Breaking the Mould(ing) – Matt Bickford in Interview

It is inevitable that whenever you interview someone for a magazine column there is plenty of material that gets left on the cutting room floor. Fortunately there are no word limits on blog posts (although maybe there should be?) and so it is always possible to revisit the additional material in a later post. What follows is the full, unabridged, interview I conducted with wooden plane maker Matt Bickford for Issue 260 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking.


Plane maker Matt Bickford

  1. Alongside Larry Williams of Old Street Tools, and Philly Planes here in the UK, you are one of the first modern makers of wooden moulding planes, and hollows and rounds in particular. What prompted your interest in moulding planes?

There are many (and more) people out there that have included the versatility that these tools afford into their work. These tools offer what machinery simply cannot. Like the ability to use simple fore, try and smooth planes manages every width and length of stock available, the ability to manipulate simple moulding planes like hollows and rounds, which have always been what has allured me, offers the same idea of infinity. The internet, god bless it, has just brought us out of our basements, garages and sheds to share our discoveries together.


Moulding profiles, and a copy of “Moulding in Practice”

Along with Larry and Don, I may be one of first modern proponents of new planes and what properly made new planes afford the end user. If you purchase an old Stanley plane from a garage sale and immediately put it to wood you may conclude that old tools are substandard to the machinery and technology of today. In that same manner, if you pick up an old wooden plane and immediately put it to wood you will likely conclude the same. The jump in performance that can be achieved with tuning an old Stanley plane versus the exceptional quality of a new Lie-Nielsen plane can be achieved with wooden planes. Maybe the difference in knowledge and ability is due only to the amount of published literature or megabytes that have been dedicated to the two: metal planes get a lot of attention, wooden planes have not yet been funded the same. The same jump, or evolution, can be achieved. After all, likely the same issues are at stake. The differences are, I imagine, the perceived knowledge. I have certainly followed Larry’s lead in this respect.

Truth be told, Larry and his DVD introduced me to the idea of making my own planes. Prior to this video I had never considered making my own in the same fashion that, when I was twenty, I never considered making my own chair.


Complex moulding plane by Matt

I became aware of the absolute versatility that hollows and rounds afford through the internet, but I did not gain the ability of being able to use them through this same medium. Larry suggested that they could do anything. I then purchased an antique set and failed, failed and ultimately learned in my basement. Don McConnell’s DVD confirmed my technique. Ultimately, teaching people refined my procedure, of which I may be a modern proponent. Using this type of tool to create predictable and desirable results is not straight forward when holding the tool for the first time. The process, however, can be straight-forward. Hopefully my book helps in this regard.

So, in answer to your question, what prompted my interest in this type of tool is the idea of ‘infinity.’ With a basic set of hollows and rounds I am able to make every moulding profile that I may want, so long as the profile is straight (curved profiles are done with carving gouges and scrapers.) The projects that I choose are neither dictated nor decorated with the selection of router bits I may own, regardless of size. I can produce any moulding with the tools in my shop; I’m 20 minutes to 2 hours away from completing 8 feet of any profile.


Moulding plane Christmas tree decorations

  1. Your book for Lost Art Press advocated using a small set of hollows and rounds rather than complex moulders. How did you reach this approach? And can you explain the benefits of such an approach?

Let me start with this: complex, or dedicated, moulding planes have two major advantages over modern machinery. The first advantage they offer is that the sheared profile the plane creates does not need to be sanded, it removes the most tedious aspect. By not needing to sand you also do not risk the likelihood of dulling the sharp corners or drastic inflections that profiled planes encourage.

Additionally, antique complex moulding planes are not bastardized interpretations. Depending upon how far into this subject you may travel, know that today’s router bits are manufacturers’ interpretations of other interpretations of original mouldings, a progression of refined curves. There has been a lot that has been lost in the progression (read regression) of profiles. Complex moulding planes are, however, similar to router bits and shaper knives in one respect: they produce a single profile quite uniformly.


Pair of complex moulding planes

Hollows and rounds offer the idea of infinity. Any moulding profile is a series of flats, convex and concave curves. A set of hollows and rounds produces a varying number of progressing radii. Using this progression together allows an endless amount: the larger the set, the closer to infinity, everything.

In terms of a smaller set, most of our work does not include the entire range of moulding profiles. Those of us that make architectural crowns will likely not need the same set as those of us that make pieces that stand upon other pieces (i.e. mantle clocks, spice or bible boxes.) A smaller set of planes will likely afford the end user his necessary range. The necessary range, of course, may vary. My interests tend to fall in the even 2-10 range. (2s create a radius of 2/16ths of an inch, 10s create a 10/16th radius with the numbering system to which I ascribe.)

  1. To the beginner, hollows and rounds can be a little daunting. Can you explain your techniques for unlocking the versatility of these tools? What do you find inspiring about these tools?

Hollows and rounds have neither a fence nor a depth stop. It is the lack of these two features that allow the versatility that these tools both provide and encourage.

It will be difficult trying to explain the technique that I follow without a few dozen images. The process is straight-forward, but needs illustrations like my book. I started to illustrate this process in my blog and, ultimately, this led to my book.


Matt’s method for using hollows and rounds starts with using rabbets and grooves to rough in the profile and steer the planes

In short, the real key to successfully using these tools is to give the plane two points to register upon instead of just one. As an example, trying to hold a hollow upon a corner at a uniform angle and uniform point upon the plane’s sole in order to create a convex profile is essentially impossible, but it is much easier than doing the same with a round to create a cove. Giving the plane two points to register upon instead of just one steers the plane, taking the place of the fence. It also gives a gauge for progress and replaces depth stop.

My blog and my book intends to illustrate a straight forward series of steps to follow to create something both desirable and repeatable.


A completed run of moulding

  1. It can be a big leap to go from furniture maker to tool maker. How did you make this leap? What prompted you to start making planes?

I was a hobby woodworker for many years. When I started making things out of wood I started copying grain direction, then proportions, curves, carving, etc. I had settled on a series of router bits to decorate my edges that I considered my own. This set was comprehensive and when I needed something larger than what I owned I pieced a few together to create the dimensions I needed. I was spending a lot of time copying all of these features, then I made a sacrifice with the moulding that I regretted prior to making it, but I had settled upon my set and pushed forward.


Carved leg by Matt

Finally, I went in search of other options. I was tired of making sacrifices and, through Larry’s writing, became aware of another option. I purchased an antique set of planes that, regardless of how long I spent with them, disappointed. When Larry came out with his DVD I decided to make my own. The first planes that I made for myself worked better than any antique that I tuned and also gave me the knowledge to tune any antique that I purchased.

How did I make this leap into making planes? It kind of just happened.

  1. What is the element of plane making that you find most satisfying?

I technically make 18th-century British reproduction planes. These planes represent the point where all of the technology was in the tool but none of the machining process had yet been taken out. These tools, despite the fact that they are a piece of steel and two pieces of wood, represent a significant amount of technology.


A pair of snipes bill planes by Matt

I am still fascinated by the amount of technology included in these seemingly simple tools. The final product that I create will never change and I am satisfied by the small changes I make in an effort to stream-line the process.

Every plane that I make (and I have made thousands) I still consider the best that I have ever made. I am fascinated by what the planes can do, how the planes perform, and the possibilities that these tools encourage.

  1. You’re known as a plane maker, and for the book you wrote for Lost Art Press. But you are also a furniture maker. What sort of furniture do you build? Are there specific styles which you particularly enjoy building?

I make furniture as a hobby, which is difficult once you are working wood throughout the day. My friends, who are also professional woodworkers, and I started a woodworkers’ guild. We meet one night each week at my friend’s shop where we work on projects for ourselves. This encourages us to continue making things we want to make and to push our own limits.


Table by Matt

I have always been attracted to Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture. My parents had reproduced examples throughout our house growing up and I like the idea of potentially making things as good or better. I tend to like carving. The pieces that I make must have carving or I will not be interested. Once I am done with the carving I will not likely finish it (see the corner of unupholstered furniture in my basement). The mouldings and moulding planes are just a supplement. It’s kind of silly to make a sacrifice in the piece’s appearance in low-light when spending so much time casting shadows with carving in full light.


