Great Woodshops: Craftsmanship Done Safely
by Megan Fitzpatrick
Woodworking teacher Kelly Mehler got his start in the schooling business in an unusual way. His first teaching job was to instruct patients at a rehabilitation center in woodworking basics using simple machinery. While working there, he took classes in the wood technology program at the Ohio College of Applied Science, which helped cement his interest in the craft.
“I looked all over Cincinnati for someone to apprentice under,” said Mehler, “but there was no one.” Thus, in 1976 he and his wife, Teri, packed up and moved south to Berea, Ky., where Mehler began his pursuit of a degree in industrial arts at Berea College with the intention of teaching in a vocational school and making custom furniture during the summer. Instead of completing the program, he headed out on his own to make custom furniture, and he put the teaching on hold for a while.
He began his career as a custom-furniture maker in 1978, in a shop he converted from an old barn in Mt. Vernon, Ky. Before moving in his equipment, he first had to pour a concrete floor and cut in windows. “It turned out to be a good sized, efficient workshop,” said Mehler, even if the air and heating left a bit to be desired. While he struggled to get the furniture business off the ground, Mehler spent a lot of time at juried craft fairs, which he used as a springboard to generate custom orders. He marketed a line of desk organizers, quilt racks and other items appropriate for the craft-fair market, but also took along one-off furniture pieces and his portfolio to show alongside the smaller items.
While the fair circuit was difficult, Mehler said there were many rewarding moments. “You got to see you weren’t the only one struggling. When you’re by yourself, you think it’s you, but spending time with other craftspeople helped me realize they were struggling, too,” he said. But the most important lesson was in creating production-line items. “The repetition builds skills and at the same time presents the challenge to maintain the quality of each piece – that teaches you a lot,” said Mehler. Eventually, through the contacts he made at the fairs, the demand for Mehler’s custom-furniture work increased, and he began to realize his goal of full-time custom work.
After two years in the Mt. Vernon shop, Mehler moved his business to a former car dealer’s building in Berea, where he remained until 2004. While building his custom furniture business, Mehler had many requests to teach. But he knew education wasn’t a job to take lightly and his business wasn’t set up for teaching. The space was great for building, said Mehler, but not for students. So, he honed his teaching skills through presentations to various woodworking guilds, and wrote articles for a number of woodworking magazines. Then, he recorded a video for The Taunton Press on building a Shaker table, and that led to a video on the table saw. “Before I knew it, I was ‘the table saw guy,’” he said.
Because of all his research, Mehler developed a deep understanding of the safety aspects of the table saw, and learned what it would take to make the machine safer. “That gave me a sense of responsibility. There was so little safety information – nothing of substance – so I felt I should publish what I’d learned, and work toward getting things changed. He’s since written (and then revised) the landmark “The Table Saw Book” (Taunton), and has helped to develop new table saw safety standards for Underwriters Laboratories.
Safety is of utmost importance to Mehler, and he’s troubled by the practices of many woodworkers. “Most people are not safe at the table saw, because of their role models,” he said. “They’ve been shown unsafe practices and they know it’s scary, but think, ‘that’s just the way it is done.’” His hope is that the new regulations, which provide a better guarding system, will make it easier for woodworkers to start using guards regularly. “My goal is to do what I can to change the culture,” he said.
After 10 years of teaching at woodworking schools and shows, Mehler has reached a lot of people with his message of table saw safety; it’s a litany he now preaches at his own school, Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking. The custom-built school opened in 2003, and is located on 10 acres at the base of an Appalachian foothill, a few miles outside picturesque and quaint downtown Berea.
Classes run from April through October, and usually consist of no more than eight students, which Mehler said is one of the strengths of his school. “It’s a laid back, friendly atmosphere, where instructors can provide each student with a lot of individual attention,” he said. Developing such good working relationships is important to Mehler, because he feels students are more apt to learn when they’re relaxed and comfortable. “When they have the teaching they need, they can blossom even more,” he said. And to make sure they have the teaching they need, Mehler hires expert guest instructors to supplement his own expertise and experience.
Finding interesting projects that dovetail with the skills being taught in a classroom setting is a major part of Mehler’s job. His challenge is to decide on projects that provide opportunities to teach a wide variety of hands-on woodworking techniques. “That way, my students are learning a particular kind of furniture construction that just happens to be part of (the project),” he said. “The end product is really the vehicle for learning fundamental techniques that prove useful across many projects.”
His teaching method is a balance of group explanations and one-one-one instruction. For each step of a project, Mehler gathers his students together for a hands-on demonstration, then sets them to the task while offering assistance where needed. All the while, Mehler and his shop assistant keep a close watch to ensure everyone is working safely.
It’s no surprise the shop is designed around a safety-first attitude, a consideration that extends to the machines Mehler has selected. The majority are by Felder, said Mehler, who feels they’re not only extremely well built, but that the guard systems and dust collection capabilities make them “much, much safer” than many other woodworking machines. Mehler is concerned that because this is such high-end equipment his students aren’t getting training on machinery they’re likely to own, but feels the safety benefits outweigh that concern. “The people who come to my school are my responsibility; I feel more comfortable with people using machinery on which the safety features are as good as possible,” he said.
Also, because many of his machines convert from one type of tool to another, they’re more space-efficient than a series of dedicated machines. The Felder BF741 Combo machine that sits in the center of the first floor of Mehler’s 30′ x 40′ shop is a jointer, mortiser, sliding table saw and shaper, all in one. He also has a Felder AD741 jointer/planer, a Felder KF700 sliding table saw/shaper and a Felder FD250 mortiser, as well as a Laguna 16″ HD band saw, a 24″ Mini Max band saw and an Oliver jointer, among other machines.
Off the back of the ground floor is a 16′ x 16′ shed full of lumber Mehler has acquired from a number of sources. Students can purchase from the shed, or supply their own stock.
Developing good wood sources and a keen eye for wood selection are lessons Mehler is eager to pass on to all his students, and it’s something he’s known for in his own work as well. “I’ve learned to seek out quality logs and have them sawn, then I keep the whole log and let it air dry,” he said. When he builds a piece of furniture, he uses boards from the same log to achieve striking unity in the bookmatched tops, drawer fronts and even the interiors.
The second floor of the school is dedicated to workbenches, hand tools and a few small machines. There’s also a sink/sharpening station, and a separate office/lunch room/library, from which students can borrow books overnight. A 12′ x 12′ deck affords the opportunity to do handwork outside on balmy days.
And while Mehler is a table saw expert and has a large collection of power equipment, he stresses the importance of learning hand tool techniques as well. “It’s often easier and more effective to use a hand tool than to set up a machine; you have to balance it out.”
Mehler has achieved balance in his own life as well. Instead of creating custom pieces for others, he’s finally outfitting his own house. Going to work in the morning means a stroll through the bucolic yard at the base of an Appalachian foothill. “It’s a nice combination of loving my work, and working where I live,” he said. “I am able to meet and work with wonderful people who come here eager to learn. I can’t ask for more than that!”
For more information and to register, visit kellymehler.com or call 859-986-5540. PWM
Editor’s note: Kelly is on sabbatical for 2014 and will resume offering classes in 2015; sign up for his contact/waitlist to stay on top of offerings for 2015.