In my 20 years following the custom furniture business, I’ve seen how hard it is to stay afloat building and selling pieces with the hallmarks of fine handcrafted work: carefully chosen and surfaced hardwoods, tasteful design, traditional joinery, and an uncompromising finish. These days, most people just don’t want to pay for or own heirloom pieces made to last 100 years or more.
One- or two-person operations sometimes pull it off, and very occasionally, production shops are successful on a larger scale. One is Thomas Moser, headquartered in Maine with showrooms on both coasts. I didn’t really know another one, until now.
On assignment for Woodcraft magazine, I was invited to visit The Joinery, a small furniture factory in Portland. I had wandered by one of the showrooms before, impressed by the quality of work inside, but I didn’t really know the deal. Was it a consignment/gallery operation, showcasing the work of dozens of local craftsmen, or something else?
The Joinery is definitely something else. Started as a one-man shop in 1982, focusing on furniture repair, The Joinery soon shifted to making new pieces, with the uncompromising quality espoused by a new generation of woodworkers.
By designing broadly appealing furniture, mostly updated versions of classic Shaker and Mission designs, The Joinery was able to create lines and repeat the same pieces, varying only the woods used and a dimension here and there, letting them create jigs and fixtures to speed up the work and lower the price points without compromising quality.
The founder retired three years ago, and the new owners have taken the business to a new level, retiring less popular designs, adding hip new ones in the Mid-Century Modern mode, and using technology to produce easily customized blueprints and parts lists, track inventory, and so on.
Through it all, they have never veered away from the company’s unique selling proposition: handcrafted pieces, each made by a single craftsman, ensuring uncompromising quality at every stage, with a lifetime guarantee for structural integrity.
Getting a job as one of those well-paid makers is not easy. You have to be very quick and very good, and the craftsman hail from around the world, including one from Tibet. As a reward, they receive an endless stream of work, regular hours and a regular paycheck, with the marketing and accounting all handled by someone else. It’s a fine woodworker’s dream come true.
What clients get is world-class furniture in gorgeous woods, like live-edged walnut and spalted maple, designed and built to pass the test of time, with a lifetime guarantee to insure their investment.
As the former editor of Fine Woodworking, I was flattered and charmed to see a design aesthetic torn right out of the magazine’s 40-year archive, without copying any particular pieces or designs directly. In my heart, I always knew someone could do it on a large scale. The Joinery has.
Build Stuff with Wood, a project book for true woodworking beginners, went on sale this week on Amazon.com. I finished writing and shooting it in 2017, but had to wait all this time until folks could actually see it and buy it! My deep hope is that it reaches its audience, folks out there who are inspired to build things with wood but just don’t know where to start.
Unlike most of the other beginner books out there, this one has projects you can actually build, with basic tools and no previous knowledge. And all the projects are worth building. Most books fall short of one of those goals, presenting projects that are either deceptively difficult or totally uninspiring, especially to younger people.
(By the way, I’ve posted tons of things from the book in this blog, so dig around the site for a sampling of great, tips, techniques, and projects.)
It’s not easy to design cool stuff that you can pull off with no skills and limited tools, then actually use. In many ways, I’ve been preparing a lifetime for this task.
I learned at a young age how satisfying it is to build things, with my first model rockets, bike hacks, and illegal “forts” in the woods, made from scavenged lumber. I honed my skills in trade school, soaked up some engineering in college, then learned how people learn as a high-school and college teacher. I learned to write and shoot photos as a working journalist, and caught the woodworking bug big time when I bought my first house.
I came to Fine Woodworking magazine as an entry-level editor, eventually rising to serve as chief editor for 7-plus years before heading west to Oregon to do things like writing woodworking books for beginners:-) At FWW I learned tons more about how woodworkers learn, and was exposed to a host of amazing techniques that let you do more with less. I created a number of video series for beginners, but ever really got a chance to teach folks with no skills or tools at all.
My mission now is to spread the gospel of making things by hand. We need it now more than ever, as we live more and more on screen and in our heads. If you know anyone who is inspired make things but is still standing at the edge of the pool, please tell them about this book. Same goes for anyone with a few skills but little time, who is looking for quick, easy projects worth bragging about.
