Uber Creator Spotlight: Woodworking and the Beauty of Patience

A product designer uses Japanese hand tools to build furniture that enhances his life.

Spotlight is a series of interviews with the multitalented creators on Uber’s design team. In this session, we spoke with Patrick Dohan, Senior Product Designer on Uber for Business.

At Uber we enjoy celebrating our creative team members and the broad spectrum of design. We value the pursuit of various forms of creativity and believe those experiences inspire our team, improve our products, and ultimately enhance the experience of our end users.

Patrick in his garage workshop.
Quartersawn white oak nightstand. The chamfered edges help reduce its profile. Cutting the edges at an angle and joining them without any gaps requires patience and precision.

Patrick Dohan has always been a maker, driven by the need to build something useful that could help someone. He’s composed music, and he’s designed software as a consultant and in house at Uber.

Crafting beautiful furniture with Japanese hand tools is a relatively new creative pursuit for him.

Patrick grew up in a colonial-style home in Detroit which his uncle, Joseph Giovannini, a prominent architect, had transformed with wooden walls and floors that jutted out at acute angles. The space was filled with custom, handmade furniture: built-in beds and desks that played with the space in interesting ways. It was a magical play place and a work of art, once featured by Architectural Digest.

The architectural designs of Patrick’s uncle, Joseph Giovannini, inspired him to explore woodworking. Pictured is a loft in Los Angeles designed by Giovannini. Photo Credit: GiovanniniDesign.

As an adult, Patrick longed to try his hand at woodworking, but living first in Los Angeles and then San Francisco, he never had the space.

That changed, when he and his wife, Erin, bought their first home in Oakland. It needed furnishing. And it had a small garage. Patrick devoured woodworking tutorials in books and on YouTube. At Alameda Point Studios, a community space for artists, he got tips from long-time woodworkers. He went to MacBeath Hardwood, a lumber yard in Berkeley, and filled his Ford F-150 truck with enough wood for his ambitious first project: an eight-foot-long dining room table.

He setup shop in his garage and started experimenting with a mix of power tools and hand tools, but soon, he found himself gravitating towards almost exclusively using hand tools. He appreciates their simplicity, their authenticity. The designs of the hand saws he uses haven’t changed in centuries.

His creations are stunning.

Sketching at his handmade dining table. White oak is a favorite of his due to the density of the material and the way it looks with the floors and finishes in his house. He chooses the furniture finish based on what the wood will be subjected to. Alcohol? Citrus? This table is holding up really well after six coats of lacquer finish.
White oak, 8-foot dining table
Patrick surrounded by his hand tools while demonstrating the making of a tusk tenon joint on his Sjӧbergs workbench.
Side table. White oak.

“You’re the only people that have ever been in here,” Patrick says as we step inside his very tidy workshop.

His workshop is his sanctuary that he retreats to on Sunday afternoons. The open garage door brings in plenty of light along with a mild Bay Area breeze.

His respect for his craft and tools is evident. He gets his planes and saws from Lie-Nielsen, a company in Maine that still builds them by hand. Each tool is carefully hung. Even his scrap wood is in neat stacks organized by size and type. Unlike many other woodshops, this one lacks the musty smell of years of sawdust. His shop is crisp and clean.

He’s just finished “sharpening day”, a full day of sharpening his blades with Japanese water stones, which he first flattens with a diamond sharpening stone. We lean in to see the keen reflection on the edge of a freshly-sharpened chisel. “That’s what you want,” says Patrick as he demonstrates its sharpness by shaving some hair off the top of his hand.

“A Japanese woodworker could spend six months sharpening their blades before using them. I wish I had that kind of time.”

Patrick says he chose furniture-making because in a house the walls and floors are important, but what you really become most intimately attached to are the tables and chairs.

He recalls how at a recent Thanksgiving, his dining room table filled with friends from Los Angeles and Denver. Patrick cooked and Erin entertained. “The table has a central role and it supports this environment. But if it’s poorly made, it can hurt those celebrations.”

Thanksgiving on the new table.

The most challenging part of the furniture-making process is joinery, when you set about combining individual pieces into a greater whole, shaping the places they’ll connect in the process. “Once you go too far with something, it’s not like you can add wood back to it. You’re screwed. It’s unforgiving.”

For his coffee table, he chose to use a glueless joint design that is 7,000 years old: the tusk tenon joint. “It was popular when giant war campaign’s generals had to have their awesome writing desk flat-packed and shipped with them. You can’t glue those writing desks together, and you don’t have technology to make fasteners and screws. You don’t have Ikea. You had to make all these things to be disassembled and knocked down, so that type of glueless joinery was really popular.”

He messed up multiple joints until he got it right. “The trick is when you get to the very end and you’re taking off just a tiny bit, you have to test it every second until it fits. And as soon as it fits, you have to stop. Just stop.”

Coffee table concept sketch with the tusk tenon joint under the quartz top. Cutting and chiseling the joinery. Final tusk tenon joint completed.
The finished coffee table (with the tusk tenon joint) has a piece of quartz resting on top of the white oak base. He wanted a marble top, but marble is incredibly fragile, so it requires plywood beneath it (and an edge to hide the plywood). He wanted it to be honest and simple, just a piece of stone on the wood, so he used quartz, even though it’s much heavier.

Patrick admires Japanese carpenters for the discipline and patience that allows them to spend months sharpening a blade of a plane and creating intricate, detailed joinery.

