Friday, November 13, 2009

Jim's Bench

This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Tolpin at the Woodworking In America Design Conference in St. Charles, Il.

Wait, let me back up a decade or so. I'm mostly a self-taught woodworker. Just after high-school, and a short stint at a local University (where I studied Russian, High-school algebra and Mortal Kombat--no, not the Asian martial art--the video game) I started getting seriously into woodworking, and with the help of the local public library, I started reading everything I could on the subject. My favorite's were by far the "Techniques" books by Taunton. Essentially back issues of Fine Woodworking arranged by subject and bound into a hardcover book. But it was Jim's approach to cabinetmaking that eventually led to me building two complete kitchens, one for for my own home, and another for my brother and his family. Jim's "Toolboxes" was on the bench when I built my first wall hung tool cabinet.

So when I met Jim it was a bit of a strange experience. Almost like meeting a celebrity (I met Jerry Lewis in a Las Vegas health club once, and that was not as much fun as meeting Jim) But as soon as I shook Jim's hand all the awkwardness went away. Jim's soft-spoken style and mellow demeanor appealed to me immediately, and we had a great conversation during a short lull in his busy schedule that weekend.

It turns out that the author of "Table Saw Magic" has taken a decidedly non-powered turn in his woodworking the past few years. As a co-founder of the Port Townsend School of Woodworking in Washington State, Jim teaches hand-tool centric woodworking, focusing on the joy and practicality of using hand tools for the home shop furniture maker. His approach makes a lot of sense, especially nowadays. I'm referring here to the blossoming of top-notch hand-tool manufacturers in the past decade or so. For the first time since well before World War II, fine hand tools are being manufactured once again and made available to the general public. This presents an excellent opportunity for woodworking enthusiasts to set up shops void of the majority of noisy, dusty, dangerous and expensive machines. Replacing them instead with hand tools produced with modern technology and processes that in most cases render them far superior to even the finest tools produced during the height of hand tool production of the past. Tools which give the traditional experience of woodworking and connect the woodworker with the material in a way which far surpasses the experience of simply running wood through a machine. Surface finish, joint quality and the overall aesthetic produced by hand tools can surpass those produced by a machine. I would challenge anyone to disagree that a few passes of a razor-sharp hand plane, accompanied with that satisfying sound and shimmering, slick surface is a far better experience than donning the dust mask and ear-muffs and firing up the vacuum and random-orbit sander.

In fact, Jim told me at WIA that he's sold off most of his stationary machinery and portable power tools and set up a hand-tool centric shop instead. And this is where Benchcrafted came into the conversation. As Jim analyzed our Split-Top Roubo he came to the conclusion that this would be the bench for his home shop. So he and I developed a collaborative plan where Benchcrafted would supply the two finished tops complete with the Benchcrafted Tail Vise and he would build the base in Port Townsend, installing the Glide as he finished the base. As work progressed, I couldn't help but be reminded of the work on the International Space Station, where different elements were manufactured in various countries then assembled in space for the first time. Okay, we're talking some slightly looser tolerances here. It made sense though, especially since hard maple is quite expensive in the northwest (Jim wanted hard maple tops) and as such, Jim has easy access to massive Douglas Fir timbers, with which he is building the base. The base parts on Jim's bench are not laminated. They are all cut from solid timbers and will be joined with drawbored mortise and tenons. With the hard maple Glide chop and deadman contrasting with the warm glow of the fir, this is going to be a gorgeous bench. Not that we care about the looks of a bench, we're all about the function (yeah, right!)

Jim tells me he has some pretty exciting things planned for this bench and the shop it will reside in. I for one will be eagerly awaiting what develops from Jim's endeavors. Being one of the most successful woodworking authors, I don't think he's going to disappoint.

1 comment:

  1. Building a "real" workbench--that is, a workbench designed expressly for hand-tool woodworking, is something I've wanted to do since I got into woodworking in the late 60's. Sure I've had a series of workbenches with Record vises stuck on them here and there, but this will be the first bench that will not be compromised in any way. It will be the perfect height for hand planing and mortise chopping, and it will be really, really heavy and really, really rack-free. With Jameel's massive top and the timberframe-scale base that I'm building to support it, this bench will not move, shake or shudder no matter how intense the hand planing or chisel chopping. Exactly what a joiner's bench is supposed to perform like. I'm also looking forward to having vises that are can exert a powerful grip yet require little effort to cinch down or move in or out. I should have the bench together by the end of this month...I'll send some photos!


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