In early March 2017, Jim Tolpin woke up in the middle of the night with a revelation: He finally understood where trigonometry comes from. “I was actually just working on that when you called,” he says. “And I actually think I just figured it out.”
He approached it the way an artisan would, hands-on, intuitive. “It hurts my head to keep doing this,” he says. “Why am I doing this? Why am I waking up in the middle of the night thinking about math? I literally got up early and just started taking notes, looking up Latin and root words.”
Jim is, above all else, a teacher. But he’s the best kind of teacher. The kind who never believes he knows it all, the kind who never stops learning. In some ways, he can’t help it. It’s in his blood.
Jim grew up on the East coast, specifically Springfield, Mass., with his parents and his sister. His family is East European and came over several generations before. Most of them were in the sciences, but his highly educated grandfather was a craftsperson, who found work in America as a grocer and cabinetmaker.
As a young boy Jim spent the weekends with his grandfather, tagging along to lumberyards, helping him pick out material and working on small projects with him at home. “He definitely was a very early inspiration to the pleasures of making something with your hands and seeing it come to life,” Jim says. “I attribute that to him.”
Jim’s parents were not craftspeople. “My dad was basically a bean counter and a court reporter, and my mom was an at-home mom,” he says. “I related quite a bit more to my grandparents than I did to my own parents.”
Most everyone else in Jim’s family? Teachers.
In high school Jim fell in love with studying the sciences. “I had some super-nerd friends and we got together and built ham radios and went up to the mountains with our radios and set up antennas and did all that kind of fun stuff,” he says.
Jim attended University of Massachusetts Amherst, first majoring in physics and then switching to geology with a minor in journalism. He enjoyed field work, especially mapping, and working with his hands.
“At this point I really enjoyed learning about science and understanding the basic concepts of it, and I wanted to do what Carl Sagan ended up doing, which was bringing science to the public and being able to explain it to the public,” he says. One of Jim’s favorite professors taught both geology and journalism. Jim’s future career, science writing, seemed obvious. He was accepted into Stanford to pursue a doctorate. in just that. But then came the Vietnam War. Jim got a deferment and entered the Teachers Corps in Worcester, Mass., for one year.
After the Teachers Corps, Jim got a job teaching geology at the University of New Hampshire in 1970. There he met some students who had studied under Tage Frid at the Rhode Island School of Design. They were taking on various cabinetmaking and installation jobs, and Jim devoted himself to them, helping them and learning from them. “Within just a year or so I think I learned more about woodworking than I did about geology in four years of college,” he says. “Because of that total immersion, that total engagement.” At this point, “science writer” began to fade. “I had an inherent compulsion to want to work with my hands,” he said.
Enter Bud McIntosh, an old-school boat builder. Bud turned out to be a huge influence on Jim, convincing him that he wouldn’t be throwing away his education by going into woodworking. “He also had a degree in classic literature, actually, but he devoted his whole life to boat building, and found it a challenge from start to finish.”
Something clicked. Jim realized there could be challenge, joy and the chance to always learn new things in the field of woodworking. “My mind and my hands would be fully engaged,” he says.
Jim continued cabinetmaking and then got a job with another boat builder in Rockport, Maine, fitting out interiors of workboat-type yachts. It was a crash course in complicated woodworking (think slopes and curves) that improved his work.
In 1978 Jim moved out to the West coast, Washington state, specifically, with his young family for opportunities in boatbuilding. He heard the pay was better — and it was. He found work right away doing interior finishes on boats, but soon transitioned to cabinetmaking for a couple reasons: he could make even more money and he realized he was a more efficient cabinetmaker than he was a boatbuilder.
Jim learned how to make a (good) living out of a small cabinetmaking shop. He experimented with setups, and figured out the best way to design his workflow. And from that came his first book: “Jim Tolpin’s Guide to Becoming a Professional Cabinetmaker.”
So he wasn’t his own version of Carl Sagan. And he wasn’t teaching anyone about science. But he was teaching woodworking. And so, his college dream began to come true in another way. (Spoiler alert: He’s now written more than a dozen books and has sold more than three-quarters of a million copies.)
During these years Jim says he thoroughly enjoyed cabinetmaking, and not just the making. He enjoyed figuring out, and writing about, how to run a successful cabinet shop. “Really the goal, in cabinetry, is to design a system where you can hire some kid off the street and in one or two days you can teach him the entire process,” he says. “When I realized that I was that kid off the street, it wasn’t challenging anymore.”
