I’m on my way to Handworks, a renowned hand-tool woodworking event in Amana, Iowa. After seven hours of interstate driving I know I’m getting close when the GPS directs me off the highway into a residential area with a modern nursing home complex that seems to occupy an entire block.
Hmm. Not the Amana I expected – the one with quaint German-influenced architecture and century-old barns. According to the GPS, my destination is just around the corner. I turn, only to find myself on a lane that dead-ends in a corn field.
I’m too tired for this. Screw it, I think, frustrated to the brink of tears. I hardly know anyone who’ll be at this event anyway; I’m turning around and going home. But as I retrace my steps to the highway I spot a car heading in my direction and flag it down. “Take this road,” the driver tells me. “You’re almost there.”
Sure enough, a few miles on I spot a sign confirming my arrival. A friendly pedestrian points me to a gravel parking lot, where I spot an Orthodox priest – long beard, flowing black robes. He seems to be directing traffic – like you do when you’re an Orthodox priest.
So went my introduction to the brothers Abraham. Father John and Jameel are best known to woodworkers as the force behind Handworks, which is held roughly every two years, as well as Benchcrafted, a business that produces Brunhilde-level woodworking benches, smooth-running vises designed with as much care for how they look and feel as for their holding power; old-fashioned hinged seats that bolt to benches (or kitchen islands) and swing out of the way when not in use; scrapers and other tools; and a range of ironic stickers based on vintage cigarette cards.
Over the next three years I got an inkling that there was more. Father John dropped the occasional crumb about vegan cooking or Doc Marten boots. Jameel shared pictures of his lutherie and furniture on Instagram, along with posts about driving his niece Emilia to Taekwondo lessons, or teaching her and her brother George to flatten a Roubo benchtop with a jack plane when they were both in grade school. The brothers Abraham were clearly a couple of characters. I was itching to interview them for this blog, but they demurred.
Three years after we first met, they finally said yes. When I caught up with them by phone, they were eating Cheez-Its.
“With Cheese Whiz,” one of them added.
Asked about the nature of their days at this point in the coronavirus pandemic, they respond: “We cook and eat. Go to church. Drive old Porsches (inexpensive old ones that anyone who buys a Honda Civic can afford). And – what’s the other thing? Oh, Benchcrafted.” In other words, they’re as engaged as ever in running the business that is their livelihood. “To pay for car parts. And food.”
They also spend time with three of Father John’s children who still live at home: John (25; in the background I hear Jameel shout “You’re asking your younger brother how old your children are?”), George (16) and Emilia (15), the last two home-schooled. The fourth, Sophia, is recently married and lives with her husband.
Father John and Jameel were born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where their Abraham forebears landed after emigrating from Lebanon and Germany more than a century ago. Their story is a classic of 20th-century American success born of hard work and honest living.
Their grandparents on the Abraham side married in the 1920s; their grandmother worked for Quaker Oats, their grandfather for a meat processing plant. After several years they opened a small grocery store where both worked after their factory shifts. A few years later, they’d saved enough to start buying rental properties. Their daily routine became: work on the rental properties before “work”; work at the factory; run the grocery after their shifts; then work some more on the apartments. Eventually their grandfather became foreman at the packing plant; because there were so many workers from Czechoslovakia, he learned to speak Czech, in addition to English and Arabic (his native language).
Their father and uncles grew up in the rental property business, as did Father John and Jameel, though they came along at the end of it. From the property business they learned the basics of construction, including electrical work and plumbing. They also gained an appreciation for the value of hard work and the vagaries of human experience.
The properties were rented to low-income tenants and were located in the same neighborhood where Grandpa and Grandma Abraham lived. Even as their grandparents aged and became more financially secure, they remained in that neighborhood.
“It was very colorful,” Jameel reminisces. “Old turn-of-the-century houses, frozen pipes in winter,” to which Father John adds “Us getting up at 1 a.m. to thaw frozen pipes because the renters really enjoyed the mix of hot water and open windows in winter.” Their grandparents paid the utilities, so renters felt at liberty to leave the windows open; the cold air sank and froze the pipes.
