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Do not tell my wife this, but one of the best parts of teaching woodworking is getting to travel.

Since I started teaching woodworking six years ago I have seen many places that I’ve always wanted to visit: Germany, Maine and Portland, Ore., to name a few. But perhaps the most gorgeous setting for a woodworking school I have ever visited is the Port Townsend School of Woodworking in Washington state.

It is difficult to describe what this place is like to someone who has lived only in the South and Midwest. It’s like living on the edge of world. You look across the water, and there is Victoria, Canada. The sound is filled with boats – ferries, pleasure craft and nuclear subs. And they move about against a backdrop of mountains that makes my familiar Ozark mountains in Arkansas look more like hill-like outcroppings.

The school where I am teaching this week is in a special place. It’s located on the Fort Worden State Park – a World War I-era fort that features its original buildings all perched above Puget Sound. You wake up in the morning and are stopped mid-yawn by the beauty. You walk to the bathroom – stopped dead by the beauty of the water and mountains outside the window. You go to do your laundry and… well, you get the idea.

I love old places, and getting the opportunity to do some serious woodworking in an old fort that is lousy with beautiful Victorian-era buildings makes the whole thing pretty spacial.

But then there is my assistant for the week: Jim Tolpin, author of “The New Traditional Woodworker” (Popular Woodworking Books).

Yup, you read that right. Tolpin, perhaps the best-selling woodworking author of all time and one of my favorite authors, is on the faculty at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. He graciously agreed to help out with my classes on sawing and handplanes this week.

The school itself is located in the old power plant for the fort, which is built into a hillside. There are large windows that let in lots of light, high ceilings and acres of old Victorian buildings outside. Some of these are dormitories (I’m staying in what I believe were military barracks). Other buildings are used by arts and culture organizations, including music training, a couple small publishing companies and the like. During lunch you can go out and stomp around the old parade grounds and watch the boats pass by.

The school, a non-profit organization, was founded by Jim Tolpin, John Marckworth and Tim Lawson a few years ago at the fort. They specialize in offering hand-tool courses, though the school has a full shop of machines and a full industrial millwork shop. The millwork shop is part of the school’s effort to offer classes in historic preservation (especially for veterans) and use some of the buildings at the fort as projects for the faculty and students.

And if all that isn’t enough, the town of Port Townsend itself is quite charming. It’s a little jewel of a village filled with 19th-century buildings and restaurants, art galleries and shops. Plus they have a brewery that makes a couple great IPAs.

Well, it’s time to go for a run on one of the trails that ring the park and walk over to the school. I have a sawbench to build. It’s a tough life, I know.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • BarryO

    Yes Port Townsend is a wonderful place to visit. I was there again with my family the same week as your class; we spent Wednesday night there on the way to Victoria and Vancouver on vacation. Hope you had a chance to enjoy some Bitter End IPA at the Beer Garden at the brewery while you were there. 😉 I took a couple of classes from Darrell at the school in the past; yep it’s a real nice facility in a great location.

  • Darrell Peart

    Chris – I agree – there is something magic about being in PT. It’s a Great little artist community, that is off by itself and takes life at a leisurely pace. I love teaching there!
    It’s the only school (that I know of) that has both deer looking in the window as well as a trap door in the bench room that opens up to an abandoned tunnel. (I am told you do not want to go down there!)
    Peter and John Hall (of G&G fame) worked in PT in the 1890’s and one of their houses is still standing and only a short distance from the school.

  • jmaichel

    I wish I could have attended one of your classes seeing how I am just a short ferry ride away. When I found out that I could get the time off both classes were already full. Maybe I will see you at the wooden boat festival this weekend.


  • Dean

    Chris, did you get any pictures of the “Historic Preservation” shop? I would love to see the machines in that shop. Per Jim Tolpin (in the video) “Those are giant machines, bulldozer type stuff”.

  • cmegal

    I’ll be there next week learning from Garrett Hack. I can’t wait, Garrett described it as one of the most beautiful places on the planet. There’s still one space available according to the website.
    Chris, Sorry I’m going to miss you, I’ll see you at WIA I hope. Keep up the excellent posts!

  • rburwell

    I used to live in Seattle and spent a lot of time in Port Townsend and at the Fort. Gorgeous…you lucky woodworker you. You didn’t mention their other claim to fame – the setting of the 1982 movie ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’

  • muthrie

    I never knew there was an escape hatch! Deer out the window too. All the more reason for having your bench face a window.

    PS. We’re trying to keep the news that this place is so cool a secret. No fair tellin’ too many people about it. 😉

  • Wilbur

    “There’s no ball lightning with hand tools.”

    Clearly, you’re not sharpening your tools with enough vigor.

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