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
13 thoughts on “Grace at the Bench”
Boy does that sum up Mike! I always feel like he’s going too prank me and then hand me a sandwich.
And Richard Maguire. Everything he does at his workbench looks effortless and efficient.
Oh my, what a surprise! I saw the title and thought it was a post about someone named Grace. (Honestly.) Thank you; this is most kind.
Thanks for this post, it put a smile on my face. Though I’ve never met any of these folk, they have all inspired and mentored me from afar with their books and videos. I am grateful to all of them (including Mr Schwarz) who have spent so much time sharing the gift of their knowledge and skills.
WHAT no links to videos of the hero’s in action?
Tom Latane I would love to see a video of each of them working!
Thanks for sharing the woodworker’s you admire. I am a beginner woodworker hoping to transition to woodworker as a second career. I can’t quit my job to go to school or apprentice so I’m creating my own apprenticeship based on master craftsman blogs and videos such as yours. After building a work bench and your saw benches, I’ll begin the projects of The Joiner and the Cabinetmaker. I’m also following your lead of cutting dovetails each day for a month followed by other joinery. I plan to research and add the names from your article to my master craftsman to study. Thanks for sharing your time and knowledge!
And I was right in the middle of a big bridge sale! Thanks Chris, too kind
Here is a link to Frank Klause and I at the bench
A really interesting observation, Chris, and one that resonates with me, because it very much brings to my mind one of my brothers.
He trained as a traditional hand bookbinder (and has his Journeyman’s Papers to prove it, although he eventually got fed up with the artisan life, and works in IT these days), but even before then it was completely obvious when watching him at some practical task or other that he had (and still has) by far the cleverest hands of anyone in the family, including our artist and painter father.
No matter what he did with those hands, it was always done with the most perfect economy of motion: neither too fast nor too slow; too sweeping or too sparse; too strong or too weak, but always at a perfect Goldilocks level of just right, and so beautiful to watch!
So while training and experience will of course make a huge difference for anyone, I strongly suspect that, as with music and musicality, there is a strong innate component to the phenomenon you describe, and that while we all get better at whatever it may be by applying ourselves to it, no two people start from the same point, and the same amount of application will take them to very different end stations.
What a gem of a of a little article.
“…..they hold a block plane like a radioactive turd.” Yeah….that one stays! First recipient shall be a dear friend to whom this so aptly applies. It will be offered with a cold craft brew of course.
This is so true, for any activity. Watch an expert scraping wallpaper from wall; a baker kneading bread; a pit crew changing a tire. They are all elegant in their own way.
Brian Boggs deserves to be included in this group of those who have the gift of grace. The man uses a drawknife and a spoke shave the way Yo-Yo Ma uses a cello.
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