“Some generations have suffered more than the others, and it may be that we erred in thinking we had put all that behind us. But we shall face the future with braver hearts and a better hope if we take each day as it comes to us, cherishing the thread of gold which is always there among the homespun, keeping the sharp new vision which can look on life with loving eyes and find in it manifold good.”
The first magazine article George Walker ever published appeared in AstronomyMagazine. At the time, he was working a lot of hours as the midnight shift supervisor at The Timken Company, a Canton, Ohio, factory that engineers and manufactures bearings and mechanical power transmission components.
“There was a hole in the middle of this building where they had a transformer that was open to the sky,” George says. “And I’d go out there at two in the morning, and I’d look up through these wires and cables and superstructure and watch Orion pass across the night sky. And I wrote this article about observing the stars amongst the smokestacks.”
No matter how ordinary the circumstances, George is regularly struck by the majesty and wonder of life, the way millions of colorful warblers gather at “a little spit of cottonwoods right on the edge of the lake” (Magee Marsh), as they have for millions of years, to rest and eat before their migration across Lake Erie. Or the way a medieval drawing found in an old monastery can inform his work through the understanding of geometry, even though he can’t read the text, as it’s written in Renaissance Italian or Spanish. Or the way he can now build a beautiful piece of furniture, without plans or a tape measure, using instead a stick, a piece of string and dividers.
George was born in western Iowa, his father, a farmer. His father left farming in the early 1960s and the family moved to northeast Ohio. George grew up in a small suburban neighborhood and spent much of his childhood outdoors, running around the woods, fishing, “being a little bit of a Tom Sawyer.” He had a good friend who lived on a property with a lake, a couple miles away, and the two often could be found in a boat trying to catch turtles. George enjoyed exploring and making things, which ranged from tree houses to electric motors. He enjoyed camping and scouting, and his interest in the outdoors led to lifelong loves of botany, astronomy and birding.
An avid reader ,George did pretty well in school, although he hated English. “My English teachers would flop over dead if they knew that I’ve become a writer,” he says. (His writing includes many magazine articles and two books co-authored with Jim Tolpin: “By Hand & Eye” and “By Hound & Eye,” both from Lost Art Press.)
“I had a high school English teacher who gave me a D just because she didn’t want to see me again,” George says. “She said, ‘I’d give you an F, but then I’d be stuck with you next year. I’ll give you a D so I don’t have to look at you.’ I should track her down and send her a book. It would blow her mind.”
English grades aside, George enjoyed historical fiction, “and like any kid I liked the kind of adventurous whatever, the swashbuckling stuff there was to read as I kid,” anything that had a little bit of truth to it mixed with adventure.
In 1975 George graduated from high school and decided that he couldn’t bear to live in Ohio another minute. So he headed out west to work as a cowboy on a 17,000-acre ranch near Phillipsburg, Montana. “Most of my time was spent on a tractor or driving around in a beat-up 1963 red Studebaker Lark station wagon,” he says. “I did learn how to ride and rope well enough to not embarrass myself.”
Although George had worked on farms while growing up, and he had an understanding of farm life, he was fairly unfamiliar with horses. And on his second day at the ranch he was put on a horse – all day. “That was pretty interesting,” he says. “But it was a quick learning curve.”
George had a brother who, after spending some time in Vietnam, decided he wanted to be a cowboy. “He kind of lived out that dream for a few years and he took me along with it for a little while,” George says. Two of George’s brothers live in Montana now, although neither are cowboys, rather “happy Montanans.” George enjoys visiting them and hiking in Glacier National Park. “I enjoy that country but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the cowboy’s lifestyle,” he says. “It was for the rugged individual, looking at it now. It was fun for a time.”
While working in Montana as a cowboy George met a gun builder who made expensive rifles, and George decided that he wanted to learn the trade from him. The gun builder knew George was from Ohio and had had some vocational training in the machine trades. “But he said, ‘Kid, if you want to learn how to do this, go back to Ohio, get an apprenticeship, learn how to be a machinist and then come back and I’ll teach you something.’”
So, George did. But he never returned to the gun builder in Montana.
Instead he entered a traditional apprenticeship in Canton, Ohio. It was the mid-1970s and the experience, he says, affected his whole approach to craft.
“This was an old-school apprenticeship made up of a shop full of ethnic journeymen machinists, old-timers,” George says. “They were Jews, Greeks, Italians, Poles and Hungarians, a lot of them second-generation immigrants. This was before CNC, this was before OSHA. Everybody smoked a pipe or a cigar or a cigarette. They had a pecking order. If you were an apprentice, they would abuse you mercilessly.”
And then, after a while, after George had taken enough abuse, one of them called George over to his bench and handed him a cracker. On it was a little slice of onion, some sardines and Limburger cheese – it was clear he had to eat it. “And then,” he says, “they would take you under their wing and start showing you things. And these guys were really fantastic craftsmen, and could really do unbelievable work.”
