Faculty Talents: Woodworking as a Counterpoint to Economics

A composite photo with Professor Dan Sichel in the foreground and one of the tables he has made in the background.
Author  Macy Lipkin ’23
Published on 

When he’s done grading assignments and preparing for class, economics professor Dan Sichel migrates to his basement, which houses his woodworking shop. He goes downstairs with boards—and then, about two years later, including breaks to teach economics and shop for groceries, comes up with a dining room table.

Well, that’s only happened once. In the winter of 2018, Sichel completed a mahogany dining table that he calls “Federal-ish.” Dining room tables weren’t typical household items during the Federal period, so he incorporated elements like tapered legs and a curved apron into his design.

“I've always been interested in woodworking,” Sichel said. “Wood is an incredibly beautiful, natural material, and it can be transformed to make so many interesting things.” About twenty years ago, “when life got to a stage where I had the time and the space to start doing stuff,” he said, Sichel turned to books and online resources and began teaching himself to work with wood.

Early on, Sichel made a basic workbench, which wasn’t pretty but got the job done. He gradually tackled more complicated projects, like a coat tree and decorative gates for his garden. Before the dining room table, he made a cherry hunt board, then a bookcase with leaded-glass doors, which his husband designed.

Sichel finds inspiration in magazines, photos of original pieces, and visits to historic sites. Then he chooses what kind of wood to use and how to put the pieces together. “There is a whole series of choices to work out,” he explained. “How do you want the aprons and legs to come together? What exact shape do you want in the legs? How do you want to make that shape?”

Sichel works slowly and meticulously. He builds for himself, so he’s never butting up against a deadline. If he doesn’t like how a step turned out, he’ll do it again. “The first time I put the finish down on the top [of the dining room table], I didn't like the way it looked, so I just sanded it all off and started over again,” he said. He appreciates the freedom to be particular.

Working by hand provides the a good balance to life as an economist and a professor. “I’ve always been interested in making things with my hands, and it is just an incredibly great counterpoint to being an academic,” Sichel said. He spends much of his life “playing with ideas and words.” In his home woodshop, he gets to use his hands and play with power tools.

That said, economics and woodworking do intersect. Sichel’s interest in antique furniture led him to a catalog that was selling a box of 1850s-style nails for eight dollars. He wondered how the price of nails has changed over the centuries, so he investigated.

Sichel found that the shift to factory manufacturing cut the price of nails by about 90% between the late 1700s and the mid-1900s. That’s huge. He considered the sources and implications of this drastic price drop and explored its effects on other industries such as construction. His paper on the topic will be published later this year.

Sichel is currently working on an early 20th century craftsman-style fireside table in walnut, based on a photo from a 1909 Gustav Stickley furniture catalog. The legs come in at an angle, which complicates construction. “Getting all those angles to work and working out the joinery gets interesting and complicated,” Sichel explained. A Federal-style demilune (half-moon) side table is on his to-make list, so he’ll learn how to do inlays and turn legs on his new lathe.

Those who are interested in picking up woodworking have books and online videos at their disposal. That’s how Sichel got started. Students enrolled in art classes also have access to the on-campus woodshop in Pendleton West, where they can try their hand at building. “It's just a wonderful thing to do, especially for Wellesley students, who spend so much time in the world of ideas. It is a great counterpoint to that,” Sichel said.