This Month's Column:
Introducing the Madcap Woodwright
Poor Man's Roubo Bench Build - Part 2
Introducing the Madcap Woodwright
My name is John McBride. I have been in woodworking professionally for nearly 30 years.
My romance with woodworking began, as it does for many woodworkers, in high school woodshop class. I took the class in my sophomore year as a lark. At the time, I was struggling. At the beginning of my 8th grade year, I was assessed as having learning disabilities. Primarily Dyslexia and Dyscalculia. Neither learning disability was well known, nor were there any tried and true methods for overcoming them. It was all kind of new and experimental, and regular teaching staff were woefully unprepared for dealing with a student with these abnormal ways of learning. Prior to the diagnostic testing I had in 8th grade, I was nothing more than a "problem student." A difficult student and regular guest of the Vice Principal's office.
After having the diagnostic testing done, and whatever tutoring that was available, I was reasonably functional as a student, but the trauma of being labeled as a "problem" had already done its damage. I was in full on "Stick it to the man" mode.
My grades were...well...sub-par is putting it mildly. This is when I registered for Woodshop. I was not in the mood to take some boring English or Algebra class, and I was bored with just about anything else that required me to sit still at my desk 50 minutes at a time, puking tired tidbits of information back to "The Man" in order to get my "Atta boy" and a pat on the head. Besides, the shop smelled good, and it had machines. Lovely, glorious machines.
"Woods" was taught by a younger guy who seemed to be somewhat hard nosed. At least that was what I thought at first. I remember thinking, "Oh yeah, This guy is not going to like me at all."
Mr. Rauh was, and is to this day, amazingly adept at passing on his love for woodworking to any student who would shut up long enough to see what it was that he had to offer. If you did your best, he be encouraging of your work and of you, no matter what. Even when you missed the mark, he would ask you to figure out for yourself, what you did wrong Then he would set about exploring with you how best to fix the problem. You could count on being called a "Knucklehead" (as a term of endearment, not derision...you kind of had to be there to understand) at least once a class.
So, by my senior year, I was hooked. If I could have taken a full load of woodshop classes, I would have. I was deeply in love.
Especially so because, Mr. Rauh saw my addiction developing, and did what any good enabler would do, he fed the fire. He turned me on to James Krenov and Tage Frid. The latter being the master that Mr. Rauh was taught by. He passed on his addiction to fine tooling. He encouraged me to design. It was an absolute paradigm shift for me. Having this kind of freedom, having this kind of encouraging support, and having access to all that wood and tooling was a life saver for me, at a time when I most needed one.
In 1988, I dropped out of school. It just was not working for me, and I was quickly becoming too much of a burden, and far to willful and outspoken in a school that was just not equipped to deal with a knucklehead like me.
For a while I worked odd jobs, and got my GED. However, I was aimless. I was still in contact with Mr. Rauh though, so I continued my education under his tutelage, and served something of an apprenticeship. I studied sharpening, wood movement, hand cut joinery, machine tuning, maintenance and machine milling processes. I learned to design and build furniture using North American hardwoods. It was demanded that my designing be in keeping with sound principles of construction and a reverence for the medium, but with a healthy dose of Krenovian mysticism and love for designing outside of the traditional box.
There was Shaker furniture to start, moving into Mission style and the study of the works of Frank lloyd Wright. There was also many discussions and dissections of how Thos. Moser took Shaker design and made it his own.
Tage Frid loomed large in my education. Mr. Rauh being one of his disciples, emphasized simplicity, and well thought out plans of procedure.
Eventually, I was ready to be turned out into the real world of woodworking and sought employment in local cabinet shops here in Denver.
Talk about culture shock. I went from hand cutting dovetails, and mortise and tenon joinery, and tolerances measuring in 1/64th of an inch, to particle board, MDF, Lamellos, and tolerances measuring in the 1/16th of an inch if it was a very high end shop. Sometimes as much as an 1/8th of an inch tolerance or "Eh, close enough for government work." was deemed acceptable…..Philistines.
I worked in these shops, meeting craftsman of every age and skill level. Taking from them the tools of the trade, and passing them along when the opportunities presented themselves.
Later in my career, as the result of having worked several years as a finisher in one of these shops, I landed a position with a local, family owned, Piano dealer. One of my former coworkers and very dear friend had taken a position doing restoration and refinishing of antique grand pianos. He had reached out to me to see if I would be interested in teaming up once again with him….I recall my response including the discussion of a bear, and what it was that bears do in the woods.
So now I had hit the big time. Steinways, Baldwins, Bosendorfers were all whetstone for me to further hone my skills. It was nothing but grand piano after grand piano, each one larger than the last. Each one with it's own unique personality and sound. Each one a unique set of problems to solve. Veneer repair, structural repair, stripping, sanding, grain filling, color matching, learning to prime-sand- prime-sand, and then building a color finish of lacquer on these beautiful instruments, were all part of the buffet I was feeding from. It was magnificent.
So, for the better part of 30 years, I have been working wood in one fashion or another. Today, I divide my time between self employment, and doing cameo guest appearances at various woodworking shops here in town. That time split fairly equally between bench work and finish room duties.
Currently, I am in the throes of outfitting and standing up my own bespoke woodworking shop. I will, from time to time, and when we really need the money, go out and work for other woodshops in the area as a true Woodwright, but enjoy the warmth and comfort of my own special creative space. It is something of a security blanket for me, my shop. I feel at my best there.
I can honestly say, it is not a profession that I ever would have thought of fitting me so well. As a means of making a living and as a means of expressing myself creatively however, I can't possibly think of anything else I would rather be doing.
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John McBride is a professional woodwright, blogger, and writer, living and working joyfully and with abandon in Denver, Colorado.
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