Woodworking in the great white north.

Woodworker’s guide to Woodworking in America

This was my first year attending Woodworking in America, and it certainly won’t be the last if the future events are anything like this year’s.  Based on this experience, I thought it worthwhile to write down some of the things I liked and disliked about the conference.  This ought to help me next year since I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast.

Booking:

When you hear about it – book it!  There was an early bird discount, but it sold out before the discount expired, so if you plan to go, book it early.

There were extra activities available for an additional cost.  The Toolmaker’s dinner, The Feast of Roubo and the tour of the Shaker village.  If you want in on these, book them early as well, they sell out quickly.

  • The Toolmaker’s dinner:  This was originally supposed to be at Pop WWing’s office, but was moved to the convention center for convenience (everyone’s, I assume, as PW’s office is not near the convention center).  I have to say, the food was not great for this (could be I don’t have a taste for Cincinnati chili, but there’s weren’t a lot of options and it wasn’t the best organization I’ve seen) – but it did have an open bar!  I don’t really know if this was worth the price, but it did give most of us an opportunity to meet up and have essentially a cocktail hour to get to know each other.  The staff at PW were doing their best to be social, but were obviously just a little busy.  After the dinner we were given first crack at the marketplace – a dangerous place to be with a wallet.  This was a really great chance to talk with the various toolmakers and try out their stuff in a relatively uncrowded environment.  I would do it again, but hopefully the ‘dinner’ part will improve a bit. 
  • I didn’t attend the two other paid events as they coincided with other activities I wanted to do.  The Feast of Roubo dinner on the saturday was trumped by the Woodwhisperer Guild meetup at AllenInOhio’s place.  The Shaker village tour overlapped with the final workshop sessions which I had planned.  I can’t comment on whether or not these were worthwhile, if anyone attended, please comment!

The organizers worked out some hotel deals for attendees.  I stayed at the Holiday Inn, which was only about 10 minutes walk away (and a pretty clean place, seems new).  Some of the attendee’s said they would move to the hotels closer to the conference center next year for the convenience.  A few things I can counter that with include:

  • price ($89/night vs $110/120?  For three nights…that adds up to another tool!)
  • parking (if you drive, it’s free to park at HI, but costs you per night at the others)
  • internet access (you’d think that’s free everyone, but apparently not at some of the pricier hotels, it was at HI)
  • food (waffle house, white castle, McD’s all right there…ok, maybe that’s not a good thing)

When you book you’re asked to choose the workshops you are going to attend.  They did not enforce this, it would be a logistical nightmare to even try, but it helped them choose the size of rooms for the events so it’s worthwhile to at least try to organize yourself for this.  The workshops themselves were rarely overfilled and many were repeated.  I found that in the time between booking and going, my interests changed a little bit and even during the conference I became more interested in sessions I had not considered previously.

At this stage, it’s really good to start networking with people and find out who’s going, where they’re staying, if you’re going to do anything else along the way and start working out your plans outside of the conference.  Once you’re there, you’ll find you have very little time to think about these things.

Travel:

The conference was held in Covington, Kentucky.  This is just on the south side of Cincinnati (across the river).  I drove from Toronto, opting to split the drive there in half by staying in Windsor/Detroit.  This was not entirely necessary, the drive turns out to be between 8 and 9 hours but breaking it up left me well rested for the thursday evening festivities (Toolmaker’s dinner).  It also gave me the chance to visit Rockler and Woodcraft on the way into Cincinnati (these are both at the north end of the city, just off I-75).  Since I don’t have Rockler or Woodcraft here in Canada, I’ll take every opportunity to visit these stores, even if I’m not buying.

Many attendees flew in and got a shuttle/limo from the airport.  If anyone has comments on this experience, feel free, I would certainly consider it.  You definitely don’t need a car when you’re at the conference, so flying is entirely viable.  You’ll just need to keep in mind that you might be coming home with a suitcase full of sharp metal objects that will have to be checked.