So he explored new avenues of woodworking. This included green woodworking, and building pitchforks and chairs with his friend, Dave Sawyer. “And then I got into this whole notion of building small boats,” he says. “I did a couple small boats and then I got into gypsy wagons.”
Yes. Gypsy wagons.
“That was a real challenge,” Jim says. “I didn’t have plans for building gypsy wagons. I did have some museum drawings but they didn’t show joinery. And I needed to do joinery for something that could travel on the highway. So I kind of did a lot of seat-of-the-pants engineering to build these things.” He built six.
It was during these years that Jim became a prolific writer. “I’m writing stuff down as I’m learning it,” he says. “So after I learned something and felt like I really had a handle on it I’d write a book about it. There’s a whole series of books that happened one after another and I slowly migrated from making a living woodworking to making a living writing about woodworking. I was really getting into a balance of journalism and doing the craft itself.”
And Jim loved that balance. He was living out Bud’s wisdom, engaging both his hands and his mind while also doing what he loved — woodworking along with constant learning.
“Most afternoons and evenings I’d be in the shop making stuff, testing things out, testing out some theories about the process,” he says. His mornings, when he says he was “freshest and not antsy,” were devoted to writing. “I was constantly discovering a different way of looking at all these processes and trying to really understand what’s really happening when we use a tool on wood in a certain way. What’s really going on from a physics point of view? And I’d do some analysis about that and experiment with that. I’m not a fast learner, by any means. I had to really experience it. I find that I have to work from my hands to understand something.”
With his books, Jim became a household name among woodworkers. With this fame came the reputation that he was, as he says, an absolutely fantastic woodworker. “I’m an OK woodworker,” Jim says. “I do pretty good woodworking.” But, he says, he’d never consider himself a fine woodworker, one who builds studio furniture. “I just basically became a good woodworker that does good stuff.” (I tell him he’s being humble.)
He admits to being a good teacher — it’s his passion. But he finds it interesting that people confuse the prolific writing he does with this idea that he’s an exceptional woodworker. “I’m much more interested in the process, in teaching the process than I am the product.”
He has no attachment to the things he makes, which likely stems from 25 years of cabinetmaking and spending a month on a project only to sell it to a client and never see it again. His joy, he says, came from the process of making them.
With a number of books under his belt Jim was approached by Tim Lawson at a neighborhood party. Tim thought Port Townsend was the perfect location for a woodworking school. “It’s a very rich learning environment here and there are so many masters of different trades here,” Jim says. “He just approached me and asked me if I’d think about it and I thought about it for about 30 seconds and said, ‘Yeah. Let’s see what we can do.’”
But Jim had one condition. “If I did teach I would only teach the hand tools because I was done with routers and tables saws,” he says. “Well, not exactly table saws but I was absolutely done with routers and power sanders. I gave them all away. I’d be happy to never see one for the rest of my life.”
For Jim this was a circling back to his time as a boat builder, which required lots of hand fitting with planes and chisels. This also meant a return to another love: learning. “I returned myself to studying and practicing and really developing my hand tool skills,” he says. And he now firmly believes that machines aren’t able to teach the same things as hand tools — an intimate connection with the wood is essential. “And for selfish reasons I just didn’t want to be around students and power tools,” he says. “They scare me, the tools scare me to death.”
Jim and Tim teamed up with John Marckworth, and the three founded the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. It officially opened its doors March 8, 2008. Today the school is considered to be one of the finest in the country.
In many ways, Jim has lived several lifetimes but his story, of course, doesn’t end here. About five years ago he attended a lecture about proportional systems and the influence of Grecian architecture in furniture at a Woodworking in America conference given by George Walker, a man he’d never met. And George attended Jim’s lecture on how our bodies inform the form and function of furniture, having never met. At the end of each lecture, Jim and George were asking each other questions the other had never considered. “And basically, we’ve been talking ever since,” Jim says. “He can’t shut up about it. Neither can I. We find there’s always something to learn about the ancient systems that have been in place for thousands of years about designing furniture and building.”
It was after those lectures, at a bar in Chicago, when Jim said to George, “You’ve got to write a book about this stuff.” George said, “I don’t know how to write a book.” But Jim, of course, did. “We just ended up in full collaboration mode,” Jim says.
