Hand Tool School – Q&A with Mike Siemsen

I caught up last week with Mike Siemsen, a professional woodworker and woodworking instructor in Minnnesota. Mike’s hand tool school is known far and wide as a practical and fun place to learn hand tool skills that can make you a better woodworker. But Mike’s expertise goes a lot farther than that.

Here’s our conversation, the latest installment in the “Woodworking Daily” series of interviews with great minds in the woodworking community. And there’s a twist to the series – each interviewee will tell me who I should talk to next. Enjoy!

Mike Siemsen's hand tool school is a terrific place to improve your skills. Photo credit: Arlo Siemsen.

Mike Siemsen’s hand tool school is a terrific place to improve your skills. Photo credit: Arlo Siemsen.

Dan: What types of tool instruction are you offering these days, and what tools seem to be trending at your hand tool school?

Mike: I primarily teach hand tool skills as I believe the student gains a better understanding of wood as a material, and a solid foundation in sharpening and maintaining tools. Since most of my students are hobbyists I encourage them to use hand tools, especially if they are working in their basement. While I am not against the use of power tools I believe their place is in a stand-alone, production shop. It seems a bit foolish to me to introduce the noise and dust of power equipment into your home.

I try to tailor my lessons to the individual student as much as possible and I tend to show more than one way to accomplish a task, both with hand and power tools – sawing joints with hand saws and also using the bandsaw, for instance.

Saws and planes have always been of primary interest to my students. Having sharp, well-tuned tools makes woodworking so much more fun, and learning how to sharpen quickly and efficiently takes the drudgery out of the task.

Dan: What are the philosophies behind your woodworking business and your teaching program?

Mike: The main philosophy behind my woodworking business is to make enough money to pay the bills. I find all levels of woodworking to be enjoyable and I usually like working with customers. I prefer to make furniture, but that is not always an option. One day finds me planing a board off for someone, another day and I am turning a 4′-tall candlestick.

I believe that everything you need to know about woodworking – the big picture – can be summed up in 15 minutes. The rest of your career is practice and application of that knowledge.

With teaching, my goal is to be an enabler and get students into woodworking at the place they want to be. Woodworking can be an expensive pursuit, but it doesn’t have to be. It has always bothered me to hear someone say they would like to take up woodworking but can’t afford the equipment. It has so much more to do with gaining skills than piling up tools, though I must admit I do have a pile of tools. I take them in like some people take in orphaned puppies.

Dan: Where do you find inspiration and new ideas for your work?

Mike: Sometimes the inspiration comes from an individual piece of wood, other times it comes from a piece of period furniture. Sometimes I design around a technique that I want to try – hammer veneering or inlaying for instance. If you are working with a customer, the design comes from their needs and desires. I tend to look at the setting a piece will be in but I also have a certain way that I like to work. It all blends together so that everybody is happy.

I have an art minor and I enjoy going to museums and looking at just about everything in them. I just wander through and see what catches my eye, and then I spend some time with it. I enjoy seeing the skill and caring, the thoughtfulness, that other people put into their work. Nature is always just outside the door as well, ready to inspire.

Dan: Who should I talk to next?

Mike: Elise Walker. She moved up near me from Iowa a couple years back, and she’s a talented member of the guild.

Dan: Thanks, Mike! And a quick note for our readers who can’t make it to Minnesota for one of your popular hand saw tune-up classes … we just released “Super-tune Your Backsaw” in our store. This DVD will show you all the skills for refurbishing a flea market find. Buy it today!

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Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.

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