George soon became aware of when he was being tested. “They’d watch you struggle, and they would give you a little tip, something as simple as, ‘Use a brass hammer on this, not a steel hammer, a brass hammer would work better for what you’re trying to do there.’ And if you listened to them, they’d offer you more tips, and if you’d ignore them, they would let you drown in your own suffering. You wouldn’t get any information from them.”
As a result, George says he grew great respect for experienced artisans who learned hard lessons. “Later on, while I was exploring old design literature, I would look for these little tips and instructions in old books, and whenever I would see them I would take them seriously,” he says.
George didn’t just read what they were saying, rather if given a piece of advice, he’d take it. “That’s what really started me on this learning curve of understanding design,” he says. “And that made all the difference.”
As an apprentice, George worked with “hundreds of different journeymen of all shapes and sizes and characters and quirks.” For the first four years, “basically they had you do all the dirty work and in the process, you learned. And then in the last two years of the apprenticeship they took you in the office and said, ‘OK, you learned the basics, now you have to learn to work fast.’” That mentality also has affected George’s approach to craft.
After six years George became a Class A Journeyman. He worked with 200 to 300 fellow machinists at The Timken Co., doing everything from repairing machinery to making tooling to scale. He worked on parts as small as a sunflower seed to gears 9′ in diameter.
George worked as a machinist for 10 years before transitioning to management. His years as a machinist heavily influenced his preference for hand tools. “As a machinist I’m running a lathe all day, it’s noisy and hot, chips are flying and there’s smoke,” he says. “When I got into woodworking I decided right away I wasn’t going to get a bunch of woodworking machines, because I did that all day. So I started woodworking with hand tools. This was back in the 70s, when that wasn’t that popular to do. Everybody who was in woodworking would go to Sears and get a router table and a table saw, and I started with hand tools mostly because I just didn’t want to spend all day bent over a machine, and then in my evenings be bent over [another] noisy and dusty machine.”
George initially began woodworking out of necessity. He and his wife, Barb, didn’t have much money, and they needed furniture. Barb’s father did some woodworking, and he had a neighbor, a WWI veteran, who was a great hand-tool woodworker. “I visited him and he loaded up a box of hand planes, saws and chisels, gave me a little bit of instruction and said, ‘You can do this.’”
George spent 33 years at The Timken Co. Like many professions he had a love/hate relationship with progressing to the role of manager. “It was a lot more fun being a machinist than being the boss,” he says.
But once in management, George’s woodworking took off. “It was a stress relieving thing and it was a creative outlet,” he says. “So I started really woodworking in earnest then, and also started writing somewhere around that time.”
With no formal training in writing George simply wrote about topics that interested him, including astronomy, backpacking and later, at Barb’s suggestion, woodworking (which landed him in Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking Magazine, among others). “I’d write articles and submit them to magazines,” he says. “I had a lot of rejections, but eventually I figured out how you can actually write for a magazine and get things accepted. It was a learning process. But if I was passionate about something, I just loved to write about it.”
After writing about half a dozen articles for several different woodworking magazines, the editor of Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) asked George to write an article for its yearly journal. George asked what he should write about and the editor said, “Whatever you want to write about.”
At the time George had begun researching design. “I was real curious: How did these artisans back in the 18th century design stuff?” Not knowing the answer, he decided to research this question some more, and write about that, simply because he thought it would be a fun topic. “That research led to everything else that followed and it was like a really deep pool that I fell into that I’ve never felt the bottom of yet,” he says.
George wrote his article and then spoke to several groups about the topic. “Everywhere I spoke, people were like, ‘Wow, this is fantastic information.’ Nobody had ever heard this before, it hadn’t been presented like this.” He approached Lie-Nielsen Toolworks with a proposal to do a video series on the topic (they said yes) and around the same time Christopher Schwarz, then editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, asked him to start writing a column (Design Matters).
And then, George met Jim Tolpin at a Woodworking in America conference in Chicago. “I was doing this keynote speech in an auditorium,” George says. “He was sitting down front and I didn’t know him from Adam. They had this question-and-answer session at the end and he raised his hand and asked me three different questions. I didn’t know the answer to any of them and I thought: Those are fantastic questions.”
Afterwards, George introduced himself and the next day he attended Jim’s session and realized immediately they were researching the same thing, but completely unaware of each other. “He was researching how the human body relates to proportions and design, and I was researching classical architecture, which uses the human body as a standard proportion,” George says. “I was looking at it more from an architectural standpoint than he was but still, we knew right away we were doing the same thing so that’s what started a pretty wonderful writing partnership.”
The economy had crashed some years earlier and George had left The Timken Co. in 2008. But he still needed a way to keep his family afloat. So he was serving as his own boss, working as a full-time consultant (something he still does to this day). His evenings, though, were (and are) dedicated to researching and writing.
