Q&A with Some of My Woodworking Mentors
(If you want to know more about this series, please see the first installment)
Woodworkers in the Pacific NorthWest (or anywhere, really) owe it to themselves to take a class at, or at least visit, the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. Its beautiful setting, fully appointed workshops, and capable staff make it a truly worthwhile destination. Visionary founders Tim Lawson and Jim Tolpin have set out to ensure that traditional woodworking skills will not be lost to the grinding of time, and they are doing an admirable job.
If you cannot visit the school, Jim Tolpin's New Traditional Woodoworker is a great overview of his approach to the craft, mixing modern sensibility with ancient design and methodology. He doesn't stop at furniture making, he also builds these incredible Gypsy Vardos (atop modern trailers instead of horse-drawn wagons)
One of Jim's Gyspy Vardos
I've enjoyed being a student at the school as well as talking with Jim about his visions in founding the school, the possibilities for helping preserve woodworking lore, and more. While he humbly denounces his own skills as a fine furniture maker, his knowledge runs stupendously deep, and his works are beautiful. He has recently been rethinking design, using ancient principles and tools to decode the harmonious proportion visible in nature and bring it into buildings and objects. Working with George Walker, he is soon to release a book about this style of understanding proportion, tentatively titled By Hand and By Eye.
I am The Joiner's Apprentice (TJA) asking a few questions of Jim Tolpin (JT):
TJA: How did you get started in woodworking, and what are the major changes you have seen since then?
TJA: Thank you, Jim!
JT: Got started in Junior High School, classic case of building a birdhouse for mom. Ended up with an A in the class because I enjoyed it and the teacher could tell. I think most of the other kids just threw chunks of wood at each other during class and he was pleased to see a kid actually focus on woodworking. Nothing really has changed for me since then; it is still enjoyable and it is still my focus.
TJA: What is your favorite style to work in? what styles do you just not understand or have no interest in?
JT: I am drawn to the everyday/utilitarian styles and products of the tradesman (and especially their products for other tradesman: i.e. the village carpenters/wheelwrights/boatbuilders.) I appreciate the high craft of the cabinetmakers but have little personal interest in high-style furniture.
TJA: What tools do you always look forward to using and/or what operations do you most look forward to, time after time?
JT: A sharp woodworking tool is a joy to use---because it can do what it was designed to do. I seem to especially like sawing --crosscutting boards in particular-- so darn satisfying! Of course, everybody likes a sharp plane snicking its way across the wood, but somehow the saws call to me.
TJA: Outside of your teaching, home repair, etc, how much time do you actually get in your shop in a typical week?
JT: Some weeks more time than others, but I’d say an average of a full day per week. I hope to increase that time significantly as I back out of other commitments. Woodworking with hand tools is now the most enjoyable way in which I spend my time, even if its just sharpening and putting away the tools for an hour.
TJA: Would you be able to recount experiences with your mentors and how you learned from them?
JT: Save this for another time, its a long story. Let’s just say I was lucky enough to be around some trades people early on in my woodworking career who were at the tail end of a generation of traditionally trained artisans and who were willing to pass on some of their know-how to a young whippersnapper outside any formal apprenticeship.
TJA: You have helped start a school called The Port Townsend School of Woodworking and Preservation Trades. Is this teaching trades related to preservation, or are you aiming to preserve the trades themselves? Or both? What is your real vision in founding the school?
JT: Its really about preserving the trades (and their standards), at least that’s my focus with the school’s programming. Other aspects of what we do involve training people to do the work of preservation using a mix of traditional and contemporary techniques.
TJA: As a woodworking teacher, what have been the biggest lessons the students have taught you?
JT: That its not enough to know the right way to do certain things---I need to know why its the right way or I shouldn’t be teaching it..
TJA: What is happening in the world of woodworking that you think is not getting enough press?
JT: I would love to see the Media show people that they can get into woodworking, and learn the joy of woodworking, without having to be thrust into the world of machines. It would be nice if they would come right out and say it around the ads for table saws: YOU DON”T NEED A TABLESAW TO DO WOODWORKING!!!!! Or a router, or a power sander, or a laptop plugged into a CNC machine etc.
TJA: Have you been able to get any of your children interested in woodworking?
JT: All of them to some extent...some to a large extent...others to simple appreciation.
TJA: You mentioned that in your hand-tool oriented shop, you can now listen to music clearly. What do you like to listen to?
JT: If you came into my shop today you would have heard “First Aid Kit”...female vocalists from Scandinavia singing sweet American folk(ish)/country music originals.