We are in the middle of prepping hundreds of parts for a July 11-15 stick chair class in partnership with The Chairmaker’s Toolbox, and I am setting aside my aversion to plastic for this one moment.
As Megan Fitzpatrick and I prepare the parts – straightening the grain, octagonalizing the bits and sometimes tapering them, I sort through them. I group the parts by color and grain. And I wrap each bundle of parts into packets with a minimal amount of stretch-wrap plastic.
There are packets of legs, short sticks, long sticks and stretchers. When all the stock prep is over, I’ll group all the packets into 10 chair kits that are matched for color and grain.
It takes a lot of extra work, but I do this for two reasons. One, it makes for better chairs. Two, even the nicest people in the world become total dork-holes when it comes to picking parts willy-nilly from a big communal pile of parts during a woodworking class.
Inevitably, one or two people end up with all the exceptional boards. And the slow students, who need all the help they can get, end up with the dregs.
To combat this problem, I started picking and grouping wood for students years ago to avoid this “Lord of the Firs” approach to distributing parts. And I have stuck to this philosophy to this day.
Why am I telling you this? If you ever find yourself facing a pile of parts in a classroom, please be kind. Don’t be a hoggy-dog and take all the best parts for yourself. Someone is watching. And they are judging you.
If you are taking a woodworking class this summer, here’s a little tip that might make you feel better about your performance during the class.
If you follow a lot of instructors, schools on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (like I do), you’ll see a lot of posts that exclaim, “These students are KILLING it.” Or “These students are amazing! Hardworking! Insanely Talented! Oblong!”
I’ve taken enough classes and taught enough classes to tell you that this piffle is either:
Unconditional positive regard (that is undeserved).
Marketing for the school/instructor.
Woodworking in a classroom environment is both tense and fun. In my experience, everyone struggles a bit – that’s what happens when you learn stuff. There are always failures in a class – a mis-cut, a broken part, a brain fart.
If you struggle in woodworking classes (I sure do, both as a student and an instructor), then you are perfectly normal. All those social media posts are just the gauzy, filtered unreality that clogs our phones and likely contributes to a lot of self-esteem problems.
Bottom line: If you make it through a class without locking yourself in the bathroom while sobbing, throwing your tools against the wall, or making a through-mortise in your hand, then you have succeeded. (All these things have happened in classes.)
But I will say in all honesty that every student in my classes has indeed KILLED IT (as long as “it” is a tree).
We received our first load of entries today for the “Stick Chair Merit Badges.” And everyone followed instructions. Thank you!
It’s great to see all the different chairs and their personalities (and their owners). If you would like a merit badge for your shop apron or tuxedo, there is only one way to get them and here are the instructions.
If you don’t sew, and you don’t know anyone who does, you can also glue these patches on garments. I use Fabric Fusion, which is used for fabric repair. It works like woodworking glue. Apply a thin and consistent coat to the back of the patch. Tape it to the garment. Place something heavy on top of the patch for a couple hours. That’s it.
Like furniture, a glue-only joint isn’t as good as something with a mechanical interlock. But this is better than rubber cement.
Note that the “Stick Chair Merit Badges” patches are not iron-on. They need to be stitched or glued on.
The following is excerpted from “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley,” by Donald C. Williams, with photographs by Narayan Nayar. This book is the first in-depth examination of one of the most beautiful woodworking tool chests ever constructed and presents the first-ever biography of Studley (1838-1925), a piano and organ builder in Quincy, Mass. After a brief stay at the Smithsonian, the cabinet was sold to a private collector and hasn’t been seen by the public for well over a decade. Studley’s workbench has never been on public view.In this excerpt, Nayar’s approach to capturing the monumental Studley Cabinet is reverent and moving.
In the winter of 2010, Don Williams and I calculated that principal photography and primary study of the Studley ensemble could be accomplished in a single three-day trip. Photographically, we’d have one day to shoot the tool cabinet and bench, another day to shoot the tools and a day to spare for contingencies. Don had already visited the ensemble, taken survey pictures and had worked out with the owner some general rules about how we could work with the cabinet. By studying Don’s photos and making some assumptions about the room in which we would be working, I formulated a plan for a three-day shoot and packed my gear accordingly.