A ball and claw foot Matt is carving

  1. You’ve been posting photos of really interesting moulding runs to Instagram recently. Where do you get your inspiration for moulding profiles?

I like to think that I am good at recreating some things. My imagination with the ‘new’ has not yet been set free because I am still fascinated with recreating the old. Most of the things that I have made have, to varying degrees, been recreations. I’m still in love with the idea that I can make what others already have.

  1. If you had one tip for aspiring tool makers, what would it be?

My advice is for aspiring woodworkers, not necessarily tool makers: see what has been done, consider what has been done, try to make it. You may have no desire to put pad, trifold, or ball and claw feet in your living room; you may not want turned, cabriole or ogee bracket feet; you may not want waist, base or crown moulding, but seeing and considering how each of these treatments have been included into others work will give you an idea and an inspiration into your own work. Look at what has been done throughout the centuries and consider the conclusions of the past, even if you do not include it in your own work. A lot of inspiration is out there, and it is all relevant. This same logic applies to making tools.


“All inspiration is relevant”

  1. For woodworkers just investigating moulding planes for the first time, what limited set would you recommend?

A simple set of hollows and rounds is ideal. These planes are easy to rehabilitate, sharpen, maintain and, despite the ambiguity, to use. Hollows and rounds are extremely versatile and encouraging. Dedicated planes are fun to use but they are one-trick-ponies. Two pairs of hollows and rounds give the end user the ability to make scores of moulding profiles, the ability to make base mouldings that compliment waist mouldings that compliment cornices. A few pairs will offer the end-user so many options and, once mastered, confidence.

Confidence seems to be one thing that many of us lack. Starting a project is the hardest part. Completion just seems to happen.


If you are looking for specific suggestions: I am often asked what pair of hollows and rounds to get first. With two pairs you will be able to do by far more than twice as much as you can do with one pair. Not only will you be able to make the same profiles in two different sizes, but you will also be able to mix and match the profiles. With one pair you can make 30+ different profiles. With two pairs you can make well over 100. With two pairs you will recognize the true versatility that these planes allow and encourage.

If you do not know what sizes you want but there is a certain profile you want to execute, find the included radii and you will have the answer. Otherwise, I often recommend getting a pair of #4s and 8s (they cut a radius of 4/16ths and 8/16ths, respectively) if you’re starting with profiles included on pieces that come up to your waist; 6s and 10s are a good size for somebody that makes mid range furniture (chest of drawers). Both will likely be included in the largest highboys, secretaries, case clocks and your final set.

  1. How did the book for Lost Art Press come about?

I used to go to woodworking shows and demonstrate the tools that I make. I was able to introduce and inspire woodworkers with the ability of the tool but my explanation did not always translate into their work. Six months later I would see the same people and was told that, despite fully understanding the process we previously discussed, they had forgotten.


Profiles examples roughed in and ready for planing

I had started writing a pamphlet to hand out at the shows that I attended to people who seem inspired. This turned into me deciding that I would just put all of the information online, which I do through my blog. Chris Schwarz, the proprietor or Lost Art Press and who was very encouraging since the start of my business, read my blog for awhile and liked my approach and writing. I told Chris that I had essentially already started the process when he asked me if I had considered writing a book. The book then happened.

You did not ask this, but I have always been extremely proud of the book because I wrote every word in it. I have friends who have written articles and books. They produce a series of sentences that are then edited into the publisher’s words. Chris offered many suggestions but gave me full control over the book. He did not rewrite my sentences. He took out commas, broke up run-on sentences, comma-splices that are likely included here, and highlighted repetitious phrases, but the words are my own. Each of the books that Lost Art Press produces is unique in this respect: you seem to get the authors’ thoughts but the publisher’s directness. Each word in the final product has meaning and moves the narrative forward.


Moulding profiles cut with simply hollows and rounds

Getting to Know… Jenny Bower

One the many benefits of the online maker community is that it has placed woodwork within a wide context of handcrafts, and forged a community comprised of craftspeople from across a broad range of disciplines. One such rising star of the craft community is Jenny Bower, a Michigan based engraver who is notable for her intricate and naturalistic hand engraving to locks and woodwork tools – a process she refers to as “unnecessary embellishment”. A couple of months ago I interviewed Jenny for a profile published in issue 256 of Furniture & Cabinet Making. What follows is the unabridged version of that interview.


Jenny Bower

1. Where did your interest in engraving come from? How did you start engraving?

I actually started to admire hand engraving before I even knew what it was. My mother had a very old locket that was ornately hand engraved. I used to play with it and she eventually gave it to me. It is one of my most treasured possessions. I didn’t understand how it was engraved until I was an adult. My husband met a local man who specialized in hand engraving watches and firearms. He took me to his studio. I was very intrigued with his work and wanted to learn how to do it. He couldn’t take me on as a student but gave me a few pointers to get started. I ordered the tooling and began to practice on my own. It has been a trial and error way of learning for me. I am still learning.


Engraved tape measure

2. Your work is particularly notable for the engraving you do on tools and locks. What is it about these pieces that attracts you?

Most engravers work on guns, watches, knives or jewelry. Though I admire the engraving on those types of objects, I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. I love old hand tools. I am drawn to them. They have so much character to them. Once I became an engraver, I started to see the metal on the old tools as a blank canvas. Locks have always seemed romantic to me. I imagine people locking up their secret treasures with them. However, most locks aren’t very pretty, they are just functional. I wanted to make them beautiful. I started referring to my work, using the hashtag #UnnecessaryEmbelishment on Instagram. What I do to tools and locks isn’t at all necessary but it adds a uniqueness to them. Sometimes it brings a forgotten tool back to the forefront. It makes an ordinary tool into something special. It makes an everyday item a keepsake.


Engraved brass wear strip on a marking gauge by Farnsworth Guitars

3. Where does your inspiration for engraving come from? Are there other artists or crafts people who have influenced you or who you admire?

Nature, architecture, advertising fonts, hand painted signs, carvings… these are all things that inspire me. It might sound odd but I try to stay away from looking at the work of other engravers. I don’t want to be influenced by it or feel like I need to follow a certain path with engraving. I find myself to be more inspired by creative people in general. I find that passion for craft is contagious. I have many friends who create in completely different capacities than I do. Some of the people who have most inspired me are woodworkers, metal casters, metal fabricators, tool makers, people in the custom automotive industry, woodturners, a whole host of different people. When I am around people who are excited about their craft, I get even more excited about my own. What is wonderful is that as a result there have been opportunities for our crafts to merge into collaborative projects.


Engraved padlock

4. As well as engraving you also do a lot of handlettering art, including the excellent recent decals in conjunction with Texas Heritage Woodworks. Do you view your drawn art as an extension of engraving or a separate craft? Do the two disciplines compliment each other?

My drawing and my engraving are completely intertwined. I engrave or draw every single day, without fail. The steady hand control that is required for engraving has helped develop my drawing and hand lettering. The sketches and lettering that I draw are often translated into my engraving. I never wanted to copy the traditional engraving designs. Some engravers engrave from templates, I wanted all of my work to be original. Unless I am asked to engrave a specific logo for a customer, or do something in a very particular font, I create the design. When I engrave a monogram in an old style, I make each monogram custom. I am inspired by old fonts but I create my own lettering. I want it to feel unique and unlike something they could get from anyone else.

5. You have a big following on Instagram, a large part of which is from the woodworking community. Do you do any woodwork yourself? What do you think attracts woodworkers to your work as a metal engraving artist? What is the common ground?

The woodworking community on Instagram has been incredible. I dabble only a tiny bit in woodworking. I follow many woodworkers on social media. I find them to be a hard working group who are willing to encourage others and who are passionate about preserving traditional handcraft skills. I have a deep respect for people who work with their hands and create things with attention to detail, creating things that are built to last. These friends have inspired me to venture into the realm of woodworking. This year I was asked to engrave a monogrammed wax seal stamp for someone. It was important to me to be able to make the entire thing. I am fortunate to have several tools at my disposal as I am married to a horologist (a clockmaker). My husband works mostly with metal but has occasionally turned wood on some of our metal lathes. He gave me a piece of walnut and a few pointers. I studied the Instagram tutorials made by my woodturning friends and turned my first small handle. I posted the progress on my Instagram page and was cheered on by the woodworking community. In addition to that, several of them sent me boxes of turning blanks with notes of encouragement. I was completely overwhelmed by their generosity. I received gorgeous exotic woods and figured burls. I have since made a few more handles and plan to continue making them for all of my custom engraved stamps. My husband surprised me with my own small lathe and my dad gave me a set of turning tools that he had purchased 30 years ago and never used.


