One of the unseen forces in the modern renaissance of hand tool manufacturing is Fred West, a woodworker from West Chester, Pa.
Well, to be more precise, you might not know who Fred is, but anyone who makes or sells hand tools in North America knows him on sight.
Fred is clearly fascinated by tools and their makers and spends a lot of time, energy and his own money to help promote makers and their wares. He’ll buy several copies of a new tool and mail them anonymously to woodworkers he thinks need them or would like them. He commissions custom makers to build tools that will stretch their abilities or a design. He is, quite frankly, a modern Medici in this little world.
For years I’ve watched Fred work behind the scenes amongst all the toolmakers. He’s always encouraging the makers and helping them – and he never seems to ask anything in return.
Lately, Fred has been struggling with his health. To let him know how important he has been to this little world, I asked a lot of tool makers to share their best Fred West story. I think you’ll find their responses funny, inspiring and touching.
Get well soon Fred.
— Christopher Schwarz
Vic Tesolin, woodworker, Lee Valley Tools employee
Fred West is a machine. If he likes a tool or idea he will climb up the mountain and sing its praises until he goes hoarse. At WIA 2013, I was telling Fred about plans for a woodworking conference that my woodworking association will be putting on in 2014. As per checklist, Fred loved the idea and asked if he could come up to Canada to attend. Within hours, I had vendors and attendees alike stopping by asking for more details saying, “Fred told me I need to come to this event.” Because of Fred’s advertising, we have twice the talent who have committed to traveling to Canada to speak at our humble event.
Now…this is not to say that Fred is faultless. Fred is what you would call an enabler. He forces you to drink too much by shaming your manhood. In fact, I never even drank alcohol prior to meeting Fred West.
He makes us all look bad by having a host of medical issues, yet still shows up to do what he does. I mean the guy has to go in for an emergency root canal and is back an hour later stumbling around the showroom floor (due to the drugs, we think) until he is forced to go lie down for an hour. He also touched me in a questionable manner once but this may not be the venue in which to discuss it.
Despite his shortcomings, Fred West, in his own way, has done as much to promote hand tool woodworking as guys like Chris Schwarz (whoever the hell he is). He loves to promote the new guys on the scene while continuing to patronize the old guard. His love of tools and woodworking is infectious, and his personality is larger than life. Fred West is one of the best carbon-emitting meat bags that I know and I am proud to call him my friend.
In closing, Fred has inspired me to write this Haiku:
Fine hand tools surrounds
Must try them all before the
liver screams with bourbon
Our thoughts of healing are with you Fred, be well.
Mark D. Harrell, Bad Axe Tool Works
Everyone has a friend in Fred West, arguably the Will Rogers of our industry. Fred has been one of Bad Axe’s biggest boosters over the past five years we’ve been making saws. He’s always ready to share a laugh, talk tools and assess the market from the viewpoint of one who uses them daily in the pursuit of excellence. Generous to a fault and always inclusive with others, Fred is the kind of guy who will literally give someone the shirt off his back (rather, the tools off his rack) when it comes to mentoring newcomers to the craft. Fred’s prolific interest and usage of virtually every tool in the industry, coupled with his insightful commentary on form and function brings toolmaking up to higher levels of exposure, quality and accessibility to the market. I am very proud to call Fred West one of Bad Axe’s most important patrons and my personal friend.
John Economaki, Bridge City Tool Works
It is safe to say that in the world of contemporary tool makers, there is only one Fred West. Besides being every tool makers’ best customer, the money Fred has spent on tools is only exceeded by his phone bill – which by my estimation is responsible for at least 10 customer service jobs in the tool making world.
And the reason Fred spends so much time holed up in a back room on the phone? The monstrosity in his living room – the Fred West infamous “Entertainment Center,” which may be the ugliest piece of furniture I, or anybody, has ever seen. And if by chance you have not seen it, consider yourself blessed – it is worth hiding from.
Bob Zajicek, Czeck Edge Hand Tool
Fred was always a welcome encumbrance next to my bench at the many Lie-Nielsen and WIA Events he attended. He would dive in at the appropriate moment and offer a hearty recommendation to any prospective customer contemplating the purchase of a Czeck Edge tool. His advice always came from experience because he owned one of everything we manufacture. Or sometimes two! Of course that’s not saying much really, when you can boast of a six-item product line.
Robin Lee, Lee Valley Tools
Fred is one of those people who is genuinely interested in what you think. He has a deep appreciation for craftsmanship and commitment to principles. At times it seems that he is singlehandedly trying to support the industry, but for Fred, it’s not a matter of collecting tools – he uses and enjoys them all. Fred is a Patron of the woodworking arts, and as generous an individual as I’ve ever met.
Megan Fitzpatrick, Popular Woodworking Magazine
I’m fairly certain I first met you in person in the fall of 2009 at Valley Forge – but you’ve become such an integral part of my woodworking experiences that it feels as if I’ve known you since I first picked up a tool.
And it is thanks to your overwhelming generosity that I now have the pleasure of using some very fine tools indeed – which I know is also true for an astounding number of other woodworkers.
It is always a pleasure to see you – and I’m sorry I’m always too damn busy to spend more time talking. So while I may not have had the time to say it in person, know that your philanthropy, as well as your love for the craft and for fine tools, inspires me not only to (try to) do great work, but to be a better person. I hope to one day be able to give back as much as you do…or at least a quarter as much, because that’s as close as I could possibly come.
I am honored to be your friend – and I look forward to another big hug from you at the next conference (if not sooner).
