Most woodworkers familiar with Derek Jones know him as longtime editor of the UK periodical Furniture & Cabinetmaking, a position he held for ten years. Those who follow Derek on Instagram will also know him as a maker of hardwood marking gauges and occasional instructor of furniture making and French polishing, most notably at Robinson House Studio in southeast England. But few of those who aren’t personally close to Derek are aware that, had he not gone into woodworking, he might well have become a chef.
There are many parallels between the kitchen and the workshop, he notes. Both are workspaces filled with dedicated tools, many of them sharp. Both require a commitment to cultivate deep, embodied knowledge of materials and processes while keeping your wits about you lest you curdle a custard or find you’ve created a drawer shaped like the letter Z.
Derek’s culinary interest sprang from his experience as a teenager, when he worked in pubs and restaurants managed by his father, but his dad advised him not to go into the hospitality field because of its “unsociable hours.” He chuckles at his dad’s caveat today; being a self-employed woodworker often comes with similar encroachments on what might otherwise be personal time.
After Derek left school at the age of 17, he took off for the south of France, where he spent a couple of years. There he developed an interest in French peasant food – “good, wholesome stuff,” such as a casserole he still makes today with pork belly or sausage (“quite robust sausage, such as chorizo”), butter beans, cabbage, mushrooms and leeks. “The cabbage goes on last. As soon as it goes to a vibrant green, out it comes, and you’ve got this steaming-hot plate of goodness. It’s heaven. I’d eat it all day every day,” though the rest of his family – his longtime partner, Tracey, and younger daughter, Mahli, who still lives at home – don’t share his enthusiasm for the dish.
While in France he worked in bars, restaurants and camp sites – and also as a tour guide on coaches (buses, in the States) bound for Monaco and St. Tropez: “You’d have this little script you’d read out” while pointing out landmarks.
Derek was born in greater Paddington, West London, in 1964. His mother has always been a dancer; she spent years on stage as a chorus girl in theaters on London’s West End. Early on, his father worked in property management for a private landlord who had mansion blocks around Maida Vale, north of Paddington. The family left London for Brighton, a city on the coast in southeast England, when Derek was still young. His parents split when he was 10 or 11.
That was when his father got into the business of managing pubs and restaurants. Today, management is widely considered a hardcore skill taught by business schools. But Derek understands that what really makes a good manager is the ability to relate to other people – to understand what matters to them, and provide it in the most satisfying way. Far from being primarily a number cruncher, Derek says, “my dad’s a wandering minstrel, really. Very congenial,” which made him invaluable to the owners of pubs and restaurants where he worked. He’d optimize each operation, then turn it over to other managers. Derek lived with his mother and worked part-time for his dad.
Today, Derek and Tracey live in the port town of Newhaven, about 12 miles east of Brighton. When they started to look for a place to buy, they couldn’t find anything in Lewes (pronounced “Lewis”), where they were living at the time. But in Newhaven, which Derek calls “the poor relation to Brighton,” they found a 1930s house with a garden and parking for two cars. He has a “tiny little shed” in back that serves as a shop. He insulated the structure, added electrical wiring and moved in his Roubo bench, along with hand tools, a drill press, router and Festool Domino. It’s a set-up that works well; while his “little workshop” is at the end of the garden, he has access to a full suite of tools “at the school.”
“The school” he’s referring to is the London Design & Engineering University Technical College, which operates in partnership with the University of East London Design and Technical College. Although Derek’s teaching currently focuses on engineering, rather than woodworking, his career as an instructor grew out of a venture when he was working as editor of Furniture & Cabinetmaking. In 2014 Derek arranged to bring Chris Schwarz to the U.K. to deliver two classes, the Anarchist’s Toolchest and Dutch Toolchest, at Warwickshire College. The classes were structured to allow young students to take part in sessions that would otherwise be beyond their means. The pieces made by the instructor were filled with hand tools donated by makers from both sides of the pond, including Lee Valley, Sterling Tool Works, Bad Axe, Texas Heritage Tool Works, Walke Moore Tools and Karl Holtey. The fully equipped chests were then auctioned off with the proceeds going back to the host college to support their full-time students. The following year the lineup included Roy Underhill, Tom Fidgen, Peter Follansbee and David Barron and covered two locations over two weeks.