He breaks down the difference between Western and Japanese tools simply: Western tools are all about pushing. You push a plane. You push a saw. Whereas Japanese tools are all about pulling. “So fascinating how it’s opposite. It’s doing the same thing, just with different motions.”

This can be traced back to how Japanese carpenters would sit on the floor and hold things with their feet. You can’t push if you don’t have clamping strength. The Western method is built around the workbench, with clamps and bench dogs holding things down and freeing you to use your body weight. “It’s very much the Western way, using your body and force,” he says.

A handmade Japanese ryoba saw. Because the saw cuts on the pull stroke, not the push, the blade is in tension during use, with bowing eliminated. The blade is made from much thinner steel to produce a much finer kerf (an incision made by a cutting tool), with the set of the teeth minimized. The satisfying result is far greater control of the cut.
A Japanese carpenter at work. Date unknown. Photo Credit: The Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin & Marshall College.

“There’s a little bit of jitters when you start. Then you watch the reflection in the blade. And it becomes meditative once you get going. Power tools are much more stressful. So loud, noisy, and messy. You spend all this time setting it up and it’s over in a second.”

Cutting a groove, like for a shelf. Also known as routing a dado.
Making the shelf for the desk.

Patrick demonstrated his own patience and discipline by spending five months building a nightstand.

Any time you’re making pieces that will fit together as a structural framework (like drawers in a cabinet), it’s called “casework”, and it takes a lot of extra time. You have to make sure all the shelves fit together within the box. You have to think about how much they’re going to expand and contract as day turns to night and one season follows the next. How drawers will function independently when they are pulled out and as a unit when slid back into the whole, and how to make that transition seamless. The nightstand now sits elegantly on Erin’s side of the bed. He’d like to build one for his side, but he’s in the middle of building a custom-sized desk for Erin, who often works from home. “She’s the customer,” he says matter-of-factly, with the hint of a smile.

Sketch for nightstand.
Quartersawn white oak nightstand
A model of the desk he is custom building for his wife based on her height. He uses balsa wood to prototype his designs at 1/8th scale to test the joinery.

Patrick says he’s considered building a house someday, but for the near future he’s plenty busy furnishing his current one.

He still has to finish Erin’s desk and build his own nightstand.

Their entryway needs a bench.

“That’s two years of work right there. I’m no expert. I will likely spend my whole life, into old age, doing this.”

Patrick’s practice as a woodworker helps him bring a unique perspective to his role as the lead product designer on the Uber for Business team: “I like to think about both the physical and digital world of our customers. Building furniture helps me think about the ways that people move through space, how they interact with space, with the textures, not just the digital experience customers have.”

Last spring, Patrick brought his woodworking skills into direct contact with his worklife at Uber, when he created a class for his coworkers called “Patience and Process in Design Through Hand Tool Woodworking.”

“Because there is no room for error with an unforgiving material like wood, Patrick taught us how to plan our designs carefully and act with intent. The design and planning process was just as — if not more — important than the actual woodcarving. I thought this was a nice metaphor for how we might be able to approach design from a different perspective. Sometimes when designing digital interfaces, we might try out a bunch of things to see what works, but the woodworking process reminded us that there’s an important consideration phase of the design process that asks us be more thoughtful, deliberate, and conscious before jumping into execution.” –Product designer Marina Liu, class participant

That thoughtfulness and deliberation are crucial to the design process, and to Patrick’s own sense of wellbeing. He says, “Some furniture is a piece of art. But a lot of it is humble and meant to be part of living in a space. I think that’s why it’s so interesting. It doesn’t have to be a big statement. But it’s something that really enhances your experience with an environment.”

At Uber, Patrick created and taught a class, “Patience and Process in Design Through Hand Tool Woodworking”, to members of the design team.

Update: Since we first spoke with Patrick, he has finished the desk for his wife. See the finished product below. Checkout the behind the scenes photos of how it came together.

White oak and quartz desk, hefty joinery.

The Uber Creator Spotlight Series

Checkout the previous edition in this series: Uber Creator Spotlight: Quilting for Decades — For Others, and For Herself.

Learn more about our design team’s events, people, and impact at uber.design.

And see some of our recent work at dribbble.com/DesigningUber.

The Creator

About Patrick Dohan:

Patrick Dohan is a designer in both the digital and physical worlds. His approach revolves around the application and intersection of cognitive psychology, the pursuit of simplicity, and human-centered design. Currently, he leads product design lead at Uber for Business. Before that, he launched product configuration tools used to set up and run Uber across the world, designed global fraud detection and resolution products, and led the creation of a CRM tool that mirrors and anticipates the growing complexity of Uber’s business. Before Uber, Patrick worked on product design and strategy for wide range of companies including Zillow, Taco Bell, Sprint, Anthem, Avvo, Answer Financial, Chase Bank, and Experian. Outside of the 1’s and 0’s, you will most likely find Patrick in his garage/workshop, designing and building furniture.

Portfolio: dohandesign.com

The Author

Eric Burns is curious and inspired by other creatives who pursue their passions. A hybrid UX researcher and product designer, he recently transitioned into a new Design Operations role where he leads initiatives related to hiring and growth for Uber’s product design team. Previously, he managed Uber’s design teams building HR tech, and he led product design efforts across experimentation, communications, and Uber Freight. Ask him about design sprints, electric vehicles, and driving with Uber.

Special thanks to Geoff House (product designer at Uber) for many of the photos. Check out more of his shots at instagram.com/geoff_house/.

And kudos to Chris Starr for his partnership in editing this series.