Thursday, September 4, 2014

Learning From Others

Having recently returned from Denmark where I had the amazing opportunity to build Welsh stick chairs with Jonas from Mulesaw, I thought I might share a few observations I had about the experience, along with how it might change the way I work.

I highly recommend taking advantage of any opportunity that comes along to work with others.  The solitary nature of wood working is contrary to our ability to absorb information and techniques that one can get in a shop full of other woodworkers. 

The main thing I learned attending Christopher Schwarz' Anarchist's Tool Chest class was that hand tools are indeed efficient tools to work with.

Building chairs last weekend was a great experience in several ways.  One of which was the opportunity to work with Jonas and Olav.

Olav trained in Germany.

Olav is a local Danish carpenter who trained in Germany, not far from where I live.  He brought a relatively simple tool kit full of user tools.  Nothing too fancy, many of them older tools, but everything well maintained and extremely sharp.  I'll never forget what he first told me.  He said it was uncommon for Danish carpenters to have tools made by recent high-end makers such as Lie-Nielsen, because any carpenter worth his salt should be able to tune an old Stanley style plane to work just as well.  "Those tools are for amateurs," he said.

I think he's right.

Look at it this way - how much would those tools cut into a professional's profits when he can probably get just as good of results with flea market finds?  This doesn't have to be looked at negatively for us amateurs, though.  One thing you are paying for with a new tool is that it is set up and ready to go out of the box.  It is important to have a decent tool to learn woodworking with.  If you don't know what a decent tool can do, how do you know what needs to be done to tune a vintage tool?

Jonas and I failed at trying to steam rived lumber.  But, it was fun trying to figure out!  Plus, he looks like a badass with a broad hatchet.

Watching Jonas work was enlightening in a couple of ways.

First of all is his shop.   His work area is moderately sized, having enough room for his bench, his hand tools and a mixture of vintage machines including a jointer/planer combo, a table saw, a bandsaw and a lathe.  The real beauty of this shop, though, is it is essentially in an entire barn dedicated to woodworking (but I bet he never thought of it that way).

Not only is there plenty of storage for wood to air dry, he has two functional lumber mills!  One is his 'mule saw,' which has a giant reciprocating blade ideal for flitch cutting logs, and the other is a circular saw blade powered by his tractor, and it is combined with a sliding table that is something like four meters long.  This machine is amazing in that it can rip an entire elm log in half in about four seconds.

One day while I was trying to decide on what I should use for the center of my laminated arm rail, I found myself with Jonas milling an entire elm log just to get a nice burl piece about 8/4, 4" by 8".  I wound up not even using that piece.

Normally I buy all of my lumber from a local yard and it is all air dried, and relatively expensive.  Jonas will just process a log, stack it up somewhere and in a couple years he'll go through it to find the piece he needs for that project.

There really isn't a way I can use that in my 100 square foot shop, but there is something else he did that I can use.

Jonas is really fast.  My Drew Langsner book said a settee is just like making a chair, except it takes twice as long.  Jonas' settee was finished just a couple hours after I left, while there was still plenty for both Olav and I to do before our chairs done.

I watched very carefully how he does this, and I think I may have figured it out.  When I work, I usually focus on the step I am working on, and when that step is complete, I mentally stand back and congratulate myself before doing a little research on what the next step is.  This winds up with consistent results, but is not very efficient.

Jonas, on the other hand, tends to move smoothly from one operation right to the next without skipping a beat.  Although none of us had built this style of chair before, he joked before the build that I was going to be the class instructor because I read a book.

The book was indispensable, but it was interesting watching Jonas try to figure out his own way of doing things, relying on operations he was familiar with.  This was far different from my method of exploring new tools and techniques, many of which didn't exactly work the way I predicted.

For example, one day I decided to build a shooting board, because that was the way I would have trimmed the end grain on one of the pieces I was working on.  "What do you need that for?" Jonas said.  I realized I could make the same cut using my bench hooks laying the plane on it's side directly on the bench. 

I think a shooting board is an important fixture to have, but if you don't have one, there might be another way to get that step done rather than spend the time building a tool you only need for that one operation.

I will implement this way of thinking during my next project.  Hopefully it will result in a bit more production in my shop without really changing anything.


