CHANGEMAKER: SAWHORSE REVOLUTION
Seattle nonprofit Sawhorse Revolution is using carpentry workshops to teach high schoolers the benefits—and joys—of working with their hands.
Estelita’s Library, a project from Sawhorse Revolution and Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture. Photographed by Rafael Soldi.
“With carpentry and architecture, you can teach almost anything,” says Sarah Smith, co-founder of Sawhorse Revolution. For more than a decade, the Seattle-based nonprofit after-school program has been teaching high school students carpentry and design skills through inspiring building projects. To date, Sawhorse students—and their professional architect and carpenter mentors—have built a social-justice-oriented library, a wooden boat for an organization that cleans up the Duwamish River, and dozens of tiny houses for Seattleites experiencing homelessness, among many other projects.
It all began in 2008, as a collaboration among Smith and friends Adam Nishimura and Micah Stanovsky. The job market was stagnant—and Smith’s degree in English literature with an emphasis on 18th-century poetry wasn’t helping matters. So, the friends began working as cooks and carpenters, finding joy in working with their hands while reflecting on the lack of experiential learning in their formal educations.
“Most people leave school without having touched a tool,” says Smith, who notes that in the past 30 years, Seattle high schools have collectively lost at least 13 out of 17 shop classes. “If you’re a young person in Seattle, you probably don’t leave school understanding [that working with your hands] can be a creative and rewarding career.”
With this in mind, the trio founded Sawhorse in 2010. Initially situated on a farm north of Seattle, it was a sort of summer camp that used carpentry skills to foster students’ creativity, confidence, and personal development. During the first summer, attendees discovered what they could accomplish with their own hands as they built an octagonal treehouse in the forest canopy.
“Experience is a very important form of how we learn,” Smith says. “[At Sawhorse,] you’re in a world where you’re learning all the time, and there’s immediate feedback about whether you’ve learned something or not. Did that nail go in straight? Did you strip the screw? The feedback is your own and there’s no judgment about whether you’re good or bad at it. For students who have experienced trauma in schools, [it’s a place that] allows the power they have within themselves to come out a bit more easily.”
Estelita’s Library houses a collection of social-justice literature and serves as a hub for cultural events. Design mentors from local architecture firm Olson Kundig helped with the project. Photographed by Rafael Soldi.
In 2012, Sawhorse moved to Seattle, where it became an after-school program committed to educational and social justice. With a student body that’s more than 50 percent female or nonbinary and 75 percent youth of color, the non-profit is confronting the fact that the design and carpentry industries are overwhelmingly male and white. “A sea change needs to happen because our world should be designed by the people who live in it,” Smith says.
Working alongside professional carpenters and architects from firms including Gensler and Olson Kundig, Sawhorse students have designed and built a range of structures dedicated to intersectional justice. Currently, they’re supporting the design of an outdoor kitchen for the outdoor education center Heron’s Nest and a retreat facility and gallery for the arts organization Deaf Spotlight, among other projects. Sawhorse was part of the founding team that developed Seattle’s first tiny house village in 2013.
Even as Seattle’s unhoused population has ballooned during the pandemic, Sawhorse has remained steadfast in its commitment to conferring a sense of individuality and dignity by creating unique tiny homes—iterative expressions of designs that have proven successful in the past—rather than churning out as many identical dwellings as possible. “Residents of the villages often talk about how the pain of being anonymous—of not mattering—is one of the worst pains of being homeless,” Smith explains.
Today, approximately one in 15 Sawhorse students pursues further education or work in architecture or construction. Others explore policy or community engagement, while some enter entirely different fields. “Sawhorse is this amazing model in which carpentry and architecture are at the center, but [it’s really about] developing critical thinking skills and starting to think beyond the world that’s in front of your nose,” Smith explains. “We’ve always been inspired by [19th-century poet] William Blake to see the world in a grain of sand.” After all, the simple act of hammering a nail can build an entire home, which can provide the stability, safety, and dignity that all humans require. “Yes, you can make a difference,” Smith says. “If you can hammer a nail, you can [change] a community.”