True satisfaction is way deeper than temporary pleasure. And building and creating is the surest path I know to that inner sanctum.
Along with Sam Maloof, George Nakashima and a few others, James Krenov introduced America to the idea of the artist-woodworker. His books inspired a generation to approach wood furniture in a profound and organic way, and the cabinetmaking program he founded in northern California has turned out some of the most masterful makers worldwide. A couple weeks ago I traveled on assignment to a school northwest of Vancouver, where one of Krenov’s most talented and devoted disciples is carrying the legacy forward in an incredible way.
As Krenov was winding down his career at College of the Redwoods, he was being discovered by maybe his most faithful follower. Robert Van Norman, who was teaching shop class to at-risk kids in Saskatchewan, had read “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” Krenov’s first and most influential book, and like many was inspired to follow a similar path. He took a chance and called the iconic Swedish-American educator out of the blue.
Known to be alternately crusty and warm, Krenov was nothing but encouraging to Van Norman and they struck up a friendship, talking often as the younger man left teaching and began working with a German cabinetmaker.
But the work was commercial and unfulfilling, off the pure path Krenov had described, so Robert left to make original work. He did commercial cabinetry jobs at first, but soon found that his spec pieces were beginning to sell, like this beautiful double rocker.
Van Norman lived in a series of homes and shops as he built a name for himself, while his ever-supportive wife Yvonne ran a home-cleaning business and helped raise their young family.
Where the story gets really amazing is when Robert fell one day on the ice and permanently injured his back and legs (he recovered but has chronic pain). Looking for answers he re-read the foreword to “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” in which Krenov mused about one day turning to teaching, when he was too old for “hoisting big planks” and other rigors of full-time furniture making.
Van Norman decided to visit Krenov at College of the Redwoods, to finally meet him in person after 12 years of phone conversations. At the school, Robert and Jim hatched a novel plan. Already an incredible craftsman, Van Norman would attend the school for just one year instead of the usual two, with the intent of becoming a teacher in the master’s mold. It took a tremendous family effort for Van Norman to attend CR, but he did it, and halfway through his year, they were already giving him CR students to teach.
When Van Norman got back to Canada, he took a few unfulfilling teaching positions , eventually ending up at Rosewood Studio near Ottawa, as the school’s “resident craftsman.” His wife and kids made the move too.
The school was a good one, but still not deep-dive program Van Norman was imagining, and he knew the only solution was to start his own. At the same time, Krenov was aging and being forced into retirement, and the cabinetmaking program he started at CR was changing direction slowly. He was captivated by Van Norman’s venture. In fact, Krenov donated every one of his machines, tools, and workbenches to Van Norman’s school, as well as his entire archive of slides and photos, many never before seen.
In Krenov’s words:
“It makes me happy that this small school intends to return to the traditional. To the values and no gadgets methods which have nourished our craft for a very long time. Dedication, a simple logic in what we do and how we do it. For some, there is a lure; mysteriously elusive wood, tools that follow one’s intention, an awareness that our craft is an intimately timeless education. If you feel even a bit of this… persevere. Enjoy. The journey may change your life.”
What is just as beautiful is the place the Van Normans chose for the school. Northwest of Vancouver, B.C., in a remote section of coastline only accessible by ferry, they found the little town of Robert’s Creek, perched along the Inside Passage, Canada’s vast coastal waterway.
There he and Yvonne bought a little homestead, adding a big mortgage to help build the school. In 2005 their perfect little building opened its doors with a beautiful bench room and nicely outfitted machine room, everything they needed to educate 10-12 students at a time. They have been full from the beginning, drawing students from 37 countries, most inspired by the same books that captivated Van Norman so many years ago.
The story gets even more touching then. Krenov was much older now, losing his eyesight and realizing he would have to stop making cabinets. So Robert asked him to give weekly lectures to the students, over a speaker phone. He gave 300 hours of one-hour lectures to the students at Inside Passage, an hour a week, and they were legendary, ranging from the how to the why.