It took only five minutes standing in front of the tool cabinet and bench for those plans to disintegrate. Within hours, we were discussing follow-up trips and wondering how to talk the owner into letting us take the cabinet off the wall.
Principal photography ended five trips later and spanned roughly four years.
The overwhelming majority of images in “Virtuoso” are forensic. After all, the primary goal of the project was to document the cabinet, its contents and accompanying workbench both photographically and historically. To accomplish this, we worked methodically through every artifact, capturing every detail at great resolution from multiple angles. Images from this important documentary aspect of the project intentionally forgo any creative interpretation or photographic flair. They are shot with flat, diffuse lighting on simple backgrounds to reveal Studley’s ensemble with an almost clinical objectivity.
I refer to these photographs as “necessary” images – i.e. photographs taken to address the dearth of public information about the cabinet, its contents and maker. The process to capture these images was production-like, but in no way did that diminish our enthusiasm. Many, if not all, of the objects in the cabinet are not only perfectly executed, but also bear some witness to Studley himself – be it in the way the blades evince his sharpening technique, to the patina and wear patterns formed by his hands as he used his tools. Discovering these details as we worked through the collection delighted us and reminded us how important it was to shine light on these details for others.
Like thousands of people, I became acquainted with H.O. Studley many years ago through one of the famous Taunton posters. These posters feature the cabinet in its “natural” state – upright and open-kimono, enticing and not unlike a girlie magazine centerfold. Photographed in this pose and presented in two dimensions, the cabinet registers as an exquisite piece of graphic design, mesmerizing with its masterfully arranged contents, visual elements that crescendo and decrescendo, staccato accents of decorative inlays and the multi-layered tapestry of materials, color and texture. We gaze upon the poster as we would a painted masterwork, wondering what kind of mind would conceive such a thing and what kind of hands could bring it into this world.
Though the exterior of the cabinet benefits from the same care and precision of design and manufacture as its interior, it’s clear from a newspaper photo of Studley in front of the cabinet that the wide-open object is, in fact, its face. The Taunton posters have allowed the cabinet’s face to also represent the face of Henry O. Studley and, for many, of the very concept of master craftsmanship. So it somehow seems awkward to deem the ubiquitous, straight-on view of the cabinet a “necessary” image, as if the term relegates the most recognizable and revered glance of Studley’s masterpiece to mere documentation. But it’s only one view of an artifact that supplies infinite distinct and equally alluring views, and whereas extant appearances of the tool cabinet have more-or-less reduced our understanding of it to a single, postcard-like glance, “Virtuoso” has provided us the requisite space for exhaustive coverage and analysis. If the straight-on view of the cabinet is the necessary image, we felt an obligation to enrich everyone’s understanding of all that this single image contains: the cabinet’s layout, its suitability for use, its mechanical properties, its inner and sometimes hidden grandeur. The Studley tool cabinet is a woodworking fractal; as you zoom in on one detail, you not only see that detail in greater resolution, you discover a universe of new details.
We are proud to submit this collection of necessary images to the historical record. Until the day that holograms become widely available, this collection of documentary images should satisfy the factual needs of historians, artisans and connoisseurs of well-made objects. But the ensemble’s visual facts in and of themselves, however well-documented, were not enough for me. I placed a great deal of personal importance on ensuring at least some of the photographs in “Virtuoso” imparted more than a factual account of the Studley ensemble. Whereas the “necessary” images strive to capture the cabinet and its contents as physical forms, I wanted to find ways to visually convey its more metaphysical attributes. The cabinet alone has become for so many people so much more than a collection of tools in an elegant box – it has become legend. For me, it is no less than a testament to what our species is capable of. Studley’s tool cabinet represents the hope that with enough perseverance, the things we create or pursue can achieve some small fraction of its magnificence.
Having spent considerable time with the cabinet during the past few years, I can say without hesitation that the legendary status the cabinet has gained through that single image on the Taunton posters is well-deserved. I can also say that in this case, the legend is orders of magnitude less compelling than the real thing.