An attendee at one of these classes, Geoffrey Fowler, approached Derek to run and teach at a similar event at a school he was planning to build in London. Derek wasn’t enthusiastic, in part because he was working full-time as editor of the magazine, but the two of them struck up a friendship. Instead of organizing more such classes and events, Derek offered his services to spec out the woodworking shops with tools and equipment that reflected those found in a professional shop. Changes at the magazine coincided with circumstances at the school which meant that Derek was able “come and lend a hand” for one day a week. He’d stand back and watch instructors who, he says, were doing a fine job of teaching but hadn’t necessarily had much, if any, experience in commercial work – i.e., earning a living from work in the field, as distinct from delivering what we know today as “content.” “D’you know what?” he wanted to say; “that’s not actually how we do it commercially.” He realized that he had real-world experience he could contribute to the curriculum. One thing led to another, and before long he was doing a lot more teaching.
Gradually, his teaching shifted to the subject of engineering: the principles of marking things out and making components to fit. The methodology is similar, whether you’re working in wood or metal, and these days he’s teaching more metalwork than woodwork. “It’s not a huge leap, is it, really?” he asks. “We’re still taking small amounts of material off. The vocabulary is very similar; the necessary skills to be able to generate drawings that other people can read, they’re identical.” And even though it’s 2021, he’s still teaching students to draw by hand. “They hate it!” he says. “But I won’t let them go anywhere near software until they can draw on paper. It’s the same with hand tools. I don’t let them go anywhere near a machine unless they can use a file and a saw.” Here he takes a moment to share an anecdote about a student who recently asked if he could use “the long metal sandpaper,” to which Derek replied, “You mean the file?”
Derek got his start in the trade as a “Saturday boy” around the age of 15, when he had a job restoring antiques. In those relatively dark days, restoration meant stripping, followed by French polishing; there was still scant respect for the patina that develops with use. He also learned to repair furniture, which entailed replicating parts. “I don’t think there’s a better training ground…than to take things apart to find out how all the parts go together,” he remarks. “You learn about joints intimately. You learn about proportions – without realizing you’re soaking up all this information.” His boss, John, taught him to look closely at the subtle differences between Victorian and Georgian furniture. You’d expect Georgian, being older, to be more clunky, he thinks. But it was just the opposite. Anyone familiar with the history of furniture will appreciate why.
On completion of his “French Sabbatical” in his later teens, Derek returned to John’s emporium to complete his training as a cabinetmaker, supplementing his income with an early-morning window cleaning round in the city center so he could save up money to buy woodworking tools. He got his own shop, a garage behind Hove Station, at “the posher end of Brighton,” and restored pieces to ship by the container-load to the North American market. Brighton is full of antique dealers, he notes, and he was constantly hunting through secondhand shops and auctions for pieces with potential. The city was also home to a thriving furniture making trade; in one square mile he could find French polishers, upholsterers, gilders, carvers and more – all the areas of specialization that make up the traditional furniture industry. An American dealer purchased everything Derek made or had bought for resale, then arranged to receive the container when it reached the United States.
After a couple of years, the booming interest in “brown furniture,” as Victorian, Georgian and Regency furniture is often disparagingly known, waned. So Derek turned to smaller items, producing one-off pieces and sometimes replicating others, such as when he bought a pair of chairs and made two more to match, then sold them as a set.
In his late 20s Derek embarked on a two-year degree in 3-D design at Northbrook College in the coastal town of Worthing. After graduating, he rented workshop space, this time with a couple of other craftspersons, Paul Richardson (who became editor of The Woodworker magazine and would go on to launch Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine) and Anthony Bailey (editor of Woodworking Crafts magazine). By now he’d expanded his knowledge from period to contemporary furniture, in addition to having learned to draw and design. He built up the business, which grew to seven people. They built conference tables and other high-end office furniture for corporate clients based in London, such as the Bank of Canada. But “two events you’d never think would impact a rural Sussex shop” dealt his business a critical blow – first, 9/11, then the Enron scandal. Both events “just wiped our business out,” he says – their work was for the kind of clients who’d been based in the Twin Towers and operated internationally. And after Enron, shareholders became a lot more cautious about how the businesses they invested in were spending money.
