My first exposure to woodworking at about age 9, was helping my grandfather build new cabinets for our home. My job was to hold the outboard end of a sheets of plywood as he ran them through the table saw. After the cabinets were finished, my dad took me along to the lumber yard to pick out the oak for the cabinet doors. So many doors. I spent the next few months sanding the burn marks out of the profiles of raised panels, stiles, and rails as we covered all those cabinets. By the time we were done I had all the knowledge and experience I needed to build my Mom a blanket chest that was bigger than me for the foot of her bed. As I grew up, I continued to tinker in woodworking until girls, cars, and school took nearly all of my attention.
As I completed my Industrial Engineering degree at Georgia Tech, the desire to make began to surface again, so I bought a house to renovate. As I worked through that project, I realized I enjoyed working on my home more than paperwork at my job. I began looking for a way to do something that involved using my hands as well as my head. After mentioning this to my father, I discovered that a distant relative was looking to retire from a small furniture company he had started nearly fifty years before.
I went to Ozark, MO to have a look and before I got back to Atlanta I was making plans to move. In 2004, I set to work to rebuild Norman’s Furniture. During the next several years I learned a lot about production woodworking and running a business, but even more about myself and what I really wanted to do with the precious time I could dedicate to building, when I wasn’t running the business.
I slowly came to be dissatisfied with the mundane process of making the same pieces over and over. Making furniture in larger quantities didn’t give me the personal connection to my work that I had been searching for when I took over the company. I got burned out. To spice things up I began to take on custom jobs, but quickly got frustrated with the limitations of my machines. I turned to hand tools for some new skills and inspiration.
As I browsed through the Lee Valley website in search of a blast gate for a wide belt sander, I was drawn to their hand planes. Before I knew what was happening, I had placed a Low Angle Jack Plane and a copy of “The Anarchists Tool Chest” in my shopping cart.
When the order arrived, I tossed the blast gate aside and pulled the shiny new plane from it’s box. It worked beautifully, but my trusty assembly table had no way to hold the work. I took the book home and devoured it. I read the section on work-holding several times and began planning to build my first real workbench, a Roubo! I bought a book about workbenches, and started reading woodworking book or blog I could find. I was excited about woodworking again.
Then I hit a road block. Despite a shop full of big machines and all my years of experience, I was completely overwhelmed at the thought of building such a massive project which required such precise joinery. I just didn’t have the skills. So I grabbed a last minute spot in a class… “Build a Campaign Chest with Christopher Schwarz”.
What a blast! I learned so much in such a short time. Setting up a new plane, sharpening, dovetailing, layout… Why hadn’t I done this sooner? Evenings were spent socializing with the instructor and most of the other students. I confessed to my new woodworking friends that I was a little frightened of making my own bench and that I was having trouble getting started. Chris chuckled and started running down the list of tools I might have in my shop. “You got a decent jointer.” Yep. “Big thickness planer?” Yes. “How ’bout a wide belt?” Just got it set up a couple months ago. “Not only should you have a great bench, you should be making them for other people. In fact, if you can get a prototype together in the next 2-1/2 weeks, I’ll put it in my booth at Handworks!”
That was all I needed to hear. Before I headed home from class at the end of the week I had worked out a design. On the drive home, my mind set to work on the process of bench making. 12 days after the end of the class I had a prototype kit loaded in my car and I was on my way to Iowa.
The first Handworks was a lot of fun, but not what I would call a great success for my business. The bench truly was a prototype. I got some positive feedback, and encouragement from other woodworkers who’s opinions I have come to greatly respect, but nobody really seemd interested in buying. I went home with my tail between my legs and assembled the bench. I put it to work and really began to appreciate what a good bench can do to improve your efficiency in the shop. I installed some hardware that I had picked up a the show and became completely dependent on leg vises. Through all that my handtool skills began to develop and I became a better woodworker. I built several more prototypes, filled my shop with workbenches, and began the process of building Plate 11 Workbench Co. into what it is today.