The First Five Minutes
Throughout the course of this project, I witnessed a dozen or so people encounter the H.O. Studley ensemble for the first time. I’ve noticed only two reactions to experiencing the cabinet in person. The first involves the liberal use of choice expletives. The second (and more common) reaction: several minutes of utter silence (though to be fair, this silence is often followed by the liberal use of choice expletives).
In person, the cabinet is far more than a three-dimensional poster. It is a monument.
I have been an armchair student of architecture and architectural history for a long time, and for several years in college I was fascinated with the Hagia Sophia. Captivated by its shifting but always-prominent role in several civilizations, I spent many hours reading its history, looking at images of its interior and exterior, and studying its incredibly ambitious engineering. I spent enough time with texts on the Hagia Sophia that I came to refer to it as “Sophie.”
Years later I traveled to Istanbul in a pilgrimage of sorts to Sophie. However academically familiar I may have been with her – however many photographs and architectural drawings I had pored over – walking through its nave and standing under its dome made my palms sweat and my head swirl. As is the case with many of the world’s great religious structures, the scale of the Hagia Sophia filled me with equal parts awe and insignificance. I spent a whole afternoon in the museum, wandering its main floor and upper balcony, looking up at the architectural details and murals, realizing that the building I thought I knew existed only in books. The Hagia Sophia was not Sophie, and only by visiting it in person could I feel the weight of its history, grasp the scale of its majesty and find inspiration even in its imperfections.
When encountering the Studley cabinet in person, I believe all first-timers experience an even more amplified version of what I felt in Istanbul. The Studley cabinet features architectural themes found in and on many of the world’s greatest monuments, and in the first five minutes you stand before the cabinet, your eyes can’t help but lead you through ornamental doors and make you gaze through myriad windows. You are compelled to follow fences that divide the interior into courtyards delineated by the lines and shadows of numerous arches, buttresses and columns. In those first five minutes you take a tour of a wood, metal, pearl and ivory palace so captivating and opulent that you forget that the cabinet is, in fact, smaller than you. Witnessing in person the masterpiece that one talented Mason created with his own two hands is as much an encounter with the sublime as standing in the shadows of structures many times its size, with masonry assembled by hundreds, if not thousands, of hands. It is no wonder that many people forget to speak when confronted with such concentrated grandeur. How does one capture this with a camera?
The truth is, one cannot. Not entirely, anyway. So the images in “Virtuoso” that carry the most personal significance for me are the ones that encapsulate some small fraction of the awe that overcomes anyone standing in front of the cabinet for those first five minutes. During the course of four years, I searched for ways to photographically convey the cabinet not as a postcard or a painting, but as an architectural space. Just as my Sophie could only ever exist on paper, for many of us, Studley has been to date a single image of a cabinet frozen in one quintessential pose. As you move through “Virtuoso,” you will, of course, see more of the H.O. Studley ensemble than has been historically possible for all but a select few. But if I’ve done my job, some of these images will bring you on the journey that I’ve been fortunate enough to take on your behalf during the last four years, and as you turn these pages, you’ll find yourself rendered mute, then apologizing to any sensitive souls within earshot.
I love spade bits, and I will always recommend them for people getting started in chairmaking. The bits are dirt cheap, widely available, sharpenable and are easily customized to do things other bits cannot.
But like many chairmakers, I am always game to try new drill bits. If someone told me there was a new drill bit made from hard cheese and rat pelvises, I would buy a few to try.
These bits cut quickly and cleanly and – insanely – leave a clean exit hole without any backing board. For the chairs I build, this is a big deal when drilling the holes between the armbow and the seat. With these bits I don’t need to clamp backing boards to the armbow. And I can easily drill through the seat – making the joint between the sticks and the seat incredibly strong with more surface area and wedges.
But the bits have a learning curve. Because the flutes along the body of the bit are sharp, you have to keep a steady hand when freehand drilling, otherwise you will make weird overly elliptical holes. And you need to learn how to start them properly. And to deal with what happens when the cut stalls.
