Chris Schwarz's Blog

Ron Herman: Mojo and Thousands of Hand Tools

Today most of the magazine’s staff spent the day with Ron Herman, a seventh-generation housewright in Columbus, Ohio, who has spent the last 29 years building, remodeling and restoring homes and historic sites , in many cases using only traditional tools.

His small shop north of the city is one of the wonders of the Western world. Amongst the machinery (much of it converted from a line-shaft system) are more hand tools than your eye can possibly take in. If this were a tool collection, it would be stupendous. The fact that Herman sets up all these tools and uses them is mind-blowing.

Herman spoke on handsaws at out last Woodworking in America Conference. But he knows about a lot more than saws.

I’m still trying to process all my notes and photos for a future article. Herman can talk. And his shop is a feast for the camera. In the meantime, I’ve pulled out a few good quotes from my notebook and some of the photos I took during our visit.

“You have to have good mojo. You don’t screw widders and orphans for tools. Some guys will come in here and say, ‘I got this saw for $1 and it’s worth $500.’ I tell them to get it out of here. It’s bad mojo. That saw won’t cut straight or hold an edge. I believe in that stuff. Bad mojo will follow you around.”

“Tools all have life left in them if they fit your hand. Strip the handle. Salvage the parts. Whatever you do, don’t s*&tcan a tool.”

“We don’t own these. We are their stewards for the next generation. We keep them and prepare them for the next generation.”

“The more tools you have the more problems you can solve.”

“I drive tool collectors nuts. They bring me something mint in the box and I give them the box back. I have no problems using a tool from the 1700s. I say to (the tool), ‘How does that feel to have wood in your mouth again?’ “

“The earth’s gravity is a constant. I haven’t seen it change. It doesn’t run out of batteries. You can’t kick it down a hill by accident. It’s doesn’t lie. It can’t.”

- Christopher Schwarz

19 thoughts on “Ron Herman: Mojo and Thousands of Hand Tools

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Jonas,

    I’m not Ron Herman.

    As I stated on WoodNet, the plane’s casting was beyond repair before I hit it. I still have all its parts in a box in the shop — along with all the other irons, breakers, frogs and totes from pieces of junk that have passed through here.

    So I’m fine with it.

    Chris

  2. Jonas Jensen

    Chris
    How does this sentence sound knowing that you have smashed an innocent Stanley plane?
    "Tools all have life left in them if they fit your hand. Strip the handle. Salvage the parts. Whatever you do, don’t s*&tcan a tool."
    Brgds
    Jonas

  3. John Cashman

    I have a hard time believing he uses all of those braces as well. But he does use a gazillion saws. He really has it down to a science. Because of the kind of work he does, he has saws set up for every conceivable type of wood — even plywood! — and moisture content. When you make your living sawing by hand, I suppose you’d have to. I never saw so many saws, with sets in different wheeled cases, ready to use at a jobsite. Not this century, or the last for that matter. Sheer wizardry.

  4. Sean

    "The fact that Herman sets up all these tools and uses them is mind-blowing."

    Come now, there is no way that one man could possibly meaningfully use that many braces, or planes or plumb bobs, for that matter. He sounds like a very cool dude, but I really don’t buy that he uses a different brace on each day of the year, which it looks like it would actually require to give them all some "use."

    I have to say that I sympathesize. I often indulge in "back-ups" and double back-ups etc. of some of my favorite vintage tools because second examples came my way and I am so fond of the originals. One eventually becomes a sort of collector/steward even without the intent to become so and even with a very user mindset.

    I also agree about the karma/mojo thing. I’d love to spend some time around Herman.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Bjenk

    Chris,

    What a pleasant surprise that you would speak of Ron Herman. I have been very interested in him recently. My interest in contemporary "trad" Housewrights is growing and I want to know more about them and their trade. I found that I am more interested in Roubo’s menuiserie related to houses and apartments than furniture. Maybe we have focused so much on furniture and forgotten that the crafts are deeper and more complex than that. I’d like to see a traditional Housewright column appear in PW some day.

  6. John Cashman

    At the conference, he also said that he would never sharpen and use a saw made before 1880. I think it was 1880. "There’s just too many saws out there," he explained, to use something especially rare. So there is a balance to his approach, but for the most part, a tool is meant to be used. I’m glad Chris brought Ron into the light for us to see.

  7. Patrick Secord

    Hey Chris,
    were he and Roy separated at birth?
    Imagine all the ghostly hands and souls that have passed by while the tools prevail. Makes you also wonder how many projects and board feet that have been sawn, planed, chopped and drilled to this point, waiting to be pressed back into service.

    Cheers
    Patrick

  8. Stuart Hough

    Chris,
    I also caught several sessions with Ron. Sharp-tongued and opinionated…my kind of guy! I have come to believe, as he does, that we really are the stewards of the tools. On a different note, I’ve ordered a load of 2 by 6’s so I can start building up my pecs, abs and lats. I figure if sawyering gave him that physique, it’ll work for me!!! I just need to work on my left-handed sawing so I can be balanced!

  9. Jim Paulson

    Chris,

    Those photos exhibit what some might call "eye candy". His shop looks like a museum with so many beautiful handtools neatly organized and stored. It must have been a treat for you all.

    I am intriqued though by his quote, "The more tools you have the more problems you can solve." How about a qualifier? like until the shop is full or floor space is gone.

    Thanks again,
    Jim

  10. John

    I caught Ron at WWIA. He is incredibly knowledgeable. I hung around his booth as much as possible in addition to his classes and learned something new everytime he spoke. Very entertaining to boot. He changed the world of sawing for me. I now have 32 handsaws that cost less than a Lie Nielsen saw. Thanks to Ron I straighten, file and sharpen my own saws. The line that changed it all for me, "It isn’t you it is the saw, you can do this". I can’t wait to read the article, I only wish I could take more classes with Ron.

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