Aritst of the Week - Elevated Woodworking
Edited for content and clarity by Shannon Parris.
Thanks for checking out our Artist of the Week! This week, we’re interviewing a woodworker from Dravosburg, PA, Noah Lorang. He’s the maker behind Elevated Woodworking, which you can visit online at www.elevatedwoodworking.com.
Shannon Parris: Hi, Noah! Thanks for agreeing to be featured on our blog. Please introduce yourself.
Noah Lorang: I moved to Pittsburgh from North Carolina about fifteen years ago to attend Carnegie Mellon, met my wife there, and never left town. I sometimes call myself a "semi-pro" woodworker - I do it as a business, but I also have a day job as a data analyst for a software company called Basecamp. It's a great company that I work for remotely, so I'm fortunate to be at home (and near my shop) every day.
I studied mechanical engineering in school, but ended up going into the "business" world of consulting after graduating. In a lot of ways, my woodworking business is a way of getting back to my roots as an engineer and getting to explore things that don't come up in my day job.
SP: That’s so interesting, and it sounds like you’ve found a really good balance! Next, tell me about your business.
NL: I've been woodworking in some form for most of my life -- my dad was always fixing things up around the house, and I made a few boxes and (bad) pieces of furniture when I was in high school. I've been more seriously woodworking since about 2010 when I purchased my home, but Elevated Woodworking as a business has been around in some form for just a couple of years. I actually only named my business last summer.
I do basically three things as Elevated Woodworking: I make some custom furniture for clients, I do a little bit of custom manufacturing work for people like trophy companies and architects, but mostly what I do is make wooden topographic maps of states, countries, counties, parks, islands - you name it.
Elevated Woodworking is really just me working out of a small shop (previously out of my garage). My wife helps a little with craft fairs and listens to my endless rambling of ideas, but I make everything myself by hand.
SP: Where does the name Elevated Woodworking come from?
NL: Desperation, mostly. I originally wanted to call my company "United States of Wood," which I thought was super clever, but I ran into some problems with it. You can't register a business name with "United States" in it easily, and didn't want to constrain myself to just things to do with the United States.
I went with "Elevated" because it has a couple of meanings - since I mostly make topographic maps, they're all about elevations, and when I do furniture, I try for designs that are "elevated" above the commonplace.
Even if people don't get those meanings, it's still a relatively easy to remember name.
SP: Do you have an “elevator pitch” that you use to sum up your business when people ask what you do? No pun intended!!
NL: I wish I had a better elevator pitch (and better puns!). If I'm just making small talk, I'll tell people I do "custom furniture and wall art." If people are really interesting, I mostly say "I make wooden topographic maps," and they either get it immediately or no amount of explaining it helps them. I think the best elevator pitch I have for my business is for people to see and touch a map, so I try to have one handy whenever I'm in a place where it might come up.
SP: What is your creative process like? How do you overcome creative blocks?
NL: I wish I could say I have a creative process, but I'm really just making it up as I go along.
I don't really know where I get ideas for new pieces,whether it's a new type or or size of map or a piece of furniture. The first map I made, which is glued to my living room wall at home, started as a complete "huh, wouldn't it be cool" moment one day when I was sitting at home, and it's all kind of evolved from there.
A lot of my new product ideas have actually come from customers. I do a lot of custom work outside of craft fairs. Probably half of my work is custom items, and I've gotten a lot of new ideas that way.
The other side of the creative process for me is about solving engineering problems. Making a three-dimensional topographic map requires overcoming a bunch of technical hurdles. You have to figure out how to get the geography, how to cut it, how to fit it all together, how to mount it, etc. I mostly solve these through sheer luck. I'll spend a lot of time thinking about how to solve a problem and talking to my wife (and myself, really) about it until something clicks and I say "oh yeah, that could work!"
SP: Is there a tool you can’t live without? I bet you have more than one...