When Jim and George first talked about writing a book together, Jim told George that the worst way to ruin a friendship is to write a book together. But oddly enough, George says, the partnership has only deepened their friendship.
“Our conversations can go all over the place because this exploration we’ve been doing has taken us into architecture, philosophy, history, theology – I mean, it’s something that’s embedded in Western civilization, and design and architecture was an expression of that, so there’s so much to explore and understand.”
Everything Jim and George are doing, George says, goes back to Euclid and his understanding of simple geometry.
So how has their relationship stayed intact after two books with a third, “From Truths to Tools,” forthcoming? “I don’t think either of us has much of an ego or an agenda,” George says. “We’re both interested in what is the truest thing we can learn. And both of us are able to correct the other one, and say, ‘You know what? I think you need to dig deeper on that, I think this could be better.’ And we actually can do that without feeling threatened. I know if he tells me something can be better he’s just trying to help me do better work and likewise, I can comment on something he does and he realizes that I’m just trying to help him do better work, and that’s a really, really rare thing. It’s really hard to find someone who you can be critical with, and positive with, and it still works.”
George spends three to four hours a night writing and researching, in addition to his full-time consultant work. And much of it boils down to simple Latin words that are part of our modern language, words no one ever thinks about.
“If you take a string and you attach a lead weight to it, it becomes a smart string, a 2.0 string because it does something,” he says. “And actually, the word we use for ‘plumb,’ to make something plumb, straight up and down, well that comes from the Latin word ‘plumbum,’ which is metal lead. So if you take a piece of lead and tie it to a string it becomes a plumb bob and with that you can find a vertical surface. So all the words that are involved in our craft and all the tools have all this ancient knowledge, ancient language tied to them. And that’s some of the work we’re doing right now. It’s pretty fun to cover.”
For George, research involves two things: reading and trying things out. While he can’t actually read many of the old Renaissance texts, which are written in different languages, he can study the old drawings and engravings, pulling out and considering the geometry behind them.
“But the other big piece of it is actually trying it out,” he says. “I’m not interested in just book knowledge. If they’re showing how to do a layout, how to figure out how to do something with what Jim and I call ‘artisan geometry,’ it’s not something [that involves] a bunch of formulas. It’s about practical knowledge, about how to lay out a foundation for a barn, or how to do any kind of layout in space. We’re taking these ideas from these old books and trying them. We put away our tape measures and our rulers and started using a stick and a string and a pair of dividers to figure stuff out. And that’s where you really learn. That’s a lot of the research: Actually trying it out at the workbench, finding out what works and what doesn’t work.”
There was a time, George says, when he thought building something without plans would have been really scary. These days, he builds things not only without plans, but also without a ruler, or a tape measure.
While George’s days are full, he values time with family. George and Barb married in the late 1970s and had one son. They now have a 6-year-old grandson who enjoys spending time in George’s shop, banging hammers and mallets, making messes and having fun. George’s son is just now getting interested in woodworking. Last year George helped him build a Nicholson bench and the two plan to attend Handworks together in May.
Barb enjoys plein air painting (you can see her work here). Together they’ll set up their workspaces outside, Barb standing and painting, George sitting next to her with his laptop. They’ll paint, research and write, go out for lunch and then go home.
Home is a two-story traditional suburban house filled with furniture George has built. George has an appreciation for stripped-down Early American furniture, typically walnut or cherry, without much ornamentation. While drawn to contemporary work he carries strong, traditional tendencies. For George, the hallmarks of good work are strength, functionality and beauty. He has a basement workshop filled with hand tools and a table saw primarily used as a place to eat lunch.
George and Barb enjoy hiking and birding. “If you’re a birder you understand the season by which birds are here now,” he says. “It starts in February with the swans coming in and the waterfowl and the sandhill cranes, and then you move into the redwing blackbirds and the white-crowned sparrows, and then, coming up on Mother’s Day, the neotropicals move in, those are warblers, little colorful birds that eat insects and they come in by the millions.”
He talks about Magee Marsh, just a couple hours away from Canton, Ohio, where thousands of birders congregate from all over the world to see the warbler spectacle. “The birds fly up the Mississippi Valley and they stop [at Magee Marsh] and they rest and they eat and they gain weight so they can fly across the lake,” he says. “Sometimes you hit it right and the trees look like Christmas trees, covered with colorful birds, red, blue, green and orange – it’s quite the spectacle.”
George’s ability to see beauty in stars, warblers and proportion, to even the most seemingly ordinary bits of life, allows him to “live out every moment.”
“I’m very thankful for the life I have,” he says. “I have a spiritual dimension to my life. I am a Christian so for that reason I’m thankful for every day, every part of living. And for that reason I believe God is part of every moment in my life, every breath. All the work that I do, waking, sleeping, everything is filled with his majesty. And life is about living out that wonder, being thankful for every moment that is. As humans we’re lousy at living out every moment. A lot of moments in life seem like drudgery. At my best I’m absorbing that wonder of creation and what it’s all about.”
