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  • 17 Nov

    He Taught Me Everything I Don’t Know

    In an earlier piece, I wrote about some lighthearted moments in my early days as a woodworker, and much of the craziness seemed to emanate from my time with my first boss, Al. Perhaps I poked too much fun at him, but there is one thing for which I actually am indebted to him: he taught me almost everything I know about running a woodworking studio/business.

    Not, I should point out, in the way you might presume. After observing him studiously for nearly two years I was in his employ, I realized he was kind of a divining rod. I literally make it a practice to not do anything he did, and do everything he would not. While it would be something of a stretch to say that I am knocking on the door of the Fortune 500, for more than 40 years my studio has run amazingly smoothly and free of any financial issues. (In fact, we have just published a new workshop offering here at the Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking called the Business of Woodworking and would encourage you to check it out).

    In some respects, I think you could say that Al ran his cabinet shop in a way that managed to make money. Kudos to him. But that is a pretty lightweight way to determine if he was managing it successfully. Not a single person who worked for him ever parted on good terms, nor do I believe the majority of his clients feel like they had been treated fairly. He rarely had repeat customers. Again, acknowledging that I am no business maven, from my point of view, customers who come back again, (and again- I have one client who has commissioned north of one hundred pieces. Am I proud of that? Inordinately, and very grateful,) are the best sign of a successful business. He showed no loyalty to his clients, and in turn, they felt none towards him. Big mistake.

    Rule # 1: DO ANYTHING FOR YOUR CLIENTS

    He was serially dishonest to his clients. Some of the time they were outright untruths. Often they were what might be referred to as an onerous white lie. He would tell them he would deliver a piece by a certain time and not even come within years. One time while he was out, I answered the phone- we were supposed to also be secretaries when he was not in- and the following conversation ensued:

    “Hello. Al’s cabinet shop.”

    “Hi, this is Mrs. Jensen. Do you know if my table is ready?”

    “I am sorry, Mrs. Jensen. We are not working on any tables just now, what does it look like?”

    “It is made of black walnut with tapered legs.”

    “Could you hold on just a second. I will go out in the shop and take a look”.

    (I asked my coworkers. One of them trotted up to the loft to a table covered in dust that had been there, apparently, for many years.)

    “We found it, Mrs. Jensen. But no one can remember ever seeing it being worked on”.

    “Hrrrrrrmph. He promised it to me by Thanksgiving.”

    “Ma’am, it is only June.”

    “Six years ago!!”

    When he got back a little later,

    I told Al “ That a Mrs. Jensen had called.”

    He panicked and asked, “Did you tell her that we were working on her table?”

    “Why would I tell her that? We are not.”

    “You should have lied to her.”

    “You pay me $2.45 an hour. I pray that I never sell my soul to the Devil, but I sure am not going to do it for that.”

    Rule # 2: NEVER LIE TO YOUR CLIENTS

    In 43 years I have never once delivered a commission late. It is so easy to do and I KNOW my clients feel respected. They tell me so.

    Al also had another curious business practice: he often padded the charges to his best clients. His rationale was that they were rich, so they could afford it. Several people over the years have suggested I charge my wealthier clients much heftier fees. Really? Where is the decency or logic in that?  I have sometimes gifted them something extra so that they know how much I appreciate their support of my work.

    Rules #3 & 4: NEVER “PAD” CHARGES ON TO YOUR CLIENTS. AND NEVER TREAT YOUR BEST CLIENTS AS ANYTHING BUT YOUR BEST CLIENTS

    In yet another shining example of Al’s business acumen, he made it a practice to pick petty fights with his employees after they had been with him for a while. He confessed that in that way he could get them to quit and hire new guys for a few dollars less. Unbelievable. Just when people have gotten some real experience and are more valuable to you, you run them out in an attempt to save a few pennies. 

    Rule # 5: DO MORE FOR YOUR EMPLOYEES AS THEY GET MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE AND MORE VESTED IN YOUR WORK

    Be loyal and grateful to them, and prove it to them financially. You will all win.

    You would think it would be child’s play to master the decidedly uncomplex notion of running a business on the very reduced scale of a small furniture studio. Anyone certainly can, but you have to see it as important. My incentive? Not running it well means I am ultimately not going to be able to keep my studio open, and I will not be able to do the work I love so much. So, thanks, Al. I owe you one.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 03 Nov

    A Little Foolishness

    Woodworking is and needs to be a huge dollop of focus and seriousness, at least whenever the machines are on. But there have been a few light moments along the way. You might think we are a pretty droll lot, but you would have another think coming.

    For me, the shenanigans started pretty much from the beginning. A few days after I turned twenty, I  started apprenticing at a Seattle cabinetmaker’s shop. I hopped on my bicycle one morning and peddled into work. My boss was a…..well, …..let’s just say he is going to get more ink in the next few paragraphs than he’d probably like.  (I should say, probably would have liked, he has passed on to the great tool shed in the sky.) I‘ll call him Al here because that was his name. He was kind of a fussy, nervous guy. And he was also kind of a, I believe the word is parsimonious, fellow. He was always scurrying around the shop complaining about not making enough money. I know it was not because of me and my three fellow shopmates because he paid us $2.45 an hour. Yes, you read that right. The minimum wage at the time was actually an astronomical $2.75 an hour, but that did not appear to keep him up at night. 

