Crafting a Life – Episode 15

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 15, “The Canadians are Coming”

Before I launch in this time, I’ve got a favour to ask. I’ve always just posted “Crafting a Life” episodes on my website, with an automatic link going back through to Itunes. It turns out that my listenership’s growing (thank you everybody) but people are coming to it through the web site only. If you like this podcast, please consider going to Itunes and putting a like on the episodes that you enjoy. This’ll really help others to find the podcast.

Woodworkers spend a lot of time thinking about tools. As I have said before, I believe true craftsmanship’s a relationship with material more than just accuracy or technical skill, but clearly the use of tools is the only way that we woodworkers can manipulate our material. Every tool is essentially a balance between performance, personal sensitivity and cost. Every maker, whether professional or amateur, is looking for a tool that best suits their practice. The more refined your work is, generally the more demand you place on the performance of your tools, whether they are hand tools, power tools or machines. I’ve seen some incredibly heated and passionate debates about tools (especially online), with people arguing over the merits of this tool over that, and its hard not to crack a smile, because almost always this obsession with and knowledge about tools does not translate into beautiful work.

Consider this; we now have access to the best tools and machines in the history of woodwork. We have better books, videos and classes than ever before. Our timber is better understood than in any other period. We have access to a wide range of man-made sheet materials which makes a whole lot of previously very complex techniques much more accessible.  About the only thing that’s going against us is the relative scarcity of quality timber, but even that can be fixed with money to an extent. If you see hand-made furniture that you don’t like, the culprit is not the tools or the machines or the education, it’s fashion and our cultural values at fault.

The Australian company Carbatec is a woodworking tool retailer that’s based in Brisbane, but has stores and an online presence around the Nation. Carbatec’s core audience is the blossoming amateur market, as well and the remnant professional market. Carbatec sell a lot of Veritas tools.  Veritas is a Canadian company that designs and manufactures tools for the woodworking community. Carbatec recently brought Wally Wilson and Vic Tesolin over from Canada for something they called the Veritas Downunder event. This was a whistle-stop tour of Australian woodworking hot spots so that Vic and Wally could do a series of presentations on all things Veritas.

Like most professional woodworkers, I’ve some Veritas tools, but I am not wedded to that particular brand. I assess each tool based on that specific tool’s merits. I have a mix of HNT Gordon, Lie-Neilsen and Veritas hand tools, as well as a variety Japanese made tools. I’ll use whatever I feel the most comfortable with. So when John Madden, the organiser and tour manager from Carbatec, asked if he could bring Vic and Wally to my workshop for a look around I thought to myself, yeah, that could be fun, but I didn’t bake a cake.

Well, I was in for a surprise. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but these guys were not it. I suppose I was expecting a couple of salesmen. If you’re passionate about what you do, there are few things more enjoyable than to chew the fat with an expert in your own field. I’m sure that just about everyone in every type of work understands this. Hell, that was part of the fun in the movie Kenny; Kenny could talk portable toilets all day. Being Canadians, Vic and Wally could look at the Australian scene from the position of one-step-removed. I’ve often thought that the informed outsider sees more than the insider ever will. It was interesting to hear their take on the world market for woodworking tools and the different cultural approaches to the craft. They seemed pretty pleased with what they had seen in Australia so far, and of course Canadians and Australians have pretty similar world views.

The word Veritas comes from the Latin, and its simplest translation is “truth” however it can also be translated as “the truth of the matter” or perhaps even “the heart of the matter”. Veritas was also the name of the goddess of truth in the Roman Pantheon, so, just as the word “Grace” can be a name, a description of movement or a state of being, there is a lot going on in the word Veritas.

It’s an interesting choice for the name of a company that makes tools. Veritas tools. Are they saying these are God like tools, true tools, the truth in tools, or a search for the truth in tools? My son Callum’s studying Latin, so I’ll have to get his opinion.

Wally, Vic and I are all focussed on performance within a defined set of parameters such as build quality, price point and production capacity, with a bit of crazy thrown in on top. Everything about the Dunstone Design workshop reflects how we see our craft, from the serious equipment that we own to the joke names that we give our machines. Just about every machine or work station in our workshop inspired a collegial conversation about work flow, staff management and decision making. That all sounds a bit “high falutin” when talking about four blokes in a shed, but it matters to us.

It turns out that Vic’s worked as a self-employed furniture/designer maker, but he’s been with Veritas now for a number of years. Vic follows the development chain of a new tool from the concept through the extensive prototyping, pre-production, road testing and, ultimately, demonstrating the final piece. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Vic’s also a woodworking author and his recent book is called The Minimalist woodworker. This book is aimed at just getting people making.

As you’ll know from this podcast, I’ve always been a professional woodworker, never an enthusiast or a hobbyist. I find it hard to put myself in the hobbyist’s head space, for obvious reasons. I’m always seeking the right result in the most efficient way, because that’s essentially the value proposition that I offer my furniture customers- my personal enjoyment is a very secondary consideration. Vic takes a practical no-nonsense approach in his book, noting that the home woodworker has a limited budget, a restricted work area and significant time restraints on what he or she can achieve. Vic’s whole thesis is that you can get on with your woodworking with a minimum of tools and space, as long as you are doing it right.