George says through his journey with Jim, the two have tied together how the Greeks saw that wonder. They talk about quantum physics and how the universe got its start and everything, George says, is tied together. “Everything is an exploration of being alive.”
“If there are physical laws governing the universe, like gravity, and there’s a law governing the spiritual universe, I guess I’d call that the law of giving,” he says. “And if you live a life of giving, your life expands and grows. And if you live a life of trying to hold onto things, your life shrinks and becomes small and has less meaning. If life is about giving, it grows. And it’s more fun.”
It’s something George strives for, daily.
“I think there is so much more I’d like to learn,” he says. Both about design and giving, dimensions he hasn’t yet explored. “When I give, my life gets bigger.”
A few weeks ago Peter Follansbee participated in a panel discussion titled “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Traditional Crafts and Contemporary Makers” at the Fuller Craft Museum as part of the opening reception for Living Traditions: The Handwork of Plymouth CRAFT. Peter was asked an either/or question: “When you’re making things, is the process of doing that just for you or for the community?”
Feeling put on the spot, he answered: “I’m doing this ’cause that is what I want to do.”
But that’s not completely true.
“Afterwards I was thinking of their use of the word ‘community’ and through all of this woodworking, from back in my early museum days all the way up to today, I’ve met so many people who are just fabulous, and many have become lifelong friends, just great, great folks, both students and other instructors and other woodworkers.”
With community comes commonality.
“I can find commonality with people that otherwise I would walk right past them, and they would walk right past me,” Peter says. “We share nothing in common except for this interest in and this desire in making things out of wood, and that is unlike what I said on the panel discussion. That is important to me. I can’t imagine a different life. So I’ve been lucky to kind of stumble into this one, and it was all through woodworking.”
And in a way Peter did stumble into this life, in a story that involves the death of his father at a young age, splitting logs for firewood, waffling between art painting and woodworking, and an unexpected 25-mile walk to Drew Langsner’s Country Workshops school in North Carolina.
In the end, it was the community he sought, the community that accepted him, and the community he now serves that helped form his life, which reflects a quote by William Coperthwaite on an axe handle Peter recently carved: “I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.”
‘Without Love in the Dream it will Never Come True’ The youngest of five, Peter was born in 1957 in Weymouth, Mass., a suburb of Boston. His father worked at A.J. Wilkinson & Co., “back when a hardware store was a hardware store,” Peter says. The day after he graduated high school, Peter’s father walked into Wilkinson’s and applied for a job. He worked there until he died, at the age of 51 in 1975.
A widow, Peter’s mother had to reinvent herself and started working at a law firm in Boston. As an 18-year-old, Peter says he didn’t recognize what a big deal that was for his mother during the mid-1970s. “Later, some perspective really shown a light on it.”
Peter’s father had a basement woodshop filled with Delta and Powermatic tools: a lathe, table saw, jointer, drill press, circular saw. His father built furnishings to outfit the house. “I don’t remember anyone talking about it, and I certainly didn’t think about it,” Peter says. “You just sort of took it for granted that he made stuff. You make stuff.”
Peter was into art. He took art lessons as a child and, moving from crayons and pencils to pastels and paints, he essentially majored in art in high school — by grade 10 he was studying art history and knew art school was in his future.
And it was. He attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for a year. And then he dropped out. “It was a lot of scruffy 20-year-olds expressing themselves and doing wild and crazy stuff,” Peter says. “I wanted to learn under-glazing and classic painting, and I had no way to put that into words or to search out how I was going to get that so I just bagged it instead. … It was sort of funny. What I was looking for in painting I ultimately found in woodworking.”
But first there was, as Peter says, a whole lot of floundering. “Keep in mind that this was the mid-70s, so there was this whole dope culture, too. And I was reasonably involved in that. I wasn’t into hard drugs, but I kept pretty high all the time. So that clouded a lot of judgment.”
Upon his father’s death, Peter inherited a basement full of tools. And because he was an artist, he began making picture frames. “I started dabbling in framing my canvases while I was painting, and little by little I started to learn more about woodworking – not in any orderly fashion. So for many years I kind of divided my time between painting and making stuff out of wood.” This included a Shaker rocking chair, with almost no instruction.
Peter was living with his mother and their house was close to a power line. To keep trees from tangling the line, the power company came out and cut them, but also left behind what they had cut. The energy crisis had hit, and folks were burning firewood regularly. So Peter taught himself how to split wood. He also wanted to make a chair. The September 1978 issue of Fine Woodworking arrived, and in it was an advertisement for the book “Make a Chair from a Tree” by John (now Jennie) Alexander and an excerpt from Drew Langsner’s book, “Country Woodcraft,” about splitting logs. “It was aimed right at me,” Peter says.
Peter finally convinced himself his years of waffling between painting and woodworking were over – he had to choose, for the sake of focus. “So I stopped painting,” he says. “Which is a good thing.”
