A Designed World

Folks have a dread about learning design. They feel that it is somehow beyond them. They are not artists. They are not creative enough. They lack the weird curiosity to be a designer. Or the hair.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Think back to your dreams last night if you want weird.

Design is not an immediate skill, but like throwing a baseball you can do it even at first. Your throw may be ungainly or downright ugly or straight into the ground. But you can throw. So too can you design, however badly at first. But like baseball, how many throws did you have to make to first before you could zing it there? Hundreds, maybe thousands. The same is true with design, but make the practice fun and you will succeed.

If you want the thrill of designing your own work, then you learn to practice its vocabulary. Learn the things that make up a good design: form, pattern, details. Study great design, design that appeals to you, and then reverently steal from these good sources. For after all, that is what good design is: reverent theft.

We have been stealing from nature for centuries as this ancient wooden sculpture from China shows.


Horse at PAM






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I wonder what it is that brings people to this need to do things well. Is it a compulsion from inside or a rule, a standard imposed from outside? You see this craftsmanship of course in old work, where the time was spent in making each detail just so, just right.

Take this old front door I found in Eastern Oregon. It guarded a grand old house and the hinges were eye-catching even from a distance. They spanned almost all the way across the door.

But up close if you looked at the screws, which is something I always do, you can see if the carpenter took care with his work or not. Sure enough all the screws lined up horizontally along with the length of the hinge leaf. Except for the last screw that took this odd turn to point at 2 or 8 o’clock. Odd choice but I checked the three hinges and they were all alike. I could only smile at the effort. Craftsmanship





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A Beckoning

Spring beckons summer. It’s a tease is spring, a glimpse at the future. So too with our calendar. It has the promise of things to come for classes this summer. 

3 Simple Finishes will be a great three days exploring chemistry and alchemy. Basic finishes will of course be covered like oils, waxes, wiping varnishes, and the answer to all your finishing questions: shellac. But wait there’s also chemical stains, a little milk paint thrown in, and a dash of baking soda which produces a miraculous effect.

Hand Planes: Tuning & Using is a must have course. Learning to use a hand plane will change your life at the bench. Simple as that. They are more than throwbacks to a simpler time. They are time savers.

Building a Chippendale Chair with Jeff Miller is a huge opportunity to work with a great designer, author, and teacher. Jeff Miller wrote the book on Chair Design with a dozen options for building them. I am intrigued to see his tenoning jig in use. Join us for that week of chair building. Fun stuff.

Jeff Miller   Chip Chair Detail    Chippendale


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Name Change

Branding is always such a sensitive issue. Put the wrong name on your product and you can have such a very hard time selling it. For instance, a baby bath cleaning product called Smells Like Baby Farts Again might be accurate in spirit but lacking something in adspeak delivery.

A brand name requires delicacy and a modicum of accuracy. Not too much accuracy, because, after all, the ad man is after innuendo and image. The flavor, the scent of the product is sought not its actual weight in the hand.

With this in mind and after a sit down critique with my Mastery students, well actually only some of us were seated, on their chair projects, I have decided to rebrand an aspect of the Studio. From now on, I am renaming the Mastery Program, the Pretty Good Program. It’s apt, it fits the work that I myself am capable of, and it’s descriptive.

Pretty Good Woodworking is of course the name that I wanted to use to rebrand a national woodworking magazine some years ago. They balked of course at the idea, but I think that if you included real articles that real folks could use, it would be a hit. Articles like: Dovetails, Get ’em Done on the Jointer! Or Seven Great Ways to Destroy Your Project with a Baseball Bat. Or Finishing: The Final Splotch. Band-aid Magic would be an article posted again and again.

These articles would resonate with people. These are topical issues. Well in the case of the band-aids, certainly topical, but all really have a lot of meaning for us woodworkers.

So, now the Mastery Program is called the Pretty Good Program. Come on down. You’ll fit right in.

funny face-001

Could be foolin’ you too. Happy April. G.


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Don’t we all start at the beginning? Even bringing the wealth of experience or talent or skills that one might have from another field to the bench, we still take our first steps in complete, utter, and blissful ignorance.

Then when we start to make our mistakes on a project, we learn about the process, the materials, and the tools. We learn how to hold ourselves at the bench, how to hang onto things, and we discover how much there is still to learn.

Join us at the Studio for The Compleat Novice class starting March 29th. It’s sure to be a fine beginning.




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I have a Hand Tool Shop class running this week with a fun group of folks trying their hands at this work. Being at the bench to the untrained eye looks like a picnic. Simply pick up your tools and build something. How hard could that be?

At craft shows I would inevitably have someone come up to me and say, “You know if I had the tools I would do this myself.” I could only smile at them. If you had the tools, you would have built it already, but tools aren’t the problem. It’s the knowledge that is. And once folks realize what a world this woodworking opens up for us, they understand how much there is to know.

One of my lecture topics this week was Flow. I realized how important it is to my productivity, my happiness at the bench when things go smoothly. Which is why disrupting things at a critical moment is so disturbing. I was on a roll, work was getting done, and then something interrupts the Flow. It could be that I lose a tool, or a jig breaks, or I go to find that board I always to use to brace this job and I can’t find it.