The OverDrive Bits
These bits are widely available in the United States. But after using them for 16 months in chairmaking, I don’t recommend them for making chairs. The bit’s center spur is too short for anything but shallow angles.
Why is this bad? Angles greater than 12° or so are difficult. You have to start the bit vertical then move into the correct (sometimes compound) angle. And you might have only a second or two to do this.
Wait, can’t you do this at “sloth speed” and ease into the cut? No. The bits are (in my opinion) designed to be used at high speed. When used at low speeds, they tend to tear up the wood. The OverDrives are great bits for furniture making where the bit is 90° to the work and in a drill press. But for chairmaking? Pass.
The Star-M, F-Types
I buy these bits from Workshop Heaven in the U.K. If they are sold elsewhere I don’t know. But I haven’t found them in the U.S. These bits are similar to the OverDrive bits, but the center spur is radically different, which makes all the difference.
The long center spur and cone-shaped tip allow you to use this bit at radical angles (though I would argue that you shouldn’t do this without a stern warning, which is below). And because of the bit’s shape you can get the bit settled into the work with slow rotations until you spin things up to full speed.
STERN WARNING: When you use any bit at a radical angle, you tend to bring the flutes into the cutting equation. With a traditional auger, the flutes aren’t sharp, so it’s not a big deal. But with many modern augers, the flutes are pin-sharp. So it’s easy to make the hole an elliptical mess when the flutes start whacking at the rim of your hole.
During the last couple years I’ve found that while the bits allow you to start the hole at a 40° angle, that’s a bad idea. As you approach 20° off vertical, the risk of the bit’s flutes making a mess of things increases radically. Stay under 20° off vertical, and you’ll be OK (with a steady hand).
When I have to angle the bit more than 20°, I switch back to spade bits, which cut slower and don’t tend to ream the hole as much.
So here are a few tips for using the Star-Ms.
Start the bit’s spur slowly (or make a divot with an awl to start the bit). Otherwise the bit can skate across the work when cutting compound angles.
As soon as the bit is started, run up the bit to full speed without pushing the drill downward. The cut will be cleaner.
One you get to full speed, plunge in and let the bit determine your feed speed.
The bits are sensitive to changes in grain direction (like when you laminate two boards together. And when you drill through the far face of the board). No matter how powerful your drill is, the bit will sometimes stall. When this happens, ease off on any downward pressure on the drill. Run the bit up to full speed with no downward pressure then plunge gently again.
The Star-Ms can be difficult to find in stock, particularly in the 16mm (5/8”) size, which is common for chairmaking. But they’re worth the effort and the wait.
Craig grew up with his mom, dad and three older sisters on a 200-acre cattle farm just south of Owensboro, Kentucky, in Utica. They lived on his Grandpa Gus’s farm, who, semi-retired, was down to 40 head of cattle and a bull. There was a lot to experience, Craig says.
“We cut hay with the tractor and I could remember being so small, driving that Massey Ferguson 135 tractor that when I had to push in on the clutch I had to get both feet on the left side of the tractor to stand on that clutch so I could either do clutch or brake,” he says. “So it helped me make good decisions when I was young, that old survival of the fittest thing. And it was all on a hill. You know the old fold-down sickle bar mowers, these things that hang off the side of the tractor that are great at cutting legs off deer (I mean, I never did that). Just, from a really young age, I remember understanding the physics of things. If you didn’t, you got hurt.”
Craig was always the skinniest kid, so when lifting up bales of hay onto the trailer he would have to figure out ways to leverage his body to his advantage.
“Growing up in all that, and all the conveyer belts and things that want to chop you up and spit you out in smaller pieces, it just gave me an attention to that, to looking at the mechanisms of the old equipment and the new equipment,” he says. “And then I always had a go-cart, four-wheeler, three-wheeler and motorcycle, so I was always riding those things. I didn’t like the feeling of crashing so I learned how to ride safely. But I was just around a lot of mechanical things.”
Craig’s dad, a welder, and brother-in-law, a tool and die maker, started a machine shop in the backyard when Craig was 14.