Scott Meek, Scott Meek Woodworks
I would not be a planemaker if it weren’t for Fred West. He saw a picture I posted online of the first plane I ever made, and sent me a message saying he wanted to buy one. I have no idea what he saw, because that first plane was not anything special, but it caused me to have the crazy idea that I might sell more planes. I didn’t sell many the first couple years. Most of them, in fact, were sold to Fred. He didn’t just buy planes; he offered encouragement, new ideas, feedback on the planes he bought, told others about them and more. Without him, I would have quit pursuing planemaking for more than just myself long ago. Fred truly is a patron of the arts in regards to hand tools, and I can’t thank him enough.
Jameel Abraham, Benchcrafted
Fred West has a serious problem. Addiction.
It’s not a subject that is easily broached with Fred, since he, like many addicts, lives in a state of denial. Fred is addicted to fine hand tools. And how does he satisfy this urge? Easy. He buys one of everything. Well, that’s not entirely true. On several occasions we’ve seen him buy two, three, even six of the same tool. It’s shameful.
To make matters worse, he doesn’t simply keep these tools to himself, satisfying his own selfish addiction, but he often pushes them off onto others (free of charge, no less!), hoping they will get hooked, and that he’ll have another dark soul to wallow in his vice. To boot, he actually uses the tools to make things, further deepening his uncontrollable, insatiable appetite for the object of his wanton pleasure.
The first time we met Fred, his addiction oozed from him like a virus. After only a few minutes we found ourselves infected, handing over a handmade plane-adjusting hammer to him as a sort of antibiotic. But the regimen didn’t end before more of the illness reared its ugly head. We found ourselves the recipient of more generosity – this time a pair of hand-forged holdfasts. Perhaps the heat of the forge – somehow through the holdfasts themselves, would consume the addiction. Not so. The symptoms continued.
At our next meeting Fred introduced us to a young woodworker, perhaps 15 years old. We had the uncontrollable urge to give the young man a tool, free of charge. Damn this disease! Only later did we see the dark side of Fred’s addiction. In the alley out back, we saw Fred cutting a deal with the kid. No, they weren’t practicing their ripping technique, but exchanging tools! Stop the insanity!
In all seriousness, if there were ever a hand-tool philanthropist, someone who intensely wishes the success of the small maker, a man whose purpose it seems is the success of others, that man would be Fred West. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for his enthusiasm and support (nor does he ever express the need for it) so on that note, thanks Fred! By the way, Fred, we’ve got another vise coming out soon, just so you know…
Ron Brese, Brese Plane
It’s hard to put into words a proper description of a person who’s been a great friend and has funded my product development for the last seven years. I hope this word equation does it in an adequate way.
Joel Moskowitz, Tools for Working Wood
Fred West has been a great supporter of Tools for Working Wood. He loves tools, of course, and he enjoys supporting new makers. But my best Fred West story has very little to do with tools or us. Fred commissioned Ford Hallam, (http://www.fordhallam.com/) to make him a tsuba, the guard on a Japanese sword. Tsubas are typically decorative and reflective of a craftsman’s metal art. Ford Hallam’s tsuba turned out to be a work of staggering beauty that won the top award for tsubas in Japan. It was a particular honor for Ford as the first non-Japanese metal artist to win the award.
Now, many collectors who commissioned such an incredible piece of art would be careful to keep grubby hands off their work. Not Fred. At Woodworking in America this past fall, Fred – knowing I was interested – took me aside and showed me the tsuba. The amazing tactile feel of the tsuba was met by its visual beauty. Fred also let some of my colleagues in the booth handle this high art. As metalworkers, they really appreciated the opportunity.
But the best was yet to come. If the point of museum patronage is to let everyone learn about culture and art, Fred’s patronage of Ford Hallam’s work meets the highest test. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Japanese armor section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with my son. Because of my exposure to Fred’s tsuba, I was able to appreciate the tusbas in the museum’s collection, and the rest of their Japanese armor, on a whole new level. This is what art patronage can foster and Fred gets all the credit for leading me forward.
By the way, Fred’s tsuba is nicer than the ones on display in the museum.
Dave Jeske, Blue Spruce Toolworks
Fred has to be the winner of the modern toolmaker’s Cheerleading Lifetime Achievement Award. Before the start of every WIA, Fred will come over to my booth and find out what I have that is new or special. After a sometimes short, but usually quite lengthy, discussion of the features, benefits, etc., he will buy it on the spot. This immediately boosts my spirits and gives me confidence to start the show (I am not a very good salesperson). He not only does this with me but with all of the so-called “boutique” toolmakers. He is an equal-opportunity kind of guy. During the show, Fred then loops around to the different booths and with unbridled enthusiasm, pulls unsuspecting future customers into the booth to show them what they absolutely have to buy. He will repeat the specs and attributes with uncanny accuracy and salesmanship which makes me just step back and think, “Man, I wish I was more like Fred!”
Fred, Thank you for your never-ending support and friendship. Blue Spruce Toolworks would not be where it is today without you. Get well soon and we’ll see you at the next WIA!
Lee Marshall, Knew Concepts
As Hillary said “It takes a village…”
Or from My Fair Lady: “With a little bit of luck…”
Both of those are necessary to succeed. Nobody can do it by themselves. Too many think that they can do it on their own, but it doesn’t work, or if they achieve some success, just think of how much further and higher they could have risen with help.
Spartacus didn’t do it by himself.
I have never been a believer in the “great man” theory. The ability of someone to gather around them a group of believers in the message is what makes a movement.
Fred you are my greatest booster and gatherer of supporters and helpers. Without you, I would have still been making jewelry saws and would have saturated the market, and looking for something else to do.
You introduced me to the Festool Forum and gave me a space. You introduced me to Gary Blum and got him to loan me a bench for use at the WIA show (I’ve since bought one), you cajoled Shawn Russell to come help out at my booth the first year, you took me around the show and introduced me to almost everyone (including the janitors).
With friends like you, there are no enemies.