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The funny thing about teaching a woodworking class is that I always come away learning a few things, about woodworking and about other woodworkers.

I left Berea late Saturday afternoon, and the eight benches we built headed to their final destinations (with the exception of the bench built by Larry the Alaskan , he’s staying on for a couple other classes at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking).

During my 110-mile drive home, I made a quick stop at Starbucks in Lexington to wake myself up and then sorted out the week in my head. Here’s what fell out:

– All thickness planers should have digital readouts. After a week of using Kelly’s Format-brand thickness planer, I am convinced that adding an accurate digital scale to my thickness planer should be my No. 1 shop improvement this fall. The Format’s digital readout allowed us to get boards to an accurate thickness and width. And when we made mistakes, we could make replacement parts with little effort. I’m not a real gizmo-oriented woodworker (no lasers in my shop). This is not a gizmo. If I had my way, all planers would come with a digital readout.

– All jointer fences should be welded at 90Ã?° to their beds. Years ago, we fixed the jointer at the magazine’s shop so you cannot move its fence off 90Ã?°. I’d forgotten what a boon this was until I had to use jointers with adjustable fences. Many of the mistakes students made this week were the result of the jointer’s fence slipping. If I had my way, all jointers would come with 90Ã?° fences as the standard. Tilting fences would be an accessory.

– Wax is great for drawboring. I wrote about this already. After assembling several more bench bases this way, I became even more convinced.

– Matches are good for repairs. As we assembled these benches, many of the students dinged up their workbench legs with mallet blows. Some of these dings could be soaked out with water, but Kelly’s clothes iron was broken, so we couldn’t steam them out (a very common trick). Kelly showed us all a trick where he soaked a dent with water, then waved a couple lit matches close to the ding. This heated up the wood (it didn’t char it), and raised the dent. Cool.

– Using both hand tools and power tools is how I like to work. Some of the students were afraid I was going to make them cut the 3″-deep mortises by hand. Or true up all the rough stock with handplanes. Other students were shocked when a bit and brace was the only tool that would do the job well. Or how nice the bases looked after being smooth planed. I like to be able to choose from all the tools they make for woodworking. Some require electricity. Some require you to learn to tune them like an instrument. All of them have their uses (that’s not entirely true; I still roll my eyes at some of the accessories and jigs sold for both hand and power tools).

– Woodworkers are the nicest people I’ve met. I used to be a newspaper reporter. And after four or five years of that, I found that I didn’t much like the people I wrote about. (And they didn’t like me either, I suspect.). Woodworkers are different. I’ve met thousands of them since I started here in 1996, and I have never met a better class of people. And this class of eight people was no different. I’d trust them all to watch my children. Really.

I made it back home around dinner time, and my wife had (blissfully) ordered us all some Indian food. And there was Belgian beer in the fridge. Then I held down the couch for the rest of the evening and slithered off to bed for an unheard-of 10 hours.

After a few days the soreness in my arms and shoulders will dissipate, but the result of our labors , the eight Holtzapffel-style workbenches , will get set up and tuned up. And that is when the real work begins.

– Christopher Schwarz

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  • Steve H.


    I have thoroughly enjoyed your writings and look forward to possibly joining you next year at Kelly’s school.

    Having you and Kelly there, at one time, will be a great experience and I can’t wait for the opportunity.

    I learned a tremendous amount from Kelly last year, and the amount of additional knowledge and experience that I will get from both of you will be invaluable.

    –Steve H.

  • Kevin Thomas

    Hey Chris,
    Just to let you, 300 lbs (there abouts) of workbench helped keep my Chevy on the road as the wife and I drove thru the remnants of Hurricane Ike on the way home to KC. Thanks for all the time and knowledge that both you and Kelly shared with us.
    Your Student Kevin

  • Bjenk

    I have enjoyed your coverage of this class at Kelly’s school. I loved how you observed the students and talked about them. You are a born story teller Chris.

    After years of human relations in academia, I agree with entirely about the people in woodworking. Its what is fueling, in part, the passion. We a re a great bunch!

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