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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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My Visit To Highland Woodworking, More Shop Commodities, and Coming Next Month

Expectations generally take one of two possible forks in life's road. Either we build up magnificent mental and emotional images and are let down by reality, or we downplay our expectations and are pleased… perhaps even overwhelmed… by the actual experience.

When Highland Woodworking invited me to attend their annual Open House celebration, my expectations could have taken an overly imaginative path leading to letdown, or a more pragmatic path, leading to exuberance. You see, even though I have written a monthly column and produced videos for Highland Woodworking since 2010, I have never personally met any of the people, nor have I been to the store. My visit was a situation ripe for imaginative speculation… I simply didn't know what to expect.

As it turned out, I had little time to be nervous or to ponder what I might find. Between a nagging feeling of inadequacy and the hectic preparations for the trip, I had no time to speculate, "What does the store look like?" "How big is it?" ‘What are the people like?" "What are the customers like?"

Those questions are now easy to answer. The store is like no other. Highland possesses a "gestalt," wherein the whole immersive experience is far greater than the sum of its many parts.

Highland Woodworking is immaculate, creative, and dare I say it, almost artistic in its arrangement. The store is clean and stocked to the rafters with more things than are possible to comprehend or absorb in just one visit. Merchandise is displayed to perfection. There is a real focus on delivering a hands-on experience to customers. Yet with even the impeccable cleanliness and arrangement of merchandise, the store has a friendly, cozy, welcoming familial feel. And it's big! The first floor alone rivals the size of any woodworking store I have ever visited, and the second floor with its spacious loft and grand views to the first floor makes the store feel even larger.

The wood floors give the building a decidedly organic feel and simply "fit" a woodworking store. The acoustics are wonderful. With at times what seemed like a hundred people in the store, it was never difficult to have a conversation. And the customers are fantastic. I simply can't remember having a more pleasant weekend in the company of fellow woodworkers.

The team at Highland Woodworking is an unusual bunch… and I mean that in the very best possible way. The first impression one gets is that everyone there absolutely loves what he or she does. Second and third impressions reinforce that. As I met everyone, it was amazing to learn the length of time many have worked there. The cumulative years of collective woodworking experience is astonishing. Yet with all that experience and knowledge, a new-to-woodworking beginner will feel just as welcome and at home as would the most experienced. Perhaps there really is something to that much-ballyhooed southern hospitality.

Of course there are younger employees, too. These are not your usual inattentive or distracted youth. The younger employees are incredibly engaged, hard working, and have a quick and genuine smile as they go about their work. Bottom line... the entire team at Highland really enjoys serving its customers, likes what they do, and makes every guest in the store feel special and important. If you could bottle this "vibe" and sell it, you'd be very rich.

Listen, sooner or later everybody goes to Atlanta… either as a destination or to change planes at Hartsfield International Airport. Make it a point to schedule a long layover or spend a few days in Atlanta and visit Highland Woodworking… it will be a highlight of your woodworking year!

Kapex Expectations and Surprises

Highland asked that I spend some time reviewing and making a video about the Kapex Miter Saw while I was in Atlanta. My expectations, however, were low. I have a good miter saw and I have had a hard time justifying the price difference. Oh, of course I get the whole "best miter saw ever designed for work in the field" thing. My Russian friends (see article in the November 2014 Wood News Online ) have spent enough hours exulting over the cut quality, the dead-on miters, the dust collection, the ease of transport and set-up, and on… and on… and on. I completely understand why the Festool Kapex has become the de facto "standard" for builders, remodelers, and other job site professionals. But for a woodworker mostly confined to a shop, how could it really be "enough" better to justify the price difference?

With assurances I could say what I honestly felt, I went about the business of setting up cameras, microphones, and the Kapex itself. The unit has been exhaustingly reviewed and there are almost as many blog entries about the Kapex as for the SawStop table saw. So I decided to approach the review differently and pose the question… is there enough additional value to the Kapex to tempt me to replace my current miter saw?

In the end, I found four surprising differentiators between the Kapex and the best competitive miter saw on the market. Any one of three of those differentiators would justify the difference in price were I starting out now to buy a new miter saw. The four big differences are covered in the video. I just learned the Kapex is on sale during the month of February, so the cost justification becomes even easier. If you are thinking about a new miter saw or considering upgrading the saw you have, check out the video and check out the Kapex. I was surprised.

Workbench Expectations

Highland Woodworking sells several types and price points of workbenches and I spent some time working on and around their new Sjoberg Elite Workbench . Several woodworkers had previously told me it is the "Cadillac" of workbenches, to which I retorted, "Shouldn't that be the ‘Volvo of workbenches'?" It is made in Sweden after all.

For many woodworkers building a workbench is a romantic notion or a self-imposed rite of passage. I have no such misplaced whimsy or pride. If I needed a workbench I might well consider purchasing one and spending my precious shop time building furniture. And if I bought a bench, this would be the one.

I liked, first and foremost, the heft. The Sjoberg bench is a heavy, solid mass of European Beech. Try as I might while planing long boards, I couldn't get the bench to budge. Both the tail and front vises are smooth as silk. The optional storage unit below the bench adds even more mass and is thoughtfully laid out for maximum close-at-hand storage (almost like the Sjoberg engineers had taken my 5S class!). I did a quick video of the Sjoberg bench that will be released in the next couple of weeks.

If you are in the market for a workbench, give the Sjoberg consideration. You will be impressed with the build quality, the beauty, and the options (the bench is available in three lengths, the vises can be set up for right-handed or left-handed woodworkers, and the under-bench storage is available in a couple of configurations).

Classroom Expectations

Sunday's class focused on the adaptation of 5S manufacturing principles to the woodworking shop in order to free up shop space, be more efficient and thereby have more time and save money. I guess there are always some butterflies when preparing to teach a class, but it was intimidating for a Down To Earth Woodworker like me to stand in the same room where Frank Klausz, Chris Schwarz, Sam Maloof, Roy Underhill, Tage Frid, Toshio Odate and many others have taught and shared… the huge classroom space was almost like hallowed ground.

The attendees, however, made me feel comfortable, at ease, and welcome. We had a lively and engaged full house. Perhaps the funniest moment was when I showed a picture of what I thought was the messiest shop I had ever seen and about half the class started laughing and telling me they could send a photo of a much worse example. I guess they really did need to learn the five "S's" of Sort, Set In Order, Sparkle, Standardize, and Sustain.

Everyone committed to give 5S a try, and I suspect that a fairly large percentage will. In fact, I expect to see some startling before and after photos in the next few weeks. We will share those as they come in.

Future Expectations

Every once in a while I need a dose of woodworking camaraderie and my three-day weekend in Atlanta was a real shot in the arm. It was a busy long three days, but I came home with renewed vigor and optimism for the overall state of woodworking. With companies like Highland Woodworking and the many fine manufacturers represented on the shelves and showroom floor of the store, the vigorous growth of woodworking seems assured. And with woodworkers as fine and kind as those I met, there is no doubt.

Next month I will return to the workshop commodity comparison series with some information that will really "stick with you." Also next month we will begin building shop wall storage cabinets that meet and exceed our needs for 5S organization. Look forward to seeing you.

And... To all the many woodworkers and all the staff of Highland Woodworking who welcomed me so graciously in Atlanta, thank you again. To Chris Bagby, the gracious gentleman, the philosopher, the historian and yoga master, co-founder of Highland Woodworking, you are truly a Renaissance man and a good friend. Not just to me, but to all woodworkers. I salute you and all that you have accomplished.

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at downtoearthwoodworks@me.com .

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