Guest Post at the Daily Skep


I’ve written previously about how The Daily Skep (written and curated by James McConnell) is one of my favourite woodwork blogs. Well earlier this year, James asked me if I would  be interested in writing a guest post for the Daily Skep on the subject of “perfection in hand work”, and naturally I said yes. What James didn’t tell me until just before I finished writing my piece, is that my post is the first in a series of 12 guest posts to be featured on the Daily Skep over the next 12 months, all concerned with the same subject. Knowing the identity of some of the other contributors, I can safely say that this promises to be a wonderful conversation with 12 very different takes on perfection.

It is a real honour and priviledge to appear on the Daily Skep, and you can read my opening salvo on the conversation about perfection here. James’ blog really is worth your time, so if you don’t already subscribe to it then now might be the perfect time to remedy that.

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.


The End of Year Round-Up: 2015 edition

Is December already drawing to a close? I can scarcely believe that it is now time to start penning the end of year review, list my favourite albums of the past twelve months, and compile the traditional end of year mix cd. 2015 has genuinely disappeared in the blink of an eye. I suppose this is to be expected given all that has happened; the relocation from Bristol to Birmingham, buying and decorating a new house (phase 1 of the decoration saw 5 rooms decorated and completed, and phase 2 will be commencing in January), and becoming a father. I’d like to think that the above constitutes a reasonable level of activity.


The parlour guitar build has been the main focus of 2015

Amongst all of this, I also found time to set up a new workshop, make some shavings, and keep writing. The new workshop has turned out to be ideal, and having given myself some time to settle into the new space I have made a few changes and additions since my original workshop tour, which I will write about separately. In terms of projects completed, 2015 is a little thin on the ground, although a lot of progress has been made on the parlour guitar, and I should be in a position to assemble this guitar in the next couple of months. I also managed to secure a new paying commission (the Mystery-Caster) and came close to bagging a paying commission from one of my favourite musicians (in the long term I’m hoping this one will still come to fruition).

2015 saw seven of my articles published in Furniture & Cabinetmaking, and the blog has had nearly twice as many views when compared to 2014, as well as introducing the new “Getting to Know…” feature (which I hope to continue into 2016).


Peter Follansbee contemplates swiping my Hieronymus Bosch print Docs…

I had the pleasure of meeting both Peter Follansbee and Tom Fidgen, as well as taking Roy Underhill’s Woodworking with Thomas Jefferson class. Learning from Roy for a week was an incredible experience, and helped to develop all manner of parallel skills. Peter, Tom and Roy are not only incredibly knowledgeable, but also very generous with their knowledge, and I highly recommend taking a class (or simply just chatting with them) if ever the opportunity presents itself.


Roy and Esmerelda become acquainted.

The other highlight of the year was of course exhibiting at the European Woodworking Show in Cressing Temple, and it was wonderful to get to meet so many inspiring makers and tool manufacturers, as well as people who read the blog (or my articles), and to spend two days chatting about woodwork face to face. Thank you so much to everyone who came and said hello during the two days.

Chris Schwarz

The “Community Is…” project in many ways defined 2015 for me. Thanks to all the contributors (including Chris Schwarz – pictured here)

And this very neatly brings me to the real highlight of 2015. Which is not projects built or achievements unlocked, but rather the sense of community in the woodcrafts. Lutherie always used to be a very solitary activity for me, but particularly over the past 12 months the online community through Instagram and the blogosphere, then reinforced through events such as EWS, has meant that I find myself within a wider community of craftspeople. And this has had the effect of enriching my time in the workshop, situating my work within broader practices and traditions, and providing new opportunities to learn and question. The community is made up of so many wonderful craftspeople that mentioning individuals seems like a foolhardy endeavour. However special mention must go to James McConnell whose Daily Skep blog debued this year, and is rapidly becoming one of my favourite woodwork blogs(seriously, I read James’ blog and wonder if there’s any point in me writing anything ever again). Again, EWS provided a wonderful opportunity to put faces to names and to connect with members of the woodworking community in person.


