Chris Schwarz's Blog

Out of the Dark Ages

It’s about 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and I am severely deprived of caffeine as I follow Thomas Lie-Nielsen through the narrow passages of his tool factory in Warren, Maine. He moves so quickly up and down the steps that I’m always five paces behind, despite my longer legs. Tom flings open a door on the second floor and unwraps his scarf and coat in one fluid motion.

Tom has invited me to attend one of his company’s weekly staff meetings, where he hands out paychecks and talks shop with the employees of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. I catch up with him a few beats later and he’s already sorting through papers on a desk.

But even before this early morning meeting with all the employees, Tom holds another meeting with a few key employees in this bullpen that serves as the office for him and several other employees. They briefly look over some production numbers, discuss the health of a few machines and then head to the shop floor. The all-employee meeting is held in an area directly behind the Lie-Nielsen showroom where employees heat-treat the blades and assemble the planes before shipping them out.

At this early hour the sky above Warren is dark and so are the halls of the toolworks. But as I step onto the shop floor I squint. My eyes adjust to the bright lights above and then I see it. Something that is completely startling.

No, it’s not the company’s No. 4-1/2 anniversary plane in bronze. It’s the people in the room. There are dozens of them standing around the boxes filled with castings and lever caps and chipbreakers. Tom is moving around the room handing out a stack of paychecks, calling out each person by name and chatting with them briefly.

Within a few moments all of the employees are performing stretching exercises and Tom is sketching out the news of the day. One of the new machines has some bearings that need replacing. The numbers from the West Coast woodworking shows are in. The block plane group has been making its production numbers regularly this week.

The employees clap at the news, except for a group standing near me. It’s the block plane group, and then it dawns on me. I’m just a bit amazed that there could be a group of people who make block planes. In fact, it’s amazing that there are so many people in this world who all build hand tools in this post-handwork, post-industrial country.

I’ve had this feeling before, mind you. A few years ago I toured the Veritas manufacturing facility in Ottawa, Ontario, and was struck dumb at how many people were engaged in building hand tools. I followed Rob Lee around the Veritas plant and warehouse for more than two hours and we still didn’t see it all.

It’s experiences like this that give me real hope for the future of craftsmanship on this continent. In order for woodworking in North America to survive, there needs to be a steady supply of good quality new tools (both with a power cord and without) available to the public. Without those new tools, the craft is destined to become just a quaint sideshow at living history museums and on television.

It’s actually somewhat of a miracle that we still work wood at all. It is, after all, more expensive to build a piece of furniture from scratch (in hours, tools and time) than it is to buy a piece of furniture from a discount furniture outlet. But still we persevere. All of us.

Mark Swanson, Lie-Nielsen’s patternmaker, chatted with me for a moment as the early morning meeting geared up. Then he said: “You better do your stretches, too.”

So I did. And I’m glad to be a part of this.

– Christopher Schwarz

Editor’s Post Script: The reason I was at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks this week was to shoot footage for two new DVDs , one on card scrapers (surprise) and the other on how to use handplanes when building carcase furniture. There is no word on release dates , I guess that depends on how many foul words they have to edit out of my footage. But if you do choose to buy the DVDs, remember that all my proceeds go to benefit the Early American Industries Association, one of my favorite old tool groups.

5 thoughts on “Out of the Dark Ages

  1. Mike Wenzloff

    I think the feelings are valid. How many countless people who took woodworking within our school system remained working wood in some fashion–or chose to return to it once the press of life subsided?

    But I have hope. The industrial revolution didn’t squash people’s desire to work wood even though it brought about less expensive "finer" furniture. The resurgence of woodworking as a hobby beginning in the 1970s brought about an interest at about the same time school programs began to dissapear.

    That’s my era. That’s when following my school exposure in the 1960s and early 1970s people a little older than I got interested. It is our challenge to pass along a love for creativity in the arts–not just woodworking–in lieu of the public education system’s abandoning the arts, including woodworking.

    I think most people have an innate need to express themselves in some medium. The challenge is how to help those who wish to explore woodworking as a means of expression? I dislike ending with a question in place of a suggestion. But there it is. Perhaps it is a question of exploring ideas with the readership.

    Take care, Mike

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    Dan,

    I hope you are correct that we have an inate need to work wood. It might be true for a certain segment of the population.

    But how will they ever realize they have this innate need if the training programs have disappeared from the schools? I think a lot more people would become woodworkers if you could put them in a shop with good tools and a good teacher.

    That’s the challenge that no magazine or book or TV program can ever surmount.

    Chris, feeling negative this Sunday.

  3. Dan Crisp

    Chris, I am encouraged when I hear things like you mentioned about some tools still being made (well) by hand. And more encouraged to hear of companies like Lie-Nielsen that care about employees.

    While I share the belief that the production of quality tools needs to continue for the craft to be vital, I think that woodworking will survive not because of the production of tools, but due to the fact that some people have an inate need to work wood. Much like the cooking industry (look at how many cooking shows and websites there are today), woodworking has a dedicated following that will stick with it, even when costs dictate they shouldn’t.

    Going back to my cooking example, I’m sure I could buy many things at my local Costco for far cheaper than I could ever make them. But I’d miss out on shopping for the ingredients, the satisfaction I get preparing the food and the enjoyment I get (after waiting through all the processes up to that point) in eating it. In much the same way, woodworkers will always survive, because we get satisfaction and enjoyment out of it. If there are enough of us in the future, which I think there will be, then we’ll become the natural market for those tools. I think if anything, we will dictate the types and quality of those tools by our purchasing power. But I don’t see the general quality tools (like at the big box home stores) changing in the near future, either. Because for as many dedicated woodworkers there are, there are plenty (like me) who are the handymen, who survive in their skills by owning some good quality tools and some cheaper quality ones.

    Thanks for the quality editorials and keep up the good work. BTW Chris, when will we see you at some West Coast WW events?

  4. Michael Rogen

    Mr. Wenzloff (whose saws are things to behold), speaks the truth when he says that you are a lucky man. Indeed Chris you are a lucky man. But then all of us who are reading this are more the luckier still, because we get the benefit of your experience to see and hear what most of us mortals would miss otherwise. I for one am greatefull.

    So thank you Chris for allowing me to live vicariously through your eyes.

    All the best,
    Michael Rogen

  5. Mike Wenzloff

    Lucky man, Chris!

    It would be not only great to follow TLN’s footsteps for a day, but to be present while you are working there on a video would be icing on the cake.

    Ah, one of these days I’ll make it to the right half of the country.

    Take care, Mike

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