Alumni profile: Taimi Barty, A.B. '94
Constructing a furniture business in northern California
One of Taimi Barty’s earliest memories is using a hand plane to help her grandfather, a professional woodworker, construct a wooden stool for her mother. Those early experiences imbued in Barty a deep love and appreciation for wood.
“I just loved the feeling and concrete sense of affecting a physical medium,” she said.
As an adolescent, Barty left her native Sweden to live in Singapore and Malaysia, where she witnessed large-scale deforestation. She’d never been in the United States before arriving at Harvard for orientation in the fall of 1990, but by the end of that year knew she wanted to study environmental science and engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), then the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
“I’d taken all these biology classes, but I also loved chemistry and had taken fluid dynamics classes,” Barty said. “I loved all of it, and when I discovered environmental engineering, it was perfect.”
Barty, A.B. '94, moved to San Francisco to conduct soil and groundwater testing at an engineering firm after graduating. She was in her mid-20s and wanted a hobby, so she returned to woodworking.
As she rose within her firm, Barty’s responsibilities took her out of the field, and eventually she left the industry. Instead, she traveled three hours north to Fort Bragg, Calif., enrolling in the Fine Woodworking Program at the College of the Redwoods (now Mendocino College). After graduating, she and her husband Bob Sanderson, also a woodworker, opened Wood Joint Studio in 2002. The two have run the studio for the last 20 years, turning numerous types of wood into a wide range of furniture.
It’s a really interesting job, because everything we do is custom. There are always new problems to solve, which can feel frustrating in the moment, but also keep the work fresh and interesting.
Barty has built just about every type of furniture one could want in her 20 years as a professional woodworker. Her gallery includes tables and desks, hideaway beds, cabinets, shelves, chests and bureaus. Sometimes she knows exactly what type of wood to use, but other times she drives around to local lumber yards until she finds the right pieces. For her side business selling guitar tops, she uses old growth redwood reclaimed from bridges or construction projects.
“I usually start with a sketch, then typically I draw it to scale or do a mock-up out of rough wood to get the proportions right,” she said. “Then I’ll either draw it to full scale to figure out the tricky parts, or I’ll build it with actual pieces of wood. For the aesthetics, that happens more organically as I’m building.”
If that sounds like how an engineer might tackle a new project, it should. Woodworking isn’t engineering, but Barty still routinely draws on skills she gained at Harvard, both in and out of the workshop.
“I worked really hard at Harvard, but I love to work hard, so Harvard was a great fit,” she said. “It was such a broad education that I feel confident that going into any situation, if I don’t know what they’re talking about, at least I have the confidence to ask and learn. That’s something I was too nervous to do before Harvard.”
Running a company for 20 years means Barty has had to manage several major economic upheavals, including the 2008 recession and Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020. But she’s never struggled to find customers to keep the business going, despite relying mainly on word-of-mouth advertising and drawing on a mostly local customer base.
“There are so many components to running a business, especially something like this, where you’re manufacturing things, putting in bids, drawing and repairing broken machines,” she said. “The hardest part is getting the work done in a timely manner while still keeping the quality and thoughtfulness that goes into building it.”
A former high school math and physics teacher as well as Harvard interviewer, Barty is passing on her engineering approach to the next generation of woodworkers as a high school woodshop teacher in the Fine Woodworking Program at Mendocino College. Woodworking can be a fun application for math and engineering principles, and she wants the Mendocino Coast to continue producing technically prepared woodworkers for years to come.
“Having teens actually build things with their own hands makes them understand what they’re studying in other classes, whether it’s fractions, angles, extrapolation or scale,” she said. “I have my students do a lot of scale drawings, looking at architectural drawings and making them bigger or smaller. They love it, they’re using all these math skills, and they don’t even know it.”
Matt Goisman | email@example.com