“I started working out in the machine shop begrudgingly, you know when you’re 14,” he says. “My first job was sharpening jack hammer bits. A jack hammer bit gets blunted on the end so I stood at our shop-built belt sander and put a four-facet point on it, kind of a four-facet pyramid point on it, and I heated them up in the torch and dunked them in oil. I did that for probably a whole summer.”
They soon got into building weight-lifting equipment. By now it was 1983. Customers would bring in pictures from weight-lifting magazines and ask for four-station machines with pulldowns, bench presses etc.
“And I would just look at the picture and I would measure from my elbow to my shoulder and just build the machine,” Craig says. “I would drill all the holes in weight stack plates, make the benches, I’d do all the spray painting, I’d do all the upholstery, make all the pulleys – I learned to work from minimal information.”
By the time Craig was 18, he bought his dad out and moved J & L Welding and Machine just north to Owensboro, Kentucky. There he made all sorts of things, such as fixtures for furniture companies to glue up chair frames and fixtures to rotate an entire couch while it was being upholstered.
“It was just so awesome to have the trust of customers and to build and deliver what they needed,” he says.
He was working 60 hours a week but he liked the work and he liked working. When Craig was 22, he sold his part of the machine shop and went to work as a machinist for America’s Best Chew tobacco factory in Owensboro (back then it was known as The Pinkerton Tobacco Company; the name changed in January 2022). The 10-acre factory produced about 25,000 pounds of chewing tobacco and about 600,000 cans of snuff a day on three miles worth of conveyor belts.
“I was in heaven,” he says. “All this stuff, cutting and chopping and conveying tobacco, kind of like what I grew up with.”
He found himself remaking the same stuff over and over. “So, I set out to fixing the problems that caused the never-ending use of all these spare parts,” he said. “I would re-engineer and remake the part. I would make a proper shaft once, instead of 15 shafts a year. And that really increased throughput in the factory.”
For about seven years during this time, Craig held several other jobs too. He would work at the tobacco factory from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., then he’d work his side business, Jackson Contracting, grading and seeding new yards until 6 p.m. Then he’d teach machine tool technology at the local vocational school from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Jackson credits his mom and grandpa for his strong work ethic.
“They didn’t just sit around,” he says. “And they seemed to be the happiest people I knew. My favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastics, by King Solomon, maybe the richest, most successful person in the history of the world. All he concluded was, nothing beats a hard day’s work. He had all the gold, all the women, all the power, and he just said, it ain’t doing it for me.”
After about a decade at the tobacco company, Craig was promoted into a management role as continuous improvement manager over the entire factory. Although he was being groomed for Factory Manager, he ended up leaving in 2010 to grow Easy Wood Tools.
A Better Woodturning Tool
Craig stumbled into woodturning in 2007 while shopping with his wife, Donna, in Evansville, Indiana. Donna needed a pair of shoes so while she went into a Shoe Carnival, Craig went next door into a Woodcraft.
“I had never heard of a Woodcraft,” he says. “I went in there and saw a book by Malcolm Tibbetts, on segmented woodturning. I opened that up and I was just amazed. I had no idea anything in woodworking could be this complicated.”
Craig got into making segmented bowls.
“I bought a little Jet mini lathe, put it in my garage, and kept making bigger and bigger bowls, got a big Powermatic lathe, and a trailer, and a 30” chainsaw and it kind of got out of hand,” he says. “But the whole time I was like, what is up with these bowl gouges? This makes no sense! If I had set out to make the most complicated and dangerous cut known to man, I would end up with a bowl gouge.”
So Craig started playing around with carbide inserts. Unable to find anything he liked, he engineered his own replaceable carbide inserts (eliminating the need to constantly resharpen) with crazy angles. He then designed tools with stainless steel to hold the carbide inserts and wooden (mostly maple) handles.
“I was just making the heck out of these bowls with my carbide tools and I thought, maybe I need to show somebody,” he says.
“Nick Cook has probably done more woodturning than maybe anybody on the earth,” Craig says. “So I handed him the tool and I said, ‘Nick, I made this tool. I got $125 I’ll pay you to just try this tool out.’ He said, ‘Let me see that thing.’ He took a few cuts with it and said, ‘You don’t owe me nothing. You need to get this on the market.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’ And then I said, ‘Hang on. How do you take a product to market?’”