In 1980, Peter signed up to take a class at Country Workshops. He didn’t have a driver’s license and he had never flown – in fact, he had never been out of New England. “I got on a plane, and then two buses,” he says. “I was too shy to call Drew and say, ‘How do I get from the bus stop to your place?’ and not having any experience in rural America, I saw that his address was Marshall, N.C. The bus went to Marshall so I thought, I’ll just walk! And it was a 25-mile walk. I made it in time for dinner, and then pitched my tent and fell right asleep. It was really out of character for me, but it was one of those moments where the stars lined up and look at what it did.”
Of course, it wasn’t immediate.
“I was the worst possible student,” Peter says. “Drew will tell you. I was terrible. I was awful. Years later I would learn that Alexander would have 10, 12 students, and would watch for who was going to be the ‘destructor,’ the one you have to watch, the one who was going to ruin everything. And it was me. I was still a pothead, and I was still just a novice.”
But skill, of course, is separate from passion. “Oh man, it changed my life,” Peter says. “I flipped out, I loved it, I was just over the moon. It was great. So then I went home and made more chairs. By 1982 I was done with dope, and shortly after that I went back down to Drew’s, and then I would go twice a year every year. In 1988 I was an intern and stayed there for five months. By then I was getting serious and a little more coherent and semi-skilled.”
Throughout these years Peter continued to live with his mother, so his needs were few. He sold some chairs and, after learning how to make split baskets at Langsner’s, he sold those as part of a craft cooperative. “It sort of validated what I was doing,” Peter says. He realized he could make things. And people would buy them.
‘Once in a While, You get Shown the Light, in the Strangest of Places, if You Look at it Right’ In the late 1980s, Peter and Alexander were spending a week, along with some other folks, on improvements to Langsner’s facility – it was called volunteer week, and it was a way to support the school. One evening Alexander showed a series of slides of a disassembled cupboard door, then at Winterthur, made about 1660 in Braintree, Mass. “It was split out of a log, like the chair parts were, but instead of then going to a shavehorse and a drawknife, you went to a bench with a plane,” Peter says. “And then instead of boring the mortise with a brace and bit, you chopped it with a chisel. So it was similar to what we were doing with chairmaking, but different.” Only Peter shared in Alexander’s enthusiasm.
So the two began a correspondence, roping in furniture historian Robert Trent. Their letters included questions, sketches, diagrams and theories. Throughout the correspondence Alexander told Peter to refer to out-of-print books and visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. So, Peter did. At the time Jonathan Leo Fairbanks was curator and Ned Cooke was assistant curator.
“Those guys would let me come in stone cold off the street and study the objects in the collection,” Peter says. “I had no academic affiliation, no credentials, no references, nothing. I just showed up with a question and some curiosity, and they gave me access to stuff. It was fabulous.”
Around that time Trent was lecturing up in Boston. Alexander called Peter and said, “You’ve got to go hear Trent.” Peter called the lecture host and was told that in order to hear Trent, he’d have to buy a ticket to the entire lecture series. Peter hung up, called Alexander and said he wasn’t going to be able to go. Later that day Peter got a phone call from Trent. “He just went on a rant about what idiots they were and he put me on the list so I could go to the lecture. And that’s how I met Bob.”
As Peter’s community grew, so did his knowledge of 17th-century woodworking. In the mid-1990s Peter sneaked into a lecture by Trent at Plimoth Plantation. After the lecture a mutual friend introduced Peter to Joel Pontz, who worked at the museum. “Joel had seen a newspaper article about me,” Peter says. “I had a Delta lathe [his father’s] that I had thrown the motor away and hooked up a spring pole to it so it made for a curious article. Joel had seen that and said, ‘Wow, would you like to work here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And he said, ‘We don’t have a job for you.’”
But Pontz and Peter became friends, getting together one night a month for “shop night.”
Eventually Pontz left Plimoth, creating a space for Peter. “There was a woman running that program, called the Craft Center,” Peter says. “It was me, potters, textile artists and a few other things. I was hanging around visiting there and they said, ‘Go talk to this woman, we’ve got a part-time job [available].’ And later on she told me she went to her boss and said, ‘Who is this guy? Should we check up on him? Get references?’ And they just said, ‘Oh, Joel said he’s OK. Just hire him.’ And that woman is now my wife. I love to tell that story.”
(Peter and his wife, Maureen, married in 2003 and now have twins – Rose and Daniel.)
Peter worked as a joiner at Plimoth Plantation for 20 years. “And for probably 14 of those years, I’m making up a number but it’s close, it was the greatest job a woodworker could have,” he says. “Absolutely fabulous. Because I had to go to work every day and go in and make stuff with wood I didn’t have to pay for, and all I had to do was talk to people about it. There was almost never a deadline. I didn’t have to worry – is it going to sell? – all I had to do was make it. And talk to people. And I got to do the research behind it.”
