Women in Woodworking: Cynthia

Follow Cynthia on Instagram @luckybuttercupdesigns

Unremarkable in every way, the dreary Thursday stretched onward, devoid of
distinction or portent, until our inaugural exchange. Having just disembarked from the tractor, her clothes bore a gossamer veil of oak dust, an unspoken homage to her profound love of the land. A multi-faceted marvel, she defies the constraints of any single identity or pursuit.

This Renaissance soul embodies the boundless potential of the human spirit. She’s a naturalist, attuned to the rhythms of the earth, and a healer, tending to the smiles of others as a deft dentist.  Within this one woman thrums the mind of a biochemist, unraveling the intricate codes that power life itself. Her intellect soars, yet it is grounded in an earthy artistry. She’s a woodworker of sublime talents - each creation a masterwork hewn through the alchemy of her skills, passion, and uncompromising creative vision. Unapologetic in pursuing her myriad callings, she emanates a radiant authenticity.

Cynthia Ferlo is wildly comfortable in her own skin and she recently sat down with us at her rural, New Jersey home to talk about her love of woodworking.

What was it like growing up ‘Cynthia’ and who is she now?

I grew up on a horse farm in New Jersey. We lived in an affluent area but didn’t possess affluence. My father was a great steward of the land, and we always had fur-laden critters of some sort. For many years, my family raised seeing eye dogs. Two of those dogs have come back to live with us after their job was done; Utley and Peter, or ‘Perfect Pete,’ because he’s the most perfect dog. Honestly, I’ve yet to meet an animal I didn’t like.

I’m a mom. I’ve raised 4 girls and 2 boys and they’re all successful because they’ve put the work in.

I went to the University of Florida and am a biochemist by education. I love the field, but as I was raising my children, I decided that it wasn’t a viable career option for that season of my life. I wanted to be a fully present parent. To that end, I applied to, and finished, dental school…though my original application was rejected. That’s a story for a different day. I’ll likely say goodbye to that chapter of life soon and I’m ready for it.

From the age of 15, till I was 29, I was on the United States Women’s National Cycling Team. I started as a junior racer and raced all over the country FOR this country. What an honor that was.

I believe we’re all interconnected. People today are so full of angst and anger, miserable over the things they can’t have. That’s not what life is all about. It’s about the here and now because life is fragile.

I love to have my hands in the dirt, I love to create, and I believe that attitude is everything.

Someone once said to me:

You can take your hardships and carve them in marble, or you can take your hardships and write them in sand….and then let them go.

That’s how I try to live my life. 

That’s beautiful.

How and why did you originally get turned on to woodworking?

I was lucky enough to come from a good, solid family. My father was a builder and a craftsman. He made quite a bit of our furniture, and it was all amazing. He could make anything. Some people create pocket holes by using a Kreg jig…my dad just MADE them. He didn’t have a jig. He didn’t have all this fancy stuff we have today.

He was an architect by education, a real genius, and his passion was working with wood. I loved to follow him around and I tagged along everywhere. He was my hero. Most little girls had baby dolls; I had my own toolbox full of tools. My father passed when I was in high school, leaving a big hole in my heart. Decades later, when I was going through my mother’s belongings after she passed, I found all the things she kept that had belonged to my father. That drew me closer to him and it dawned on me that maybe I could do woodworking, too. My passion for it just grew from there. Tool by tool. Trial and error.

I sometimes chuckle and wonder if my dad would even like my creations. Although he’s no longer here, he has, in essence, still taught me a great deal.

The beauty of woodworking is that wood has no idea if you’re male or female. It’s unyieldingly humbling because so much can go wrong. I love that challenge.

When you started acquiring tools, what was your first purchase?

It was a DeWalt drill, and I still have it. With that drill, some nails, and a ball-peen hammer, I crafted a sliding barn door that now hangs in our game room. Following that, I made the two Adirondack chairs that are on my patio today. I made those (angles and all) using a low-end table saw. I’m surprised I didn’t kill or seriously injure myself. I didn’t know any better at the time. 

All these years later, what’s your favorite tool in the shed?

Without a doubt, my router table. I love it and I took to it early on. There are a lot of women in this field who don’t feel the same, but I don’t understand why. I have a variable-speed JessEm router table that I bought for myself one year for my birthday. I’ve been collecting bits for it ever since.

What’s the next addition to your woodworking arsenal?

The tools in my shop and the things I offer change and evolve with the economy. The current economy doesn’t support large purchases like furniture. It’s challenging to find clients for ‘big’ things and wood is a significant investment, much more so than in years past. That said, if I could add something to my woodshop, I’d buy a jointer. I have a small one, but I’d like to have a bigger one. That has always been on my list.

Do you remember the very first piece that you made to sell?

Years ago, a client asked me to make 6 Adirondack chairs out of cedar, and I was super pleased with that project.

Was that cathartic, to be paid for the fruits of your labor?

Not really, if I’m honest. The thing that makes me the happiest and brings me the most joy and fulfillment is not the money. It’s the product. I put a lot into my projects. This isn’t IKEA. I’m investing time from my life to pour into something that someone else will hopefully cherish. I miss my pieces when they’re gone because they’re a part of me. So, for me, it’s all about the product, not the payoff.

Is there a special piece among your esteemed body of work that evokes a strong sense of pride or accomplishment?

There are a few pieces. I sold a big mosaic many years ago to a woodworker. To know that someone in the same field wanted to purchase something from me felt like a meaningful compliment. She loved it and she still has it. To me, that was powerful. There was also a piece I made for a Canadian couple at the request of their sister-in-law for a 50th wedding anniversary celebration. She shared details about their background and where they immigrated from, so I incorporated those nuances into my work. I used all kinds of imported hardwoods like Ebony and Zebrawood. I developed the piece as I went, and it turned out beautifully.