“It was a disaster,” he remembers. To stay afloat, he and his partners had to turn on a dime. But pivot they did, this time to the custom kitchen market, a potentially lucrative business at a time when property values were rising dramatically, particularly in the south of England. Here, though, Derek found, “clients faff about over the color, the handles, everything. All the successful bespoke kitchen makers had a swanky brochure and showroom.” He and his partners couldn’t effectively break into the market, so they sold their business.
Furniture & Cabinetmaking
This time, Derek turned to drawing and drafting. “I was a freelancer, carrying out site surveys for high-end bespoke fit-outs [installations, in the U.S.], drawing up designs and running the project.” Every now and then he’d rent space in a workshop run by Marc Fish of Robinson House Studio in Newhaven, to build the odd project. Marc showed him a copy of Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine. “I was horrified,” Derek says. “Good grief, what’s going on here?” he wondered; nothing in the publication related to his real-world experience. “Everything seemed so twee and out of step with current trends and processes. I was used to having my work represented in a magazine format where the style, layout and content compl[e]mented each other. Woodworking magazines at that time were lacking in all respects.” Marc mentioned that the publishers were on the hunt for a new editor. Derek briefly considered applying, then dismissed the idea. A year later the publishers were still looking for an editor, so he applied. “I’d never written anything longer than a postcard before then,” he adds. He told them that while he had no background in publishing, he knew the topic well. Between his appointment to the post and starting at the magazine, Paul Richardson, the founder of F&C and onetime bench mate, had been killed in a traffic accident. “Paul had moved away from F&C by this time to launch several other titles. We hadn’t spoken in years but I was really looking forward to working with him again. It wasn’t to be, though, and as we hadn’t exactly parted on good terms. I felt that maybe I owed him one last favor to restore his creation back to its former self.”
He ended up staying in that position for ten years. Throughout that time, the world of print publishing was in trouble. Circulation was in decline; the length of the magazine was getting shorter. When he first took the job as editor, Derek and his colleagues had access to a workshop the publishers provided, which allowed them to generate significant content of their own, but after about 6 years the publishers decided to pay outsiders to produce content instead. The decision grated on Derek. “If you’re teaching, it feels wrong to be teaching a subject you’re not actively pursuing. I teach, and I make stuff. If you’re editing a woodworking magazine, not to be doing any woodworking is just wrong.” In addition, as a seasoned professional woodworker, Derek knew that writing an article and getting the photos and other illustrations took a lot of time, and what the publishers were willing to pay professional woodworkers was far from fair compensation. He had a hard time breaking the low rate to woodworkers who were interested in writing for the magazine – so hard that this challenge, above all others, finally convinced him to change course, which is how he came to his current teaching position.
Marking gauges and cricket tables
Derek started making marking gauges when he was editor at Furniture & Cabinetmaking. During his professional career he’d always made things in batches, so he did the same with marking gauges, gradually developing processes that minimized the need for handwork, which took far more time. “I’m at that point now where I’ve refined them and can do a batch of 20 or 30 quite quickly,” he says. “Quickly is a relative term, I rarely have consistent back-to-back days to work on any project these days so I don’t really count the hours. As long as it’s quicker than the time before, I know I’m making progress.” Finishing is the slowest part. “I start off using a couple brush coats of diluted shellac, not to fill the grain (although that’s a happy coincidence), but to raise it so that when I apply a shop-made hard wax paste, the surface is dead smooth. I aim to have the best finish with the least amount of product. It’s a long way from my French polishing background but something I probably wouldn’t have thought about without that knowledge.” He figures once he’s got the process so streamlined that it’s profitable, he’ll lose interest.
His current focus outside of teaching engineering is on cricket tables. Having started out with antiques in the laissez-faire Wild West that was England in the 1980s, he understood that the cognoscenti looked down on Victorian furniture, much of which had been manufactured in factories for a mass market. Back then, the pieces of greatest interest were Georgian (dating from the early 18th through early-19th centuries) and Regency (a short period in the early-19th century that followed directly afterward). But “you could take Victorian furniture and convert it with different hardware to change its style.” Sic transit gloria mundi. He apologizes for the deceit but acknowledges “that was the market.”