Engraved ring

What attracts woodworkers to my work as an engraving artist? Initially, I think that my love for tools got me into the community. The mutual affection for hand tools was a starting point. Once I started showing my engraving work on tools, they became interested in my process and respected the fact that it was done by hand, not a computerized machine. I have since worked with woodworkers on many projects. I have engraved small hand planes, I have made tool box plaques, maker’s mark medallions for Mark Hicks’ (Plate 11 Woodworking) custom Roubo workbenches, wax seals of woodworker’s initials for them to use on their correspondence, engraved screw heads for Florip Tool Works‘ custom hand saws, engraved names and logos onto shaves made by Caleb James, engraved a marking gauge made by Farnsworth Guitars, as well as numerous pairs of calipers, chisel ferrules, levels, rulers and tape measures. My work is very personal to me. I put myself into the design, I think about the person I am creating the engraving for. It means a lot to me to know that my work is being treasured.


Calliper engraving

6. What would be your dream commission be, or your dream tool to engrave?

For many years I refused to engrave on anyone’s personal item. Engraving by hand there is always a risk of a slip that could ruin a piece. It would absolutely devastate me to ruin something that was irreplaceable. I will take some commissions on personal items but I’m particular as to which ones. My dream commissions have been to work with people who I admire and respect. In all honesty, making things for my friends in the community of craftsmen and makers, brings me the most fulfillment. It has always been a goal to engrave all over one of my husband’s hand crafted clocks. He makes each component of his clocks by hand. He makes the screws, he machines the gears and then hand cuts all of the spokes and the plates… it takes months. I have engraved some components of his clocks, but he wants me to engrave very elaborate designs onto some of his future creations. I am looking forward to that. I know he crafts each piece with precision and care and I am honored to be able to collaborate with him.


7. You recently wrote a very thought provoking submission for the “Perfect In 1000 words or less” series for the Daily Skepp. How did writing this piece cause you to reflect on your work and development as a craftsperson? Has it affected how you’ve approached your work since writing the piece?

I was very transparent and honest in the piece I wrote for the Daily Skep. Perfectionism has been a struggle for me since I was very small. Being able to talk about perfection openly in the essay helped me to face it head on. I heard from so many craftspeople after that article was posted. Many people identified with what I had to say and shared their stories with me. I realized it is a common bond that many craftsmen share. We strive to do our best and sometimes that can propel us forward into amazing things and sometimes it can be a weight around our ankles that holds us back out of a fear of failure. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve become much more daring in trying new things. This spring I would like to try blacksmithing. I am planning to sign up for a program locally. A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have even admitted out loud that I wanted to test the blacksmithing waters. I have no expectations of being stellar, I have no goals of being a blacksmith. However, I have an appetite for learning more about handcraft and other forms of metal work.


8. What does 2017 have in store for you? Are there new projects or work on the horizon?

I have some collaborations coming with other craftsmen in 2017 that I am very excited about. I’m looking forward to finding new and unusual things to unnecessarily embellish. I am looking forward to attending the Handworks convention in Amana, IA and meet some of the people in the woodworking community who I have never met in person but already consider friends. We have bounced ideas off of each other through texts and emails, worked together on projects across the miles, and we have each other’s creations on our respective workbenches… It will feel like a reunion and I cannot wait to shake their hands, thank them for their inspiration and talk with them about their upcoming projects. I think it will also spark more ideas, more collaborations.


And now for something completely different

I’m back in print this week, but in a very different context. Dr Moss has been a contributor to Times Higher Education for a while now, and when THE were putting together a feature on how academic life impacts on married life, they asked Rachel and I to contribute. Rachel posed me a couple of questions about my take on life married to a university academic, which has to be the first time I’ve been on the other side of the interview questions! The piece was published in this week’s edition of Times Higher Education, and can be viewed here.

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Getting to Know… Kerryn Carter

It has been a while since the last “Getting to Know” feature on OtW, and I’m very pleased to feature in this instalment a woodworker who has not only taken a long hard look at how to preserve the woodcrafts, but then acted to foster engagement and enthusiasm amongst the next generation of woodworkers. Community is topic that is constantly revisted as part of the “Getting to Know” series, and I am constantly fascinated by the different ways in which we as woodworkers experience our international community, and how we find ways to contribute to, and express, that community. Kerryn Carter, the subject of this month’s feature, has certainly given a great deal to the community, and is a great example of how we can all make the woodcrafts accessible and relevant to the next generation of craftspeople.

So, without further ado, let’s get to know Kerryn Carter.


Kerryn Carter of The Tool School

1. So many people complain about the decline of ‘shop class, and the lack of woodwork education in schools, but very few do anything about it. Where did the idea for Toolschool come from? And how did you go about setting it up?

The decline of shop class is an interesting one. I see a total contradiction between the beautiful work exhibited at wood shows of high school students and the disappointing first hand accounts of what shop class actually entails for most students. I have come to conclude that these exhibited student works are the happenstance of 2 factors: a school has access to tools, machines and materials despite the funding and insurance issues that plague most schools and the students have access to an incredible teacher(s). The skills that woodshop students gain these days seems to me can vary widely depending on those factors.

Once you acknowledge that shop decline is a “thing” and combine it with the digital age where kids are living their lives on screens you see that woodshop faces some serious challenges. I think those challenges are not insurmountable.

How? The age of handmade and learning practical skills (part of the Maker Culture) has returned. The appreciation of something that someone has made without the assistance of a factory in China is coming back into mainstream culture and I often use Instagram and Youtube and Cable television as evidence. There is sustained interest in how furniture and things are made because the doors to peoples workshops which were once closed are now open and the audience is invited right up to the machine or the tool that makes the thing.

The age of handmade I think has also been given a massive super boost by the DIY culture. And yes i think we owe a debt to those reality shows that put DIY on the map.

As a result, awareness of the Maker Culture is on the rise and some of those who are noticing are parents. Those parents are keen to start teaching their children practical skills as early as possible but most are unable to because they don’t have the skills themselves. So suddenly the child of a handy parent has an advantage. That is really where I come in. The kids of parents who are not handy are sent to my “school”.

What I really do is this….I teach children up to high school age. I hope to give them some real skills, love and determination to take whatever card they are dealt at their high school (in terms of tools, machines, materials and teachers) and make the most of it. Do I want them all to become woodworkers? Not necessarily. I count my success in seeing a child become and adult who is unafraid of picking up a tool and using it to help themselves.

Where did the idea for Toolschool come from? Toolschool came from having my kids in my own woodwork shop (like almost every other kids woodwork teacher!!). I found that (as most woodworkers find) that they pick up skills quickly and with a bit of guidance can go a long way to making something. Stuart Faulkner who was my woodwork teacher for 4 years saw what I was doing with my own children and suggested that I teach other peoples children.

How did I go about setting up Toolschool? I read every childrens woodwork book on the market. I picked up a lot of tips but they still left me a bit cold in terms of the actual projects they were making. I realised that I had to compete with Minecraft and Angry Birds and quite simply a cooking utensil stand and a herb container was not going to cut it. So I spent (and still spend) a large amount of time coming up with the project ideas themselves to compete with my digital rivals. I also use a lot of 2 handed tools because 2 hands on tool = no hands near blade.


Steam-punk wooden watches made by Toolschool students

2. Making things by hand can be so satisfying, it is afterall one of the reasons we work wood. How do the kids respond as they pick up new skills or complete a project? And what sort of projects do you cover to enthuse them?

I make my classes fun but you can get that at soccer or art classes….at the end of the day its hard to compete with going home with an item you have made yourself to use in everyday life like a bag tag or magic wand or fighter jet or boat that really floats or a fishing rod or raft you have learnt to lash. Fun is a factor but its really in the area of self fulfilment that kids really respond to. It goes like this…I teach them how certain tools are used, they use those skills to make something, they decide exactly how they want the project to look, the completed project is self fulfilling and reinforces the value of the skills just used. Just to reiterate the actual projects themselves are key to my school success. Boring projects mean bored kids no matter that the skills taught are cool.