And, I recently made a piece for my son, who passed away. It was a Celtic cross of sorts, and it hangs in his room. That piece means a lot to the whole family.

I’ve also made some truly fun pieces. I love using my scroll saw to make signs for baby showers and things of that nature.

Are you primarily self-taught or did you sit under the tutelage of a mentor and take classes along the way?

I’m 100% self-taught. I never took a class, but I went to the school of hard knocks…and have the scars to prove it. I lost a piece of my finger on a project once. It was totally my fault. If I become passionate about something and truly want to learn about it, I will invest a significant amount of time in becoming proficient. I work at it. Conversely, it bothers me if I can’t get something figured out and done correctly. That’s one of the benefits of having an outdoor firepit…all my unsuccessful attempts are easily disposed of. I just burn it!! Out of sight, out of mind.

Do you have a favorite type of wood to work with?

I absolutely love working with walnut, it’s my favorite of all time. It smells good in the shop, and it doesn’t splinter. It routes nicely and finishes beautifully.

On the other hand, red oak splinters and constantly surprises you. I hate it. I’ve had more kickbacks with it than any other wood I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with a wide variety of wood.

There are so many types of wood that I enjoy working with. For example, Purpleheart, Sapele, and Padauk. They’re all so neat.

What advice would you give a rookie?

  1. Don’t buy wood at big box stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot. If you don’t have a jointer or a planer, it’s hard to get S4 wood. Your projects won’t come out ‘square’ and everything in woodworking plays off the square.
  2. Take time to learn the basics (like how to get things square).
  3. Expect failure and embrace it.
  4. This is art. Try new things and have fun with it.

What inspires your creative vision, and do you see yourself as an inspiration to other female woodworkers?

I don’t consciously or purposely go about life trying to inspire people, but moms are natural teachers. We can’t help ourselves. When I learn something, teaching it to others is almost instinctual. I like to empower women, but I do the same thing with men. People, in general, can glean from us as we get older, and the experiences of our lives are valuable. They form and shape us, even if they’re not always good experiences.

I’m inspired by the classical stuff, the old-time woodworker, and their productions. I really appreciate the New England ‘vibe.’ I think that’s one of the reasons I love molding and small details so much.

Nature inspires me. Animals inspire me. I’m inspired by the world all around me. I’m inspired by others in this community and the talent they bring to the table.

In a world of polarized genders, do you think there were any hurdles or obstacles that you faced along the way that were unique to being a woman?

From my perspective, woodworking has always been equitable. Although I hear women complain to the contrary, it all boils down to mindset. My proclivities have never been aligned with those of girly-girls, so I’ve just learned to navigate in a positive way. I just keep doing what I like to do without buying into the gender barrier argument. Being a woman isn’t going to going to hold me back. If you want something, irrespective of gender, you’ll go for it. You won’t be inclined to jump on the bandwagon that seems to generate itself, beginning with the ‘victim’ outcries of a single woman.

I’ve never had my work criticized my work because of my gender. You will be known for what you make, not that it was made by a woman.

If you could advise men in the lives of women who aspire to be woodworkers, what would you tell them?

Let them be fearless.

Remind them that there’s no reason to be afraid of the tools. The tools don’t know if you’re a man or a woman, so they’ll cut your fingers off either way! It doesn’t matter. Tools are unisex and they don’t discriminate.

If a woman in your life expresses an interest in this arena, let her try it. Don’t do it for her or tell her how it should be done. She’ll be a better woodworker if you let her learn on her own. Help her to not be fearful of her failures.

So, you’re a woodworker, a former elite cyclist, and you raise seeing-eye dogs. What’s next? What stone have you left unturned?

My husband and I would like to travel. We’d like to see Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and Ireland, among many other places. I’m not a cruise ship or Caribbean girl. I want to hike it, see it, taste it, and feel it.

I don’t think I’ll ever pursue woodworking as a full-time career. I’m satisfied doing commission work. I find that to be completely rewarding.

I love my life and I’ve accepted who I am.   

If ever there was such a thing as a Renaissance Woman, Cynthia Ferlo is worthy of wearing the banner. 

A consummate polymath, she has transcended mastery of any single vocation, instead weaving her manifold talents into an intricately crafted tapestry. Naturalist, healer, nurturer, coach - these roles merely hint at the kaleidoscopic breadth of her pursuits and wellspring of knowledge.

If the idea of a Renaissance woman could take corporeal form, it could ask for no finer embodiment than this dynamic force of nature. In her multitudes, she inspires awe. In her authenticity, she is a beacon of what is possible when we honor the innate complexities that make us human.

With an alchemy that intermingles hard-earned expertise and fervid artistic passion, she has forged a singularly true path of expression. Each waking moment sees her gifts purposefully entwined - her intellect, her skill, her curiosity…coalescing to distinctly illuminate her vision. 

While others derive identity from a singular occupation, she shapes her identity around the very pursuit of understanding life's complexities through a transdisciplinary lens. An inspirational sage graced with an entrepreneurial spirit, she enthusiastically charters new frontiers rather than traveling the well-worn path. In her wake blossoms a prismatic odyssey of creativity without borders - an evocative testament to the grandest possibilities when knowledge and craftsmanship freely commingle.

I always wanted to be a Renaissance Woman, do as many things as I possibly can, and hopefully do them well or don’t do them at all. – Jill Scott.