Workshops:

The registration suggests that you bring tools for the workshops.  I think it’s worthwhile if you’ve got something you need help with – like planing birdseye maple or sharpening/setting a saw.  Unless you’ve got a specific need, I don’t think you need to bring tools.  Many of the workshops have tools and benches set up to try out what you just saw done…go and try them out.  If you don’t try it out, you won’t know if you’ve learned to do it properly.  The presenters are very approachable and more than willing to help you.

The best workshops to go to are the workshops that will teach you something you need to learn or will use.  Since this was my first time attending, I tried to go to as many workshops as I could and kept myself very busy….ergo I have a lot to learn.  As I build my skills and continue to develop as a woodworker, my needs will change and I expect I will look for more hands-on time in specific areas next year to help tune up my skills.

Bring a notebook and pen/pencil.  You will want to take notes and you will want to make drawings.

One note on the SketchUp classes.  I thought that having a laptop with SketchUp on it would be useful for this, but it moves too fast for that.  If you pay attention, you’ll learn more about it than you expected and you have to go away and use it to get the benefit out of it.  I can’t personally comment on Bob Lang’s books/dvds on the subject but I’ve heard good things.

I’ll list the workshops below that I attended and a one liner on what I thought.  It’s too much to try to explain each workshop in detail and everyone gets something different out of it anyway, so my perspective may not represent anyone else’s:

  • How to grind your tools:  Chris Schwarz:  I learned that I’ve been doing this wrong…worth the price of admission. 
  • Use dividers to lay out anything:  George Walker:  Laying out graduated drawers with dividers…smart!  I’ll blog more on that one later.
  • Contemporary design:  Michael Fortune:  Handouts were great for reference later, less note taking, more paying attention.
  • Better design using simple shapes and forms:  George Walker:  Gave me a new way to look at designs, furniture, architecture and how things are composed of basic shapes.
  • Design a door:  George Walker:  If a door looks heavy/light (frames/panels/etc) then scale it down/up by 1/5 or 1/6.
  • Inlay and banding:  Michael Fortune:  Really neat talk, how to customize a card scraper for inlay, how to inlay pure silver…wow.
  • Chisels:  Ron Herman:  I was blown away by the stuff I never knew about chisels…seriously, I understand why I like some chisels and not others.
  • Dovetailing Drawers:  Roy Underhill/Frank Klausz:  Great entertainment value, but also lots of little tips to be picked up.
  • Professional and practical shooting boards:  Ron Herman:  These just flew to near the top of my workshop to-do list, lots of ideas here.
  • Cutting Mortises Quickly:  Frank Klausz:  Cut a mortise into the side of a block of wood with a glass plate on the side so you can see what’s happening – brilliant.
  • Eliminating Drift on the Band saw:  Michael Fortune:  Turns out drift is a myth, set up your saw properly.  My saw is tough to set up, but all of his suggestions applied!
  • Planing Impossible Woods:  Chris Schwarz:  Really cool process for working through a difficult piece of wood.
  • Scraping Planes:  Chris Schwarz:  Saw it, loved it, bought one.
  • Sliding dovetails without fail:  Glen Huey:  A little power tool time, but the key info was more about the process and reasons for doing things rather than how to set up your router.
  • Intro to SketchUp:  Bob Lang:  It’s an intro and it gets your feet wet on the basics.
  • Handplaning Boards:  Chris Schwarz:  Another walk through of the process to use to get the results you want.
  • Advanced SketchUp:  Bob Lang:  I’d call it intermediate, but the idea of doing a mock-up of a piece, then break it into its parts, then add the joinery, etc…really good.
  • 9 planes you need:  Chris Schwarz:  A couple of surprises here (block plane? what block plane?) but really great for understanding why you need certain tools and the order/priority to get them.

Instructors:

As is to be expected, you’ve got the staff of PW providing much of the workshop content, but there were a few exceptions to that and they were worthy additions.

