Maria Klemperer Johnson, at right, with a basic carpentry skills class. They start with hand tools and progress to power tools

There are two parts to Hammerstone: a carpentry school for women and a contracting business. 

“As the school grows,” said founder Maria Klemperer Johnson, “I have growing need for teachers, but there aren’t that many woman carpenters and even fewer who are advanced enough to be good teachers. Plus I need a TA [teaching assistant]. I’m looking for people to step into those roles.

“If I didn’t have the carpentry business,” she continued, “it would be hard to go find someone to teach. Contracting is a continuation of the education model; I hire women for the crews, either my students or others.”

Klemperer Johnson said she couldn’t have the school without the contracting business, but she could have the contracting business without the school.

Her own trajectory into the trades began when she was building things in her father’s hobbyist wood shop. She then took shop in high school and bought books while she was in college so that she could build Shaker-style tables.

She got her bachelor’s degree in computer programming and went to work in the field out in Seattle. But she hated sitting in a cubicle in a climate-controlled building; she wanted a job that would take her outside where she could work with her whole body.

“The community college in Seattle has courses in carpentry, woodworking, and boatbuilding,” Klemperer Johnson said. “I had taken those and then Cornell fell in my lap.” She had applied to and been accepted by the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to study structural geology, a subdisciplines that includes a lot of field work.

She moved to Ithaca to attend Cornell, but found that academic life was not for her. “Was using my body and my mind in geology,” the carpenter said, “but there was no creative aspect to it. Building is creative.”

It was 2001 and she was 27 years old. She got her first professional job in carpentry at the Red Barn Cabinet Shop in Brooktondale. Eight years later she stared Hammerstone, specializing in traditional timberframe and strawbale construction. Klemperer Johnson distinguished timbeframe from post-and-beam construction, noting that the latter used metal connections in the joinery, while timberframe joints are made entirely of wood. Hammerstone makes all its joinery by hand rather than having it made in a factory.

Klemperer Johnson had been thinking about teaching carpentry to woman, but in the winter of 2012-13 a friend proposed a project that crystallized the curriculum in her mind: build a tiny house.

Initially she only offered the classes on Saturdays, when she wasn’t working on contracting jobs. She taught in a three-side Morton building, which she described as a “one-and-a-half season barn.” Now she offers classes year round and holds them in Gordie Gallup’s barn at Silver Queen Farm during the colder months.

“Classes filled quickly,” she said, “so we expanded.” She starts her students out with a two-day basic skills course, which she offers once a month. At $300 it is the least expensive class she offers, and there is a constant demand for it.

“We cover the fundamentals,” Klemperer Johnson said, “what tools to carry, measuring, marking, cutting. We start out with hand tools and progress to using power tools. And then we get into fastening, use of screws and nails.” In this class the students build saw horses, a project that is simple, but will be of continuing practical use to the beginner carpenters.

Graduates of the basic skills class are eligible to take Intro to Woodworking where they will learn about framing, trim carpentry and build bookcases.

“Our courses are short form or à la carte,” she said, “rather than a semester long. You can’t go out and become a carpenter after you take one. Most carpenters learn on the job. You could become an apprentice after taking the two-day class.”

The woodworking class is four-days long. “Rough Framing -Build a Tiny House” is a week-long and will be offered in June. Klemperer Johnson is not a zealous booster of tiny houses as a solution to the housing shortages or a sustainability exercise.

“They work great for classes,” she said. “You have all the conventions of building, but on a smaller scale and you can build one in a shorter amount of time.”

Hammerstone students have built three tiny houses thus far, including one build for someone on contract.

Klemperer Johnson pointed out that a lot of resources are consumed in order to build a home for just one person. The expensive components of a home, like the insulation, the kitchen trim, are a relatively large portion of the whole. While she can build a conventionally sized home for $200 per square foot, the tiny houses cost closer to $300 per square foot.

“Everyone should build smaller,” she said, “not necessarily tiny. Extremes aren’t for everyone.”

In addition to teaching basic carpentry skills to women as a cause, Hammerstone and Klemperer Johnson are also on a mission to build well insulated buildings out of as natural materials as possible.

“This is not just a hippie concept,” she said. “Straw bales make great insulation, and we want to avoid the use of foam because we want to eliminate the use of [fossil] carbon.”

Klemperer Johnson said that the global warming potential of the building materials themselves is greater than the energy performance of the house.

“Even if we build a conventional house with low-carbon materials, it’s going to have a high impact when it comes to fighting global warming,” she said. “And we also take into consideration the toxicity of the materials for the residents of the house and for the builders.” 

The members of Hammerstone crews are largely made up of women of child-bearing age. That, Klemperer Johnson said, has made her think about this subject a bit more than her male counterparts are likely to do.

So far Hammerstone Builders has focused on doing additions and renovations. For example, they did a wholesale gut and rebuilding of the former Trumansburg Miniature Golf building in order to turn it into the new home of the Lakshmi yoga studio.

“We’ve also built up a reputation for rot remediation,” Klemperer Johnson said. “Rot is often caused by poor window installation.” Her crews redesign and rebuild the framing and install new windows.

Hammerstone has one part-time and two full-time employees—Miwa Oseki Robbins, Liz Pickard, and Elisabeth Harrod— with another full-time worker due to return from a hiatus soon. 

They built a timberframe barn last year and Klemper Johnson is looking for an opportunity to build a house according to her principles from the ground up.

A well designed house in the Hammerstone mold would maximize southern window exposure and shade them with overhangs in order to minimize heating in the summer. Solar panels would provide heat and electricity with an air-source heat pump serving as a supplement. The latter system uses a refrigerant system involving a compressor and a condenser to absorb heat at one place and release it at another. “It’s basically an air conditioner in reverse,” said Klemperer Johnson.

This summer Hammerstone will begin to offer mixed-gender classes for the first time. This came largely at the behest of the transgender community. Some members of this community did not acquire carpentry skills growing up because as women they were discouraged from doing so.

“We want everyone to feel welcome,” said the Hammerstone founder, “and to be able to learn at their own pace.” §

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