Sunday, 13 April 2014

up in the Valley

I was able to make time to visit the beautiful new Lee Valley location in Vaughan, ON. Opening week for any new store means special guests and special events. As befit the occasion, they got one of my tied-for-first-place-favourite authors to attend, so I dropped everything to be there. Heck, I'd have tied the Pope's shoes together for a chance to see this guy in person.

The other foamers and I were there to see "Workbenches 101": A Participatory History, by Chris Schwarz. Forty or more of us packed into the high-ceilinged clinic area and Chris led us through an hour of images covering a thorough retrospective of workbenches and their features, asking the group to call out the answers to his many leading questions designed to reveal the growth and regression of this vital piece of workshop furniture. I was struck by first image of an Egyptian "bench" which, like its owner, sat on the floor and seemed to offer little more than a groove to jam a workpiece against while being hacked at by a rock on a stick. Must've come from the first "Lee Valley of the Kings" catalogue. The entire series of pictures (covering over a thousand years) showed us that there are no new ideas in the workbench realm, but there are some really bad ones.

There was a brief break for refreshments and book signings of The Anarchist's Toolchest & Campaign Furniture tomes. Since I had (foolishly) not brought my copies of these books, nor either of his own workbench volumes along, on the spur of the moment I asked him to sign Scott Landis' venerable workbench book instead. Cool guy that he is, Chris did so, and with a chuckle.

The break was followed by a lively & lengthy Q&A session on all workbench topics from material choices, feature set, the "carcass" test which gauges the ability to work faces, edges & ends of stock & cabinet assemblies, workholding options, laminated vs slab tops, and (of course) height. Despite reading his (and Landis', and other's works) prior to attending, I feel like I'll be able to construct a more suitable bench for myself thanks to this session.

Chris is a personable and erudite presenter; exceeding my already high expectations based on his many DVD appearances and writing style. Pace and content were both excellent, with a judicious application of humour throughout. Past experience has been that, in person, celebrities are not as witty, charming, and open as they seem on the page or screen. Mr. Schwarz certainly was all of these thing, and then some.

Before the clinic started, Lee Valley employee Garry walked me through some possible routes to recover my 5000 grit ceramic honing stone. One side has become measurably pitted and scratched - not 100% sure what happened, but I think it's a result of my (former) cleaning method. Garry offered several suggestions to correct the issue and bring the other side (currently sporting a thick adhesive label) into productive use as well. The DMT coarse/medium diamond plate does a fine job of creating a sharp edge, but the ceramic stone really polishes the working faces to a mirror shine.

Naturally, there were some minor purchases made as I puttered through the aisles waiting for the event to start - I've never been able to walk out of a Lee Valley store without something.

Later, I watched as Megan Fitzpatrick almost set fire to a thick piece of hard maple in the elevated demo area of the new store as she was removing waste from the dovetails. A few fine wisps of smoke rose from the cut as she toiled on the rock-hard workpiece. The teeth of the blade were too finely pitched, demanding significant effort; I doubt I would have made it as far as she did. We spoke briefly about her preferred dovetailing method, ways to tune up an Olsen-style coping saw, how cool the Knew Concepts saws are, and how certain classes at Lee Valley always sold out immediately (especially "Women and Power Tools"). Due to work schedule, I was unable to attend her DIY seminar. I like her writing style and feel I've missed out by not seeing one of her clinics in person.

Robin Lee was present and I took the chance to open a conversation with him. Since I'm a big fan of Lee Valley's Veritas line and now have a greater appreciation of the efforts and factors involved in manufacturing, I wanted to thank him for making these delectable tools available despite the many challenges presented by today's economy. We discussed Lee Valley's extensive hand tool reference museum, manual skill building, the perceived value of manual labour, possible ressurection of shop classes in public schools, Festool's product range, the myriad joys of building things for oneself, the rising "Maker" movement, further plans for the new store, and various tangents to these topics (including the culinary arts).

I bumped into fellow attendee Robert, who has coincidentally been in several previous Lee Valley classes I've taken with instructor Steven Der-Garabedian of Black Walnut Studio. Robert is also a big vintage hand-tool fan and I've also run into him at a couple of the well stocked Antique Tool shows in the east end of the city. We were both looking for the same moulding planes at the last event (snipe bill & side round). I hope there are enough of these to go around as interest in old-school hand-tool use continues to rise.

The next group of rabid fans and I crowded back into the clinic room for Chris to present "An Introduction to Campaign Furniture". He spoke at length about the origins of the style, spotting features, functionality, development, and why it's worthy of study and reproduction. Now, I've been to a lot of clinics/seminars for work, wood, and other hobbies. I've never been in one with fewer coughs, rattles, wrapper-crinkling, cell phone bleeps, and side-conversations; a massive sign of respect for the presenter.

Chris brought along a vintage, upholstered, folding Douro chair and the original packing box (lettered T.H. Thompson, Esq. 78th Highlanders) which itself morphs into a low dining/writing/card table. Also on-hand were two recently made 3-legged folding stools with rivetted leather seats. Sadly, the rated capacity on these are markedly less than my current bulk so I didn't dare try them. I'm sure the components can be scaled up. Also shown was a clever, metal legged folding stool with a slung canvas seat which has been in continuous production for well over 150 years. The folding, flat-pack bookcase featured in the new book was present for insepection. Top-notch brass hardware and a simple design hints strongly that something very like this will show up as a bedside replacement to my existing (inadequate) arrangement. Attendees were free to examine & photograph the pieces, asking questions as they came to mind.

One of the clinic attendees brought along two of his own Roorkee chairs (he's made 7 so far!) - one done in cherry with cream leather and the other in vivid purpleheart with rich burgundy leather complete with a matching foot-stool. Outstanding!

Chris carried on with another Q&A session about vintage & modern material choices, hardware types & sources, design considerations, where this style slots in between Victorian and Modern, finishing options, how certain tranformable "patent" furniture might well fit into the Steampunk aesthetic, Lost Art Press's upcoming "Furniture of Necessity" book, the rewards of being able to publish your own material to you own schedule, and so forth.

More books were signed, including my copies of 1st edition of The Anarchist's Tool Chest, The Joiner & Cabinet Maker (possibly my favoutite textbook ever), and Campaign Furniture. I did briefly think about bringing the Robert Wearing and Chris's workbench books, but it seemed like too much to ask.

Sad to see the day come to an end.


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