Who doesn’t want to make Han Solo style wooden blaster?

3. As well as teaching woodwork you’re a dab hand at upcycling (the retro garage bedroom was amazing!), and a talented carver – the mini acanthus leaves on the mallet build, and the carving on your Fenderette, were wonderful, so you’re clearly drawing from a wide skill base. What is your woodworking background – how and when did you start woodwork?

I grew up in my Dads woodwork shop seeing an endless procession of furniture walking out the door. I always dreamed of being a woodworker myself. He told me I had to be a “white collar” professional before he would teach me woodwork (he was a boilermaker by trade and wanted to see me “do better than him” if you like). So for the large part of a decade I was an accountant and then a lawyer. My father died suddenly while I was still a lawyer. I began learning woodwork with Stuart Faulkner 2 weeks after my fathers death. Stuart had just finished a stint as the head of fine woodwork at the Sturt School of Wood in Mittagong (just outside of Sydney) and was looking for private students. I have not worked as a lawyer since my fathers death but am still considered to be a practising lawyer. I transplanted my fathers workshop into my garage and conservatory and have built on it over the years. I stayed with Stuart for 4 years. I am now on my own and rely on woodworking magazines such as The Wood Review and Lost Art Press and instagram for learning new skills.


In terms of upcycling I have always had an interest in upcycling discarded furniture for 2 reasons. First I have a love of paint effects and how easy it is to transform boring white poly into something that wows people. Second I must be a greenie at heart because I hate seeing even a boring white poly piece of furniture (and broken even) wasted and unloved.

In terms of carving that was probably “upcycled” too…I learnt traditional chiseling skills while with Stuart Faulkner so I took those skills and after a few Youtube tutorials I tried my hand at the Fenderette. I will say this to you Kieran, only after I saw the initial results of my carving did I decide to go public with the carving attempt!! I must be a coward!! But I didn’t want to have a mega carving fail in front of the entire woodworking community!!! lol!! The Woodworker Journal from 1901 was excellent as a source of encouragement as carving was so mainstream in those days that the author had no fear whatsoever in encouraging anyone with a gouge to attempt a large scale carving. The Fenderette was the perfect beginners carving project in reality because all mistakes (of which there were plenty) are at foot level and never see direct light due to the design of the top.


Kerryn’s hand carved Fenderette

4. Ensuring the survival of the woodcrafts is a preoccupation for many woodworkers, and one that relies on teaching skills and engaging the next generation. As someone who is at the forefront of introducing young people to woodwork, what advice would you offer woodworkers who want to share woodwork with their children, nieces and nephews?

I have 5 tips!!  1. Safety is paramount (glasses, shoes, sunscreen) 2. No fingers near moving blades…none ever! 3. Always use a vise I find a Workmate good but anything to stop kids from having to support a workpiece. 4. I don’t ever measure for square (and it follows that almost everything I make does not rely on perfectly square) 5. When I can I let the kids guide what we make…its my job to decide how to make it….. oh and an extra bonus tip 6. Always slightly overestimate to a kid how long a project might take (expectation management is still important).


Mallett with hand carved acanthus leaf detail

5. As well as being active on Instagram you recently started adding Youtube content – what is next for Toolschool? Do you have plans for further developments?

Lots more great kids projects. There is a book coming and it will share with everyone my project designs and tool kits and methodologies for how to teach kids woodwork. Youtube is really being set up as a teaching tool where I will give kids woodwork pointers via video. So yes Youtube is certainly there and I do love the format although i seem to be extremely unpopular!!! Thats ok though because I want a permanent record of my work and I am happy to have it there.


6. Finally, when can we expect to see a Toolschool hammer juggling tutorial on YouTube

Lol whoa I have never thought of having a hammer flipping tutorial! The hammer flipping is a fine art that I learnt while standing in my workshop contemplating life. It never fails to horrify people.


Kerryn will be attending Woodworking in America on 16-18 September in Kentucky. Do say hi if you see her there.

Getting to Know… Joshua Klein

Every “getting to know…” feature is a real privilege for me, and I am indebted to each of the participants who give their time to answer questions for Over the Wireless. This month is a very exciting instalment. Taking the hotseat is the driving force behind one of the most singular, and important, woodwork publications of the present day,  not to mention a woodworker who has tirelessly given back to the community, and offered countless insights into a different approach to handtool work.

So without further ado, let’s get to know… Joshua Klein.


  1. You trained as a luthier, right? What lead to the move from lutherie to furniture conservation?

I did. Ironically, I started out as an amateur musician interested in finding a steady career in the music industry. I liked the idea of working with my hands and thought repairing instruments might be a good fit. I went to a lutherie school but, frankly, was less than enamored with the specialized jigs for machinery to make each precise cut. Even though I didn’t have any other woodworking experience at the time, it felt more like a machine shop than a woodworking shop. I guess it just felt too precise for my personality type and interest. To further expand my skillset, I attended the National Institute of Wood Finishing in Rosemount, MN and trained under Mitch Kohanek. It was through learning to preserve old finishes that I fell in love with historic furniture. Although we learned many aspects of wood finishing from conventional finishing technology to conservation work, I gravitated toward the preservation end of things. Seeing the history of an object recorded in the marks and wear of an old surface really resonated with me and so seeking to understand and preserve that story became my passion. I think the richness of American furniture history pulled me away from the interest I had in 20th century guitars.


  1. To my knowledge Mortise & Tenon is unlike any other woodwork publication available, and fills a very specific space. What prompted you to create this very singular publication?

I’m not going to lie… I got bit by Schwarz’s Anarchist’s Tool Chest bug when it first began circulating. Through that reading I became increasingly interested in exploring the viability of using only hand tools in the shop. This developed in my mind because, as a furniture conservator, I saw so many of the originals whose construction looked nothing like the uber-precise modern machine-made reproductions I saw. Through this examination of the originals it dawned on me that most folks today that pooh-pooh hand tools as slow and arduous do so because they’re unfairly assuming modern machine tolerances. I knew I had to find a way to share this information with woodworkers who were interested in giving hand tools a fair shake.

As a furniture conservator, I occupy a unique (and sometimes awkward) place. I’ve always felt like I was straddling two spheres: I spend a lot of time around curators and antique dealers and at the same time have a lot of woodworking friends. I’ve learned so much from each but found that it seemed these worlds don’t interact much so Mortise & Tenon came out of a passion to connect these dots. My belief is that by looking closely at the originals we can understand how hand tools were used efficiently by our ancestors. This is the way we can rediscover hand tool only woodworking to be viable option for woodworkers today.


  1. The first issue of Mortise & Tenon has (very rightly) caused a lot of excitement. What do you have planned for M&T issue 2, or the future of M&T more generally?

Issue Two is already under development. I have authors started on pieces and most of the rest of the content is planned out. As far as future expansion or development is concerned, I feel like I can’t say for sure. M&T is definitely a worthwhile and sustainable project that will continue. The magazine has been getting way more interest than I ever anticipated and it’s been an immense amount of work to keep up with. I’ve hired some friends to help keep this thing running. We hope to begin releasing this publication twice a year after a couple more issues. We’ll be at woodworking shows and other events throughout the year. Who knows? Maybe in the future we’ll be putting on our own events. We’ll just have to take it as it comes.


  1. You are also writing a book on the 19th century minister and furniture maker Jonathan Fisher (due to be published by Lost Art Press). Tell us a little about that book and the research process. Fisher sounds like he led a multifaceted life, as do you – do you find him to be a kindred spirit in that regard?

Jonathan Fisher was a furniture-making minister in Blue Hill, Maine working in the first quarter of the 19th century. The house he built for his family is now a museum filled with furniture attributed to his hand. When I first visited I thought it was neat until I learned that his chest of tools survived in another Maine archive. Then I was intrigued. After a little more inquiry, I discovered that not only was there all this furniture and the tools used to produce it but that there are 35 years of daily journal entries documenting everything he did each day. Then I was thrilled. It was the realization that no furniture scholar had ever been made aware of this rare survival that made me obsessed. The past few years, the Fisher museum has graciously given me access to the collection for regular examination. The book I am working on for Chris and John is looking at this unique survival of a skilled but part time furniture maker serving his local rural community. I want to mine this story for all the gems it has for today’s woodworkers. I think many people will resonate with Fisher and find inspiration in his work. I know I definitely find a kindred spirit in Fisher. I also have many interests and so I find his proficiency in all of these areas inspiring.

