Nancy Brissee knows her unusual hobby turns some heads. But for this 78-yearold widow, the idea of something being unconventional or difficult doesn’t stop her for a moment.
“My mother made shelves and racks,” Nancy recalls. “Whatever she needed, she would just do it. Growing up, nobody ever told us we couldn’t do something.”
Nancy recalls her first wood working class as an adult at Madison Area Technical College during the 1960s. “There were ten men in the class and two women,” she says. “The instructor asked us what we wanted to do, and the men all said ‘a planter.’ The other woman wanted to make an entertainment center and I told him I wanted to make a dresser and a desk.”
She says she could see the instructor trying to hide his reaction. But in the end, both women completed their projects and Nancy’s dresser and desk are still in use today.
While plenty of retired people take on hobbies to fill up their free time, Nancy has more than enough on her plate. When she and her husband, Bill, moved to Rhinelander several years ago, both dove into volunteer community work in a big way, and Nancy continues those efforts.
“Right now, I’m helping out with the senior tax aid program for the fifth year in a row,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun, and a really good thing. The people we serve are so nice and they are grateful for the help.”
She spends many hours volunteering at the First Congregational Church, and is also proud to serve a cause near to her heart, Parent to Parent, helping parents of special needs children find support among similar families.
“My first career was as a physical therapist in an elementary school,” she explains. “Classes were segregated, with special needs students separated from the others. I watched parents come and go, but never speak to each other. It was very sad.
“When I found out about this program, I signed up to help with the matching process and follow-up,” she adds. “No one understands what families go through quite like other parents.”
Nancy recently retired from a part-time job with the Nicolet College Learning in Retirement program, for which she served as coordinator for the past five years. “I have more time now for projects,” she says. “I could build a sauna if I wanted to!”
Her biggest restraint right now is not having enough space for her workshop, although she’s devised ways to deal with the problem. “I can angle the table saw if I have a long board,” she says. “If I get it just right, I can even open a cupboard door and push the end right inside.”
The chop saw and router and other large tools are easily moved into place when she needs them, although Nancy is definitely looking forward to warm weather when she can set up her tools in her garage. “I have all the tools I need now,” she says. “I started out with a saw that my father gave me, and my brother-in-law sold me some of his old stuff. One of my sons is a carpenter and the other does woodworking as a hobby, and they give me tools as gifts. I think they like bragging to their friends about it.
“My husband, Bill, loved to cook,” she explains. “He would get cooking supplies for birthdays and Christmas. I would get power tools.”
From the start, Nancy’s approach to her hobby has been all about form and function. “If I need something, I decide to build it,” she says. “I call it construction-grade furniture. I think about how I want the piece to look and what I need it for and then I design it and build it.
“Sometimes I wish I had been the 11-year-old son of a woodworker,” she says. “In school I didn’t get the chance to take any courses that taught design. I can’t draw, so I just go with an idea in my head and mostly fly by the seat of my pants.”
One of the first things Nancy did upon moving to Rhinelander was to sign up for community outreach classes in woodworking sponsored by Nicolet College. “By then, there began to be many more women in the classes,” she explains. “I talked it up among my friends, too, and soon we were seeing classes that were three-quarters female.”
In those days, classes were held at Rhinelander High School, she recalls. “The main problem was that we couldn’t leave materials there. I wanted to make a sofa bed and I was hauling long boards to and from class.”
The instructor, Jim Suffield, was concerned about Nancy’s project, she remembers. “He asked if I had plans he could look at. I showed him some sketches I’d done on graph paper. I had it all in my head, but he worked with me and helped me to draw a good plan. It was the most fun project I’ve ever done and turned out great!”
On another occasion, she happened to come across an intriguing step stool at a friend’s house that had been purchased from LL Bean. “I asked if I could borrow it for a couple months and set out to copy it,” she says. “I’d just got a new doweling jig and I was anxious to try it. I ended up making two of those.”
Nancy even made a set of easy chairs. “I made those from scratch, from the frame to the springs to the upholstery,” she says. “Just once I’ve used a building plan. I made an English garden bench I have out in the yard.”
Her passion, however, is drawers. “I find them fascinating. I’m going to keep making them until I get it just right.”
The finished product is not really the important thing, according to Nancy. “Sometimes I’ll finish something and realize I don’t really need it,” she says with a smile. “Bill used to help me sometimes, holding a board for me. He’d say he never saw anybody have such fun making something so stupid.
“Basically, I have this wood and I could just burn it, but I’d rather construct something. It’s the process that I love.”
Sue Schneider lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.