Finally meeting Vic (Minimalist Woodworker) in person was one of the highlights of EWS

Looking forward to 2016, there will be more articles in Furniture  Cabinetmaking, in addition to which I hope to be able to announce a very special article for another publication in the coming months. In the workshop, my focus will be on finishing the parlour guitar, and also building the Mystery-Caster, both of which will be covered in detail on this blog. A number of teaching opportunities have presented themselves, and consequently there is also the possibility that I will be let loose on unsuspecting woodwork students – more details to follow once I have them. So plenty to keep me occupied, and 2016 is shaping up to be a very exciting year!

And to finish where we started, my top five pick of new releases from 2015 (in case anyone was wondering) in order, are:

  1. Banditos – Banditos
  2. Nashville Obsolete – Dave Rawlings Machine
  3. Edge of the Sun – Calexico
  4. Meta-Modern Sounds in Country Music – Sturgil Simpson
  5. No Cities To Love – Sleater-Kinney

Happy New Year, dear reader, catch you in 2016!

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

Community Is… Spreading

It has been a truly harrowing couple of days, with my heavily pregnant wife being rushed to hospital by paramedics on Friday, and a gut wrenching day while we waited to hear if she and the baby were ok. Genuinely the most terrifying experience of my life. Fortunately both mother and baby are well, and Rachel is back home, but it has left us shaken and thankful for the support of our friends, and yes, our community. At moments like this, good news and uplifting thoughts are very much in demand, and so it seems like the perfect moment to post a follow up to last week’s “community is” post.


The author

As some readers will have noticed, the Monday following publication of Furniture & Cabinetmaking issue 232, I uploaded to Instagram, together with each of the contributors to the article, our pictures showing what “community” mean to us, long with the hashtag communityis. The idea was to provoke some discourse about the role, and value, of community in the woodwork crafts. Part of me hoped that a few other people may follow suit and upload their own “community is” picture, although I did not really expect anyone to do so.

Derek Jones of New English Workshop

Derek Jones of New English Workshop

The reaction we had was quite staggering, and the number of responses uploaded to Instagram has really reinforced what a strong sense of community we as craftspeople have. The variety of suggestions as to what community means has been thought provoking, and I am indebted to each and every person who has uploaded a picture. This blog post represents just a sample of the pictures which have been uploaded, so thank you to the contributors who have allowed me to include their pictures here.

Ethan Sincox, writer of The Kilted Woodworker blog

Ethan Sincox, writer of The Kilted Woodworker blog

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

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


Joshua Klein, contributor to Popular Woodworking and the creative force behind Mortise and Tenon magazine.

Derek Olson of Old Wolf Workshop

Derek Olson of the Old Wolf Workshop

Travis Knapp of Rarewoods

Contributed by Travis Knapp of Rarewoods (I suspect Travis is not as youthful as the picture would suggest…)

Brennan Simpson of Simpson Woodworks

Brennan Simpson of Simpson Woodworks

Levon Cullen

Levon Cullen

Tim Hermie of Restore to Build

Tim Hermie of Restore to Build

Of course, the discourse does not end here, so if you have not already uploaded a picture, then please add to the conversation; let’s keep talking about our community, and it growing.

Community is… the Solution

What follows is an expanded version of the article I wrote for issue 232 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking.

Jamies Ward, course leader at Warwickshire College

I’d like to suggest two common challenges that beset modern woodworkers at one time or another (and which I have certainly encountered as I immerse myself in woodwork crafts).

Firstly, many woodworkers place great stock in traditional techniques or ways of thinking about the craft, and seek to place their work in the context of classic designs and traditions. This is certainly true for me, and I wrote in issue 224 about the personal significance of the heritage and history in hand tool work, and how this shapes the way I approach my craft. And it is undoubtedly important to have regard to the past when we build, but what happens if we are too focused on the woodwork of the past and what the dead guys built or wrote? Is there a danger that we won’t pay attention to the craftsmen and women around us, today, and those that are yet to come?