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  1. As if you weren’t busy enough with your furniture conservation business, M&T, and the book on Fisher, last year you also bought a 200 year-old house and promptly dissassembled it for the purposes of rebuilding it on your homestead. How is the rebuilding process going? And can you tell us a little about the rationale for relocating an existing historic property?

Doesn’t everybody do that? Kidding. No, I don’t know. My wife and I are hopeless antiquarians. This local gem of a central chimney cape cod was going to be bulldozed because the sills and first floor joists were totally rotted out and no one was willing to put the effort in to restore it. We didn’t have the heart to let it go. We had been shopping around for a house to raise our boys in and the timing worked out. I hired a crew of guys to help for a few months. There are many hundreds of photographs and drawings and every joint is labeled and documented. It’s safely stored disassembled for now. This year we will begin the multi-year process of restoring it to its original glory. The trim was almost completely untouched original Federal and Greek Revival trim. All the original doors and hardware were there. There was minimal electric wiring and the house never was plumbed. Because it was pretty much original it was a perfect candidate for a historically sympathetic restoration. We feel very blessed to have it.

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  1. A respect for, and immersion in, traditional techniques and work methods seems to be the common thread that binds together your furniture practice, M&T, the book on Fisher, and your homestead. What is it that draws you to traditional ways of living and furniture making?

I guess I have fallen on my face too many times when I ignored the wisdom of those who have gone on before me. For me, any way to connect to simple and traditional lifestyle choices is a very grounding thing. I am not all about eschewing modern society but I do think we all know very well that sitting on our butts staring at a screen all day is not a very human way to live. We are all creative beings that need to connect to our community around us and I guess I think of community as a transgenerational thing. If we are going to try to solve problems all our ancestors faced already or use the tools they used, maybe we should ask them to give us some pointers. I think we might all be a bit better off.

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Getting to Know… Brian Clites

In the “getting to know” hot seat this month is a maker thoroughly committed to resisting the “IKEA-ification” of household furniture. Brian Clites is a fellow Anarchist Tool Chest user, acadmic turned professional furniture maker, and as as you would expect, thoroughly interesting chap.

As always it’s an honour to feature other makers on the blog. So let’s get to know… Brian.

untitled shoot-

1. You successfully defended your PhD dissertation last year. What was your PhD on, and how did you make the decision to move from academia to a furniture building career?

My recent doctorate from Northwestern University is in American Religious History.  My dissertation, “Breaking the Silence: The Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivor Movement in Chicago, 1936 – 2011,” was an ethnographically-informed history of the way that this community has transformed their pain and suffering into an agenda of social and ecclesiological reforms. It was a very challenging topic to study for six years. 

My decision to transition into furniture design was a mixture of pragmatism, ideology, luck, and an insatiable drive to create.
To be frank, I believe that the university system in the United States is broken. It is not broken merely because of its labor system. (In spite of being paid less than $100 per student per semester, I have actually loved teaching in adjunct and visiting lecturer capacities over the past five  years.)  It is broken because of the disjunct between what is taught and what is valued in our society.  And because of academia’s  inability to engage meaningfully in the crises of our time.  In spite of its benevolent self-imagining, the American academy exacerbates more than ameliorates problems like inequality, bigotry,  imperialism, and neoliberalism. 
All of that being said, the same ideals that drove me to graduate school ten years ago have driven my transition from hobbyist to professional furniture building.  Namely: the search for authenticity, meaning, integrity, and an anti-corporate lifestyle; my love for natural simplicity; and my lifelong goal of challenging – both physically and philosophically – the bare threads that hold together this vapid tapestry we call modernity.
It may not be true that teachers teach because they cannot do. But I build furniture because I cannot otherwise seem to live out the values that animate every fiber of my body.

Tool Chest lifts by Brian

2. You’ve been building furniture professionally for just over 6 months now. How have you found those first 6 months?

As I was contemplating this life change last summer, I received a lot of helpful input from academics, friends, and family. However, the  best advice I received was from Christopher Schwarz. As I recall, Chris’s words were: “One business model is to make a career out of your passions. To do whatever it is that you cannot keep yourself from doing.  A ‘job’ that would make you happy whether or not someone pays you to do it. Find that path. And pour all of  yourself into it. In my experience, the income will follow.” 
On the ‘bad’ days – when I do not have any commission to speak of; when I’ve just ruined a drawer that I had already spent 14 hours on; or when my wife and I cannot pay the mortgage on time – on those days, Chris’s words ring particularly true. Because I am happier than I’ve ever been before, day in and day out, working with my hands.

A run of Brian’s windsor chairs

3. On your blog you’ve written about making a deliberate choice to use local saw mills, and how you’ve found that making that choice in turn has changed your understanding, and experience, of woodwork. Would you care to elaborate on that sentiment? How has the use of local saw mills changed your perspective?

I discovered another great mill just last week. The sense of awe and wonder I feel in such spaces is tough to describe. There is something fabulous about knowing the tree that a board came from, and knowing in turn the town in which that tree lived, the people who cut it down, and the millers who sawed and dried it. 
Trees don’t talk to me. (Yet.) But the people who turn trees into boards have a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge, a lot of advice. And on the whole, I’ve found that they’re really nice folk. Men who are as interested in what I’ll do with the tree as I am in how they came to find, acquire, and process it.
ATC Inside

Brian has a well-stocked Anarchist’s Tool Chest – I’m particularly envious of his collection of moulding planes!

4. You recently became involved in Lost Art Press. Tell me how that came about, and what your role at LAP involves.

 I do not have any formal relationship with Lost Art Press.  I was lucky enough to be in Chris’s last Anarchist’s Tool Chest class and, over drinks, we discussed the idea of a user forum, which he later invited me to help out with. Once the forum reached its beta stage, I stepped back. John and Chris do a great job with it. Most days, in fact, Chris replies personally to the new threads. I highly recommend the forum if you haven’t tried it yet, especially as a space for friendly conversations about the history and methods of hand tool woodworking.
ATC Tills

5. In addition to building furniture you also clocked up a lot of time teaching last year. From your blog it looks like your teaching combines practical woodwork with a strong philosophical element. How do students respond to that mix, and how do you find those two elements compliment each other? 

If money were not an issue, I would not teach philosophy. And I would not teach woodworking. Instead, I would (in my dreams) hold the first university position as “Professor of the Humanities With Your Hands.”  
In the most socially-conscious of today’s classrooms, students are asked to think about the ethics of labor.  But while all of them are consumers, very few young adults have (or will ever) produced anything tangible.  This dissociation leads to a chasm that is breaking the social bonds of civilization.
Instead of having students read Walden Pond in a classroom, I want them to live in the woods for a week (or more).  Instead of just reading about the Industrial Revolution, I want students to make a chest of drawers with their hands, then compare it to the Ikea crap in their dorm room.
In an era that defines ‘value’ solely as the lowest number of greenbacks, I seek to instill a different sense of that word in my students. 
Value. Quality. Ethics. Aesthetics.  These are not antithetical terms. And yet, in modern life, we so rarely can find them in the objects – not  just the furniture, but also the clothing and especially the plastic devices – which literally occupy the most intimate spaces in our lives. 
But to answer your question more succinctly: my students dig it. I don’t ask them to learn my values – just to recognize their hands as an extension of their mind (not some inferior, disassociated entity, as Plato and Augustine would have it, of which we should be ashamed).  
Humans can think better with our  hands than we can without them. And millions of western laborers do so every day. But we do not ‘value’ such symmetries of body and mind nearly as much as the abstract equations running Threadneedle and Wall Streets.
To make is to think.  But the inverse, increasingly, does not hold true.