    On this one particular morning, I was squeezing in sideways through the ever-present boondoggle of unfinished projects that choked off the shop. Al, it turns out, really liked getting paid by his customers, but it seemed he felt no real compunction to actually deliver any of the work. As  I was trying to avoid crashing into any of the pieces in the shop, one of my co-workers, I will call him Reed, (yes, that is his real name- what did you think, this is the FBI?), scurried up and bumped me off balance and I fell against an expensive teak veneering job. He started laughing and saying, “you broke it, you broke it”. I, simpleton that I am, started worrying that I would never be able to repay the boss for my mistake, not on what I was earning. The panic must have shown on my face, but my new best friend, Reed, gathered me into a conspiratorial conference and offered to set the piece gently back in place and to trick Al into knocking into it. It worked far too easily. Reed called the Boss out into the shop, ran up to him and Al was knocked off balance, and became much chagrined when he saw that he had busted that expensive piece. He stalked off back to his office muttering about how much money it was going to cost him and I hugged Reed and felt like he was my new best friend. Later that afternoon he confessed that he had come in the night before to pick something up and broken the teak. I was feeling less chummy after that.

    Another lighthearted maneuver that the boys like to inflict on any newcomer involved glue. We used a lot of a glue back then which, if my memory serves me, was called Urac 185. It was a two-part glue that when mixed properly had the consistency of a milkshake and the color of caramel. One morning when I came into work, I headed over to my workbench, eager to review my progress from the night before on a nice little mahogany coffee table. And there, sitting right in the middle of it, was a nice 6 or 7-inch puddle of caramel-colored Urac 185 hardened to its usual indestructible best. I just stared at it in horror for what seemed like an eternity, until I noticed the guys were all snickering. Then one of them silently walked over and simply picked the glue patch off of the table, as if it were one of those rubbery fake vomit gags, and said, “Welcome to the monkey house”. I couldn’t wait until Al hired a new guy so that I would not have to be the reigning cretin.

    To add to Al’s list of redeeming qualities, while he was frittering around the shop and getting worked up, he often got tangled in a web of his words. I don’t mean lying, which he also did plenty. I mean just confusing them. (If it seems like I am being disloyal and unfair to him, read a future blog called He Taught Me Everything I Don’t Know- and you will see how lightly I am actually treading here. Really).

    One day Al came back from delivering a job, and whenever he got paid he was in a capital mood. For some reason, he wandered over to my bench in a talkative mood and seemed determined to detail his exploits at dinner the night before. I did whatever any chattel does when his boss speaks, I stared back absolutely rapt with attention. It seems the night before he and his wife, Barbara, had gone out to a pretty nice French restaurant in Seattle called the Brasserie Pittsbourg. Al was really getting into his story, and he said to me, “ Gawrsh. (Al always said gawrsh when he got excited). Gawrsh, Jonathan we went to the Pittsburgh brassiere last night”. I looked up to see if he was in earnest, having just mixed up a kind of French restaurant with a woman’s supportive garment, but he was just motoring on. He got more excited and told me that he was really happy because their friend had offered to pay for the wine and they had chosen a nice “Zindafel.” (that’s not a typo- that’s what he called it). But the real piece de resistance, (that’s not a typo either, and while it may seem a bit presumptuous to use a French term- you can clearly see the suitability of it here), was when he marveled at the news from the night before.

    “Gawrsh, Jonathan, you wouldn’t believe what happened later. Barbara ran into some of her old sorority sisters, and gawrsh if it didn’t seem like they were all having maserectomies”.

    My lemonade came squirting out my nose and I choked on the sandwich I was eating. He looked at me suspiciously and I knew I was heading for a place I might regret. But when he asked me what was so gawrsh darn funny, a cooler head was not mine for the asking, and I replied, “I am sorry, Al. it’s just you are the only guy I know who can make a breast operation sound like an Italian sports car.”

    To this day I do not know why he didn’t fire me on the spot. Later it turned out the whole shop had been listening in and I became a little folk hero for a day or two.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 25 Aug

    One Way to Go About Gaining Superlative Woodworking Skills

    Learning is not just learning. It is loving.

    When I was in college, I somehow ended up in a class in Russian Literature, a subject for which I do not recall having any particular affection. Just a few days into the semester, I noticed that the professor would start almost twitching with joy when she sensed one of us clueless freshmen getting just a whisper of what she was talking about. And I discovered that the teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject matter was as important to my enjoyment of the class, as was the class itself. Learning can be contagious.

    That has become, all these years later, one of the guiding principles here at the Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking. There are quite a few woodworking schools out here in the Seattle area and all across the country that can teach you some of the basic skills of woodworking. Some of them boast of having a good record of getting their graduates into commercial shop situations, and I salute them for providing that need.

    But, our goal at Ebanista is not to teach you to become a good woodworker. It is to teach you to LOVE being a really fine woodworker.

    When that intoxicating feeling hits you, and it will, the matter of becoming really good at this has already been taken care of. You will, of course, need to spend more hours than you can imagine in your shop and at your bench, to further your skills. But you know how love works: if you love something it ceases to become work.

    If you are considering getting into woodworking just to earn a living, I would suggest you will do neither. You will probably not earn a whole lot of money, and you will probably not get into it.

    If you let it consume you, you will probably do both. You will be in hopeless love with what you are doing with your life, and while you probably still won’t be busting any banks, the money you do earn will seem like a fortune because people who are commissioning you are actually paying you to do what you want to do more than anything. I sometimes feel a little sheepish when I sell a piece. But let’s keep that between you and me.

    By the way, there is a way to have your cake and eat it too. Develop the skills and the affection for all this and do not do it professionally. The difference between a professional woodworker and an amateur has absolutely nothing to do with skill. It signifies only that the former is being paid. Many amateurs do finer work (sadly) than many pros — the passion and love for learning shines through.

    Do it for love. Only love. The rest of the details will work themselves out.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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