Handworks – a survivor’s account

The following is adapted fom my article about Handworks originally published in Furniture & Cabinetmaking Issue 261.

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At first, Amana Colonies, Iowa, may seem like a strange holiday destination, and yet for many woodworkers it was precisely the dream location to visit during late May this year. The reason? Handworks 2017.

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Organised by bench hardware manufacturers Benchcrafted, Handworks is a two day long, bi-annual show drawing together many notable tool manufacturers, craftspeople, and publishers. As a result the show is an undisputed highlight of the woodwork calendar, and draws attendees from North America, Europe, and Australia. What is more, unlike most other woodwork shows Handworks is purely hand tool orientated – the mission statement is simply: “ask the makers about their tools and lean first hand how hand tools make woodworking mow precise, easier, more enjoyable, and more meaningful”.

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Bad Axe carcase saw in a Texas Heritage saw vise

Handworks 2017 promised to be the biggest instalment yet, featuring over fifty stalls spread across five barns as well as a Saturday morning presentation by patron saint of hand tool woodworkers Roy Underhill.

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Dividers and holdfasts by Peter Ross

Enter the Arena

So, what was Handworks like?” asked a woodworking friend a few days after the event. In a word, inspirational. The sheer range of demonstrations, tools on display, and makers to meet, was incredible and the two days flew by. It would be impossible to give an account of all of the tool manufacturers, makers, and demonstrators who had stands across the five barns (for that visit www.handworks.co). But what was instantly noticeable was that despite being billed as a woodwork show, Handworks was in truth a coming together of a variety of related crafts, covering woodwork, tool makers, textile and leatherworkers, and blacksmiths.

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Mary May has a better business card holder than anyone. Fact.

The wide variety of woodcrafts represented at the show was outstanding, including carving by Mary May, period furniture making, green woodworking by Don Weber and chair making by  George Sawyer, Peter Galbert and Caleb James, to name just a few. Blacksmiths were well represented by Peter Ross, Seth Gould, and Blackbear Forge, while Texas Heritage and Camp Robber both displayed an extensive range of workshop aprons and tool rolls. A personal highlight was trying out a Roorkee chair made by good friend Anne Briggs using sublime leatherwork by Texas Heritage. Texas Heritage sell the complete leatherwork for Roorkee chairs and camp stools, and seeing the finished article in person has bumped this project to near the top of my to-do list!

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Caleb James

 

Publishers and writers were also out in force, with Mortise and Tenon, and Lost Art Press stands both proving to be very popular, the latter hosting a number of their authors for book signings throughout the duration of the show.

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Mini holdfast and standard sized holdfast, both by Black Bear Forge

Tools, Tools, Tools

Of course, you cannot talk about Handworks without talking about the tools. No matter what your preference, Handworks had something to tempt the wallet and push airport luggage allowances to the limit. As well as the wealth of vintage tools sold by Patrick Leach, there were many modern tool manufacturers demonstrating their wares and answering questions. For many woodworkers, shows like Handworks offer a rare opportunity to see tools by smaller manufacturers in person, and to use infill planes by Konrad Sauer, wooden planes by Scott Meek, or marking gauges by Hamilton Woodworks. Other highlights included shaving horses and workbenches by Plate 11 Workbench Co, an opportunity to test drive the new Bad Axe Tool Works frame saw, and marvelling at the sheer beauty and precision of Vesper Tools’ in-filled marking and layout tools.

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Infill planes by Sauer & Steiner

Handworks has traditionally been an opportunity for tool manufacturers to unveil brand new products, and this year was no exception. Texas Heritage presented their new “saddlebag” tool organiser – perfect for hanging in a tool chest or above a workbench, while Blue Spruce Toolworks debuted a brand new coping saw design. One of the biggest product announcements of the show was a combination plane by Veritas modelled on the now-discontinued Stanley No.45, which attracted a constant crowd eager to give it a test drive.

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The Bad Axe frame saw is the most fun you can have with a saw plate.

Studley Two

One of the highlights of Handworks 2015 was a rare public showing of the iconic tool chest of H.O Studley, alongside which Don Williams had given a series of presentations about the tool chest and his book on the same subject, “Virtuoso” (Lost Art Press). The Studley tool chest, and “Virtuoso”, clearly had a significant impact on at least one woodworker, as Handworks 2017 featured a complete reproduction of the Studley tool chest made by hobbiest woodworker, and surgeon, Jim Moone. Jim estimates that the chest took him six months to make alongside his medical practice, including modifying tools to match the contents of the original chest. Jim’s reproduction is breathtaking in its detail and commitment to authenticity, and completing such an ambitious project is impressive in itself even without taking into account the brief time span of the project!

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Reproduction STudley Tool Chest, by Jim Moone

Community Is…

Community has been a constant thread in my writing over the past couple of years. The overwhelming atmosphere at Handworks, and the buzzword on everyone’s lips, was community. The tools were shiny and plentiful, and the demonstrations were fascinating. But what was truly special about this event was watching people who had never met in person before come together over a shared love of handwork, a passion for preserving traditions and crafts, and for making things. It was of course an opportunity to turn online connections made through the vibrant community on Instagram, and blogs, into real faces and friendships, and throughout the event there was countless moments when people would introduce themselves using their Instagram handles and then follow up with their real names. For two days, over antique tools, the latest products from modern tool manufacturers, or traditional German food, knowledge was shared, friendships forged, and contact details exchanged. This was the true magic of Handworks, and for many (including myself) the reason why they attended.

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Jim Tolpin and George Walker demonstrating artisan geometry.

While I doubt any attendee managed to leave without buying at least one new tool or book, it is certain that no one left without a sense of having found an inclusive, supportive, and welcoming community bound together by the woodcrafts. Where else could you find yourself sitting next to George Walker and Jim Tolpin over breakfast, or strum a handmade resonator guitar by Mule Resonators over pizza in the evening? But what was truly special about Handworks was witnessing just how welcoming everyone was, and I am sure that this strength of community will give real comfort to anyone concerned about the future of hand tool woodwork.

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Tool chest by Chris Schwarz and Jameel Abraham.

Handworks – a service to the community

Handworks ended with plenty of warm farewells, promises to stay in touch, and carrying away bags overflowing with new tools and books. Hundreds of people attended, and hundreds of different stories will be told. But winding through all of those stories, is the thread of a community brought together through a love of handwork and the joy of sharing that passion with other makers. Organising Handworks is a massive endeavour, and there is no guarantee that it will take place again. If Handworks 2017 is the final show then it will be a fitting end, but I for one certainly hope that there will be a reason to visit Amana in 2019.

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Jason Thigpen of Texas Heritage explaining the custom options available for his aprons

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