Out of the Dark Ages
It’s about 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday, and I am severely deprived of caffeine as I follow Thomas Lie-Nielsen through the narrow passages of his tool factory in Warren, Maine. He moves so quickly up and down the steps that I’m always five paces behind, despite my longer legs. Tom flings open a door on the second floor and unwraps his scarf and coat in one fluid motion.
Tom has invited me to attend one of his company’s weekly staff meetings, where he hands out paychecks and talks shop with the employees of Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. I catch up with him a few beats later and he’s already sorting through papers on a desk.
But even before this early morning meeting with all the employees, Tom holds another meeting with a few key employees in this bullpen that serves as the office for him and several other employees. They briefly look over some production numbers, discuss the health of a few machines and then head to the shop floor. The all-employee meeting is held in an area directly behind the Lie-Nielsen showroom where employees heat-treat the blades and assemble the planes before shipping them out.
At this early hour the sky above Warren is dark and so are the halls of the toolworks. But as I step onto the shop floor I squint. My eyes adjust to the bright lights above and then I see it. Something that is completely startling.
No, it’s not the company’s No. 4-1/2 anniversary plane in bronze. It’s the people in the room. There are dozens of them standing around the boxes filled with castings and lever caps and chipbreakers. Tom is moving around the room handing out a stack of paychecks, calling out each person by name and chatting with them briefly.
Within a few moments all of the employees are performing stretching exercises and Tom is sketching out the news of the day. One of the new machines has some bearings that need replacing. The numbers from the West Coast woodworking shows are in. The block plane group has been making its production numbers regularly this week.
The employees clap at the news, except for a group standing near me. It’s the block plane group, and then it dawns on me. I’m just a bit amazed that there could be a group of people who make block planes. In fact, it’s amazing that there are so many people in this world who all build hand tools in this post-handwork, post-industrial country.
I’ve had this feeling before, mind you. A few years ago I toured the Veritas manufacturing facility in Ottawa, Ontario, and was struck dumb at how many people were engaged in building hand tools. I followed Rob Lee around the Veritas plant and warehouse for more than two hours and we still didn’t see it all.
It’s experiences like this that give me real hope for the future of craftsmanship on this continent. In order for woodworking in North America to survive, there needs to be a steady supply of good quality new tools (both with a power cord and without) available to the public. Without those new tools, the craft is destined to become just a quaint sideshow at living history museums and on television.
It’s actually somewhat of a miracle that we still work wood at all. It is, after all, more expensive to build a piece of furniture from scratch (in hours, tools and time) than it is to buy a piece of furniture from a discount furniture outlet. But still we persevere. All of us.
Mark Swanson, Lie-Nielsen’s patternmaker, chatted with me for a moment as the early morning meeting geared up. Then he said: “You better do your stretches, too.”
So I did. And I’m glad to be a part of this.
Editor’s Post Script: The reason I was at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks this week was to shoot footage for two new DVDs , one on card scrapers (surprise) and the other on how to use handplanes when building carcase furniture. There is no word on release dates , I guess that depends on how many foul words they have to edit out of my footage. But if you do choose to buy the DVDs, remember that all my proceeds go to benefit the Early American Industries Association, one of my favorite old tool groups.