Jameel shares an incident that reveals their grandfather’s character. “We also had sleeping rooms with a kitchenette and a bed – for single men, like construction workers. A lot of these guys were drinkers; they’d spend their pay at the bar, then come home, sleep it off, and repeat the next day. Grandpa gets a call from one of the renters: ‘So-and-so is throwing a fit. There’s big trouble. You’d better come over here, Abe.’ Grandpa goes over; Dad is with him, probably eight years old or so. Grandpa Abe says ‘What’s going on?’ The tenant says, ‘Get outta here! I’ve got a gun. I’m gonna kill you.’ My grandpa was fearless. He said ‘I know you; you’re not going to do something like that.’ My grandpa had the key; he opens the door and talks the guy down. It stuck with me because nowadays guys would call the police. Everybody in town loved him. People would come up to us for years and say, ‘Your grandpa was the greatest gentleman ever.’”
“My grandfather was kind of like the Godfather but without the violence,” Father John elaborates. “He engendered that kind of respect. Routinely over the next 30, 40 years, governors, senators, politicians would eat at their table. He was so even-keeled. He had a reserved charisma. [Our grandparents] ate dinner at the White House [when Carter was president]. And they were nobody; they really were.”
Father John also learned a lot at an early age about running a business. He was taking care of bookkeeping in his teens, in addition to much of the remodeling as the properties changed tenants. “Probably the most important thing my grandparents imbued in my father, and in us, through him,” he says, “was that there was really no difference between people. They treated these renters exactly the same as the senators and politicians who would eat at their table.”
He offers an example. “The back door to the house entered into the kitchen. My grandma, her day was occupied from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. with cooking. People would come to the door to pay rent and they would be let in, and they would be fed. So we grew up in that environment. We never thought anything about anybody. Everybody’s the same. Treat everybody well.”
“The Golden Rule,” Jameel chimes in. “My grandparents would make sure every tenant had a turkey at Christmastime.”
Their grandfathers on both sides were “serious post-WWII hobbyist woodworkers.” Both had shops where they spent a lot of time. “Grandpa Abe, being very frugal, would build elaborate fret-sawn church furniture for our church out of BC plywood,” Jameel says. “He would slap a coat of golden oak stain on it and walk away. It was full of soul but pretty awful furniture. It felt like #80-grit sandpaper. We still have a piece of his in our church. He never bought a piece of hardwood in his life. Grandpa Sam did the same, but he made stuff out of hardwoods.”
On visits to their maternal grandparents’ farm, Grandpa Sam would have them build
a clock shaped like Iowa, which he would finish with pour-on epoxy, or a cutting board shaped like a pig. “’Now, you boys,’” he’d tell them, “’don’t you go near that deer sculpture or that clock,’ because the epoxy took three days before it stopped being sticky like a fly trap.”
In 1987, when Father John was 18 and Jameel 13, their church lost its longtime priest. There was no one to take up the mantle. Their father had been a chanter, as had his father before him. “Dad said ‘I’m going to step up to the plate and be ordained and be the pastor of our church,’” Jameel recounts. “Our life changed a lot. We got way more involved in church. I got really interested in Byzantine art. In the Middle East, Russia, Greece, North Africa, Egypt and Italy, there’s a rich artistic history of decorating the walls of churches with mosaics, frescoes, etc. In the Orthodox Church you cover every square inch with art representing everything from Adam to the resurrection and beyond. It’s a timeless tradition. Anything that relates to the spiritual life of the church can be depicted in an iconographic representation.”
Jameel took up sketching. “I would look at prototypes in books and try to copy them, get
a feel for the style. Fast forward to when I was 17 or 18; when FJ got married, we all went on a trip together to California. We stopped in a monastery on the way back. The [monks] earned their income by painting murals on canvas and installing them with glue on the church walls. They had a huge wall with a giant Schedule 40 PVC tube on the top that they attached the canvas to. They had a winch – like a bass boat winch – so they could roll it up and work on different parts.” He has the same set-up in his home studio today.
He continues to describe the impact of that visit to a California monastery. “It was like a thunderbolt. I wasn’t interested in the iconography for spiritual or religious reasons at first. What captured me was the colors, the stylized nature of it; the look of it always appealed to me. When I went home it was only later that it really sunk in. Two or three years later it hit me and I decided I really wanted to try it.”
Father John and his wife had enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Rapids around 1989 to study art. They lived in married student housing. When Jameel was ready for college, in 1992, he moved in with them. “It was free rent,” he says bluntly. He enrolled in a Russian linguistics class, thinking he’d become a translator; he’d been a straight-A student in Russian at high school. At college, though, he says he hated the Russian class; the one subject he loved was writing. He skipped a lot of classes but is quick to note that he wasn’t just blowing things off. “That was when the spark of painting took hold. I built an easel and spent hours in my bedroom painting. At the end of the semester I thought ‘I’m just going to go home and paint until I get decent enough to see what happens.’”
When Jameel dropped out after that first semester he was joined by Father John and his wife. They didn’t see how they would make practical use of their art degrees other than by teaching, which neither wanted to do. The brothers briefly attended the Ringling Brothers Circus School in Florida, hoping to become trapeze artists. “But we were too fat,” laughs Father John. “You know, the tensile strength of 3/8″ cable can only handle so much. You put two Abrahams on that and there’s gonna be shrapnel flying.”
Shortly after the circus school adventure they launched their first business. It was still the early ’90s, and there was a serious shortage of candles in the Orthodox church, which only permits the use of beeswax candles for ceremonies. As a metals major in college, Father John had built a prototype for candle-production equipment. “We figured out that we could probably make a living making beeswax candles,” he says. “In ’93 we officially started Mount Sinai Orthodox Church Products. We named it after Mount Sinai because of the burning bush and candles and fire…. Technically, we still do it.” Around the same time, Father John’s first child, John, was born and he decided to be ordained, following in his father’s footsteps.
The brothers’ involvement with their church is also largely responsible for Jameel’s immersion in fine woodworking. “My serious interest in woodworking sprang out of practicality,” he says. “We needed furniture for our house and our church, and we couldn’t afford it. The carved elaborate Greek-style church furnishings are astronomically expensive. I bought a V-tool and made some basic things out of birch veneer plywood. Right away, dad introduced me to a guy here named Gary. I went to his shop and commissioned him to build a pair of doors for the church. At that point the spark in me for fine woodworking was kindled; within a year I was working for him and building some pretty nice furniture.” Jameel was about 22. “At the end of one day he handed me a book: A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook.” It was a pivotal experience.
At this dramatic moment in our conversation shouting erupts on the other end of the line. Like any good kid tattling on his brother, Jameel informs me “He’s eating ham!” and turns to Father John. “Don’t eat ham when Nancy’s on the phone!”
“I fell down the rabbit hole,” he continues, ricocheting back to business. The Cedar Rapids Public Library had a good woodworking section, with 11 volumes of technique articles by Fine Woodworking and back issues all the way to FWW No. 1. He checked them out in rotation, repeatedly, and read them from cover to cover. That, he says, was his education in woodworking.
He spent every minute he could in the shop, practicing techniques and sharpening his tools. His shop at the time was half of a garage, his first workbench a repurposed beauty salon countertop with a wash basin in it. He removed the mirror from the back of the cabinet and replaced the original counter with a piece of particleboard.
Around 2001, Jameel had a friend who needed a gift for his sister’s wedding. He had an idea for a product, a Magblok – a strip of hardwood with an embedded magnet, a safe, attractive way to store knives or woodworking tools with sharp edges. Jameel made the first Magblok out of rosewood or cocobolo and his friend gave it to his sister.
“I’d been painting the walls of our church with murals since about 1994,” he says, “and I’m about 75 percent done with it. By 2005 I had realized that as long as I was painting for someone else, for money, I wasn’t painting for our church. I needed to come up with something to earn a living that would also allow me to paint for our church in my free time. Why don’t we try making some of these Magbloks?” Because the wooden strip would be small, they could afford to make it out of something special with a high per-board-foot price without having to charge a lot for the product.
It was Father John who came up with the name “Benchcrafted.” In 2005 they launched the website. Their candle business had become so successful that it allowed them to start the new venture. They got good press. Sales increased.
By now, Jameel had become an accomplished woodworker. Not only was he building furniture (Morris chairs, tables, beds, full kitchens); he was also making ouds – short-necked string instruments played throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and parts of Europe and Asia. One night while surfing the net he came across Chris Schwarz’s blog post on the Roubo bench. He wrote to Chris and said “I’ve been woodworking for a long time. I’m really impressed with your work and your approach.” He was ready for a better workbench but couldn’t find a vise he considered worth buying. So, following Chris’s example, he looked to history for a guide. “I dove into the patent record, and the first vises we made emerged from that. In 2008 I made my Roubo workbench, which I still work on every day.”
That year they made three vises. Jameel was blogging about making ouds, so he started blogging about the workbench build as well. “The opposite end of the spectrum!” he acknowledges. “People were following me and said, ‘Hey cool vise. Can I buy one?’” A retired tool and die maker was making them for Benchcrafted out of his garage. “It just kept going. The original product, the Magblok, which had nothing to do with benches or vises, eventually evolved into a business making benches.”
Also in 2008, the first Woodworking in America took place. It was held at Berea College in Kentucky; the event was hand tools only. The stock market had just crashed, the economy had tanked, and everyone was nervous about the future. “Chris [Schwarz] and the others at Woodworking Magazine came up with it,” recounts Jameel – “a conference for boutique hand tool makers. We didn’t have vises to sell. We borrowed space from Ron Brese, a plane maker. This event was like … there was electricity in the air. Everyone we’d been talking to came down. It was tiny, it was intimate. Roy Underhill was there.”
As time went on, the character of the biennial event changed. There were machines, jigs, laser-cutting equipment. Instead of its original location in the rolling hills of central Kentucky, it now took place in a convention center, “a big concrete bunker” Jameel calls it. “It had no charm.”
They wrote to the people at F+W Media, who organized WIA. “’Listen, there’s a place called Amana, Iowa. There’s an old barn there with a great vibe. If you’re going to continue this you should have the event at the Festhalle. We don’t have any personal interest in this other than we love it.’ We sent pictures, we shot a video. We basically handed them Handworks before it was called Handworks: ‘This is the future of hand tool woodworking. This is it!’ They basically said ‘No, thank you.’”
About four years later they’d pitched the idea to Konrad Sauer, Raney Nelson, Chris, Megan Fitzpatrick and a few other close friends. “Everybody was enthusiastic. Our guiding principle was – here’s how Handworks is: ‘Hey, Konrad, you wanna come to Iowa and hang out in a barn for a weekend and talk about tools?’ That’s what it is. Chris has had our backs the whole time.” The rest of the exhibitors were 100 percent on board. They held the event in 2013, 2015 and 2017. The next one is scheduled for this September.
Father John and Jameel organize the event, contact prospective vendors and speakers (and request their help in publicizing the event), plan who will go in which building, accept freight deliveries of tools and other products that have to be shipped and then deliver them via forklift to their respective buildings and so on. At first they did the artwork for the event posters themselves, but they’ve had the last two designed by Steve Thomas, an artist in Minnesota. As for the venue, it’s a quaint historic village with drool-worthy old buildings and a spectacular timber-framed barn. Who strings up all those lights? I ask. “They’re up all the time,” responds Father John. “Amana has festivals in the barn and rents it for weddings, so it’s ready.” They split the rental charges among the vendors.
“Handworks as an entity does not exist,” Father John explains. “It doesn’t make money, it doesn’t spend money.” He and Jameel run the minimalist website, which informs visitors where and when the event will take place and asks them to sign up.
Most of the work is in logistics, then sweeping up everyone’s shavings when everyone else goes home. “And cardboard!” adds Father John. “From books at the Lost Art Press booth! Hey, why don’t you clean up your crap next time?!”
– Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work