Recent News & Articles

  • 23 Jun

    A Rose is a Rose by Any Other Name

    It was true for William Shakespeare, and it is true today. Changing the nomenclature does not alter the essence. I speak here of the idea of apprenticeship.

    I have known a couple of woodworkers over the years who gleefully refer to people helping out in their shops as “apprentices”.  But, just as the vast majority of woodworkers these days who slam out slab tables with live or wane edges do not even know who George Nakashima was, I do not believe that some of these “masters” necessarily understand the concept of apprenticeship. Or worse, maybe they did and they chose to take advantage of it.

    What I have been seeing is a guy who is making a living at woodworking, accepting novices into his shop to do grunt work for no pay. That does not even resemble what an apprenticeship has traditionally meant. For one thing, in an apprenticeship arrangement, if one party is the apprentice, the other is necessarily a master. I believe that is a term that is too easily bantered about. Years ago, when I had been working for more than 20 years, I fell in love with a set of Japanese sharkskin handled chisels. They were very expensive, but that was not my problem. I felt that if I were to purchase them, I was believing myself a master craftsman. But, even after having received several awards, appearing in a number of magazines and having commissions set years in advance, I cringed at the idea of being thought of as a master. Now, after more than forty years building furniture, I still do. So, I would be similarly leery of having an “apprentice” in my shop.

    No, an apprentice does not work for free. That is more like indentured servitude. Historically, apprentices were not paid either. They, or usually their families PAID the master to take the youth under his wing and TEACH him. (Back then, virtually every master and apprentice was a him). The master then welcomed the apprentice not only into his shop, but often also into his home, where he was boarded and fed. The daily hosting aspect of the relationship would be easy to set aside in today’s world. But NOT the real obligation of the master: to proactively teach the apprentice all the skills necessary to one day rise to the level of journeyman, and then, ultimately, one day become a master himself.

    Call an unskilled assistant in your shop a helper or an unpaid assistant, or, I suppose a protege, but “they”, (because, thankfully, we are changing the culture rapidly these days, and it is no longer a foregone conclusion that it will be a male on either end of this relationship), is probably not an apprentice.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts
  • 16 Jun

    What’s in a Name: The Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking

    I spent some years living in Barcelona, Spain, and later married a woman from Mexico, where we lived on and off for many years. In both countries, people occasionally asked me what I did. Linguistic note: English speakers ask what you do, Spanish speakers ask, “A que te dedicas?” To what do you dedicate yourself? And for me, that is particularly appropriate for a woodworker, as this is a field where one has no chance of making it without being dedicated.

    In the beginning, I would answer, “Realizo muebles”. (I make furniture). And they would nod, and say, “Ah, tu eres carpintero”. (Ah, you are a carpenter). When we started carrying our phones around with us in our pockets, they sometimes asked to see a picture of my work, and after fumbling cyber-clumsily with my phone, I would show a photo of one or two of my pieces.

    Often they would take a tiny step back and look at me anew, and say in a more reverential voice, “ Ohhh, pero eres Ebanista, pues”. (Oh!, But you are a Fine Woodworker, then).

    I never have felt that this was something I should decide about myself, but I must be honest with you and confess that I usually stood up a little straighter in those moments.

    Linguistic note II: the French use a similar term, “ebaniste”, and over the last centuries this was an honorific spoken of the very finest craftsman/artisans. The word, in both languages, derives from the name Ebony, the kind of wood only a superlative cabinetmaker would dare use. It seems like a sufficiently high level for our students to aim for.

    Hence, the name of our school.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 09 Jun

    Lumberyards

    The two basic sources for lumber are to mill your own (very fun, control over the way you like your wood cut, extremely slow to cut and to wait for it to season, and even if you get the trees for free, a far more expensive way to get wood in your shop) or to head on down to your local lumber yard and let go of your credit card.

    Depending on where you live and the size of the city, you may have several choices. The biggest yards are generally the cheapest, but I rarely use them for a number of reasons. One is that they mostly do not want to sell to smaller shops buying just a few hundred feet and forget about trying to get a stick or two of lumber for a project. They also generally do not display their wood but just stack it up in huge banded bundles- several hundred board feet of wood. and will give you a dirty look if you ask them to drop it down so you can sort through. Never, but never go into one of them and ask for 1” or 2” lumber. They will whip around and go back to playing solitaire on their computers what idiot does not know that sawn hardwood lumber is referred to in quarters of an inch, in these examples 4/4 and 8/4. My two biggest issues with the big yards, however, are that they very rarely carry more than a handful of “popular “ species such as oak, walnut, maple, and cherry. And most of them will not let you sort through the lumber to find what suits you best. That, for me, is the deal breaker, as I consider lumber selection to be one of the most enjoyable and critical aspects of my work.

