It is a darn good thing that Craig Jackson didn’t need any footwear during one fateful shopping trip in 2001.
Jackson and his wife, Donna, had driven to Evansville, Ind., from their home in Owensboro, Ky., that day so Donna could go shopping for shoes.
“I didn’t need any dang shoes,” Jackson says with a smile. “So I stumbled into a Woodcraft store and started looking around.”
Jackson was in need of a hobby that kept him close to home. His job ended in the early afternoon and he was spending a lot of time playing golf, which was keeping him away from the house. When he was walking around the Woodcraft, several puzzle pieces fell into place. He saw a book on segmented turning, which fascinated him. That made him think about the unused workshop space at his home.
And as a machinist with 62,000 hours of experience, he thought: “It’s wood. How hard could it be? You get it close and then hit it with a hammer!” (He now admits that
his attitude was hubris.)
That visit to a Woodcraft resulted in Jackson becoming a passionate turner and then turning his experience with metallurgy and machining to develop a new sort of woodworking tool that has quickly become popular with beginning and veteran turners.
Craig Jackson, left, and an employee look over a recent batch of tools.
The Easy Wood turning tools have small replaceable carbide inserts that do the cutting. The inserts are made using custom grades of carbide with very particular bevel angles. And the rest of the tool is also carefully designed. The metal part that holds the carbide insert is stainless steel that has had every single surface machined and polished. The handles are maple (for the most part) with a shape that is patent pending and available in four lengths depending on the scale of the project at hand.
But what is most unique about the Easy Wood tools is that they are all used in the same and simple manner. Instead of rubbing the bevel of the tool against the work and twisting and sweeping the edge to fine-tune the cut, the Easy Wood tools use one cutting motion only. Here it is. Master this and you’ve mastered the tool.
1. Hold the tool flat against your lathe’s tool rest with your thumb pressed firmly against the top of the turning tool.
2. With your other hand, lightly cradle the tool so the handle is parallel to the floor. Press the handle against your body to keep the tool parallel to the floor.
3. Move the tool forward and back to make the cut.
The Easy Wood tools have only three different profiles: a straight cutter for roughing work, a round cutter for finishing work and a diamond-shaped cutter for making fine details and sharp corners. With these three tools you can make virtually any shape in bowl or spindle
Jackson developed these tools after becoming frustrated with the complexity of traditional tools and the the amount of sharpening required. To demonstrate, he held up two walnut bowls that are on display in the lobby of his factory in an industrial park in Lexington, Ky.
“I could not make a complete pass across the diameter of these bowls without resharpening,” he says. “So I looked and looked and looked for a solution to this problem. I found improvements, but not a solution.”
While Jackson says he has an immense respect for traditional turning tools and the skill required to wield them, he wanted to make tools that were simple to understand and use and didn’t require an investment in sharpening equipment.
He was aware of other woodworking tools that used carbide cutters, but he didn’t think they used the right grade of carbide, the correct grinding and the best edge geometry for turning.
So he put his knowledge of carbide as a machinist to bear on the problem and developed some new grades of carbide – at Rockwell 93 to 94 on the “C” scale – for his tools. Jackson made some tools for his own use and put a video of them up on YouTube in January 2008.
“The calls started rolling in,” he says.
Jackson thought he might have a winner. But before he decided to go into production, he sought the opinion of turner Nick Cook and other turners for their opinion of the tools.
“I told Nick Cook I would give him $150 to try this tool out and tell me what he thought of it,” Jackson says. “Nick said I didn’t have to pay him, and he liked it.”
With Cook’s support Jackson’s tools were picked up by Craft Supplies USA with a one-year exclusive deal. The tools sold well, and after the deal expired, Jackson was approached by Woodcraft, Lee Valley Tools, Hartville Tool and other woodworking suppliers.
Sales took off, despite the fact that the Easy Wood Tools are more expensive than typical turning tools. His tools are made entirely in the United States – even the CNC equipment Jackson uses in his factory is made in the United States. And Jackson, with a small team
of employees, set up shop in Lexington and has been kicking production into high gear.
In 2009 the company doubled its sales. In 2010 sales tripled. And Jackson has high hopes for 2011.
It was a big risk for Jackson and his wife, Donna, who handles customer service, accounting and marketing for the company. Jackson gave up his stable, steady and successful career with Swedish Match (a very large tobacco company) to start Easy Wood.
The shop floor at Easy Wood Tools.
“Do you follow your dream or do you do you take the nice cozy?” Jackson asked. “Donna and I concluded that if we lost it all we’d be left holding hands on the street corner.”
Lucky for Donna and Craig, acceptance for their non-traditional tool design has been surprisingly strong (even Jackson says he’s surprised).
Personally, I have struggled for the last five years with turning chair spindles and furniture parts using traditional tools. I’m no slouch when it comes to sharpening, and I understand cutting action pretty well thanks to my experience with hand tools.
But I’ve always felt like a slacker at the lathe. I can turn out the shapes that I want, but it takes me a long time to get warmed up and locate that inkling of muscle memory left over from my last turning session.
Today I spent about 15 minutes turning with the Easy Wood Tools and was absolutely delighted. After a 30-second coaching job from Jackson, I started hollowing out a bowl. It was ridiculously easy. So I bought a set of the full-size tools plus extra carbide cutters, threw them into the trunk of my car and headed home.
I have a lot of plans for projects in 2011 that involve turned components, including the feet to a 17th-century bookcase and several Welsh stick chairs. And I am itching to turn some treenware for the next time my friends and I get together to drink some beer.
For me, the Easy Wood Tools remove several barriers to getting down to the fun part – working with wood. For one, I don’t have to worry much about the profiles on the tools and if I own the right tools – three Easy Wood tools handle most operations. And I don’t have to fuss with sharpening. Though I’m a good sharpener (and not a braggart about it, really), I don’t like sharpening as much as I like woodworking. When an edge dulls after 20 or so hours of use on the Easy Wood Tools, I’ll simply rotate the carbide insert to expose a fresh and sharp edge – it’s just like the carbide teeth on our powered planer and joiner. And I am thankful for those machines every day I use them.
And Jackson is also thankful. Not for his luck or ingenuity, but for his customers and the employees who have pushed Easy Wood forward.
“Our customers inspire us,” Jackson says. “We have e-mails from paraplegics who can use our tools. Blind customers. How cool is that? It’s one thing to pay the bills. It’s another thing to do this and sleep well at night. I sleep like a baby.”
— Christopher Schwarz
• You can order Easy Wood tools directly from the Lexington, Ky., company at easywoodtools.com.
• Speaking of turning, we have a new classic reprint of Mike Dunbar’s book “Woodturning Techniques: Furniture & Cabinetmaking” that is chock-full of information on turning tools and essential techniques. You can order this book from our store here.