Research involved trips to England and around the country, visiting museums and attending symposiums and lectures. “I got to hobnob with all the people who could help me learn my craft and the history of it better and just talk, talk, talk, talk,” he says. “And what woodworker doesn’t want to show you want they’re doing?”
Because the audience would change every 10 to 30 minutes, Peter became a master at capturing their attention. “You instantly find out if this joke or this trick fails and that sort of thing, and I loved to do it.” He was not taught this. But through previous demonstrations at craft fairs and practice, he quickly learned that big crowds mean big movements, but little crowds mean small movements. With families, he says, you focus on the kids.
“It was great,” he says. “It was great fun and people came from all over the world, all kinds of people – you never knew who was going to walk through the door.” One day he was making a brace for a brace and a bit, and a British couple walked up and started talking knowledgeably about tools. Turns out it was Jane Rees and Mark Rees, authors of many important books about early tools and their makers.
There were questions that were asked, repeatedly. “It got old right away and then you had to learn what to do,” Peter says. “Some people learn how to deal with it and some people don’t. And the ones who don’t are bitter, nasty little people who shouldn’t be doing that job. So the question you get the most, no matter what you’re doing is, ‘How long does it take?’ I saw co-workers find all kinds of ways to fight that question and I thought, ‘Well, that’s stupid because that’s what they want to know.’ So you tell them that and then you can move on and tell them what you want to tell them.”
In order to do this, Peter actually timed his various operations so he always knew the answer to that question. “The repetition is annoying for me, but it isn’t repetition for the people asking,” Peter says. “It’s new to them.”
Peter says he misses that part of it, talking to people. He left Plimoth in 2014. In the end, there were some difficult years involving a change of directors and general bureaucracy. In 2008, friends of Peter’s, including his then boss and his wife, were let go.
Peter wanted to leave, but he needed to make money. Now he was the sole earner in his family and he had two children to support. So he stayed, all the while building up a following through his blog, Joiner’s Notes, planning for a future in which he could make it on the outside. “I stayed for many years,” Peter says. “It took a long time.” Christopher Schwarz stepped in, helping him find teaching gigs and, through Lost Art Press, publishing “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” with Jennie Alexander in 2012.
“Then it was just kind of floundering for a few years, and not having the nerve to pull the trigger,” Peter says. “One day I said to Maureen – our kids were then in school, they were in the second grade, going to public schools and we didn’t like that either – every day three of us go out the door to something you and I don’t believe in,” Peter says. “We should stop doing that. So we home-school our kids, and I quit my job.”
Immediately following a blog post about leaving Plimoth, Megan Fitzpatrick, editor of Popular WoodworkingMagazine, offered Peter a column. “It was really a godsend,” Peter says. “I greatly appreciated it.” And then Marc Adams called, asking him to teach. He teamed up with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks (check out his DVDs for sale here) and Roy Underhill. Peter says he booked too many teaching gigs that first year, worried about income.
After years of giving to the woodworking community – and the general public – the woodworking community gave back.
‘Hang it up and See what Tomorrow Brings’ Teaching, Peter says, is totally different from demonstrating. “I don’t get to do as much woodworking when I’m teaching. At the old job, all the attention was on me.” He laughs. “And I like teaching. It’s fun, it’s interesting, you get that group dynamic and some groups are duds and some groups are really great. A lot of students have become friends of mine.”
These days, Peter is still waiting for a “typical” year. He spent the last year building his shop. “I read on the Web one day, ‘He’s not doing much woodworking these days,’ and I thought, ‘I’m building this freaking shop by hand! That’s all woodworking!’ But what they meant was that I wasn’t doing much furniture, and I hadn’t.”
Now that his shop is built, Peter’s hoping for some normalcy. “If I’m not traveling and I’m not teaching, it’s going to be out in the shop building things,” he says. “I have some custom work that I’m way behind on, and I’m starting to get going on that now. So I have some big carved chairs, and a bedstead and a chest of drawers to make. I’m trying to get in a rhythm that I used to use at the museum. In the morning, I’ll split logs and make boards. I’ll do real physical work for a few hours, and then kind of switch gears and maybe do joinery and carving later in the day. I’m just trying to pace myself so I’m not beating myself up. I usually work several projects at a time, and try to leapfrog them to the finish line altogether.”
Peter and his family live in a little town near Plymouth, Mass., on the way to Cape Cod, on a small piece of property, maybe three-quarters of an acre. In the backyard is a river with a marsh behind it.
At the same panel discussion mentioned above, someone asked Peter if he’s more interested in the process or the finished product. Peter said, “Oh no, I can’t stand the finished product because when I finish them I don’t want to see them again.” Tim Manney, a chairmaker and toolmaker in Maine, was in the audience and called his bluff. “You’re lying,” Manney said. “Your house is full of your stuff!”