When Jim died in 2009, Robert was devastated, and couldn’t bear to hear Jim’s voice for a couple years. Then he started using the lectures again, in a beautiful way.
On Friday mornings at the school, Van Norman gives the floor back to Krenov, combining snippets of the lectures with photos of Krenov’s work and a short Q&A. It is every student’s favorite part of the week.
It hasn’t been easy for Robert and Yvonne, but their little school is the embodiment of Krenov’s philosophy and techniques, with Robert’s gentle manner and innovative ideas taking Krenov’s pure path ever higher.
I’ve been spending time with a local welder, Kari Merkl, working on an article for Woodcraft magazine, called “Welding for Woodworkers,” and I’m psyched to see how easy and affordable it is to get into the craft. Today’s small, user-friendly welders can join all sorts of steel parts, and then who knows what you might build: sleek furniture, junkyard sculpture, a tiny house or a tricked-out trailer.
I haven’t welded anything since a brief intro back in trade school 30 years ago, but I’ve always wanted to add welding to my arsenal. So I jumped at the chance to find a local expert and see what it takes to get started. Kari has been welding professionally for 16 years and teaching for 6, which makes her uniquely suited to break it down for beginners like me.
Watch Woodcraft mag for the full story, but here’s a taste of how easy and fun welding can be. I’ll do the basics first, then talk about adding wood parts in a later post. But keep following this blog because I plan to get my own rig and start building stuff with steel. If you’ve already beat me to it, let me know!
So welder first. You’ll be welding mild steel, specifically “cold-rolled,” which comes in lots of tubes and shapes with good dimensional accuracy and a nice, smooth finish. Other metals are harder to held and more of a next-level thing. But mild steel can do a ton of stuff, and be painted, power-coated or just protected with wax.
So for mild steel, MIG welding is the answer, at least for most of you. It’s the best combo of affordability, portability, affordability, and short learning curve. MIG stands for Metal Inert Gas, which just means the welding gun directs a stream of argon gas (with some CO2) into the welding zone to shield it from impurities in the air. Makes for much cleaner welds. But MIG is just a form of wire-fed arc welding, in which the work is grounded and then the welding wire touches the work, completing the circuit and instantly heating the wire and surrounding steel into a molten state, so it can bond together in a little puddle.
So there is a simpler wire-fed method, which forgoes the gas for flux instead. The flux is in the core of the welding wire, and creates a little shielding plume when heated. The weld isn’t quite as clean as MIG can do, but it’s still very effective.
Bottom line, you can get a gasless wire-feed welder for under $300 and for another $150 or so you can have a unit that does MIG, too! Here’s a great one that does both, from a very reputable company, Hobart.
Voltage and the feed rate are controlled separately, as they should be, and the unit comes with the spool gun (with a few extra tips), some flux-core wire, and the grounding clamp–everything you need for flux-core-wire welding. If you add the tank of argon gas at some point, you can do MIG.
You will also need to prep your shop environment. If you can’t work in a separate room with nothing flammable for about 12 feet in every direction, you can shield the welding area with plastic welding curtains, as Kari is doing here:
You’ll also notice the grounding clamp attached to a steel table, which in turn electrifies the workpieces being welded. You can also attach the clamp to the parts themselves, if you are welding on a concrete floor for example, or just put a steel plate atop your woodworking bench. The solid wood is spark proof too, but be sure there is no sawdust in sight or anything flammable, including open trash cans. And hang up those shielding curtains where needed!
You’ll also need some safety gear, like Kari has on, all thick cotton or leather, with a welding helmet.
Other than some practice and basic know-how, this is all that stands between you and welding! OK, you do need some way to cut metal, and your woodworking tools won’t work. Your wood-cutting bandsaw is way to fast for metal. So you’ll need a small metal cutoff saw (just over $100) or a horizontal bandsaw ($300-$400 new) designed for cutting metal.
Now to the basic technique. First of all, welding introduces tension and a lot of heat, so you need to distribute that heat and tension as you go or you will distort the assembly you are …assembling.