The duo has formed their own company, By Hand & Eye, LLC, and occasionally meet up to give talks. Recently they both traveled to Los Angeles to give a 90-minute talk to Google’s design team. (And if you haven’t watched the “By Hand & Eye” animation made by Andrea Love, who also was the illustrator of “By Hound & Eye,” you must. You can see it here.)
These days a typical week in Jim’s life includes continuing program development for the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, working on projects for Lost Art Press, woodworking (the day we spoke he said he was headed over to a friend’s house that afternoon to help plank an 18-foot-long rowboat) as well as what he calls “reality maintenance chores.” He also goes to the school two to three times a week, visiting classes.
Since moving to Port Townsend Jim has remarried. His wife, recently retired, worked as a physician for more than 30 years. He has two grown children from his first marriage and now also has a grown son and a 15-year-old who lives at home.
Home is in uptown Port Townsend, an old Victorian town and one of the only Victorian seaports left in the United States. His house is one of the oldest in town. The design of his shop, which was completed a couple years ago, was informed by the existing house. Jim designed the shop and one of the school’s main instructors, a third-generation carpenter named Abel Isaac Dances, took the lead on it. Several graduates from the school’s foundation course spent a summer working as paid apprentices, and together they built 90 percent of the shop using only hand tools.
The town of Port Townsend is small and fairly quiet, except in the touristy summer months. And, it’s walkable. Jim and his wife can walk to the movie theater or down to the water in about 7 minutes. They visit farmers’ market and grow their own herbs and berries — lots of raspberries. “I feel like I’m living this charmed existence,” he says.
Jim says he can’t imagine ever leaving Port Townsend. It’s home. In the years ahead he expects growth in the woodworking school, with expanded programming. “And I always think that the book I’m working on now is the last book I’m ever going to write, and that was six books ago,” he says, laughing. “If I know I have something worthwhile to say I will probably keep writing.”
And ever the life-long learner, Jim plans to continue the role of student. “There are college courses I want to take online,” he says. “I may go back to college for all I know.” He tells the story of his uncle who, at 100 years old, went back to college to major in American history. “I talked to him when he went back to college, and he said, ‘I’m really cheating, actually.’ And I asked him, ‘Why are you cheating?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m majoring in American history and I lived through half of that.’ He was a very funny guy. He was an inspiration to me. He had this love of learning his whole life.”
Jim’s love of learning shows up every day in his shop. “This is what happens to me: I’ll be doing something and I’ll just question, Why am I doing that? I was one of those really annoying students that always asked that question. I even asked why one and one equals two, because that made no sense to me. It turns out it’s a good question, by the way, in mathematics.”
Jim says he loves going back and revisiting things he had been taught, but this time with deeper meaning and explanation. “I want to know the intuitive reason why all these things work,” he says. “I mean, how long did it take me to realize why a plane is called a plane? It’s because it makes a plane. I should have known that. I should have known that 35 years ago. As soon as you say that to someone they whack their foreheads. It’s fun. It’s just really fun and that’s why I keep doing it.”
This constant questioning, thinking, experimenting and processing requires intense focus, which is why Jim enjoys working alone. His shop music is lyric-less: classical, Gaelic or electronica.
This intense focus also requires breaks. For fun, Jim enjoys making gliders. “I make wood that flies, basically,” he says. Made out of balsa, most without motors, Jim says they’re simply hand-launched things that play with the wind. It’s a passion that stems from his childhood, when he would make stick-and-tissue model airplanes.
He’s also keen on keeping himself physically fit, which means walking every day with his wife and rowing solo or with one person most every day in the warmer months. He goes to the gym almost every other day for basic conditioning, in order to continue rowing and working with hand tools as he is now. “When I do that stuff I’m not thinking about all the other stuff,” he says. “I’m just enjoying being outside, getting into nature and getting into the physical exertion of my body.”
The paths in Jim’s life have led him to unexpected places, and yet, the destination has always been the same: figuring out a process with his hands, and knowing and understanding it so deeply he can explain it, simply, to others. “I love being in the position of not knowing but maybe going to find out,” he says. He hopes to keep his eyes as wide open as possible, while not taking things personally and observing slowly. He encourages others, particularly longtime woodworkers, to do the same.
“Pass on what you know while you still can,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who want to know this stuff. If you have an inclination to teach, do it. You’re not more than you think you know, so pass it on.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl