One of the many ways you can judge a person’s woodworking experience is watching them at the bench. Beginners move a certain way – too fast, too slow or they look like me at a junior high dance.
Not all professionals glide like swans. After years of working with and observing woodworkers, I can quickly tell who spends most of the day at the router table when they hold a block plane like it’s a radioactive turd.
In the end, of course, what’s important is the result – what you make – and not what you look like at the bench. But I love watching people and their different ways of moving.
The most graceful woodworker I’ve watched is Nancy Hiller (author of the forthcoming book “Kitchen Think”). I spent two days last year observing her class on building a plate rack and was struck by her work at the bench. It was similar to watching T’ai Chi being performed. No motion was wasted. No sudden bursts of activity. Just flow.
Kelly Mehler has a similar grace at the bench. He never seems to be working hard but suddenly he is done.
Peter Follansbee is my second favorite instructor to watch. Follansbee (the author of “Joiner’s Work”) is a walking, talking, mortising and carving machine. Watching him plane a board is almost shocking. He goes from completely still, tapping the iron and wedge here and there. And then he’s in 100 percent attack mode, moving at a speed that seems impossible (it’s one of the many joys of planing white pine). And just as soon as he’s started, he’s done.
But this is the fun part. He hasn’t stopped talking at any point. After years of working at Plimoth Plantation, it’s like his mouth is independent from the rest of him.
Frank Klausz moves similar to Follansbee. I once watched him using a moulding plane and felt sorry for the wood. It was like Frank was willing it into shape, and the wood had no say in the matter.
In the book “Good Work,” Chris Williams describes John Brown sawing to the cadence of a mechanical watch. That image has stuck with me for years. I wish I could have seen it.
And finally there is Mike Siemsen (the “Naked Woodworker”). He’s like the Columbo of woodworking. His Midwestern aw-shucks attitude and corny jokes belie his incredible talent, both at the bench and with his machines. It almost feels like a magic trick or a con job.
If any woodworker could pick your pocket or sell you a bridge, it’s Mike. Watch out for that guy.
— Christopher Schwarz