At present, there’s a sort of world wide hand tool renaissance going on that would appear to imply a criticism of machines and power tools. Some people are taking a high-church approach to hand tools, with the implication that if you are using any machines, you’re not doing it right. This is sometimes hilarious to watch, as the exponents fall over each other trying to cover up their inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, this type of woodworker gets excited about a completely handmade Philadelphia tall boy and will whisper things like, old masters and the integrity of using hand tools. They will also get excited about a Sam Maloof rocker, and also whisper things about master craftsmanship. The fact that Sam used a wide variety of power tools and only fell back on an edged tool as a last resort is somehow lost. Vic takes a simple, practical approach and says that a basic set of hand tools, and the fundamental knowledge of how to use them, gives the home woodworker a chance to make good woodwork, without the need for extensive machines or space.

For example, let’s imagine you live in a town house with a small garage, cranky neighbours and a new baby in the house. It would be easy to say “I have nowhere to do woodwork, and no way of doing it”. Vic points out that with a small but serviceable bench, a good jack plane, a good block plane, some chisels, a descent shooting board and a descent set of hand saws, you are pretty much up and running. And he’d be right. Vic is not saying that using hand tools brings you closer to God, or that machines are somehow evil, he just wants to get us all working wood. If I was an accountant by day and a wood worker at night or on the weekend, I couldn’t agree with him more.

Wally Wilson is not a woodworker in the capital “W” sense, rather he’s a business major who considers the economics and opportunities of what Veritas does. For example, hand planes are relatively expensive to design, manufacture, distribute and market. Especially if, like Veritas, you’re prepared to re-think how a plane should look, work or feel. Wally made the simple point that if a Veritas tool does not bring something new to the table, they don’t bother bringing it to market. Vic commented that Veritas is Jazz, not classical music. Veritas does the machining in house, but they do not own a foundry. Instead, they employ the services of a variety of specialist businesses to make some of the key components, especially when it comes to castings.

There’s a lot involved to cast an accurate body for a Western style hand plane. Hand planes are a very high performance tool, and it only takes a very minor casting defect to compromise the tool. The potential loss rate on such castings, especially of the larger designs, came as quite a shock to me. Understanding all the engineering and economic parameters of how to produce and distribute a range of hand planes at a price point that does not exclude a large number of people is a heck of a job, but Wally was across it, and happy to talk about it. He used the term “opportunity cost” when discussing the decision making process, and it’s a term that really resonated with me.

Vic, Wally and I had a lot of fun trying to understand each-others constraints, opportunities and innovations. Our workshop has a lot of custom solutions to our particular manufacturing challenges, so it was interesting to discuss both the problems and the solutions with guys who do this for a living, just with a different set of challenges. I was delighted when Vic picked up on a couple of really small but important things that we did and said “hey, that might work for me, I’ll try it back home”. That speaks volumes about the guy. He also bought one of our Ubie mallets and MacFarlane Bowsanders, just because.

The day following the Veritas visit to my workshop, my staff and I trouped out to the Bungendore Woodworks Gallery for Vic’s and Wally’s official demonstration and discussion session. The Canberra and Queanbeyan area is chock full of good woodworkers and there was an excellent turnout at this event. David and Stan from the Bungendore Woodworks Gallery had done a stand-out job of promoting and organising the session, so it was a packed house. They even organised a free soup dinner for the hungry hordes of die hard woodworkers when the talking was over.

You can’t fake genuine enthusiasm for what you do. I’m sure that many, if not most, of the people in that room learned something new about hand tools and tool design. I know I did. Perhaps some of them will buy more Veritas tools down the track, but at no time did these guys go the hard sell, which I for one really appreciated. They presented their products, they explained why they’d designed it the way they had, they showed us how to use it the way it was intended, they discussed how it was manufactured and they even explained the limitations of some of their tools. It sounded just like me talking about our furniture. Never trust a salesman who tells you that their product is the complete answer.

In truth, when it comes to planes I’m probably still an HNT Gordon, then Lie-Neilsen, then Veritas man, in that order, but that is a horses-for-courses thing. Terry Gordon designs his tools specifically for Australian hardwoods. Terry’s planes and spokeshaves are spot on for Australian conditions. Lie-Nielsen make classic planes and they are good at it, so again it is hardy surprising that a classically trained professional woodworker, who is probably less sensitive to price point than a home woodworker, is going to lean that way. But heck, there is still a lot in the Veritas range that I could put to good use, and more to the point, if I was a home enthusiast I certainly know where I would be putting my money.

Woodworking covers a broad spectrum of skills and talents. Some of you listening will be avid woodworkers, some of you will be professional wood workers while some of you are just interested in fine furniture. I’m petty sure that all of you would have enjoyed the Veritas Downunder presentation, because it’s always interesting to hear experts who are passionate about what they do discussing their work.

You’ve been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please consider going to Itunes and giving it a like, it really helps me out. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.