, and aware of our inherent capacity to put it into practice.
Personally, as the owner of our project, I got the most opportunity to practice what we learned, and I was not always certain of my capacity for success. There were moments when I mis-set a nail so many times, scrunched in my loft with frozen toes, that I called Maria in tears and wanted to sell my house and give in to a life of renting mediocre apartments. There were moments when I just didn’t care what color my trim paint would be, or where my kitchen sink was set into the counter top. But each week, with the return of my fellow classmates, excitement and hope returned. This house would be completed, it would be beautiful, and it would be built by us: the women of Hammerstone School.
We hoped this process would take a summer. It took a year. I imagined my home as a glorified cabin with a nail to hang my jacket and a rough plank along the ceiling holding my books. Instead I have a fully trimmed and painted, insulated and weatherized HOME, complete with timber framed brackets, cedar closets, and a stainless steel kitchen. Though tiny and humble, my house is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived.
Now that it’s said and done, and I’m living in my home, I’m grateful for every piece of the process. At a Hammerstone open house last week, many students came to see the finished product from our 2013 classes. I heard them walking through my house with their families, saying, “yes, we built these bookshelves together in one day! And that’s the window I trimmed with my partner. The beadboard? We blind nailed each piece individually – that’s why you can’t see the nails!” I thought: yes, I feel proud of this house after so much of my own time went into it. But there is much more value in this home because of the community of women who feel ownership of this tiny house, and who tackle carpentry projects in their lives with new confidence because of the skills they learned through this build. These women, with the help of Hammerstone School, lent me their love, their willingness to learn, and their labor to make that scrappy old camper-trailer my true and lovely home.
3285 Jacksonville Rd
Trumansburg, NY 14886