by Steve Shanesy
Family has clearly played an important role in the development of Iowa-born woodworker and toolmaker Jameel Abraham. In 2006, Jameel, along with his brother, Father John Abraham (an Orthodox priest), and their father founded Benchcrafted – makers of a handful of high-quality, primarily workbench-related products including leg and tail vises and a Moxon-style benchtop vise.
But family influences run much deeper than the relatively recent origins of Benchcrafted. Jameel traces his woodworking interests to both of his grandfathers, who he describes as “serious hobbyists.” He fondly remembers spending time in the shop with both, and watching many an episode of Norm Abram’s “The New Yankee Workshop” and Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright’s Shop” with his maternal grandfather. Who knows – this may partially account for Jameel’s mastery of both hand and power tools.
There is also a strong tradition of operating a family business. His father started a beeswax candle making business that Fr. John continues to oversee while also helping out with the Benchcrafted business. And until Benchcrafted began to consume all his time, Jameel worked in that business, too. Family influences and obligations aside, the accomplishments of this 38-year-old craftsman are keenly driven by a native sense of engineering and a self-imposed drive for excellence.
Early Woodworking Start
A few years after high school, in the mid-1990s, Jameel began taking woodworking seriously, spending more time in his modestly equipped shop. As his interest deepened he often visited the library to study period furniture. In those early days, he worked with a contractor-style table saw and jointed his lumber with a Stanley No. 7 because, he said, he couldn’t afford a powered jointer. Thus he discovered the wonders of sharpening – a revelation from which he never looked back.
His father took note of his son’s growing woodworking interest and introduced Jameel to a local cabinetmaker friend who had studied with James Krenov and who was also strongly influenced by Japanese woodworking. This was Jameel’s introduction to fine woodworking, including hand-cut dovetails. Prior to that, “I was only learning from my own mistakes,” Jameel said.
While working full time in the family candle business, Jameel continued to develop his woodworking skills and became interested in luthiery. And in his mid-20s, he began making a Middle Eastern
stringed instrument called an oud, which is related to the European lute. He also unknowingly sowed the seeds for the Benchcrafted business when for his own use he developed a magentized tool holder to organize and protect edge tools and plane blades.
You may know it by its commercial name: the “Mag-Blok.” Mag-Bloks are narrow lengths of wood embedded with powerful rare earth magnets; they can be hung on a wall or cabinet, and the all-wood surface protects sharp edges from damage – a major improvement over other commercially made tool- and kitchen-knife holders made from magnets and steel.
In 2005, Jameel began making Mag-Bloks from exotic species such as rosewood, and the product’s striking appearance attracted attention, including that of Robin Lee of Lee Valley Tools, who placed a sizeable order. Suddenly, it started to look like a business; Benchcrafted was born. Lie-Nielsen Toolworks soon followed with an order, and Jameel found himself primarily engaged in the burgeoning Benchcrafted business.
Fast-forward a couple years to when Jameel decides he needs a bigger and better woodworking bench. His research led him to Christopher Schwarz’s articles in Popular Woodworking on pre-Industrial benches and how they were used. While these old-style benches seemed right to Jameel,
he wasn’t satisfied with available workholding options.
His search for a good leg vise eventually led him to historic patent records pre-dating the Industrial Revolution, where he found the basis for what became Benchcrafted’s next significant products: the Glide Leg Vise and Benchcrafted Tail Vise.
Though the initial design may be from patent records, “we incorporate our own ideas in the testing phase and further improve the function of the tools,” says Jameel. “We’ll use more modern and sensible materials if it yields a better product.” Both of these vises received high praise from users for their extremely smooth operation and highest-quality manufacturing standards.
If Benchcrafted’s product development seems a bit serendipitous, well, that’s because it is. “I just want to make something because I think it’s neat. My interest is to create useful things and hope they sell,” Jameel explains. “When I’m in the shop working I want tools that are highly refined and work well. That’s what appeals to me and that’s how I approach products for Benchcrafted.” He likens tools to well-crafted musical instruments: “They are unfulfilled unless they are played.”
Fr. John (who majored in art in college and studied artistic metal work) concentrates on Benchcrafted’s product aesthetics; Jameel focuses on engineering and the practical aspects of product use and development. Fr. John also shoots the company’s photos and oversees artistic design needs, including the web site (benchcrafted.com), and handles customer service. “We make a good team,” Jameel says, and complement one another’s strengths.
Keeping a Balance
Although the business keeps Jameel busy, he says it’s important for him to continue his woodworking to stay balanced. “I try to have a project in the works at all times,” he says. Plus, “The shop allows me to test the company’s new products in context.” (His woodworking shop is a converted two-car garage adjacent to his home.)
So what projects has he been working on? “Simple stuff for the family,” he says. “Projects for the
house like a 10′-long Shaker-style dining table.” Jameel recently completed an exquisite example of the Monticello stacking bookcases featured in the June 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine ( #190). His version exhibits his dovetailing mastery – in this case, the through-dovetails with mitered shoulders at the front corners. Other fine examples of his expertise are the huge “condor tails” found on his workbench, which he cut using a combination of power and hand tools; he shared that approach in the August 2011 issue (#191) of this magazine.
While Jameel makes sure to find time for woodworking, Benchcrafted product development continues as well. A new-and-improved vise handwheel (with a thicker rim that provides more weight both for smoother action and better ergonomics) was recently introduced (it’s based on the handwheels from H.O. Studley’s tool chest). And, Benchcrafted is currently unveiling what Jameel and Fr. John believe is a major improvement over the traditional leg vise. Again scouring old patent records, Jameel uncovered a scissors mechanism called a “St. Peter’s Cross” that was in use in the 19th century. It replaces the parallel guide common in many leg vises. This new/old scissors mechanism (which the company is calling the Benchcrafted Crisscross) automatically compensates for any workpiece thickness, and can be retrofitted to benches already equipped with a Glide Leg Vise.
There are many talented individuals in the woodworking toolmaking business. Some are at larger companies while others work at a “cottage industry” level. Jameel Abraham is one of a handful of these smaller-scale toolmakers whose products are both inspired and informed by his mastery of the woodworking craft.
–From the November 2012 issue. Buy it here.