    At the other end of the food-pyramid-of-wood are the local boutique lumber yards. Many are attached to tool stores, and they often put price stickers on each board. Red flag! This is the most expensive way to buy wood. And while they often have a dizzying array of species, and they encourage you to comb through them, I have yet to see one that has much of any one species at the same time, and that leaves the woodworker to have very little choice in the exact boards they may require for a project.

    Above you will see an example of the best price, but little access or variety accompanied by surly salesmen, or too much selection, high prices, and not always the best quality.

    In between lies perhaps the best of all worlds for small to medium-sized shops. One could even call them the “tweener” lumberyard. Prices better than the boutiques, not always terribly more than the big yards. Much more access to and ability to select exactly what you want. Prices probably not marked on each individual board, but maybe a board footage tally so you can see how much you are buying. And they will talk to you whether you refer to inches or quarters, although you may get a better price if you appear to know more about the business of buying lumber.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 02 Jun

    Western Style Planes vs. Japanese Style

    There are several principal differences between the two kinds of planes, Japanese and western used throughout the world. One of the more simplistic is the fact that western style planes are designed to be pushed across the surface of the wood, while the Japanese ones are made to be pulled. While these are the preferred methods, it need not necessarily be so. I enjoy using both kinds of planes, I have many of each, but I generally pull them all. It seems so much more natural to me and effortless.

    Another obvious distinction between the two styles of plane is the materials from which they are made. Western planes can still be found made of wooden bodies, but the most common version has them made of steel or some other metal. The only thing on them that was wooden was the handles, although the cost-efficient ( read: crap)  modern versions of them have annoying plastic handles. Not so with the two most high-level western planes produced today from Lie-Nielsen and Veritas. Very high quality they are, with prices to match. But there is no other piece of a woodworker’s tool cabinet that is more worth spending extra money. The western planes typically also have various knobs and screws and levers for fine adjustment of the iron (or blade). Unless you are buying one of the very high-end planes, all those bells and whistles are fool’s gold and can get in your way as much as help. The adjusting mechanisms either come poorly made out of the box, or wear to a certain sloppiness with time.

    The Japanese planes are disarmingly simple. In appearance. Just a simple block of aged wood, generally red or white oak, with a steel blade, wedged into very carefully cut tapered mortises. Adjustment on these planes is all achieved by the gentle tap of a small hammer. Tap the blade on the top of the iron to lower the blade, tap the back of the wooden plane body to back it up. At first glance, it may seem less accurate to adjust a plane in this manner, but with just a little practice you will find these planes and you will become very good friends.

    But the biggest difference between Japanese planes (and chisels) is the steel blade. Which, when you think of it, is really the most important part of a plane, or any cutting tool for that matter. Japanese plane blades are laminated, with, a very hard steel,  just on the cutting edge, again, where all, the action is. This is then backed by a softer steel that dampens vibration just a bit, and also makes for a less laborious sharpening process. The only western planes that I know of with that high a quality of steel are, again Lie-Nielsen and Veritas. But their blades are of one solid piece of steel and that slows the grinding process considerably. Hardened, quality steel is important for achieving and maintaining really fine cutting edges. Less expensive planes scrimp on this and are, as a result, quite inferior. You will notice that the good western planes have thicker blades than the cheap ones, close to the dimensions of the Japanese ones. This aids greatly in achieving a smoother cut.

    So which style of plane is for you? If you are new at this, try and find a friend or a store that has both kinds. Take a number of strokes with them and see if you don’t start to feel a stronger urge to keep one of them in your hands. My sense is that most westerners will see the western style plane as more recognizable, and perhaps tend to go that direction. There is a long history of craftsman all over the world becoming maestros with their western planes and doing magnificent work. Same with the Japanese planes, although I will say that if you check online you will find footage of Japanese masters whose work with a plane will make your jaw drop. But, in the end, it is each individual’s familiarity with their own planes that is the greatest predictor of success. That and developing a great deal of skill at the sharpening stones.

