• 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
  • 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