From the Heart: Colleen O’Neill

photo 1 (1)Just Doing What I Love

Whenever people ask me what I do for a living, they always look a little surprised at my answer: I am a custom cabinet maker. I guess they just don’t expect a young woman to be making a living in a career that is dominated by men. Although you would think my usual work attire consisting of steel-toed work boots, sawdust coated workpants, and woodchips in my hair might give it away. I am 33 years old, and I have been working at a cabinet shop in Sewell, New Jersey, for over 10 years, but I have been building things longer than I can remember.

My grandma told me that when I was very little I would follow my dad down into his workshop. My dad was always working on something, either furniture like a chest or bench or adding an addition to the house.  He would give me a piece of wood, a hammer, and some nails, and I would sit there happily hammering while he worked.  My love of tools just grew from there.  I get more excited about getting a new power tool for Christmas than diamond jewelry.

Even though I took dance classes a kid, and still love to dance  (which I get from both of my parents),  I was always a tomboy.  I liked getting dirty playing in the mud, and I loved playing sports. In fact, I was the only girl in my high school woodshop class.  And since I was the only girl in the class, I felt I needed to build the biggest thing ever! So, I built a 7 foot high loft bed, which I slept in throughout the rest of my high school years, and just recently renovated it into a bunk bed.  Both of my parents have always been very supportive of me, and I never felt that they tried to limit me on what I could do just because I was a girl.  They gave me the confidence I needed to pursue my interest in woodworking, even though many parents may have discouraged it or thought a girl couldn’t do it.  My Dad was my teacher, and I have to say that my Mom is my biggest inspiration because I have made more pieces for her than for anyone else.

photo 2People often ask me how I became a cabinet maker, but honestly, I think it is just in my blood.  I come from a family of builders.  Like I said, my dad was always building furniture and things for the house.  My grandfather is an architectural engineer, and has traveled around the world designing buildings. A couple of my uncles have owned their own carpentry businesses. When I was in high school I started working for my Uncle John and my Uncle Paul. It was fun always hanging out with my uncles all the time, and I learned a lot about construction.  However, I never thought I would end up making cabinets and furniture for a living.  My dream was to be a marine biologist.

I am a surfer, and I love the sea.  No matter if it’s 32 degrees outside or 102, my favorite place to be is out catching waves on my surfboard.  Two weeks after I graduated from high school, I moved to Maui, Hawaii, and started my studies in marine biology. I soon realized I didn’t want to sit in a classroom studying, I missed building things with my hands.  I enjoy taking pieces of wood and turning them into amazing things.  People say I have a gift for it, and I guess I do.  I find it very satisfying to take a piece of wood or even 2 x 4’s and make it into something beautiful and useful. Each piece I make is like creating a piece of art to me, and I love it.

After four years in Hawaii, I decided to move back to New Jersey. Even though I knew I was going to miss the awesome waves on the islands, the cost of living is extremely high in Hawaii, and there are limited opportunities to find work.  So, all it took was my 12 year old little brother to tell me that all he wanted for Christmas was for me to move back to New Jersey to get me to hop on the next plane.

Once I was settled in New Jersey again, I had to find work but I wasn’t sure what direction to pursue.  I thought that maybe home remodeling would be the way to go.  I started working installing windows, siding, roofing, and doing small additions.  It was about this time that I started making more furniture on my own for my apartment.  I made some end tables and a coffee table.  The more furniture I made, the more I realized that woodworking was the direction I wanted to go.  I didn’t want to be in construction for the rest of my life.

Blue corner shelf

One day I picked up a phonebook and decided to try calling every cabinetmaking shop in South Jersey.  Out of the first 10 businesses I called, I had 4 interviews.  What started out looking hopefully, quickly turned to disappointment when they all pretty much laughed in my face.  They saw me, a young girl, walk in with my Carhart work jacket on, and they wouldn’t take me serious.  When you are a woman trying to break into a career  dominated by men, no one thinks you can do the work. Even though they laughed at me, at least they gave me an interview; the other six told me not to even bother to come in. I was very discouraged and felt like giving up, but I knew I had to keep trying.  I opened the phonebook again and made one last call. Surprisingly, the owner told me to come in. I tried not to get my hopes up because if this guy laughed in my face like the others, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.  I walked in and stood across the desk from the owner of the cabinet shop.  I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes as I pleaded, “Just give me a chance!” To my amazement, he did, and I have been at that shop now for 10 years.  I am the only woman working with about 40 other guys, and sometimes it’s difficult working in a “man’s world”. The daily talk is like what you would hear in a men’s locker room, so probably the majority of women would find it uncomfortable.  Not to mention the physical aspects of cabinet making from lifting cabinets that weigh hundreds of pounds, to kickbacks from the saw that are powerful enough to break ribs, to the trips to the emergency room for cut fingers. I’ve had my stitches, but at least I still have all my fingers, unlike a few  of the guys at my shop.  This is all just part of working in a shop. Most of the time I enjoy the work. I don’t think anyone can enjoy their job 100% of the time.  The men at my shop have learned to respect my work, and I have served as foreman at many job sites.