Getting to Know… James McConnell

For the first “getting to know” feature of 2016 I am very privileged to be able to interview good friend, and writer of the Daily Skep blog, James McConnell. There are some incredible woodwork blogs out there, but in the 9 months that the Daily Skep has been live it has rapidly become my favourite, thanks to the way in which James constantly relates the practical to his search for meaning behind the process, in an ongoing dialogue with himself as to what it means to create. Some days I read the Daily Skep and am inspired to create and write more myself, some days I read the Daily Skep and feel like such an amateur hack in comparison that it would be best if I never wrote again. But regardless of which response I feel, James’ writing never fails to be thought provoking and inspiring.

So without further ado, let’s get to know James McConnell.


James McConnell, writer and curator of the Daily Skep blog.

1. You have built guitar amps, refurbished guitars, even screen printed. Where does your drive to make originate? What is it about making that compels you?

I come from crafty and resourceful stock. My grandmother and my mother were both experts with a sewing machine. My grandfather was a journeyman electrician and my father worked in a print shop. I grew up in a home with my parents and one set of grandparents. We didn’t always have a lot of resources but there was always something being made around me and as early as I can remember I was a part of that.

I can recall with equal clarity my grandmother showing me traditional quilt patterns and my grandfather showing me how to solder and rebuild an electric motor. Creativity was always encouraged and I had plenty of room to explore.

As I mentioned, my father worked in a commercial print shop that made labels. If you own a vintage Black and Decker product that was still made in the United States you’ve seen his handiwork on the side. He didn’t run the presses or create the artwork, but he was the linchpin between the two as he transferred the artwork to the printing plates that went in the presses. He was like me in that he always wanted to know more about things and to understand the details of process.

I  guess I just get interested in the details of the things around me and how they came to be. I can still remember as a teenager having a conversation with my cousin Michael (@puisheen on Instagram) who is now somewhat of an expert on vintage Fender offset guitars (Jazzmasters, Jaguars, etc) about how hard it would be to build a telecaster. We talked back and forth about the things we didn’t understand and I can remember clearly saying something to the effect of “well, someone knows how to do it, so I guess it can be done!”  That’s generally my attitude about the things in which I take an interest. The information is out there. The expertise is available. I just need to figure it out. I’ve since built two or three telecasters, a stratocaster, an SG and a Jazzmaster and probably a few more.

My hands are bored unless they’re making something. It’s just as natural to me as anything and I try to pass that along to my children as well by doing crafts and projects with them.


A selection of James’ guitar builds

2. Your woodwork is currently hand tool only, but you’ve written about giving up your table saw and power tools. What prompted your transition to a pure hand tool practice?  

I should add the caveat that it’s hand tool mostly. I still have a drill press and a rickety old bandsaw, but they see very limited use, and generally only when I need to work in a “production” mode. I have a few ancillary tools like a trim router that I use for specialized applications. There is also a cordless drill in my life, but that also rarely makes it to my bench.

I used to take a lot of trips to Appalachia to help rebuild homes for people, making them safer, warmer and drier. When I was doing that sort of work I always carried my table saw, circular saws, drills, etc in the back of the truck because they allowed me to do the work at hand. The goal for me there wasn’t personal fulfillment, but literally making sure someone’s roof didn’t leak or their foundation didn’t collapse, and getting that work done in a limited time frame. The tools were suited to the job.

That said, I gave up my table saw when I burned up the motor last year. I was dimensioning some stock and it just gave up the ghost. At that point some people would say to themselves, “well, I guess I need to go buy a better table saw” but I asked a different question: “did I need to go buy a better table saw at all?” I had just read The Anarchist’s Tool Chest and it had really challenged me to think about what kind of work I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. Instead of dumping hundreds (or thousands) of dollars into a new table saw I placed a few strategic orders with Lee Valley and Lie Nielsen and I haven’t looked back.

I’m in the middle of building myself a proper hand tool workbench at the moment. That is the most rigorous work I’ve encountered in recent memory and 95% of that work has been done with hand tools. I haven’t once felt the need to pull out the circular saw and I think that is, at least in part, because I have changed my understanding of “why” I work with wood in the first place. I’m not a cabinet shop. I’m generally in no rush. My work doesn’t put food on the table. My goal presently is to understand the nature of wood and enjoy working with it. I find that a much more manageable goal without a screaming router or whirring table saw.

The other added benefit is that most of the time I am in the workshop, my daughters are also in there with me playing and “working” alongside me. This gives me the opportunity to be present with them in a way that machines precluded.


James’ recent saw till build.

3. On the Daily Skep you write as much about the “why” of building as the “how”. What is it about the ideas behind the processes that fascinates you?

The question of “how” is essential but pedestrian. With some amount of effort and a little inquisitiveness, anyone can learn how to do any given operation. The question of “why” is far more existential and compelling to me.

If you were to ask about me, for example “can he build a chair?” any number of people could look at my technical skill and answer that question. Same goes for “should” he build a chair, “how” does he build a chair, and any number of other interrogatives. They’re all external. The question “why,” on the other hand is deeply internal.  Only the craftsperson can answer that question. “Why” would I build a chair? Perhaps it is because I appreciate the harmonic unity of a certain form and I want to explore that. Maybe I want to give it to someone as a gift, or maybe I simply prefer sitting elevated to sitting on the ground. Even in those answers there is always another question “why”?

The question of “how” leads to a different place than the question of “why.” Reductio ad absurdum, “how” leads to the industrial revolution; “why” leads to art.

To answer the question another way, let me tell you a story about the first time my father took me to his place of work and I finally saw what he did for a living. At his workstation, my father was a master of precision. He worked in thousandths of an inch. When computers were introduced into his work he worked in ten thousandths of an inch. His tools were magnifying glasses and super precise Starrett steel rules. As I watched him take the work handed to him by artists and transform it into the press plates that would print thousands of labels, I suddenly understood the importance of process. It became embedded in me that without his completely unheralded work, none of the other work would make sense. I saw “how” he did his work, but understanding “why” his work was important was revolutionary for me.

That’s the sort of question that interests me, and really the question that led me to hand tool work in the end. I have no particular feelings about “how” other people choose to work wood, but I choose “mostly” hand tools because it gets to the heart of “why” and allows me to be more intimately connected to the minutia of the process of creating.


Baby Anarchist’s Tool Chest

4. You’ve written extensively about rehabilitating old tools, including making some quite bold adjustments to your Disston mitre saw. Do you view refurbishing old tools as matter of convenience, or is there a more ideological reason (for instance as a means to connect with previous generations of craftsmen)?

In my toolbox you will still find the very same WEN soldering gun my grandfather used daily at work. It still has his initials etched into it alongside his employee number 1026. By all accounts it is a fine tool. It was a tool he relied on to pay the bills and so it was the best he could afford. When I was deep into vacuum tubes (valves) and was building amplifiers I used that gun almost exclusively. There was perhaps an element of sentimentality about that, but for me, it was also the right tool for the job. It allowed me to work efficiently and accurately.

So, it’s sort of a mixed bag. One part sentimentality mixed with one part practicality. When I see a tool that is in need of rehabilitation I do think about the hands that have held it before, but I’m also eminently practical about the whole matter. I pass tools up all the time because sadly they’re past the point of saving. It’s a judgement call and there’s a lot of latitude there, but unless I pick up a tool and see that it can reasonably be put back to use, I walk on by. You can’t save them all.

All of my full size and panel saws are vintage Disstons, and each one has it’s place in my till because it serves a purpose. Everything from an aggressive 5 ppi D-20 to a much finer D-23. I’ve got a wonderful all around D-16 rip saw, and it’s counterpoint in a D-8 crosscut. Each one was brought back from the rust pile either by myself or by a local guy named Chris Black who has a knack for resurrecting those old beauties. Perhaps my favorite is an early Disston no.7 Panel sized saw that I restored last fall. I had to make a new handle for that one, but it was well worth the effort as it has easily become one of my favorite saws.

That’s the long way around to say that I could be sentimental about those saws, but in reality they serve a practical purpose. I believe in saving the best of the past and carrying it into the future.


A rehandled saw, by James

5. Your original mission statement for the Daily Skep was for a community focused dialogue about handtool woodwork. You’re also a prominent member of the Instagram woodwork community. Tell me about your experience within the online woodwork community, what have been the benefits of community membership, and where do you see (or would like to see) the community going next?