Basically, you get the parts squared up and clamped in place (there are cool welding clamps of this, or you can use any steel-jawed woodworking clamps) and then you first just make small tack welds at all the joints, moving systematically sound the assembly. Then you return to point A to make full welds. This balances the forces as you go, and lets the heat dissipate in each spot before you return.
As for technique, it’s best to take a class and do lots of practice but here are the basics: you cut off the wire at about 1/4 in. away from the tip of the gun, tilt the gun about 60 degrees to the surface and pull it along ahead of the weld, trying to keep the tip of the gun about 1/8 in. off the surface. The tilted gun lets you see the weld area as you work.
You also need to swirl the tip of the gun as you go to create a wide, strong bead. Welding is a dance of sorts, between voltage, wire feed rate, and your own motion, as you move the molten puddle down the weld, and that dance takes practice. But you can do it!
Kari says the hardest part for beginners is learning to see the entire weld as you work, training your brain to see a bigger circle through the lens in the white light, and also just getting comfortable with the sparks, sound, and light. But she gets beginners to nirvana all the time, so you can do it too.
After spending a couple days shooting photos at her studio, I’m positive I can weld. Still I’m going to one of her classes this weekend to try it for real.
Stay tuned for part two, where I show some of the finishing touches to a welded frame, and how to add wood to it to make a nice coffee table.
At a friend’s house recently, shooting promo photos for a tool that he distributes, I ran across this carved hawk, called otaka poppo, part of an ancient craft from the Yamagata prefecture in Japan. Like lots of woodworkers, my friend is curious about just about everything. He flies planes, fishes for salmon, and rides his bike on weeklong trips. As the traveled the world on business, he collected handcrafts wherever he went, and these amazing carvings are just treasure he brought back.
One of the many things I love about Japanese culture is how far back the handwork traditions go, from sushi to woodworking blades to temple-building, and how alive they still are today, in their original form.
Otaka poppo means hawk toy. A quick web search revealed that the lord of the town of Yonezawa had these made by local farmers when they were stuck indoors during the winter, and they soon became a source of income. Today these figures are the most popular souvenir of the region.
The same technique used to make the hawk is also used to make chickens and other figurines, as seen here. Each one is amazingly carved with a single blade from a single branch of wood. The beautiful Japanese burst characters give the name of the craftsman and the amount of experience he or she has. Experience is respected.
What I love about this craft is the obvious skill and precision that only comes from hundreds of hours of practice. It reminds me of the figures I saw people in West Africa carve, when I was in the Peace Corps. They worked on the ground, using rudimentary tools with amazing skill.
I was in the Lone Star State recently to judge the Texas Furniture Makers Show at the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center in beautiful Kerrville, TX. I’ve judged the show twice before, back in my previous life as the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine. With my new woodworking book on the horizon, they asked me to be their guest once again.
First of all, the Texas “hill country” is one the most beautiful places I’ve been in the world–and unknown to many outsiders. Secondly, Texas knows how to make fine furniture.
The Kerr Arts Center is housed in the old Kerrville post office, and is as charming and professional as can be. If you don’t know how open and welcoming Texans are, well then you’re just missing out.
You can go on the show’s website to see who won prizes this year, but here are my personal favorites. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me.
My new Portland neighborhood is a great place for walking. There are side trails and staircases between houses, all leading to a giant field around the local school where people walk their dogs, run on the track, etc. But Portland is also a wet place much of the year, and we rely on homemade bridges and walkways to get through the muddy spots.
So recently me and my neighbor (Chuck, musician and Christmas-light king) teamed up to replace a rotting section of walkway. It took about $50 of pressure-treated wood and deck screws to make a new section, and the moment it went down, joggers and school kids were using it.
Chuck also stapled down some asphalt shingles on nearby wood bridges, which get mossy and super slick in the winter. The gritty shingles are a cheap and effective fix.
Bottom line, it feels good to put some sweat equity into the place you live. Word went around that the new guy in the neighborhood is already fixing things up, so my street rep is solid!