Even so, when I walk into a new place to buy lumber, I still get the weird looks like I don’t belong.  The men working there are always are quick to ask me if I need their help and ask me what I need wood for.  But once I start talking to them, I earn their respect pretty quickly, and they realize I actually know what I am doing.  One good example of the type of demeaning comments I sometimes get happened when I was applying for a loan.  The loan officer asked me where I worked, and I gave him the name of my cabinet shop.  Then he said, “What do you do there, answer the phones?” I replied, “No, you answer phones; I build custom cabinets.”  But I have to say that even though most people are surprised at what I do for a living, most people think it is awesome and are very supportive.  So, I can put up with a few ignorant remarks here and there.

Kitchen Island 3

I had two goals that I wanted to reach by the time I turned 30. One was to run a marathon, and the other was to own my own business.  I finished the marathon, but I have yet to open my own business. With the way the economy is right now, it’s a scary thing to walk out the door of your work and only have yourself to fall back on.  I feel like I’m working two jobs right now because build so many things for family and friends. I have  built everything from custom benches, single cabinets, entire wall units, bookcases, kitchen tables, kitchens (cabinets and counters) head boards, and front doors.  I help my family out with their houses whenever I can.  My nephew’s bedroom was really dark, so I cut two new openings for two more windows in his bedroom and installed the windows myself.  Plus, putting up the trim and the majority of the sheet rock.  For my  grandparents house I refinished their cabinets, antiqued them with a little glaze,  and cut and installed Corian countertops for the kitchen.  This facelift made it look like a brand new kitchen.

Kitchen Island

My biggest project to date was my parent’s kitchen.  Originally, it had only twelve cabinets, and I built thirty-five.  Each door and drawer front, a total of eighty, were each handmade,  and it turned out amazing!  You might be wondering how I fit so many cabinets in that small kitchen, well, I didn’t.  First we had to bump out the side of the house to make the kitchen much larger, and we added a beautiful cedar beamed porch. It was so nice because I took off that week to work with my dad to get the addition and the porch done. Now the whole family can enjoy holidays with the large kitchen, and it is so great to sit out on the porch swing and enjoy spending time together.  That is part of what makes my work so satisfying.

Kitchen Island 2I have to say that woodworking has given me a lot of confidence to do things myself.  I think a lot of women are afraid to try to fix things themselves because they haven’t had much experience with tools.  It is honestly really nice to not need a man to take care of me.  If something breaks in my house, I fix it myself.   I wanted an entertainment center for my living room, so I built one.   I needed a cabinet for towels because the bathroom doesn’t have much storage, so I just went in my basement and built one.  Last week my Jeep failed inspection.  I took it to a shop and they told me a valve needed to be replaced and it would cost $350 for just the labor.  They looked at me like I had two heads when I told them I would fix it myself.  But with some help from my brother, I replaced it and passed inspection for just the cost of the part.  If I don’t know how to do something I ask someone like my dad or my brother, or I look it up on the internet.  There is so much information at our fingertips now, you can learn to do anything.  Women shouldn’t be afraid to pick up tools and do things for themselves.

benchI am now in the planning stages of my biggest project yet, tripling the size of my house.  My dad and my grandfather are helping me draw up the plans, and I am planning on doing most of the work myself, along with some help from family and friends. My kitchen will be 17 feet by 45 feet, and I already bought the wood for the dining room table that is going to be between 12 and 14 feet long.  Long enough to seat my entire family.  I am going to make the hardwood floors. Not just buy floors and put them in, I mean actually get the raw lumber, tongue and groove it, sand and finish it, and install it. I have already done a rift cut White Oak tongue and groove floor in one of the bedrooms, so I know I can do it.
I plan on building every kitchen cabinet and every piece of furniture custom for my addition.  Even though I am going to be doing most of the work myself which will greatly reduce the cost, coming up with the money is still a big obstacle.  Recently I became a consultant for skincare products by Rodan and Fields.  Even though I work in a “man’s job”, I am still a woman.  Once in a while I like to ditch the work clothes or surf shorts for a formal dress.  I enjoy wearing my long hair down, and I also want to keep my skin beautiful.  I am pretty rough on my skin between my job and being in the sun a lot with surfing, and I still want to be carded when I turn 40!  The salt water really dries out my skin.  It’s nice to do something different to earn some extra money while helping people feel better about the way they look.  Anyone who would like to check out my website it’s

Horse carvingAnother new thing I started doing in the last year or so is adding hand carvings and wood burning to my pieces. I was asked to do a coffee table with a horse carved on it, so I said I would try to do it. It turned out much better than I could have hoped, and I discovered I had some talent with carving.  On my towel cabinet I carved the movie poster from the  surf movie documentary Endless Summer II.  Now my love of surfing and the beach is displayed on many of my pieces.

I have a favorite quote: “Without risk, there is no reward.”  So, I know that one day, hopefully soon, I will take that leap and start working for myself.  It’s been a tough, but rewarding journey to get this far in my career.  All I know is that when you love what you do, it will show through your work. When you have that passion, that drive, there is no one that can stand in your way. My advise for other women trying to break into a career that’s dominated by men is: don’t ever let yourself be intimidated or made to feel out of place.  If you love to do something that isn’t in the realm of  “women’s work”, go for it. Women shouldn’t be constrained by stereotypes.  Honestly, sometimes I have had to work twice as hard as I would of if I was a man to gain the same level of respect, but I’ve become twice as good as many men because of it.

Any Comments or questions are welcomed by the or by phone at 856-498-1696