Building this work is challenging. Woodworkers when they admire a piece, they see artistry and form, or skill and joinery. They also see the time and effort that went into the piece. They know deep down how much Flow it took to arrange all this wood into the correct pattern to create the work they see before them.


1-Dovetail corner1






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The Bench

I was discussing our work with high school students at the bench. Winoregon.org is our non-profit to help fund these efforts. In my chat with a representative from one of the largest construction firms in the City, I mentioned that we help our students bridge the gap between their academic life and the real world. We do this by building furniture at the bench.

He asked me what The Bench was? An organization, another non-profit? I said no. The bench is both a reality and a concept. It is the place where the work gets built in my shop. It is the center of the universe in every furniture maker’s shop. Here it gets done right, here it gets fitted properly. Nothing leaves my bench without my approval.

Yet it is an idea too. It is a sense that working at a furniture maker’s bench yields benefits that cannot be touched or felt except by the maker. Where the brain and my logic work together with my grip and touch to create objects that will have some value in people’s lives.

He probably thought, what a whack job this guy is. No matter, it’s the truth for me. The bench is a firm place as real and rock solid as it comes. The bench is also the place where I go to make some sense for myself in this world. It is the place where I can make a difference.

Join us for some bench time this Spring: The Hand Tool Shop or Cool Projects: Shaker Bench.


Hammertime     1-John at his bench





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Slow down

It seems that life has many contradictions. When we need to be our smartest, perhaps as youngsters, we are at our most care-free, our most flighty, our most illogical. It is a marvel that most of us survive this time.

Another perplexity is speed. I am at the bench to work. But much like my exit from my home in the morning, I try to do too much at once. When I walk out the door, I grab as many things as my arms can carry. My bag work, my gym bag, that almost full cup of coffee, oh and the jar of birdseed, don’t forget that. So too at the bench, I try too many things. I start to accomplish one task, turn my gaze to another more lovely and start in on that and soon my bench is littered with the broken promises of a half dozen started projects.

I am slow in learning. I do learn, but I am slow. What I have learned is to tell myself, “Slow down, you’re in a hurry.” This way, I focus on the task at hand and no other. I get this one job done, heave a great sigh of satisfaction, look at the time, then I move on with a sense of completion and satisfaction. If only I could remember this dictum more often.

Join us for some slow work at the bench starting March 13th. The Hand Tool Shop is an exploration of woodworking at a different pace. One where our results emerge with each stroke rather than reveal themselves through the dust of our machines. Join us for all of the four weeks or choose the one that will slow your pace down but good.


The marquetry saw from 1676.

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Worry Coach

I’ve decided that I need to hire myself out as a coach to the needy woodworkers out there. I will be a Worry Coach. You have too much to do getting stuff made. Let me take on the chore of worry for you. Did you cut those joints too loose? Don’t worry about it. I’ll do that for you. And yes they will fall apart, but long after you’re gone. Don’t worry!

Are you worried that your finish might run as you apply it? Fear not, it will the way you’re putting it on. But you can fix it. Don’t worry! See how easy this is? Worried about that one board that doesn’t quite match the others in your glue-up? Don’t worry about it. It will always look off! See, isn’t this great? It removes so much strain from you as you’re building stuff and I take it all on myself.

Now I think this idea has merit. To monetize it might take some doing but hey why worry about that? This brainstorm came to me one day when I was helping Shea, my Resident Mastery student, glue up his stool. He was all stressed about the joints going together right, too much glue, too little glue on them, breaking a rail as we bent the legs to fit into the seat, and I told him, “You know I can take on all your worries for you, if you’d like. I am completely not stressed right now, how about you?”

He was not too stressed and I knew this because he didn’t clock me one with his mallet. I take this as a sign of superior intelligence not to mention excellent training.

Try it out sometime. Send me your worries.

What, me worry?



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More Evidence

After a teaching excursion in Germany some years ago, an old friend and I decided to drive over to visit Prague in the Czech Republic. We toured the old city and the square with its magnificent clock tower. Then we walked up to the very old Prague castle and explored around it. St. Vitus Cathedral is right beside the castle. Church and State never far away from each other in medieval Europe. The cobblestone streets there date back 1000 years.

On the back side of the church is an alleyway where merchants no doubt kept shop for the clerics and nobility up on top of this hill. It is not wide this alley. Barely room for two carts to pass by each other and the walls of the church rise up far above our heads with gargoyles starting out or down at us to menace and keep us peasants in our place.

There is not much to see walking down this alley. It is a route to the back road down the hillside. But passing through it, I saw these large doors, the back doors to the church. On these iron doors, held together with giant black metal spikes and screws were hung a few door knockers. Made of iron, these knockers showed the bodies and heads of serpents hanging down to the pavement below.

I lifted one to let it see the alley once again instead of the stones below. Then I let it drop against the steel and resume its watch of the street. Who would put this much effort into a door knocker on the poor side, the distaff side of the cathedral? Who would make something so carefully? More evidence of the value of doing things well. Even when ignored by most of a world but known to the craftsman.

Consider exploring another world with us in the Studio. Join us for The Hand Tool Shop this spring starting March 13th and lasting through April 7th. Take one week of class or all four in an exploration of hand tool work, patience, and practice. Working with hand tools is a different kind of meditation and exercise on the value of quality.





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