Leonard Lee, founder of Lee Valley Tools, 1938-2016


Leonard Lee, December 2014. Photograph by Narayan Nayar.

One of the long-term projects I’m involved with is a chronicle of modern toolmakers, which Konrad Sauer, Narayan Nayar and I are hoping to publish one day. While that chronicle is still off in the future, the first thing we did after hatching the idea was to arrange a meeting with Leonard Lee, the founder of Lee Valley Tools.

And so, in December 2014 the three of us traveled to Ottawa, where his son Robin Lee graciously arranged time for us to sit and speak with his father.

I don’t mean to tease anyone hungry – and you should be hungry – to hear about the history and stories we recorded that day. I do want to explain, though, why I was so moved today to hear that a man I’d met only briefly, in the twilight of his life, had passed from this mortal coil.

And I was moved.

I do not think I’m easily impressed, or overly free with my admiration. But while Mr. Lee had earned my admiration long before I met him, it increased exponentially after a few hours in a room with him.

I found him inspiring (and I do not use that word lightly – if ever) not just for his accomplishments and his legacy – impressive though both are. What I was most struck by was his way of being – even as his mental and physical health were showing concessions to age.

He was obviously, and visibly, quite proud of his company and his family. But somehow he exuded that pride while at the same time was absolutely and unceremoniously humble about both – as though he’d simply been the man who was standing in the right place when the doors to the treasure chamber happened to open up.

In an era when it seems everyone yearns for celebrity and attention for mundane reasons, he seemed unconcerned with credit or attention. He was proud of Lee Valley, but not proud for it. And that distinction, it seems, is in short supply these days.

Every Lee Valley employee, every Lee family member and friend that we met were universal in their absolute respect and affection for Mr. Lee. Every one of them referred to him as “Mr.” Lee, and on every person’s lips that title seemed to convey an almost sacred respect.

Mr. Lee left behind a company, a family – a legacy – that is noteworthy, impressive and historic. But more than that, he left behind an indelible and obvious trail of influence on the people he interacted with – even if they met him only for a brief time, and even if (like me) they tend too much toward cynicism and disdain for much of humanity.

The Lee family – and the Lee Valley family – both have my most sincere and heartfelt condolences on their loss.

— Raney Nelson  


About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to Leonard Lee, founder of Lee Valley Tools, 1938-2016

  1. knewconcepts says:

    What a loss! I am so sorry to hear this.
    Words cannot express the hurt that happen when someone you admire leaves the room forever.
    I’ve been saying this sort of thing much too often recently as close friends go away.

    Lee (the saw guy)

  2. kendewitt608 says:

    Thank you for this condolence. Well done !

  3. obewank says:

    thank you for a wonderfully written and heartfelt obit…..my personal condolences to the Lee family….his legacy survives!!!!

  4. paul6000000 says:

    Sad news. I didn’t know much about him personally but the company is a tremendous achievement. As a Canadian, I always felt good when buying or recommending Lee Valley tools.

  5. One of the great men of our times has left us…but not completely as Leonard’s warmth, friendship and kindness over 38 years shall never go away. Take the lessons he passed on to all of us and make them part of our own lives. My condolence to the Lee Family and all at LVT who loved this man and still do, as do I.
    Richard O. Byrne

  6. Lee Blanton says:

    Toshio Odate mentions Leonard Lee in his book on Japanese tools. He relates a story about a young man that bought an axe with a thin bit and later wanted to return it as defective because it had cracked. Mr. Lee learned that he had used it in extreme cold weather without warming it. “He replaced the Axe, but also educated the young man about properly using and caring for such a high quality and sensitive blade. …I thought that Leonard Lee’s generosity and patience were commendable. I’m sure he has helped many struggling young craftsmen in this way.”

  7. frpaulas says:

    There are few great men among us, it is particularly sad when their shoulders are no longer there for us to stand upon.

  8. I was privileged to have been able to spend a mere five minutes of time getting to know this gentleman and scholar, but it has moved me to echo each and every sentiment you have so eloquently expressed, and to extend my sincerest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

  9. stevevoigt says:

    Lovely obituary, Raney. My sincere condolences to Rob and his family.

  10. jarvilaluban says:

    When I was in my 20’s I corresponded briefly with Mr. Lee about sharpening technique after reading his book on the subject numerous times. I imagine I must have come across as an overly analytical, self-confident neophyte. He was kind and responded to my letter, but his self-effacing words remained with me more than the technical aspect of his answer: “The book is just common sense, and yours is probably as good as mine. Go with your appraisal of results.” In two short sentences he took all the mystery out of sharpening and taught me how to find the right technique on my own. I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Lee, but I’m comforted by the fact that he’s left his legacy in his son and the entire company which he founded.

  11. neitsdelf says:

    Man that Narayan Nayar can photograph!

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