The lathe spins clockwise faster than the eye can track. The bandsaw spreads apart a piece of walnut. The belt sander smooths a dowel. Sometimes there’s only a single piece of olive to see, its desaturated grayness traced with veins that look like a watercolor mountain range. But there’s almost always a chair, desk, bench or rocker somewhere nearby.
Welcome to Carpentry Instagram, a small, sacred universe of furniture makers who post real-time shots of their work for the online world to see. The comments are typically filled with other woodworkers asking where they can get an apron like the one pictured, which grade of sandpaper is best and how good the MiniMax bandsaw really is. But there are fans, too. “There’s something so relaxing about just scrolling through photos of these men working on their furniture,” says Bayley Lawrence, a 29-year-old from Colorado.
From the comments, there’s a pretty even distribution of men and women who follow these craftsmen. Their reasons for doing so, however, vary. Every man I spoke to said he found the videos aspirational. “Who doesn’t want to make something with your own hands? It’s awesome,” Chris, an accountant from Denver, writes over email.
There was some of that with the women as well. “I don’t know that I really like furniture that much,” says Karen, an avid fan of Instagram carpenters who echoes Chris’s sentiments. “But it’s soothing to me. I like watching them make things.”
But some of the women I interviewed also didn’t deny that it was a turn-on to watch a man fashion a piece of furniture out of a hunk of wood. “It’s hot,” Lawrence says. “Watch their hands and tell me it’s not.”
“There’s something romantic about building furniture,” adds Karen, conceding that some of this perception stems from pop culture’s romanticization of the hot furniture maker — a la Aidan from Sex and the City and whichever Property Brother is a carpenter.
I became entranced by Carpentry Instagram, too, during a particularly hard period earlier this year. I spent hours watching young men turn a single piece of wood around on a lathe. It was a mesmerizing, hypnotic experience not dissimilar to the joy many people find in slime videos. But unlike slime videos, in which the creators are generally just a pair of hands, these carpenters appear in many of their own photos, and as Lawrence says, they’re undeniably attractive. “I like seeing them work,” she explains. “They often look so happy. I don’t think that many other people are happy at their jobs.”
They do look at peace—probably because they are. “It allows me to be creative every day,” says Philip Morley, a furniture maker with nearly 65,000 Instagram followers who resides just outside of Austin, Texas. “I get to take this raw piece of material and make it into something beautiful yet functional.”
“I’ve always loved doing things with my hands, so finding a profession where I build and create has been amazing,” adds Kylle Sebree, another Austin-area woodworker with 16,000 Instagram followers whose shop uniform includes a leather apron. “Working for a company for 25 years was safe and boring. Our generation is over the fake thought of that being the dream.”
Several of the woodworkers I interviewed say they discovered the trade because they had a lot of trouble in school. For them, working with their hands was a legitimate option in a world that didn’t feel full of them. Others learned to love it just by doing it.
Carpentry and woodworking are among the world’s oldest trades, but they’re not ones promoted by schools or deemed particularly impressive. Sebree admits that almost half of the people who visit his studio think woodworking is a hobby, not a job. Admittedly, there aren’t many such jobs in the country. In fact, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, there are just 18,000 “specialty trade carpenters” nationwide. On the flip side, there are 600,000 regular ol’ carpenters in the U.S.; most of whom are employed to work on construction sites and do home renovations.
The difference? “If woodworking is carpentry, I’d consider it the black-belt level,” explains Scott McGlasson, a furniture maker from Minneapolis-St. Paul with 20,000 Instagram followers, gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses and an athletic build. “It’s carpentry at its most refined.”
That level of refinement ain’t cheap either. A black walnut and white ash bed from Sebree’s collection costs $4,500. Most of Morley’s work (everything from jewelry boxes to gun displays to comfy chairs) is commissioned directly by clients. The same is true for McGlasson, whose prices can be inquired about on his site. “I can’t afford to buy any of their work yet,” says Mary, a 28-year-old from Philly, “but I know it’ll be worth it when I can.”
“The biggest challenge is to get yourself in front of the right audience of potential clients,” Morley says. To find these clients, Morley et al take their work to local art shows and teach classes. But they also rely heavily on social media (especially Instagram) to reach a larger audience. “I feel like people can see a bit of my story and personality there just by showing what I do day-in, day-out,” Sebree says.
It also taps into a quintessentially manly man trope — physical labor. Carpentry, farming, or any job that seems physical isn’t only perceived as sexy because it shows a body in motion, it’s sexualized because it plays into a stereotype of masculinity: The unemotional, capable, strong man. Holding a sharp tool while a piece of wood spins dangerously fast, shows not only physical strength, but dexterity and intensity as well.
That said: “It’s definitely not a romantic career,” Morley counters. “I don’t enjoy every single moment in my shop. At times, it’s a job, and at times, it’s a passion.” Money can be tight between projects, and creating an entire piece of furniture from what’s essentially a whole tree isn’t exactly a quick process.
Instagram, though, is a balm for these stressors. Clients are more likely to find woodworkers there, and several of them told me that the majority of their sales are from people who find them through social media.
They also believe it’s changed the perception of them — not to mention, the world around them. “I honestly think that there’s simply a greater awareness of such trades in the last generation or so just through social media,” Morley says. “I think people in general are beginning to realize the pitfalls of mass-produced items and a growing appreciation of handmade crafts.”