Recent News & Articles

  • 15 Apr

    The Joy of Making Things

    One of the obvious joys many, including me, feel from making things is the very real and tangible pleasure of seeing and touching and perhaps smelling and, adding all those things together, experiencing proof of our efforts. It is often said that some people are just naturally “makers”. But I would suggest that we are all naturally makers. Think of the youngest children and their innate urges to build or smear or collect, and the resultant beaming gestures towards their parents as if to say, “ Look at what I have made. Am I not wonderful?”

    I do not believe that act is based in ego, but rather a feeling of wanting to prove one’s value.

    And, while I think that making things is a way of having others acknowledge our worth, far more importantly, it seems to me, it is a very convincing way for each of us to see and reiterate for ourselves, our own worth.

    All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, find the feeling of satisfaction a real pleasure in our lives. Sometimes those moments of satisfaction are few and far between, and I would guess our general happiness level would necessarily ebb at those same times. And then, during periods of great satisfaction, must necessarily come great periods of happiness.

    When I was in college, I had two friends who were graduate students working in cancer research. They had been working for years on groundbreaking material, and I remember one day I ran into them on campus. I asked them how their work was going, and they casually mentioned that some researchers at another university, had, just days before my friends were to publish their work, beaten them to the punch. They seemed to take it in stride but I was crushed for them. It felt to me, as if they had poured themselves into their work for years and had very little to show for it. Similarly, I have counselor friends who sometimes work with patients for years and in the end see little change or actual regression. I am just speaking for myself, but it fuels my satisfaction, my sense of pride and, my joy with my life when I can stop and admire the work I have done, or even, am still doing. And quite often, and this is key, with work that produces physical results, such as a chef, or a gardener, or a furniture maker, this joy is there throughout the day. Besides not being smart enough, I could never be a cancer researcher.

    For me, every set of dovetails precisely cut, every piece of wood resawn and bookmatched to a mirror imaged thrilling composition, every chisel or plane edge honed to a sharpness that feels almost sticky, and every time a beautifully fitted drawer gives off a gentle “whoosh”, brings an adrenaline rush, and deep sense of all is well with the world. It may seem self-serving, but the warm feeling you get from squeezing a freshly baked loaf of bread, or running the gentle skin of your forearm against a wooden surface left smooth by an impeccably sharpened handplane, gives a person a sense of having really done something in a way that having sent off a stack of emails never can.

    Sadly, I suspect that the millenia old satisfaction in having done a hard day’s work, and seeing tangible results may be, for many in this digital-stationary time, an unobtainable moment. (Remember, no one ever said, “I want to just sit back and proudly reflect on an easy day’s work”. Or, at least I HOPE we haven’t come to that).

    The particular joy of woodworking for me comes from the inescapably absorbed and content feeling I have each and every time I am in my studio. My work would be too dangerous and/or too poorly done if I were not drawn so deeply in to virtually every one of hundreds of tasks any given piece of woodworking involves throughout the day. I could not begin to count the times I have completely forgotten to stop and eat my lunch, and occasionally even my dinner that same day, so delectably lost am I in my chisels, and squares, and spokeshaves, and clamps, and….. any one of hundreds of specialized tools I pick up every day.

    In my first studio I had when I was just starting here in Seattle were high ceilings with wooden beams overhead. The beam just over my workbench developed over time a series of small small holes in it. It came from my launching chisels up to the ceiling? Why?, you may ask, as many others have. Because sometimes people walk up behind me and shout my name when I am lost in a delicate process and I become terribly startled. Why, you will then ask, were they shouting my name? Visitors told me over the years that they would knock loudly on my door for a long time, and upon hearing no answer, they would open it, pass along my long racks of lumber, stop to call my name, and after still no response, come closer, until they would be just behind me, then whisper my name, and in a final act of frustration, shout it. Up until then I was delicately paring down the cheeks of a dovetail with a sharp chisel. The next thing I knew was fetching a ladder and climbing it to retrieve that chisel.

    Imagine being that absorbed in your work. It is a glorious way to reach the end of a day, the end of a year, to live a life.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 10 Jul

    Woodworking “Currency”

    A thing of value

    Currency might seem a strange title for a blog about woodworking, as so many of us woodworkers see so little of it. But I am speaking here of a different kind of currency. I am referring to something of very high value to a certain community.

    We could be speaking historically of cattle owned. We could be speaking of hand-woven carpets in Istanbul, or pristine tuna in the Tokyo fish market. Think of these kinds of currency as a sort of benchmark. Something, while not necessarily prized in other circles or societies, is highly valued in a particular one.

    Today, one can scarcely pass a fitness magazine without being inundated with articles on “How to get Six-pack Abs”.  For windsurfers it is “ How to carve the perfect high wind jibe”. For bakers it might be, “How to make the flakiest crust”. For woodworkers it seems there are never quite enough articles on “How to cut dovetails”.