NL: So many to choose from! The obvious answer is that I couldn't make maps without my computer controlled router, which does all the rough cutting of maps. I built it myself (and rebuilt it many times) over the past four years, and it sometimes feels like my little robot friend is a member of my family.
The most impactful tool, though, has actually been pretty pedestrian. When the maps are done being rough cut, they require a bunch of hand finishing work to remove what can only be described as "fuzz." It took me two years of trying different techniques to get rid of the fuzz, and I finally settled on a rotary tool and these little bristle discs that act like sandpaper but can get into little areas. This has totally changed how I work. Not only do I take on more ambitious projects now, but I probably wouldn't be making maps as a business if I hadn't figured this part out. Without this, it was just too much time basically plucking at maps with tweezers.
SP: Have you ever made a piece that was really difficult to part with?
NL: Almost all of them! As my business has grown, it's gotten easier to say goodbye, but I still really have a hard time sending off bigger maps when I've spent a few weeks on them. I just finished packing up a 5-foot wide map of West Virginia counties for a customer this morning, and even though I have no connection to West Virginia or anywhere to hang it, I kind of wish I got to keep it.
I actually used to be really bad about this, even with pieces that I was keeping for myself! Most of the joy for me is in the process and seeing it all come together, so I'm always a little sad when I finish a piece because that journey is over now.
SP: How long have you been vending with I Made It! Market?
NL: I've actually only done one I Made It! Market as a vendor (IMI for the Holidays at the Waterfront last year), and that was actually the first "real" craft fair I'd ever done. Before that, my business was entirely internet sales on Etsy
SP: Was that the first IMI event to which you applied?
NL: I actually got into an earlier event (for Valentine's Day 2017) and had to cancel because my day job unexpectedly took me out of town, so IMI for the Holidays was technically the second event I applied for.
SP: Gotcha! What made you decide to apply?
NL: IMI specifically was based on having stumbled across a couple of previous events over the years and being impressed by the quality of vendors there. More generally, I decided to start doing some craft fairs because I had a hunch that people really needed to see and touch a map in person in order to "get it.” Photos on a computer can only go so far in selling what is really a tactile object.
SP: That makes a lot of sense. I think you’re right! Have you found it to be true so far?
NL: Definitely, both in terms of sales, which were really good at the holiday events I did last year in person and in follow ups after the event, and in terms of the reaction from people. Even if I didn't sell anything in person, it would almost be worth doing just to see how people react when they walk down the aisle, see a big map, and stop in their tracks.
SP: Nice!! I’m excited to get a newcomer’s perspective on this next question - what is your favorite thing about being a part of the I Made It! Market community?
NL: I've really appreciated how friendly and welcoming everyone has been, particularly in person. I'm generally not the type of person who will go and talk to someone I haven't met, but I had a chance to meet a bunch of other vendors who came up to me before the start of each day of IMI. It was great to talk to people who have been doing the fair scene a lot longer than I have, since I'm mostly just guessing at what to do in terms of merchandising, signage, interacting with customers, etc.
SP: Is there anything else the world needs to know about Elevated Woodworking?
NL: I think in general there are only two things I want people to know about Elevated Woodworking.
One, maps are fun -- that's really why I do this. I always laugh when I'm asked for an "artist’s statement,” because it really just comes down to I like to have fun, and maps are fun.
In fact, I wrote a haiku once that sums up what I do:
He cut it from wood
A map with topography
Because it was fun
The other thing is that I'm trying to make Elevated Woodworking the type of business I want to see in the world. One that makes great products, prices them fairly (for both the customer and for a sustainable business), is a responsible environmental steward, and above all treats customers well. I can't say I always succeed at everything, but that's certainly my aspiration.
We had a lot of fun getting to know one of our newer I Made It! Market artists, and we hope you did, too! If you’d like to check out Noah’s work, visit his website at www.elevatedwoodworking.com. This week, he’s offering our readers a 20% discount with the coupon code IMI2018.