Monday, August 16, 2010
When I started out as a woodworker, I was self taught. That means, since my entire educational career was designed to get a degree and work as a nuclear physicist, I never took wood shop or even considered woodworking as an activity. It was my decision to abandon the nuclear industry, on moral grounds, which caused me to try something completely different in life.
So, I started buying and repairing antique furniture. I evolved quickly into a cabinetmaker, finisher, furniture maker, upholsterer, and Decorative Arts instructor with a TV series on antiques. It was fun, exciting and more importantly, economically rewarding. I was able to purchase a nice Craftsman home in a historic neighborhood with my hard work and skill. Shortly after I purchased a commercial location just a few blocks down the street, where I still work today.
Since I was self taught, I had reservations about considering myself a "master" of anything. I was deeply involved in historic research, and understood the meaning of "master, journeyman and apprentice". The apprentice was a young boy with no experience who was signed over to the master for 7 years of work. In exchange for essentially being a slave to the master, the master was obligated to provide a place to sleep, candles and the "mysteries of the trade".
The apprentice eventually was taught how to make his own tools and toolbox. At the end of the 7 years, he was considered a journeyman and it was normal for him to take his tools and toolbox and travel to work with other masters, using his toolbox as a "portfolio" to demonstrate his abilities. The workshop would provide the bench and candles.
At some point, when he was able to open his own shop, he would build his workbench and the customers would then judge his talents on the quality of the bench and the tools. In my mind, it is very important for the bench and tools to reflect the skill and attention to detail of the craftsman for potential clients.
So, after 10 years in business, I set out to Pennsylvania to capture a beech tree for my bench. I found a farm with 60 acres of trees and a sympathetic farmer to let me cut down a tree, which I did with an axe and handsaw. I paid $20 and a case of beer at the local sawmill for them to saw it into 4" thick center cuts, which I drove back to San Diego and air dried for the next 10 years.
In 1989 I built my workbench in 3 weeks, using only hand tools. All the vices are wood thread. The top is 4" thick throughout. It weighs about 500 lbs, and has never moved. I have used it daily for the past 20 years, and surface the top occasionally with a toothing plane.
The day I was finishing my bench I heard a news feature on the radio about numerology. It said that at that moment something unique was happening. At precisely 1:23 o'clock and 45 seconds, it would be 6/7/89. So I waited until the right second, and signed my bench "WPE built at 1:23:45 on 6/7/89.
This is my office, and my bench is my desk. My clients can judge me now.