Secondly, is there a propensity to become too isolated in our own workshops, and fail to connect with other crafts people around us? To see our work in the wider context of what others are building? Having recently moved to a new city, this is something that has been on my mind recently, and it has taken me a while to develop local contacts with whom to discuss furniture making or lutherie.

Community is… the solution

Lest this all sound too bleak, I am happy to report that there is an easy antidote to being too focused on the past, and of being too isolated in our respective workshops; the international community of woodworkers. Not a cult (despite the alarming tendency for facial hair in some members), but an expanding network of craftspeople across the globe who in many ways have become a modern substitute for the medieval guilds and the mechanic’s societies that followed. The community is not something I went in search of. But when I stumbled across it, I found woodworkers with a wealth of very different experiences, unified by a passion for the various woodwork crafts, and intent on sharing knowledge and preserving skills.

Jason Thigpen of Texas Heritage Woodworks

This willingness to share information, discuss experiences, and most importantly, to encourage and inspire each other, is life affirming and so valuable. This is a community that inspires each other to build and to push the limits of our skills, that commiserates over mistakes and celebrates each others’ successes, that shares knowledge and solves those knotty problems which would otherwise keep us up half the night trying to devise ever move complicated solutions. The community doesn’t just work for the transmission of knowledge, but also to enabling new entrants to woodwork. For instance, in 2014 Chris Schwarz announced that he would be delivering beginners classes to young people and made a plea for old or unused tools with which to equip the “junior anarchists” on these classes. Chris tells me that he has been overwhelmed with donations, and is still cataloguing the enormous volume of tools he has received. This is community spirit in action!

Chris Schwarz of Lost Art Press, surrounded by tools donated for the “Junior Anarchist” classes.

Community is… where you look for it

Chris Kuehn of Sterling Tool Works

So where do you find the international community of woodworkers? This is actually a lot easier than it sounds. Eight years ago, when I took my first steps in learning how to build musical instruments, I knew only one other luthier and no one, save for my maternal grandfather, who built furniture. Now it seems like new woodworkers are everywhere I look, in large part thanks to the Internet and particularly the advent of social media. So read and comment on woodwork blogs (bloggers love nothing more than receiving comments), or write a blog about your own workshop experiences. A special mention must also go to Instagram, a picture based social network. The ability to upload a snapshot of your work, or what is happening right now in your workshop, gives an immediacy that words alone rarely offer.

Fellow luthier Sue Johnson

If you prefer real life contact with fellow humans, then woodwork classes are the perfect way to make connections with likeminded craftspeople (and a great opportunity to develop your parallel skills, as I wrote about in issue 227), either enrolling on a class as a student, or teaching one. Organisations such as New English Workshop offer an excellent range of short courses, while evening classes can still be found at some educational institutions.

Mark Harrell of Bad Axe Toolworks

Community is… the future, and the future starts with you

Crafts and specialist skills always engender a sense of community, and I am not trying to suggest that the community of woodworkers is a new development. But the decline of many educational woodwork programmes and woodwork trade organisations means that traditional crafts based community structures are increasingly obsolete, while the rise of the internet has given rise to a more international form of community. As one person who contributed a picture to this article remarked, the industrial revolution tore the traditional craft communities apart, but the internet has started to put us back together.

Phil Edwards of Philly Planes

Equally, I am not blind to the risk of many woodwork crafts dying out, nor of the challenges in preserving traditional skills. But the more I engage with the international community of woodworkers, the more I am convinced that these risks will be overcome, and the challenges will be met. Because under the stewardship of a community which cares passionately about preserving traditional crafts, and does so much to foster an appreciation and enthusiasm in the crafts, the skills and work which we all care about really do have a future. And this is a truly egalitarian community where every contribution, by every craftsperson, is valuable and valued. Simply by building something, and talking to other craftspeople and aspiring makers, you can contribute to the community and ensure the preservation of the craft for the next generation. And really, isn’t that what we are all trying to do?

Alex Primmer of Classic Hand Tools