Chris Schwarz:  Chris is a treat to watch.  He’s energetic and entertaining throughout the workshops.  For some this is a facade, but this is who Chris is.  He is able to impart a great deal of information in a very short period of time, allowing the conversation to flow with the audience and provide for a dynamic session.  Chris’s sense of humour is well timed and very funny.

Michael Fortune:  Michael has a wealth of information ranging from design through technique and is a good teacher.  He has plenty of reason to be arrogant about his own work, but isn’t.  I found his delivery to be very matter of fact and he was very open and approachable.  He even invited me to drop into his shop if I was in his neck of the woods (which I am from time to time, and I will take him up on it).

Roy Underhill:  I grew up watching Roy on PBS and he is exactly the same way when he’s teaching one of the workshops.  His enthusiasm for what he does truly is infectious, he makes you want to go up there and starting sawing away at your dovetails.  Roy is often paired with Frank Klausz – especially in their ongoing tails vs pins first rivalry.  The interplay between the two is not only entertaining but often quite informative.

Frank Klausz:  Frank is the king of one liners, coming across like the highly opinionated old uncle everyone seems to have.  You can’t NOT watch and listen to Frank.  He’ll clock you upside the head if you don’t!  Frank has a wealth of knowledge about hand tool use that comes from traditions passed down to him from generation to generation.  This is knowledge not found in books or seen on TV shows.

George Walker:  When George gets going on the historical side of design and how to use that knowledge in modern design, he’s fantastic.  I got the sense he’s not as comfortable presenting to an audience as he is in writing to an audience.  But to his credit, he ran several design discussions that gave me page after page of stuff to consider when I go back and start designing my next project.

Ron Herman:  Ron was the biggest surprise for me.  I had high expectations for many of these guys, but I had no idea who Ron was and how exciting can a talk about Auger Bits really be?  Ron brings a really massive wealth of handtool knowledge that I never knew existed.  His experience in-house restoration goes to a level that will amaze you and he takes that same depth to his discussion topics which included Chisels, Saws, Auger Bits and Bench Hooks.  Someone really needs to get this guy writing…he’s got knowledge galore and charisma and wit that lend itself to teaching.

Bob Lang:  If you need some downtime, take a Bob Lang class.  There’s not rushing here, and believe me that’s a good thing when you’re jumping from place to place.  Bob is the calm guy in the group but no less informative than any of the others.  I took his SketchUp classes and I found his approach was less about teaching you what buttons do what in the software and more about how he uses it to evolve a design to the point where you have working measured drawings without any of the math.

Glen Huey:  Glen is very entertaining to watch and learn from.  He’s got a hard job of selling a power tool technique to what is mostly hand tool enthusiasts, but that doesn’t stop him.  Glen has a lot of knowledge about the “why” side of things.  Most of the others will teach you “how”, but I found that Glen has an understanding of “why” you do something that is sometimes overlooked in the effort of perfecting the technique.

I did not make to a workshop with Jim Tolpin or Marc Adams.  Nor did I make it to the Boulle Work seminar with Don Williams.  Thus I look to others for comments here.

The Marketplace (aka The Global Economic Revitalization Project):

If it won’t end in divorce, or you have incredible willpower, or you have all the tools you want (liar) then this is the place for you!!!  If you can’t get past these conditions – do not go – do not bring $200 – leave your credit cards at home – Eve would have been seriously challenged to get Adam’s attention in the marketplace.  Temptation abounds!

Once you give in and start exploring the marketplace you’ll find yourself in woodworking heaven.  The booths that have toolmakers in them will enthrall you, these guys are passionate like you won’t believe.  The chance to try out a Sauer and Steiner handplane while Konrad explains the ins and outs of designing them, discuss the finer points of sharpening plane blades from Ron Hock…it’s almost surreal.  And if you want old tools, there was plenty of that too – Jim Bode and Patrick Leach had booths with loads of great stuff that had Chris Schwarz drooling.