Instagram is an interesting platform to me. People have criticized it for being a tool that people use to take “perfect” pictures that make their lives look better than they may be in reality. For me, Instagram isn’t about chronicling a “perfect” life, but about catching those “perfect” moments in what is otherwise sometimes a crazy, messy and chaotic existence. I very rarely stage pictures, but when I am working on something and the light just hits it in a certain way, or I walk by my bench and something catches my eye, Instagram is a great way of documenting that moment.

When I first stumbled across the online woodworking community it was actually through Instagram. One day I was randomly thumbing through photos and I came across one or two woodworking related pictures that really caught my attention. As more and more woodworking photos popped up in my feed I started to connect the dots between Instagram accounts maintained by people that I had seen doing instructional work on YouTube. From there I also stumbled across the blog kept by Anne Briggs Bohnett, and yours at Over the Wireless and things just started to connect. It wasn’t long before those connections became conversations and those conversations led to opportunities to connect even more.

I started The Daily Skep with that very vision, to be as you said, a place of community focused dialogue about the process and practice of hand tool woodworking. In the beginning it felt more like a monologue, but thankfully in the last few months that vision has finally started to materialize with lots of great comments and conversation with all sorts of readers. I would love to make it even more collaborative and feature guest bloggers and instruction as time goes on.

I seek that sort of collaboration because, for me, the primary benefit of the online woodworking community has been the interaction with others who are passionate about the same things I am. Woodworking, especially for amateurs, can sometimes be a very isolating pursuit. You tend to spend a lot of time on your own. The online woodworking community offers an alternative to that isolation insofar as it represents a shared story with all sorts of people you would never expect and it is full of challenge and encouragement and surprise. Everyday as I thumb through my Instagram feed I am blown away by the talent, creativity and courage that I see and when I read through the blogs I keep up with I learn more than I ever could have on my own. Wherever the community goes next, I hope that those qualities remain central to whatever it becomes.


6. And finally, you worked as content editor on the first edition of Mortise & Tenon magazine. Tell me how you got involved in that publication.Do you have more woodwork editing lined up (and if not, are you looking for more editing work)?

Content editing entails working with the raw transcriptions to bring them into shape and working alongside authors to revise, review and re-write articles. My work was concerned primarily with questions of flow and coherency and helping to develop the early work into what you will read in the magazine. It’s slightly more process oriented work, but any publication of this nature really requires a team of editors (and many readings) to bring out the best in the work.

The way I got involved in the first place was really just a story of being in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills. In undergrad I was on the senior editorial staff of our campus newspaper for three years and I had other experience as a writing tutor. I had mentioned that to Joshua in passing during in conversation, but honestly I didn’t think much more about it until he contacted me about coming on board with M&T. I edited one interview as an example of my work, and from there we hit it off famously. There were a lot of late nights and early mornings involved, but I truly believe the work will speak for itself. It was a pleasure and an honor working with Joshua and Megan, and I’m looking forward to getting started on the next issue.

Other than that I don’t currently have anything else lined up in terms of editing, but I am always available for freelance work and would be happy for the opportunity if something else came along.


Getting to know… Jamie Ward

The “getting to know” series continues this month with Jamie Ward in the hot seat. I first met Jamie at the inaugural New English Workshop summer school – while Chris Schwarz cracked the whip and 18 of us slaved away at building Anarchist’s Tool Chests, the seemingly unflappable Jamie was on hand to run the workshop and offer constant advice and encouragement.

Jamie with Roy Underhill

Jamie with Roy Underhill

Although you are now course leader at Warwickshire College, you have previously worked as a professional furniture maker, right? Tell me about your career before you moved into education, including where you trained?

I trained at Warwickshire College in the late eighties which is interesting as I have gone full circle and returned to the workshop where I first started and now teach from. So when I am trying to motivate one of our 16 yr old students who is having a ‘bad day’, I try to think back to when I was on the course and their age.

So I went from that course into the construction industry, mass producing joinery (windows, doors, stairs etc) for large house builders like Barrats, Redrow, David Wilson Homes. We had daily targets to run 3500 metres of components through the machines, it was a touch soul destroying and monotonous. I was made a supervisor by the time I was 20. Once I had learnt how to use the various wood machines, including four cutters and double ended tenoners it was time for me to move on.

So after 9 years in my first job, I decided I needed to change things to progess and so I decided to sell my house, give my job up and go to university – I was 26. I felt I could use my woodworking skills gained from my joinery days and refine these and go into furniture making. I did my research and felt that Buckinghamshire College in High Wycombe (the home of furniture making), was the college for me. At that time it had the largest furniture making education department in the country and lots of industry still located around the town. Unfortunately Bucks New University as its known now, is about to close most or all of its furniture making courses – very sad.

So I embarked on 5 years at uni, first on a HND Design (Furniture) course then progressed on to BA Hons Furniture Design & Craftsmanship degree course and I loved it. It was so satisfying breaking away from the rigid routine from working in a factory to being able to design furniture and then make it. The experience gained before uni was invaluable in gaining work whilst at unI and my first college job was working holidays in an amazing furniture workshop ran by Richard Williams.

This experience taught me lots, including accuracy, attention to detail and how different it was to work in a small bespoke furniture workshop compared to a large joinery workshop; complete chalk and cheese. In fact as I write this I have just returned from a surprise party at Richard Williams to celebrate his 25 years in business. It was great to see Richard and many people who have played apart in his business and that includes his university tutors from who were also my tutors, this just confirms how supportive the industry is and how tight knit it is and everyone knows everyone.

My time at Bucks College was great, I met my wife there and it gave me a first class degree, something I never thought possible when I was at school. A lesson to my 16 yr olds students – ‘you can change things and make things happen even after a bad time through school’!

After university I help set up a furniture workshop in the Cotswolds in a beautiful village but making furniture for clients in London, it allowed me to use the skills from both university and my joinery days to build a successful workshop and business. After a couple of years I started teaching an evening class at Warwickshire College which 13 years later, I still teach. Within two years of starting teaching part time I then went full time at college.

Teaching is amazing, I love passing on my skills and showing passion for furniture making and seeing students leave and gain jobs in the industry or go onto university just as I did.

I still keep my hand in and design and make furniture in my spare time, but teaching takes priority.

Oak sideboard by Jamie

Oak sideboard

What prompted the move into education? 

I never set out to go into teaching, it began with an inquisitive question to the course leader of the furniture course at the time, do you have any part time teaching posts available? and before I knew it I was teaching an evening class.

I caught the teaching bug here. I was teaching mainly mature students just 1 evening a week, they made a couple of set projects like  tables and wall cabinets then they moved on to their own projects. We continue to have projects that range from bird boxes to the largest project to date, a flight of stairs.


Community Is!

Running the furniture programe at Warwickshire College puts you at the forefront of training the next generation of makers. What from your perspective  are the main challenges for keeping the woodwork crafts alive?

FUNDING! I have helped implement a forum with fellow furniture course managers from around England and we often discuss the challenges of proposed funding cuts and how we can overcome these. Because the furniture industry is quite an unknown industry, its not the first career choice of many.

Did you know the UK Furniture Industry is bigger than the Aerospace industry in its turnover? I have recently become a freeman of The Furniture Maker’s Company. Only last week there was a conference called ‘Mind the Gap’  at The Furniture Makers Company  and it discussed the challenges of training and engaging with education and industry, there was also a recent survey carried out – please do click on this link to find out more.

Next is getting the opportunity to discuss furniture making to 13-15 year olds and therefore RECRUITING FROM SCHOOLS. Because we are a Further Education College with various courses ranging from  A-Levels to plumbing to engineering and furniture making, I feel some schools see us as competition. Therefore it can be challenging to gain access to this age group and promote furniture making as a career. There are some local schools that welcome the college in and offer careers events, it would be good if this was more widely practised. Staying in school to do A-levels is not for everyone! And now children have to stay in education until they are 18. Even before secondary schools, it could be said children are making less, how many of you played with Lego bricks or made Airfix models? I did and I loved making things. So are enough children being exposed or getting the opportunity to put the Ipad down and be creative?

