If you didn’t make it to the Woodworking in America Conference in Berea, KY two weeks ago, too bad. I did. For the rest of my life, I’ll be able to say I went. You won’t. This conference is like Woodstock was for the 60’s generation; either you went, or you didn’t. If you didn’t, you missed out on a defining moment. The same with this conference. If you missed out then, you really missed out.
I have been speaking at conferences since the State of the Art West conference in 1980. I have been at just about all of woodworking’s defining moments. This was the best. The conference had a magic, an electricity that will never be duplicated. It was such a success Popular Woodworking will likely hold more similar conferences. In doing so, they will iron out the wrinkles. They will make the next conference even bigger and smoother. However, they will never recreate the magic that happens when a lot of talented people are flying by the seats of their pants. As good as future shows will be everyone at Berea this year will always talk about how it was at the first show. Because you weren’t there, you’ll feel left out.
The conference lasted two and a half days. It was a series of seminars led by names you know; people whose articles and books you read. That happens at every conference. This time, it was not who was there. It was what was not there. You could walk around this conference and never hear a router screaming or a table saw whining. You could hear every word the speakers said, because they were working exclusively with hand tools. You saw everything the speaker did, because it was projected on a huge over head screen. I felt like a rock star.
With this conference, hand tools finally stopped being woodworking’s ugly step child. Hand stool skills walked out onto the stage as Cinderella. Speakers showed the attendees how to make these tools sing; how to get the very best finished surface on their woodworking; how to cut joints by hand as fast as with a machine. Above all, hundreds of woodworkers who have never used hand tools because they lacked sharpening skills are now slicing wood effortlessly and cleanly.
My stint began at 9:45 on Saturday morning with “Using the Drawknife and Spoke Shave.” Whenever I have spoken at other shows I would watch a parade of guys walk into an auditorium to see a router being used. Meanwhile, I would be stuck in a small room talking to a handful of guys clustered around me. This time, I had the packed house. Guys left there knowing how to rough wood to shape and get a finished surface with two of woodworking’s least understood tools.
The next presentation was great fun. After lunch, Clarence Blanchard of Fine Tool Journal and I spoke together. This session was hands on. Everyone brought a used tool for us to look at. Clarence evaluated the tool. He told the owner what it was, who made it, when it was made, its relative worth, etc. I took the tool and explained what I would do to put it back in service. I had brought a lapping plate, so I was able to touch the tools up; show how to flatten a sole, etc.
My last gig of the day was with Adam Cherubini and Deneb Puchalski of Lie-Neilsen Tools. I have always wanted to meet Adam. I am a great fan of his. I think the guy’s column “Arts and Mysteries” in Pop Wood is a hoot. When an issue arrives I turn right to Adam’s article. I don’t even bother to look for my own.
Adam is very, very tall. I never realized that from looking at pictures of him. Saturday morning I walked around a corner in the dealer area and found myself at his booth. He recognized me and greeted me. I found myself looking upward getting a crick in my neck. When you meet someone, you maintain eye contact. It is rude to size them up from head to foot. From my lower peripheral vision, I could see Adam was standing on something and figured it had to be a platform. When I could politely look down I discovered that that something was no more than a rubber mat. Adam really is that tall.
Adam, Deneb, and I did a hands-on plane clinic at the end of the first day. Everyone had brought at least one plane. We each did a brief presentation. Then, we walked around from bench to bench coaching the guys as they planed a short board. I think each person learned more in the 10 minutes we spent with him or her, than in a two hour presentation. The time flew by for me. It was a great way to wrap up the day, helping and chatting with a group of fellow woodworkers.
That evening, Pop Wood held a social hour for us with wine and snacks. I had a cold so; I went back the motel early. I could have partied. There was enough of that available later in the evening.
My Saturday morning presentation was fun. I showed a packed room how to sharpen using sandpaper. One guy had a new plane blade he had bought at Lowe’s (not best quality.) I sharpened it and crested its cutting edge. I popped it into my Stanley #5 and it cut beautiful shavings. Another guy had a $12 yard sale drawknife. I tried to cut wood with it as found. It crushed and scratched the wood. I went at it with 80 grit. In the time available I couldn’t get rid of all the nicks and pits in the edge. Still, after working it through a series of finer grits I got it so it cut wood so cleanly the surface gleamed like wax. The audience gave an audible gasp when the camera came in tight to show the surface.
The highlight of my weekend was cutting mortise and tenons with Frank Klaus and Roy Underhill. I have known these guys for years. They are a riot. Roy had brought a mini-cam and a small pane of Plexiglas. He clamped it to piece of douglas fir so the audience could watch Frank chop a mortise with a mortise chisel. Think of an ant farm and you get the idea. It was a great show. Next, I made a mortise with an auger. Ever the jokester, Roy gave me a two inch block of maple with a large knot. He also gave me a 7/8 inch auger and a brace with only a four inch throw. The audience howled as I struggled to turn the wide bit with the short brace into the very hard wood. The end of the mortise was open for the camera and Roy got some great footage to show the audience on the large screen.
Our presentation was more than two hours of nonstop jokes and quips. The audience loved it so much Roy, Frank, and I decided that we would form a woodworking comedy act. Roy is the youngest, so we named our act Underhill & Over the Hill.
My last presentation on Saturday was to make a Windsor chair seat. It was the easiest thing I did all weekend.
The show provided the attendees with a barbeque dinner that started right after my last presentation. Roy Underhill was the featured speaker. I don’t know how to describe his speech. It was a manic comedy routine. It was rapid fire, with Roy changing characters and voices on a dime. The room was in stitches, but if you laughed too long you missed the next change in character and got lost. I can only hope someone has it on tape and makes it available to the public.
Talking with other presenters and the attendees, I found unanimity. The creative energy in woodworking has shifted to Pop Wood. They are taking over. The competition is stuck with its old predictable formula. The result is a tired, worn out, elitist publication that is out of touch with its readership. Pop Wood is fresh, alive, and exciting. It is the magazine to read. It is also the magazine to write for, and that is why you find all the best and biggest names there.
I hung around on Sunday morning and visited with people. I didn’t have any more presentations and it was nice to relax. I rode back up to Lexington in the early afternoon with my editor and some other folks from the show. While I was waiting at the airport lounge, in walked Ellis Wallentine and Don Schroeder. They had both been at the show with me. Ellis is my old editor from the black and white American Woodworker days. Don worked for AW and now is the advertising director for Pop Wood. We knocked back and few scotches and caught up on our lives since AW. By the time the plane left I was feeling fine. It was a great way to end a great experience. I will always be able to say was there. You weren’t. Eat your heart out.
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