Virtually every booth has a set up where you can try out what they’re selling.  You are not getting enough out of this event if you don’t go and try out as many of the tools as you can, even if you have not intention of buying them.  In most cases there is no hard sell from the vendor.  The tools speak for themselves and if you don’t know what a tool does or how to use it, you just have to ask, this is exactly what these guys expect.  If you ask them about it, you’ll learn something, guaranteed!

It’s not all high-end stuff though, lets face it, how many of us can buy a set of hand planes when each one starts at over $1000?  There was Lee Valley and Lie-Neilsen booths for the intermediate price range and wide selection of tools.  There was Woodcraft for the regular guy.  There were many other booths as well, and almost none of the Sham-Wow wireless microphone guys.

And if you want some celebrity, Woodcraft had some demo’s with Tommy MacDonald and Rob Cosman…these guys are built for putting on a show – very enigmatic guys and very entertaining.  The great thing was that these guys weren’t acting like celebrities – they were just happy to be there too.  Another great booth to drop into was Chuck Bender’s booth for The Acanthus Workshop, Chuck will talk your ear off while he cuts dovetails.

The Sindelar Museum trailer was parked at the back of the marketplace and was well worth a visit.  The pieces on display will make your jaw drop.  It’s somewhere between art and extravagance, the real art of fine toolmaking.

There was also a cafeteria at the back, but let’s just say you can do better.

The Keynote Dinner and Pub Crawl:

On friday, after the workshops ended there was a keynote dinner followed by a pub crawl through the Mainstrasse district about 15 minutes walk from the convention center.  The dinner consisted of a nice enough thank you speech from the publisher of PW followed by a somewhat difficult to watch ‘skit’ between Frank Klausz and Roy Underhill.  I applaud them for trying, but standup is not their strongest suit.  We were also given a few minutes of Tommy MacDonald’s first episode of Rough Cut Woodworking and a few words from man himself.  The meal itself was nice, though the sentiment at the table was that food was somewhat scarce throughout the day and the dinner was not going to be enough to keep everyone going through a pub crawl.

The pub crawl involved getting wristbands to get the ‘deal’ at each of the pubs.  This seems like a good idea in principle, but why would you drink weak light american beer when the pub is offering some really good european beers?  Recommendation here:  find some people you want to hang out with and enjoy yourself.  Our little contingent hit a couple of pubs and had some really good conversation over some good beer.

Workshops started up again at 8am on saturday so moderation is probably a good consideration. 

Overall:

I can’t say it enough, this was well worth the money and time. 

Go to the workshops, take notes, participate in the after-workshop activities if you can, you’ll get more out of them.

Give yourself a budget for the marketplace, but go there and try everything.  Make sure you book time for this and go talk with the toolmakers, they’re awesome.

Network!  Where else will you meet up with as many like-minded woodworkers?  Learn from those who can teach you, teach those who can learn from you.

Have fun.

I hope to see you there in 2011.

Ian

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3 responses

  1. Richard Darjes

    That was a great summary of WIA. I too stayed at the Holiday Inn and attended some but not all of the same workshops as you. I am in Oakville – maybe we can meet up sometime. And I plan to go to WIA next year as well. We should talk about maybe traveling down together to save on gas.

    Rick in Oakville

    October 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    • Hey Rick, thanks.

      Small world eh?

      I had an absolute blast, hung out a fair bit with other bloggers while I was there. A bunch of us who are in The Wood Whisperer Guild also met up for a BBQ. One of the local Guild members was kind enough to host the BBQ.

      Right now I’ve two other guys from the Toronto area wanting to do the same, so we’re up to a full car load with you in the mix. Of course, if we get more we can always rent a van or a bus. 🙂

      We should definitely get together some time.

      Ian

      October 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  2. Pingback: Woodworking In America 2010 - A View From My Friends | Matt's Basement Workshop

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