    If I was pushed to make a recommendation, I would lean towards Japanese planes and chisels for one simple reason: the steel.

    By Jonathan Cohen Tools
  • 26 May

    And the envelope, please…Some thoughts on my favorite tools

    Chisels – Western chisels can be very good, but only if you are willing to pay top dollar for them. I like the feel of Japanese chisels better and would lean that direction. Plus, they have that beautiful steel.

    Planes – see Chisels above

    Hand saws – okay, this is a plain and simple rout. Western saws: heavy, thick, cumbersome. Japanese “pull saws”: light, effortless, and remarkably accurate.

    Marking gauges – Old/cheap style western marking gauges use a sharpened brad to mark the wood and it just kind of crushes the wood. The Japanese gauges use a sharp knife which is much better but can wander with the grain. The newer, nicer western ones use a rolling wheel cutter and would be my first choice.

    Sharpening stones – Western-style oil stones / hard Arkansas stones: oily, messy, (I do NOT like oil on my tools), and oil is thick and masks the feel of the cutting action. Don’t even want them in the same zip code as my tools. Japanese water stones: clean, easy to true when needed, and you can develop a very nice feel for the polishing through the thin water. Crucial. Wouldn’t trade my water stones for a king’s ransom.

    Hand power tools – Japanese: not so great. American, British, etc: nothing special. Anything else: wonderful as long as they are made in Germany by Festool.

    Measuring tools – Made in the US of A: Starrett!

    Wood – all over the world- It’s a smorgasbord out there.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts Tools
  • 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
  • 28 Apr

    On the importance of sharpening

    A very large percentage of the work in woodworking is cutting. Sawing is cutting. Boring is cutting. Planing, joining, chisel work, spokeshaving, using a file or a rasp, arouter, a biscuit joiner or a Domino, are all processes where wood is being cut by something harder than the wood is. And though you might think of it this way, even sanding (uggh), is cutting. You could say that being able to cut wood well is one of the most vital aspects of making things in wood.

    And the most vital aspect of cutting is a sharp tool. I have never known a woodworker, (and I have known quite a few), who couldn’t sharpen well who was capable of producing much work of note. And, conversely, I have never known any who were very skilled at keeping razor sharp edges on their tools who were not also producing some magnificent pieces for the world.

    It is interesting to note that different kinds of tools tend to be kept sharp in different ways. Sandpaper is not actually sharpened, but thrown away and replaced by newer sharper sheets. Machine knives such as are found in tools like jointers and planers, as well as router bits, are for the most part sent out to “sharp shops”, specially equipped with sophisticated machinery. The machinery they employ is generally out of the question for small and medium-sized shops. And these kinds of shops are not typically producing so much work that they require frequent sharpening.

    Hand tools, though are an entirely different matter, and any woodworker who is good with a plane or a chisel, a spokeshave, or a scraper, has these cutting tools in their hands a large part of each workday, and they are in constant need of sharpening. Sending them out to a sharp shop would become a huge hassle, waste of time, and expense. Fine work requires very sharp tools by your side always. In addition, the space and especially cost requirements for sharpening hand tools is so much less an issue. Really, just a simple grinder for western tools, or flattening steel for Japanese tools, and a few stones for honing the final edge.

    If I am in the thick of a project, it is not unusual for me to knock the irons out of a few planes and along with a few chisels, head over to my water stones. Some woodworkers never, literally, sharpen their tools. I wish I was more diligent about it. And then there’s my friend, Stephen, who on some jobs has re-sharpened his Japanese plane irons after a couple of strokes! His work? Sublime. I will write more about Stephen soon.

    Horace Greeley said, “Go west young man”. I say, “sharpen, sharpen and then sharpen some more”.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 23 Apr

    A Good Week at Ebanista

    This has been a very rewarding week for the Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking.

    Three different students emailed or texted us to say that they were going to quit their jobs or abandon prior plans, and pursue fine woodworking with everything they have. It is gratifying to think we are reaching our students on such a deep level. And I am just a little jealous of them, ( by the way, one is still a teen, and another is approaching 50), as I remember feeling EXACTLY the same way more than 40 years ago.

    The next time I regret that decision will be the first.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
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