“I went from making small bowls to doing custom furniture”: When her wedding shoots dried up, this photographer started woodworking

“I went from making small bowls to doing custom furniture”: When her wedding shoots dried up, this photographer started woodworking

Jessica Okonski is a wedding photographer whose work dried up when nuptials were cancelled en masse during the pandemic. She started fiddling around in a small wood shop to keep busy, learning how to make rolling pins and bowls that she gave away to friends. Soon, Okonski started getting requests for custom pieces, so she created an Instagram account for her woodwork called This Lady Wood. Now, she makes custom furniture full time. Here’s how it all happened.

As told to Haley Steinberg

“Before the pandemic, I barely had any experience with woodworking. A few years ago, a friend taught me the basics. I’m a photographer, and I needed a small stool for a photo shoot, so I learned how to dress a rough block of wood, smoothing out any unevenness with a tool called a planer. Then, my friend helped me turn the legs using a lathe, taught me how to use a band saw to make the seat, and showed me how to glue all the pieces together.

“In the before times, I was mostly working on weddings. Weddings were great for me—I was shooting about 25 to 30 a year. In 2019, I also got into some commercial work, including model portraits for agencies, photo and video work for the Bata Shoe Museum and photography for a few Etsy shops. Then Covid hit. All of my weddings were cancelled, and my commercial work totally dried up. I spent a few months catching up on editing, rescheduling and cancelling projects and responding to emails. I wasn’t too panicked. I had every expectation that all the rescheduled weddings would go ahead in August and September. When the city reopened in the summer, I did a few family shoots and a couple of weddings. I thought, Okay, everything is going to be fine now. I can do this. But then the city shut down again. I realized that I couldn’t rely on weddings as a steady source of income.

“There was a two-week period early in the pandemic when I was waking up every day and thinking, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do today. My partner, Adam, is the building manager at SpaceWork—a warehouse that rents out space to woodworkers, machiners and wholesale packagers—and he was still going to work every day. One day, he suggested I tag along to work with him and fiddle around in the wood shop. 

“Everyone was baking at the beginning of the pandemic, so I decided to make rolling pins for my friends. I found some scrap material that was lying around the warehouse and cut it down into rectangular sections. I used a lathe to secure the wood at either end and set it to spin. While the wood was spinning, I used a chisel to shape it into a smooth, cylindrical shape. It took me a while to perfect my technique: I made about 40 rolling pins in about six weeks; 25 or 30 turned out well enough for me to give  away to friends. Everyone who got a pin was really excited. Word spread among friends and acquaintances, and soon a couple of people had reached out to ask if I made bowls.

“There were a couple of older woodworkers in the shop who were excited to see a young person interested in the craft. They gave me some bowl blanks—square blocks with different thicknesses—to try out. It was a lot of trial and error. Some parts, like shaping the outside and hollowing out the inside of the bowl, weren’t too hard to figure out, but making the base was more complicated. You can screw the base onto a face plate, which can leave holes at the bottom of the bowl. Or you can use a set of jaws to hold the wood in place as it turns, then round the base with a chisel. I had bowls whipping across the room because they weren’t secured properly.

“With my photography work still on pause and no indication of when it might pick up again, I decided to dive into woodworking more seriously. I’d been posting my rolling pins and bowls on my photography Instagram account, but this past winter, I decided it was time to come up a brand identity and start an Instagram page devoted to my woodworking. I called it This Lady Wood. I posted pictures of my bowls, and people started reaching out asking for custom orders in specific sizes and types of wood. I never said no to anything—I was just excited to be doing something. Soon I was making about two or three bowls every two weeks. In the beginning, I charged about $10 each. A friend who had bought a couple of my bowls finally said, ‘I’m sending you more money because you have to start charging more for these.’ She was right—each bowl is a lot of work. Now they sell for $40 to $50 each.

“I’d made one or two stools earlier on, and eventually decided I wanted to try making a bench. I turned the four legs and made a seat out of five-ply macrame cord. I was really pleased with how it turned out, and it was the first real piece of furniture that I sold. Once people saw that I was doing more than just bowls, I started getting requests for all kinds of larger pieces—hutches, TV stands, headboards. Customers would send me a picture of something that they liked and ask if I could replicate it. Now, I’m making mostly commissioned pieces. I can manage two or three at a time. I still make my macrame-seat stools, but my larger, more expensive items are all commissions and can take up to two or three months to complete. People will contact me for a custom-sized table because they have an oddly shaped room, or for headboards they can’t find in a store. Every commission is unique, which keeps things fun for me. 

“My pricing is based on current lumber prices, so it tends to fluctuate depending on what type of wood the customer wants. I get my wood from a lumberyard called Century Mill. Everything is priced by board foot—that’s thickness times width times length divided by 144. Birch costs around $5 per board foot, but a more expensive material like maple birdseye is about $15 per board foot. Teak—one of the costliest types of wood—is approximately $34 per board foot. TV stands have a lot of moving parts and will sell for about $3,000. Headboards sell for about $500 or $600.

“I’m in the shop five days a week, from about 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. I put on headphones and dance and sing along to my favourite Spotify playlist, New School vs. Old School. I love the design element of woodworking—it’s exciting to take an idea and turn it into a beautiful, finished product. I still have those moments when I finish a piece, step back and think, ‘Wow. I made that.’

“I plan to continue making custom wood furniture and to return to wedding photography part time when things open up again. I’d also like to start teaching woodworking. I had a lot of inquiries when I first started out from people who wanted to learn, and I now have three lathes that I can use for teaching. It’s not as scary as it looks to hold a sharp tool to a piece of wood while it’s spinning really fast. The most rewarding part of the process is when I show a finished piece to a customer for the very first time. It’s similar to delivering wedding photos to clients—they’re always bowled over by how well we’ve captured their special day. My customers are trusting me to build them something amazing. That motivates me to create a product that’s even better than they could have imagined.”