    But I do not agree at all that cutting dovetails is either the most important, nor the most elusive skill germane to fine woodworking. For one, there are whole areas of crafting in wood that have nothing to do with them. They are beautiful, they are strong, and they are not so simple. But they are not a daily necessity, and they do not  always take so long to master.

    The real uber important skill to have in woodworking is sharpening. I cannot think of a single woodworking project that does not require it. And it is NOT easy to master. Probably, that is why a sadly high number of woodworkers never make more than a half-hearted attempt at gaining this skill. I maintain that I have never seen a person superlatively talented at maintaining his/her tools in a expertly honed state who was not also a very talented woodworker.

    Take the time to learn to sharpen. It is quieter, less expensive, and less dangerous. But far more importantly, it is produces much finer work and is light years ahead in terms of a satisfying way to work.

    By Jonathan Cohen Thoughts
  • 10 Jul

    Woodworkers I admire: Sam Maloof

    Sam Maloof

    Sam Maloof one of the three most influential woodworkers of the last seventy years spent most of his life working in a now famous home and studio that he cobbled together over many years in a lemon grove an hour or two east of Los Angeles.

    When you say Sam’s name, one piece of furniture immediately comes to mind, his iconic, and I do not use that word lightly, rocking chair. Its sumptuousness and beauty and comfort are known to everyone who either makes chairs and furniture, or  those who know and collect it. You will hear many a furniture maker, including me, speak of the difficulties of escaping that chair’s shadow. Designing a rocking chair can seem more like an attempt to make one that does not copy too slavishly Sam’s design. It is that good. In fact, I cannot think of a single piece of modern furniture that stands so alone on the mountain top.

    The other wonderful legacy of Sam Maloof was his absolute warmth and availability. He had a huge smile, (to go with his cartoonishly large hands-check out this video of him working), and had a kind word for all. Except maybe James Krenov. I do not know if the two ever actually met, but some of Krenov’s words seemed to rankle him. Krenov famously said in his first book, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook, “ I take a piece of fine wood and place it on my workbench, and just live with it for a while until it tells me what it wants to be”. Sam, who apparently had that anecdote repeated to him one too many times, finally muttered at one of his workshops in a stage whisper, “Yeah, well I tried that once , but the wood never talked , so I picked the damned thing up and started making a nice piece of furniture out of it.”

    A final delightful note about Sam, he had this wonderful touch: whenever he wrote, he calligraphed. Even in many of the letters I received during our friendship and correspondence, his hand written letters were always a series of beautifully arching strokes. That was wonderful to me, as I am also a calligrapher, and often cite those hand drawn letter forms as direct inspirations for my design.

    By Jonathan Cohen Woodworkers
  • 29 Jun

    Woodworkers I Admire: Martin Puryear

    Woodworkers I Admire: Martin Puryear

    Although it is unlikely that he would often be described as a fine woodworker, I believe Martin Puryear would be flattered to be described that way. That is not why he is famous. He is is recognized the world over for his stunning and obviously much regarded sculpture. But it is his uncommon attention to such high woodworking practices that make his work, to me, so extraordinary.

    I became aware of his work when I received a call 40 years ago from a doctor here in Seattle. She had an office for which she desired a few pieces of furniture. This was Puryear’s sister, Regina, one of my first and favorite clients ever. She clearly had a sense of doing things in a special way. She mentioned that she had to, as she had an extremely talented sculptor/woodworker brother.

    I have been following his work ever since. When you see it, and I hope you will, you will see a rugged yet very elegant vision. And if Mr. Puryear wouldn’t mind, I would like to describe his work, as a very rare and special marriage of a masterful understanding of his material, AND a genius vision of his art.

    By Jonathan Cohen Woodworkers
  • 27 Jun

    Woodworkers I Admire: Judy Kensley McKie

    Woodworkers I Admire: Judy Kensley McKie

    One of the woodworkers I have always admired  most is a woman working back east, in the Boston area I believe. Her name is Judy Kensley McKie and she was one of the first women to make a name for herself as a furnituremaker. And she has been working for more than 40 years and is rich in experience, but most of all, she takes a bit of a different and wonderfully inventive approach to her work.

    I have never had the pleasure of meeting Judy, but she and I both appeared more than a few times in the early days of Fine Woodworking Magazine. And while I immediately fell under the spell of her work, I also enjoyed her explanation of it. She mentioned not being obsessed with every single aspect of the techniques that went into the making of her pieces. Don’t misunderstand me. Judy is a very talented woodworker. But as I read it she didn’t want to fall into the trap of cutting dovetails for the sake of cutting dovetails. She has her attention on a higher prize. Her woodworking is merely the foundation for what she seeks, and in my opinion seeks marvelously well.

    Be sure to check out her work. It is hypnotic, it is serene, it is sometimes otherworldly, and it is never a slavish knockoff of some other woodworker who has come before her.



    By Jonathan Cohen Woodworkers
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