Peter admits that there may be two or three pieces of furniture in his house that he didn’t make.
When Maureen, Peter’s wife, was pregnant she ended up on bed rest for 11 weeks. While she was upstairs, Peter spent 11 weeks at Plimoth, building and carving new fronts to their kitchen cabinets. “So she came down after 11 weeks and saw that,” he says. “She had never seen it. There are probably seven or eight kitchen cabinets that are all carved.”
Building his shop was a lifelong dream. It’s 12’ x 16’ with 15 windows. “It’s like being outdoors when I’m indoors,” Peter says. “It’s where I want to be.”
A friend helped. He’d come by Peter’s for one or two days a week, lay out some stuff, show Peter how to cut it, and then leave. “I’d cut for a few days and then I’d call him up and say, ‘OK, I’m ready for the next step….’ I don’t want to do it again.”
He lost some woodworking time this winter, due to not having a stove. But a former student gave him a little stove and this summer he plans to hook it up.
In addition to building and teaching, Peter enjoys making spoons. “Spoons are taking over the world you know,” he says. “And why is that? Why are they making all these spoons?” At England’s Spoonfest last year Peter served as the keynote speaker for the opening night. “I told them all, ‘We checked and that’s enough spoons. We don’t need to make anymore.’ And they started to boo and throw things at me.”
Peter began making spoons in the 1980s. In 1988, during his intern year, he took a course taught by Jogge Sundqvist and was hooked. While at Plimoth he carved spoons that “were really ugly,” 17th-century English spoons, “and there’s nothing interesting about them.” Throughout the years Peter would carve spoons on his own and post pictures on his blog. One day somebody asked if he would sell one. “The thought never occurred to me,” Peter says. “I couldn’t imagine someone would buy one of those. I used to make them, and use them at home and give them as gifts.”
So why is everyone making spoons? Peter says he carves them because the ones he likes best form a natural, crooked shape – the curve of the spoon mimics the curve of the tree. “They’re a nice design challenge, and a functional sculpture sort of thing, a real good exercise in knife work and just an all-around interesting item.” But he says he’s also carving them because he wants more handmade stuff in the world.
“I think our culture has moved so far away, other than Lost Art Press readers and readers of these various blogs and things, just in general, our culture is really pretty far removed from that.”
One of Peter’s big influences in woodworking is Daniel O’Hagan, a man he met through Langsner many years ago. “I remember Daniel once writing to me and using the phrase ‘plastic and confused culture.’” O’Hagan lived outside of culture, Peter says. In 1958 he went back to the land and moved to eastern Pennsylvania. He built a log house with no electricity or running water, and he and his wife lived that way until he died in 2000.
“I don’t necessarily want to live that way,” Peter says. “I like running water. I like having a computer that connects me to all around the world and stuff but I like to sort of blend some of these two mindsets. So it’s places like Drew’s and Daniel’s where I first was in a handmade building filled with handmade stuff. And it speaks to me, there’s something about it.”
Peter’s own home is now filled with woodenware and wooden furniture. Maureen is a potter and knitter (you can view, and buy, her fiber arts here), so they have many handmade items in their house. “That’s important to me,” Peter says. “Especially once we had the kids. People would say, ‘Do you want the kids to do what you do?’ and no. I don’t want them to do what I do. I want them to know that you can make things with your hands, that people make things, but I want them to be happy. I want them to do what makes them happy. I’m doing what makes me happy but that doesn’t mean that’s what would make them happy.”
Peter doesn’t subscribe to American culture. He hasn’t owned a TV in years. He enjoys bird watching. He likes to be out in nature. He likes to be home but recognizes the joy in traveling. “There aren’t many other parts of my life,” he says. “I can sit here if I had the time, I could just sit here and just watch the river as the tide comes in and goes out, comes in and goes out, and just keeps changing. I’m fine with that. That could be my entertainment. I don’t really need entertainment, but that could be my amusement. It could hold my attention.”
Peter’s not entirely sure what his future will look like but for now it’s something along the lines of “broke but happy.” “I wake up every morning perfectly happy, but I do need to generate income better than I do,” he says. In order to spur this along, he’s planning on teaching students in his home shop. He can only fit one at a time (if teaching spoon carving classes, two). He already has a few folks on schedule. “And if that works, that will help me because I’m home,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of demand for my carved oak furniture. There’s some, but not enough to pay all the bills. So there has to be teaching. I have a new book under way with Chris and Megan [through Lost Art Press], so those bits and pieces will hopefully add up to something. I want to stay healthy, so I can keep going. That’s as far ahead as I’ve looked.”
A while ago Peter did a piece for Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They had the bottom half of a two-part cabinet made in about 1680 and they hired Peter to make the conjectural top. Their conservation department guided him in coloring it. Color is intriguing to Peter. On a trip to Sweden he visited the Nordic Museum and spent six hours studying thousands of pieces in the museum’s storehouse. “It was just stunning, beautiful, beautiful stuff all highly decorated, almost always painted, very reminiscent of what we often term, inappropriately, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture.”
