A New (Old) Way of Working Wood


I just got back from Washington where I taught a 5-day “Table from Rough Boards” workshop at Port Townsend School of Woodworking. As I was catching up with Mike and spring cleaning my tool chest yesterday, I’ve had much to think about regarding this class and teaching in the future.

I loved my week in Port Townsend. It is a quaint and beautiful town and the weather was perfect during my stay. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend PTSW for woodworking education. They are one of the few schools that provide a full razor sharp kit of tools for every student and the staff is attentive, friendly, and talented. My teacher’s assistant, Raphael, is an especially wonderful asset to the school. We collaborated on a table build between helping students.

Every woodworking instructor is regularly confronted with the balancing act of skill learning versus project completion. Because we had five days to make a table by hand, I used the opportunity to fill out the project with extras that enriched the learning experience. I incorporated the use of wooden planes for coarse work, the hatchet for roughing the leg taper, hide glue for joinery, riving and shaping drawbore pins with a chisel, working without a tail vise, sitting on the work piece to mortise, and more.

All the students did well and a few expressed to me that this class was revolutionizing their woodworking life. They felt liberated by the secondary surfaces left coarse and the undercuts to ensure tight tenon shoulders. One student remarked to me after using the hatchet and wooden fore plane to taper his legs, “This is the coolest thing on the planet!” For me, this is a win. Above all, what I wanted this class to be was an immersion into a whole new (old) way of working wood that is not obsessed with micrometer precision in unimportant areas. I was told this resonated deeply with several of the students.

I was also privileged to spend a few evenings with Jim Tolpin, his wife, Cathy, and their family. We spent time in his shop discussing tools and pre-industrial process, even touching such controversial topics and saw nibs and setting planes on their soles. It’s always illuminating bouncing ideas off such experienced colleagues as Jim. Our shop talk continued from the shop and into their living room until we were too tired to carry on. And there was more than just shop talk. Our dinner conversations wandered through hand work, green energy technology, artificial intelligence, traditional agricultural models, and more. It was a rich time. Thank you, Jim and Cathy, for your hospitality to have me over. I look forward for the opportunity to return the kindness in the near future.

My next workshop is a 2-day version of the table making class which will take place at Lie-Nielsen on June 16th and 17th. There are still a few slots left if you would like a crash course on the pre-industrial table making process. This is an in-the-flesh version of my instructional video “Apprenticeship: Tables”and my article “An Artisan’s Guide to Pre-industrial Table Construction” in Issue Four. That weekend will be fast paced and will require rolled-up sleeves. If you’re excited about learning how to make table by hand efficiently, you can sign up at Lie-Nielsen’s website.

- Joshua