  1. Nice post Brian!
    You guys just started something big, you know, like a wood brothers thing, you were only 3 but next time it will be 10, I am pretty sure of it!
    and Olav, if you read me, dude you rock!
    Congrats again!

    1. Wood Brothers. I like it!

      And Olav most certainly rocks.

  2. We could do the next one in the north of France, after I moved. There won't be a lumber mill, tho.

    1. That might be a plan!

      And you never know, having a lumber mill is pretty freaking cool. You KNOW you want one.

  3. The sliding table on the BMR 900 saw mill is 8.5 meters long :-)

    We actually considered inviting more people, but we wanted to try it out in a small group at first, in case it didn't turn out to be a success.
    The problem with more people is that each person needs a workbench and I only have one, but luckily Olav had two that he could bring.
    If we are more people we might have to do it in the stable instead of the workshop :-)


    1. I stand corrected. I guess that's why I try to avoid the metric system.

      That first day where we made seat blanks might not have been so interesting with more people. Indeed, it might have made things go slower.

      If we do it in the horse stables, it could be an opportunity to try your 'special' red tint!

  4. " It is important to have a decent tool to learn woodworking with. If you don't know what a decent tool can do, how do you know what needs to be done to tune a vintage tool?"

    This is something I agree with completely and something I've tried to get across many times. Until I used a LN plane, I never knew what a good plane could do. Old tools can be great, but they are not as commonplace as everyone seems to think they are, and any in half decent shape start to have a cost in the ballpark of a new tool.
    If you can get a quality vintage tool then go for it, but there is also no shame in purchasing a quality new tool. Just remember, a century ago there was no such thing as vintage Stanley planes. All tools were new at some point.

  5. You said it man. That's why an in-person course is way better than DVD. You just did the course for "free" (minus labor and travel expenses!)

    1. Don't forget minus anyone who knew how to make a chair! Too bad you didn't make it.

  6. Great post regarding working with others, agree wholeheartedly, though there is one place it stinks...when you don't have your own tools and must figure out someone else's "system". That can be frustrating.

    I suspect that in every trade/hobby, if you (already) know what to do with used equipment you don't need all this new fangled fancy stuff. That said, I must say that there was some fancy stuff made in days gone by as well, infill Norris vs Stanley transitional etc. Sometimes "The Pros" (and amateurs, which isn't always derogatory and based on "love of") buy adequate, and sometimes they get what they want because they use it everyday and just want it, whether it be cameras, guitars, cooking knives, guns, tools etc. I love that we have many options today, though it would be nice if the "tool shaped object" sellers would exit the system, though I suspect there has always been those as well, only our disposable society encourages such practices more today.

    I hope the Woodworking Jam Sessions (I think the SSBO also sort of qualifies) take off around the world, that would be awesome. Seems like a good way to get some of the benefits of classes, at a lower cost for true newbies, and encourage more woodworking activity in general.

    1. I know exactly what you mean about not having your own tools and organization. My tool chest was a good idea, but it was essentially just a big box. If I needed a tool from it, I had to empty the whole thing to get at what I wanted. This resulted in my tools being strewn accross the whole shop the whole time I was there.

      I am pretty sure that Olav didn't mean to disparage amateurs, I think he meant just like you. Think about it - if you are needing to make a profit, and you can get by with a $20 flea market find, that is a much better business decision than a $380 premium tool. If you just love making stuff, the price of the tools is whatever you decide they are.

      That is a good way to describe what we did as a Jam Session, and the SSBO definitely was a good example. The community build seems to be a cool way to share information and ideas. Classes are great in the fact someone is there to help you build what you went there for. This particular Jam Session was great in that we were able to help each other through some of the parts of this chair. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

      Perhaps you would like to pick the next project?

  7. I think the next build off is coagulating around a coffee table build off in November (over on twitter) it's going in a more competitive direction IMO, I don't need a coffee table and I don't have a month to give to such a project in November, so I won't be participating this go around. Personally I would have probably chosen a weekend shop appliance/tool or a boxish project.

    1. Perhaps it might be fun to do a build with a group of us likeminded bloggers building the same project, but a different blog explaining each successive part of the build? It could be an interesting excersize in different perspectives. Or perhaps a dead simple project where we get to see each woodworker's different take on construction.

      So much internet, so little time.