And while he doesn’t plan to veer too far from carved oak furniture – he’s invested, now, and he’s good at it – he still wishes for more hours in the day. “There’s a fellow from Hungary who wrote to me from his blog whose building chests out of riven beech with tools that we’ve never seen and making them all by hand the way they were made 500 years ago,” Peter says. “I’d love to go and see his work and see him do it and do it with him.”
‘Inspiration, Move me Brightly’ Now that it’s spring, and the birds’ songs come early, Peter finds himself in his shop quite early. He says he hopes to hit his stride. And although he’s currently figuring things out, he still considers himself extremely lucky. There’s community behind that sentiment.
“I try to remember to always thank my students in [my classes],” he says. “I try to make them understand that I appreciate them dedicating the time and the resources to come and take that class because if they don’t do it, they won’t hire me anymore if I can’t get students. So I always appreciate that. I had classes two years in a row where it was one weekend a month for five months. They laid out a lot of cash to do that, they set out a lot of time, and that’s the thing nobody has any to give up. Everybody is running low on time, so I always appreciate that kind of stuff.”
There’s community behind most of Peter’s sentiments, even if he failed to acknowledge that at the panel discussion a few weeks ago. And for those looking in, the flip side is more than apparent: Both the general public (visitors to Plimoth) and the woodworking community have benefited greatly from Peter, who is incredibly smart yet humble, honest and easy-going, a skilled teacher, demonstrator and entertainer, and a man who has surrounded himself with beautiful things, most of his own making. That society of people who is intoxicated with the joy of making things? We’re closer, because of him.
My job at Lost Art Press is basically this: wrangling content. I read it, edit it, listen to it, transcribe it, write it, find it, scan it, organize it, cut it, extrapolate it, link to it, contract it and share it. And through this wrangling, no matter the author or topic, universal themes emerge.
Often an 8-5 occupation, by nature of design, is one of repetition. And perhaps that’s part of the appeal of woodworking, both as an avocation and vocation—it requires constant learning, no matter the skill level. There’s always more to learn, new paths to take, ways to improve. There’s a scholarly aspect to it, and always the feeling of the possibility of a new discovery, with only the turn of the page or an afternoon at the bench.
And so I see the theme of lifelong learning emerge, over and over, from masters of the craft, in both written and vocal form.
In many ways it’s why Lost Art Press exists—as well as the many magazines, books, forums, guilds, classes, schools and DVDs that delve into the intricacies of woodworking.
There’s always more to know.
Here are some quotes, both formally written and in the form of snippets of conversation, that I’ve gathered during my more recent content wrangling from a few masters of the craft who still, to this day (or did, until they died) foster a love of learning.
“It’s interesting to speculate as to exactly when in one’s career one writes a book. I wrote ‘Welsh Stick Chairs’ three years ago, but I am still on the learning curve, and I’ve moved on. In theory, I suppose when one is 99, lying on the death bed, then you write about what you’ve learnt. No. I think the important thing to remember is that not all information in print is law, even if you don’t agree with what you read, it should stimulate thought.” —John Brown, Good Woodworking, 1994
“I’ve mainly been doing sculptures and some new chair stuff. I’ve had a great time and want to continue the ball rolling. I also want to further my chairmaking so when I get home I don’t feel I’ve done nothing in terms of my main craft. So I’ve pursued a couple different [ideas], and I’ll see how these things develop and hopefully [they’ll] become a part of what I do.”—Peter Galbert, on life as a resident artist, 2016
“I’ve often said, only sort of whimsically, if you had to distill down my job it would say, ‘Be productively curious.’ I was productively curious.” —Don Williams, on his almost three decades as Senior Furniture Conservator at the Smithsonian Institute, 2017
“For me, it’s really just keeping engaged, keeping really interested into what’s going on because we can never completely know it. And I hate and love that at the same time. I love being in the position of not knowing but maybe going to find out. And so it’s basically about keeping my eyes open and not taking myself too seriously, because nobody else does. And that’s really it. Not taking things personally in terms of interpreting the world as being against me or for me or any of that. I’m just here observing slowly, with my eyes as wide open as possible.” —Jim Tolpin, 2017
“Neither of us are trained designers, bur rather experienced builders with a healthy curiosity. We both began experimenting with the practices and suggestions laid out in the period design guides. We set aside tape measures and began using dividers. We opted to use geometry to trace layouts, even when precision tools were easier and more convenient. Our goals were to learn to see, and to discover if the tradition might reveal relevant information for today’s builder.” —George R. Walker, in his preface to “By Hand & Eye,” May 28, 2012
“There is a point where a craft becomes an art, and he can find enough to learn about woodwork as an art to last him for a lifetime.” —Charles H. Hayward, “Chips from the Chisel,” The Woodworker, 1936
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.
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.”