Last is PROGRESSION, we have some industry on our doorstep, and we work hard to keep and maintain contact with these companies. It is important to have routes into jobs and for some, onto higher education courses. Around 70% of our students progress into a job or on to a university on completion of their studies. These jobs include, furniture making, wood machining, boat building, kitchen making, theatre set making and joinery to  name just a few. The jobs are there but we don’t always hear from employers, it is common for companies to want employees with experience, but its that old chestnut, ‘how do you get experience if no-one will give you a job?’?

Fan shaped wall cabinet

Fan shaped wall cabinet

So, challenges aside, what are the positive elements of teaching woodwork? What do you find most rewarding?

I love teaching, I do not struggle to get out of bed and come to work each day. Every day is different and always rewarding to see skills being past over to the next generation – ‘Inspiring the next generation!’ sound familiar?  As a tutor we are rewarded in many ways, whether that is seeing a student master cutting dovetails or stand back and look at their finished piece of furniture and a broad smile appear when they have concluded the production journey and the birth of a piece of furniture.

The realisation that this can be such a self fulfilling activity.

We have an end of year show and this an excellent platform to witness the joy of furniture making and end results where students show their work to family, friends and possible employers.

It is very rewarding to observe and watch the smiles of the students, the faces of proud parents the feeling of my job has been completed for this stage in their careers and now its over to them to see where they can go in the industry.

So reward comes in various amounts, daily, weekly or in one big dose at the end of the year.

Union Table

You obviously have to teach a broad range of skills, but how would you classify your own approach to woodwork? Are you a handtool purist, a machine focused worker, or do you have a hybrid approach? What lead you to your  method of working?

Well, with a varied woodworking background, my approached has evolved. As mentioned, I began mass producing joinery, there was no time to spend using my trusted Stanley no 5 there! University and working for Richard Williams showed me how there could be a mix between machines, power tools and hand tools and still make beautiful crafted  furniture and there be a successful business.

So my approach to teaching is that of a pragmatic, or as you put it, a hybrid approach to woodworking, If you are going into industry I feel it is my duty to show a range of ways to work. This could be by hand with very little machines or with the use of a broad range of machines and accompanied hand skills, for example hand cut dovetails when making drawers.

This is my approach to furniture making, use the kit around me and use hand skills when required. Preparation of materials like sawing and planing, well I do like our machine shop full of Wadkin and Robinson machines – so I’m happy to use them!

‘Time is money’ is a mantra that I have learned, and with two young children, ‘time is precious’!

Custom fitted bathroom cabinets

Custom fitted bathroom cabinets

With your own woodwork, what styles or types of work do you consider to be influences?

Influences I feel are varied for me, the obvious ones would be Richard Williams who gave me my first fine furniture making opportunity.  Elegant and well made furniture with the use of quality materials.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his use of sculptural or dominant designs to set a feel for a room, for instance the ladder back chair in the hill house.

Paul Smith with his use of colour and stripes; love the understated exterior of his suits and then a flash of colour with the linings.

Then I have to mention the arts and crafts movement with Gimson and The Barnsley’s. I’ve really enjoying visiting Arts and Crafts houses this year and seeing the furniture with through tenons or solid oak panels. True and honest furniture, build to last but also functional.

Let me finish with a William Morris quote,  ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’.

Getting to know… Bern Billsberry

I’m kicking things in a slightly different direction today, and interviewing good buddy, tool maker, and community minded woodworker Bern Billsberry (maker of the invaluable, and now infamous, Nut Saver).

This will hopefully become a regular feature on the blog, so if readers think know of any other makers who have an interesting story to tell, or who deserve more exposure, please do let me know. But for now, let’s meet Bern.

Bern was an early adopter of Skelton Saws

Bern was an early adopter of Skelton Saws

You’re a professional woodworker, right? Can you tell us about how you trained?

I’ve been a self-employed carpenter and joirner for nearly 30 years having trained with my Dad who had a joinery & cabinet making shop. He carried out work for the National Trust, as well as work on listed buildings and restoration work for the antique trade, so I had a varied grounding which covered many aspects of the trade. His joinery shop was full of big old cast iron machinery – Watkin, Wilson, Danckaert and Elu power tools.

Once I had completed my training with my Dad I then ventured out on my own, I was in my early twenties.

Following on from question 1, what does an average day in the workshop/ on site look like for you What sort of work do you commonly do?

Work can vary quite a lot, I’ve spent most of my time working on domestic properties. General carpentry and joinery including cut roofs, dorma extensions, wndows, doors, staurs, kitchen fitting and also small building work – extensions and conservatories. Sometimes I would have the opportunity to make built-in furniture like alcove cabinets and wardrobes.

I would now like to focus on working more in my workshop and therefore trying to reduce my commitment to site work. Toolmaking, cabinet work and joinery is the path I would now like to go down, but finding it much harder to earn a living from it so I am still carrying out some site work at the moment to top up my wages.

My working day in the workshop is a long one, I usually start around 8am and don’t finish until around 8pm. With site work I aim to arrive by 8:30am and more often than not will be home by 6pm.

You are a man of many tool chests, including an Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and a David Barron chest. But the most fascinating chest is the travelling bench/ chest you were using on the first New English Workshop course. Tell us about this chest.

Bern's site tool chest

Bern’s site tool chest

Like my Dad I have always been fascinated with tools and tool chests.

The travelling bench/ chest came about when I worked as part of a two-man team for a small window installation company back in the 90s.  The company van would be loaded up with all the tools we needed, but my work partner would always have to leave the job site for on reason or another, taking with him whatever tools were still left on the van. There was always something I needed and I would have to struggle o, so I came up with the tool bo that would hold all the essentials I would need to carry on with the job and it could also double-up as a bench, hop-up, saw horse and door buck. Jim Toplin’s Tool Box book was a big help and inspiration, and still is.

Bern's Dad's tool chest

Bern’s Dad’s tool chest

Most people will know you as the maker of the Nut Saver. Where did the idea for the Nut Saver come from, and how did the design develop from the original concept?

I attended one of the 2014 New English Workshop classes taken by Chris Schwarz, to make the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. We were advised to use pliers to tighten the brass collets on the Veritas skew rebate plane fence, as then tended to slip in use. My plane was brand new and I didn’t want to damage it with pliers, but there was no alternative. I wasn’t happy to keep causing this damage and was keen to come up with a solution to the problem.

The original inspiration for the Nut Saver

The original inspiration for the Nut Saver

I remembered a tool that I had – a strap wrench back from around the time of the Second World War made of cast iron with steel reinforced braided webbing. After a little research on the web, I found it was an RAF tool for aircraft maintenance. This tool worked a little too well as you could quite easily over tighten and cause damage to the threads, so I needed to come up with something that would tighten with just the right amount of torque.

I decided to try out leather in place of the webbing as I felt it had all the right properties and is a pleasing combination with timber. Leather is a great natural product that is easily worked, and readily available, with the right amount of flexibility and grip to be gentle on the brass. Having a love of wood it was an easy decision to replace the metal parts with timber and I also wanted it to be something that fellow woodworkers could make for themselves. With this in mind I kept the tool uncomplicated and it took only three prototypes to perfect the design with just small tweaks between each one.

A trio of Nut Savers and the Veritas skew rebate plane than prompted their development

A trio of Nut Savers and the Veritas skew rebate plane than prompted their development

The Instagram community has obviously only been around for a short part of your career, but you’ve really become a mainstay of the online community. Can you tell us about how community between craftsmen has changed (or evolved) over the course of your career?

You never stop learning in this career and now with social networking it is a lot easier to gain information from really gifted craftsmen and women that love their work and are willing to share their knowledge. In the past it was rare for craftsmen to invite you into their workshop and tell you the secrets of the trade. Now sharing information is the norm and this will help to keep the arts alive for the future. I try to pass on some of the knowledge I have gained over the wears and help new woodworkers out whenever I can, but just like them I am also still learning, especially with my keen interest in traditional hand-tool skills.

You’ve made dovetail markers, the nut saver, and I’ve also seen some mitre jigs on Instagram. What is the next tool you plan to build?

I’ve been working on some shooting boards and the mini-bench, and would really like to make some wooden planes. I have a few new ideas which are still in the early stages of development and need more evolving. All will be disclosed if and when they are a success!

Mini-bench and Nut Saver

Mini-bench and Nut Saver