At the time, he had no interest in anything earlier than Georgian furniture. So it should come as no surprise that years later, when he saw Peter Follansbee and others making traditional English furniture from the 17th century, “I thought it was a bit wacky, not proper.” His opinion about these earlier furniture forms changed when he went to an auction a few years ago and saw “a cute little table” – symmetrical from one angle, but not from others. It was “so different to anything usually on my radar, it stuck out.” He loved it – and put in a maximum bid of £90. It eventually went to another bidder for £900. So began his obsession with the cricket table.
Along with marking gauges, cricket tables have been the focus of his production ever since. Explaining their development, he says “they go right back to being stick tables, and at some point they go over to being joined furniture.” He started with a couple that were “quite rough” but kept at it, learning from each one. The clamps we use today didn’t exist when cricket tables were originally made, he points out, but the tables still hold together. “That blows my mind.” These days he’s perfecting the techniques and familiarizing himself with the geometry. “I spent so many years making square boxes. You suddenly think, oh my god, I’ve got to make something that’s 60 degrees!”
His interest in cricket tables led to a book contract with Lost Art Press. He anticipates it will likely be published early in 2023.
These days Derek teaches engineering in London four days a week. On Fridays he works from home – grading, planning lessons, etc. – “terribly dull stuff that goes with being a teacher.” He spends most weekends and evenings on the book, though the last couple of weeks he’s been making some chopping boards, a tray, cutlery inserts and spice racks for a bespoke kitchen company, stuff he calls “bread and butter work.”
I asked Derek what advice he’d give to a would-be furniture maker. “I’d probably advise them to have an interest in something niche,” he replied. “If you’re doing something niche, it’s a small market, but the people in it will be loyal and tend to value what you can deliver, because they find it hard to find people who do what you can do.”
Many of Derek’s clients come to him because they can’t find anyone else to do what he does well, or within their time frame, a situation that helps make it possible for him to charge what he needs to for his work. Three of his customers have been with him for 30 years; they even stayed with him through a strange period during the late ’80s when he chucked woodworking for a job at Gatwick Airport, where he worked in the Dispatch Office coordinating the turnround of civil aircraft and calculating optimal weight and balance so that planes could take off when they reached the end of the runway. But even that professional diversion contributes to what he does now – it taught him about timekeeping, which is essential in the business of aviation.
He expands on his point. These longstanding customers “never query your price. They’re happy with your lead times. They never question your ability to do stuff. They pay on time. In the commercial world, you send someone an invoice and they pay you in 30 days, maybe 60 days. They may go bust [in which case you may not get paid at all]. You learn the value in those relationships. It’s a business relationship, but it goes deeper. You need to nurture those relationships and those customers because they’re the ones keeping the roof over your head, ultimately.”
Why Lowfat Roubo?
Finally, those familiar with Derek’s Instagram account may wonder why he goes by @lowfatroubo. Here’s the backstory.
When I was at [Furniture & Cabinetmaking], I commissioned a series of articles from David Barron about benches that were scheduled to run back to back. The first was a Scandinavian bench, the second a Roubo. We trailered the Roubo at the end of the first article – standard practice. David submitted his copy and pics on time, then left for the U.S. to attended Handwerks. We subbed the text, paid an illustrator for the plans and started work on the layout. Unfortunately David had sent all low-res images – totally useless for print. He’d erased the high-res files from his camera. With just two weeks in the schedule I decided to ‘reconstruct’ the bench with pine 2x4s (not the solid beech he used). I only intended making a short bench top and maybe two legs just for the photo sequence, but it was going so well I made the full version. The coverline was something like ‘Avoid the heavy lifting and build a Lowfat Roubo.’
About a week after it went on sale, I needed a name for my online accounts in a hurry and liked the sound of Lowfat Roubo. It fits in well with my ethos – trimming down the excess but keeping things authentic.
When the magazine closed the workshop, I brought the bench home, cut a foot off each end and installed it in my home shop. It’s what I work on now. I’ll never part with it.