Nick told Craig that he’d connect him with some folks at Craft Supplies USA. Craig sent Darrel Nish a sample.
“They were like, ‘Yeah, you need to start making these,’” Craig says.
Craig knew he needed to go into mass production, but he had no idea how to go into mass production. He simply had to figure it out. Craig sold his tool with Craft Supplies USA exclusively for a year. Then Woodcraft called him up. He sent them some tools.
“A week later, they sent me a $75,000 purchase order,” Craig says. “So I called them back and said, ‘Hang on now. This is just me, my wife, and my two sons – they’re 8 and 10 years old – and the baseball coach. So I mean – we’re just – this is not what you think!”
Craig says a couple things set them apart – aside from the product – that likely made them noticeable to a company such as Woodcraft.
“We did pretty good at marketing and presenting of the product,” he says. “No. 1, we loved the customer. Whatever the customer wanted. I didn’t care how ridiculous it was. If you wanted a purple handle, I made you a purple handle.”
Craig told Woodcraft he didn’t have the capital to buy the raw materials to fulfill the purchase order.
“So they said, ‘We’ll send you a check,’” Craig says. “About three days later I got a $75,000 check in my mailbox. They hadn’t met me, they hadn’t shook my hand, they hadn’t seen my face. No contract. I sat there in the driveway and cried. This is, this is, OK.”
Craig then laughs thinking back at this poignant time in his life, when Easy Wood Tools was officially in business.
“All I’ve ever been and all I am still is just a machinist,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever claimed to be. So we had to figure out packaging, logistics, shipping, mass production, all in the backyard.”
At one point they ordered all the packaging for the tools and it arrived on a pallet. The delivery person left the pallet in the street, and Craig and his family crew were left figuring out how they were going to muscle the pallet and all its contents up a slope to his garage. At one point, everything fell off the pallet, into the street.
“Everything you can imagine going wrong went wrong,” he says. “But we shipped that order, on time, in full, with no rejects,” he says. “I don’t know how we did it.”
At first it was a family affair. In the evenings, Craig, Donna and their two sons, Noah and Sam, would package up products Saturday and Sunday nights while watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos” while sitting on the living room floor. Sam would get a cutter and drop it in a bag. Noah would add a screw and Ziploc the bag shut. Donna would fold it and staple it. Craig would box it up.
“It was a little Jackson assembly line and they thought it was just as normal as could be,” Craig says.
There are two things Jackson is really proud of when it comes to Easy Wood Tools. First, it was the company’s ability to capture the essence of the power of possibility.
Something Jackson has always found interesting: At woodturning shows, during the auctions at the end of shows, wood blanks would often go for more money than turned pieces of art.
“And what that told me is the value of possibility is much greater than the value of possession,” he says. “I think that’s what I was able to do with Easy Wood Tools. I would give the customer the path to the possibility of making a great bowl because the tools are so simple. We could hand them to 8-year-olds and they would turn pens.”
Second, in the beginning, traditional tool companies would chastise Craig for taking away business. At first, this stung. But in his heart he knew he was not taking away anybody’s income. So he simply asked competing companies to simply give him a chance. He told them he would increase their sales by growing the number of woodturners. And sure enough, he did. Easy Wood Tools produced more woodturners who not only bought Easy Wood Tools, but woodturning tools from every other woodturning tool company as well.
“And then, by 2013, everybody and their brother was knocking me off and I was about done with it,” Craig says. “I mean, it was like 20 companies. I’d go to a trade show and on each side of me there were companies selling knockoffs, and they weren’t as good.”
This hurt, Craig says. “I built that company best I could not taking nothing from nobody and I just, I don’t know.”
In 2015 Craig sold Easy Wood Tools to Chicago-based Pony Tools Inc., of Jorgensen clamp fame. Within six months Pony Tools went bankrupt, and Craig didn’t get all his money. So he turned to what he knew best – machine work.
(Note, Craig has not had any affiliation, whatsoever, with Easy Wood Tools since 2015.)