Beginnings

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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Flow

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.

 

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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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Evidence

I’m in a mode these days that might be called a production mode. I’m finishing up a run of stools. One for a close friend, one for a long lost friend that I’ll keep until we meet again, and two stools that will become workshop beaters.

These are the stools that will get examined by students, sat, stained, and stepped on as if they were ladders. These are the pieces like the one behind my own bench that get the brunt of the work and abuse. Do good work, there will be evidence left behind.

It’s funny that as a piece is built the tiniest details are fussed over before I can let it go. But I know that the furniture will remain behind long after I’m gone, so I keep pushing myself to do decent work. Or at least work that pleases. It slows me down some but I feel better setting that finished piece aside. I’m trying out shellac on this ash stool. One more coat to go.

 

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Simple

I was gluing up a stool the other day. My drilling was accurate, all my holes lined up.  I cooked the dowels in my reading lamp/ coffee can kiln so they were just a bit undersized and went into their holes easily. I glued on the seat and that went well. It banged right down onto the legs and the clamps pulled it down tight the rest of the way.

The leg dowels were sticking up maybe 1/2″ over the surface of the seat. No worries. I had made the wedges thin enough at their starting end to enter the narrow wedge slot easily. I started one in straight, the sound was good when I got to the bottom and I made one more little swing of the hammer.

Bang, I busted off half the dowel sticking up from the seat. Only it also broke off 1/8″ under the surface of the seat. One blow of the hammer and now I was working to find the fix for it.

The simple thing would have been to saw off the excess dowel so there wasn’t so much above the seat. Simple decisions like that can change your afternoon.

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The Most Dangerous Tool at the Bench

We were standing around discussing dangerous tools. One fellow said that the trim router was nasty. He got bit by one right on the tip of his little finger. He showed us the finger. It looked healed but I bet that it hurt. I told him so. Another chimed in to say that the table saw was the worst tool. So fast and heartless, it would cut off your fingers in a heartbeat if you got careless and put them in its terrible path. I agreed. A third said that he had been cut by his chisel. Got himself right in the hand when he was holding a piece and working it with a chisel and he slipped. Oh man I said, that really hurts.

But I had myself a different opinion about the worst tool at the bench. The most dangerous tool at the bench, I said, was the tool standing behind it. He was usually the one to blame for any mistakes that I made in securing a piece or putting my hands in harm’s way. Be careful of that tool behind the bench and most everything else will work out just fine.

Join us at the Studio Feb. 20 for a Joinery Basics Workshop. We will be working with a variety of dangerous tools.

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Benched

I found a piece of wood once on the back side of the house I was living in. About 3′ long and 3″ thick, it looked like it had fallen off a tree as it was still round on the outside and scooped on the inside. The shape of it was like 3 fat inches of growth rings had fallen off the tree. It was perfect as the seat of a bench.

I didn’t know what to do with it at the time because I didn’t know squat about woodworking. But I kept it. I said to myself, I’m gonna use that some day. And I did. And I still have it. It’s so much fun to build this stuff and then you look up and it’s years later and it’s not a perfect piece or anyone’s idea of pretty except mine. Because I built it.

Come join us and build your own bench starting Jan. 23rd. Cool Projects: Shaker Bench

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