• 19 May

    Meet Stephen Barney

    Stephen Barney is a long time friend of mine and a man I admire. He is a superlatively talented woodworker and I feel we are very fortunate to have him sharing his skills with the students here at the Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking here in Seattle. Still busy in his own shop, he finds time to come in and teach our workshops on sharpening with water stones.

    His beginnings in woodworking are somewhat unusual. Stephen got hooked on woodworking when he was living in Japan as a young man. He met an elderly master craftsman, who rebuffed nearly all the young Japanese men who came seeking his tutelage, but saw something in Stephen that he found worthy of sharing his knowledge. Steve’s job for months on end was just to take the few chisels and planes that the master had gifted him, and sharpen them. That’s it. Just sharpen them. And then do it again. Kind of a Karate Kid story, you might say.

    Some years ago, Stephen and I decided to join our efforts and started making furniture pieces together that I think we both are still very proud of. If you take a look at the school website at ebanistaschool.com, find the classes page, and under “Joinery/Small Cabinets”. You will see a picture of a piece that I designed and Stephen built. Notice the hand planed curved drawer fronts on the walnut cabinet and the impeccable and graceful dovetails. I believe Stephen has very few peers.

    Telling anecdote about Stephen: I was asked by a wealthy and famous Seattleite to build a large table. Again, we decided to join forces. The table was to be made out of a 63” wide slab of an amazing cedar tree that was lying abandoned in a forest. We were told it was 600 years old, but we counted the annual rings and found that it was closer to 800. I designed and built the base, and Stephen volunteered to do the planing of the top. One night I went into the shop, only to discover Stephen standing in his socks atop the table. He had three of his Japanese smoothing planes beside him, and there was a pile of gossamer, translucent shavings all around reaching up to the middle of my thigh. When I pulled out a brown paper bag and filled it with some of the shavings, I saw that Stephen was looking at me curiously, and I told them that they were for our client, so he would know what he was paying for. I found out later that Stephen was knocking out his plane irons after every stroke to resharpen them.

    Footnote: When we later tried to finish the table, the surface was so glassy smooth that it wouldn’t absorb any finish so we had to “rough” it up with bond paper from a printer. Yes, bond paper.

    Lesson: Spend a year not sleeping or eating but just sharpening your tools.

    By Jonathan Cohen Woodworkers
  • 12 May

    How I Fell In Love With Woodworking

    Like many a junior high school boy, in my very early teens, I was assigned shop class. Hopefully, we have progressed enough as a society that young girls are also able to take those classes. However, with the shamefully under-supported schools we now have, I would not be at all surprised to find that most schools across the U.S. no longer offer such classes to anyone.

    At Boynton Junior High School, shop class consisted of a stint melting plastic pellets into molds to form a  little coin purse ( actually pretty fun but never in the running to capture my attention as the other two projects we were assigned). The second was learning how to handset type and use an old printing press, with which we all made something every 13-year-old boy needs: a business card. To this day I have a love for typography, and letter forms and  I am still a practicing calligrapher. That seed was planted back in that shop class. The third project was to make something out of wood. Most of my classmates made birdhouses or little trays. The Raponi brothers were content just to take pieces of wood and spend the whole class grinding them into sawdust on the disc grinder. But the very instant I saw the room with the wood in it, and the tools hanging around the shop, my eagerness knew no bounds. I immediately set out to build a chair. That was, as they say, all she wrote. I have never stopped living to be at a workbench with a few pieces of beautiful wood, a hand plane or two, and my very sharp chisels.

    By the time I got to high school, the myopic school administration kept trying to dissuade me from taking “shop “ classes. I should focus on academics to point me toward college. They really were relentless about it, so I finished all my high school requirements by midway through my sophomore year and they threw up their hands and I spent most of my last years in high school in the woodshop, the home-ec class making cookies, the auto mechanics shop and a couple more periods in the woodshop. Fidgeting while the shop teacher droned on at the beginning of every class, I would leap from my chair in unbridled joy when he finally stopped and said, “OK , let’s go to work”.

    Later, now ensconced in college, I still lusted to work in wood, but again I was pulled aside by some patrician snob who haughtily informed me that, “Here at Ivy League universities we don’t engage in trade work.” So, I dove into the sculpture studio where most of my work looked suspiciously like furniture. After school, I piled my few belongings into an old Volvo, transversed Canada, and settled in Seattle.

    With a few college debts to wrestle with, I realized that I would need to find work. My first thought was to do what I had assumed would be my career since I was four: nope, not fireman or astronaut. I wanted my whole life to be a lawyer who fought for the rights of Native Americans. Besides, there were not too many jobs where they paid you to spend long hours reading, and I loves me some reading. But, my imagination took flight and the following chain of thoughts ran their course in less time than it will take to read them:

    IF I pass the Law SAT’s, and IF I get accepted to law school, and IF I manage to survive law School, and IF I pass the bar exam, and IF I get offered a job in a law firm, you can be damned sure they are going to stick this newbie in a windowless office with an oak Formica desk. And then I am going to be unable to work at a cheap plastic desk, so I will be forced to build myself one out of ebony with hand-dovetailed drawers and silver inlay, and then I will be sitting there and people will walk in and say, “I do not know how good a lawyer you are, but I’d love for you to make me a desk.” So, I decided, why meander through all that rigmarole? Why not just start making furniture? Honestly. That’s how long it took, and I have been making furniture for the last 42 years. ( Footnote: A prospective client came to see me some years ago, and we got off track and into a spirited discussion about politics, when all of a sudden he leaned back and said, “you should have been a lawyer”. You just can’t win.)

    How I went about gaining and refining the skills necessary to be a furnituremaker is another story.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 05 May

    Furniture Maker vs. Cabinetmaker

    I would guess that the vast majority of the world would not be able to distinguish between a furniture maker and a cabinetmaker. And I would also wager that almost none of them would care much if they did. Most anyone of either of those kinds of woodworkers could do the work of the other. But for me, although the difference is not great, it is important.

    To me, a cabinetmaker makes, as the name would imply, cabinets. Which are, by and large, boxes. And boxes, by and large, require joining boards at right angles. Right angles, straight edges are the order of the day, because so many cabinets involve doors and drawers, Which, when you think about it are really just boxes inside boxes. And conventional lines make the whole process simpler and easier. I can make cabinets, but unless my client will allow me to bend or curve or arch some of the components, I do not often find myself too tempted to go that route.

    I am much more drawn to tables and desks and beds and chairs. Furniture with aprons and arms and legs.

    Them legs!

    They seem to be the element in all of woodworking that not only allows for but even demands the most creativity. I have filled sketchbooks with just ideas for legs.

    And furniture involves a more intimate relationship with humans. We plunk our bodies down in chairs, stretch them out in beds and press our bellies up to tables and desks. I am not aware of too many people getting cozy with their cabinets.  And after years of building furniture, you come to realize that one joint is employed more than every other joint combined: the mortise-and-tenon. Or the variation I have employed frequently: the double mortise and floating tenon.

    But more on M & T’s later.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts