Friday, April 13, 2012

[Interview] Joel Moskowitz of TFWW and Gramercy Tools

Introducing a New Series: Q&A with Some of My Woodworking Mentors

A core element of my entire meta-project here (not just the blog, but why I am doing it and what I am doing with it) involves the fact that we have no (formal) apprenticeship system for woodworkers in America, and this fact distresses me. An overall goal of my work here is to suss out ways to best utilize what instruction is available out there, and distance mentorship has gone a long way for me. Books are fantastic, if you are that kind of learner (I am), and there are plenty of them out there spanning the centuries and dozens if not hundreds of styles or disciplines. There comes a time, though, when a question or two needs some expert thought, or a different set of eyes are required to troubleshoot technique or methodology. Internet forums have their place, but the noise-to-signal ratio is often prohibitive, especially for a novice without the ability to discern the quality of information being delivered. I've therefore been extremely pleased by the willingness of a number of woodworking experts (although not all of them will refer to themselves as such) to generously offer support to an aspiring novice.

As such, I would like to bring to your attention a few of the folks who have helped me along my journey in a deep way. Some have provided motivation, some inspiration. Some have actually given me tools, and some have been patient with what a dunce I can be as I learn to use them (and sharpen them). Some have shown me a type of a support one normally finds only from close friends or family, and some have given me what I consider secular sacred knowledge; the type of distilled information you can normally only obtain through years or decades of trial-and-error. This type of information is historically very closely guarded, and generally for good reasons. 

I'll be posting brief interviews with some of these people. Together, they form the virtual master whom I am apprenticing under. It is therefore appropriate that the first is Joel Moskowitz, co-author of the new edition of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker and founder of the woodworking supply company with an extremely accurate name: Tools for Working Wood. TFWW not only has the expected array of hand tools, but they also specialize in difficult to find traditional supplies such as hide glue (and pots to warm it in), veneering tools, and they also carry the house brand, Gramercy Tools. I've been personally delighted by their holdfasts, their dovetail saw, and their bow saw. These tools are beautiful to look at, beautiful to hold, and work as promised. Its a joy to know that small manufacturing concerns are still able to thrive in  this economy, and I hope that all readers consider favoring these types of manufactures and vendors, regardless of the industry.

Moskowitz is much more than a tool maker and seller, however. He is also a scholar; his academic understanding of woodworking history is most impressive. His edition of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, the book which inspired this blog, has footnotes almost as lengthy as the original text; in fact they might even be lengthier. A single sentence in the book, or reference to a tool, will launch Joel into a several-paragraph frenzy of contextualization and explanation, and this is exactly the kind of thing which floats my boat as a reader interested in not only how wood was worked, but also why, when, and everything else. It was Moskowitz who rediscovered this long-lost book, and recognized its potential to illuminate many of the lost mysteries of the past. He's also an expert in old tool catalogs, and his appreciation of their design sensibilities abound in TFWW literature. Be sure to peruse their website for pdf examples of their retro-layouts and stupendously useful isometric design sheets.

He's a very busy man, but on the few occasions I have had questions about the Joiner Etc book, concerns about his tools, or other issues, he has responded in all necessary detail. More than once I have had some rather bone-headed ideas about how to use these tools and he has patiently set me straight.  

Without further ado, here we have The Joiner's Apprentice (TJA) asking a few questions of Joel Moskowitz (JM):

TJA: How long have you been woodworking, and what changes have you seen
in the field since you started?

JM: I took my first class in woodworking when I was 6. I have been seriously working as a hobbyist or an ironmonger since the mid-'80s. The big change is a renewed interest in traditional techniques and a resurgence of availability of quality hand tools.

TJAWhat is your favorite style to work in? 

JM: Sadly with a business, a kid, no basement shop, and very little time I currently do very little hands-on cabinetry. Previously, I built a lot of [Arts and Crafts] furniture; increasingly, my interest is in more decorative work and currently I am studying (slowly) woodcarving with Chris Pye. My goal is to make smaller pieces, more attuned to my schedule, but decorative ones.

TJAWhat tools do you always look forward to using and/or what operations do you most look forward to, time after time?

JM: I have always loved casework, although now carving is catching my fancy.  Tools - I like all tools but these days a well tuned carving tool is such a pleasure and a new exciting experience for me.

TJAHow much time do you actually get in your shop in a typical week?

JM: I am trying these days to get in at least 1 hour of carving. In addition I do more woodwork for demos, and photo setups. but for "me" time. not much (see above for reasons why)

TJAHave you had any memorable masters or mentors help you gain the skills you currently possess? 

JM: Maurice Fraser taught me most of what I know. My friend Ken Carr taught me even more.
Lately I have been learning from Chris Pye and I areally appriciate his approach to teaching
(It's really important that the teachers you select speak to you in a way that you can learn and people learn differently).

TJAYour tool shop is unique in offering historically relevant tools, often updated with modern materials. Your holdfasts, for example, are among the least costly and most effective available. Which of your offerings are you most satisfied with, or do you feel have met the best reception?

JM: They are all my children. I think the bowsaw is awesome and was the first of the really complicated projects we did.

The dovetail saw is near and dear to me also. No, I cannot judge, we make stuff we are proud of and I am proud to be part of a great team.


TJAYou helped make the case, in your republishing of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, that working through the book will leave one with basic skills necessary to continue on as a Journeyman. Have you seen anyone take this challenge seriously? Do you feel the book is lacking much in serving as a core curriculum for traditional woodworking?

JM: Lots of people are building the first two projects. A fair number are doing the dresser too.  These are all straightforward projects that don't require going crazy.
No - There are specific areas of technique - like sharpening that additional instruction might be useful, but a lot of woodwork is practice and having real projects to work with is a great book. What do you think? You are in the midst of it all.

[TJA: I am not actually familiar with anyone else working through the book, per se, but I have been contacted by one person who made some packing boxes, and another who made variations of the schoolbox several times. Christopher Schwarz says nobody has yet sent photos of all three projects yet, and he is looking forward to the day when that happens - I am sure it won't be me. I feel the book is mostly complete, but that is due to the notes you and Christopher have added. The original text would be a fascinating read, but much of it would have been lost on me without your updates. Sharpening is also a weak spot in it; although it goes into detail, it does not use the types of systems likely to be found in even a "Traditional" woodworking shop now. As for the big picture question of "is this book a good central text for a general woodworking education"? Ask me in another year! I think it does not hurt.]

TJAFrom your blog I gather that you greatly enjoy architectural strolls through New York City. What else do you enjoy outside of woodworking and time with your family?

JM: I cook, (dinner 7 days a week). I read. I write.

TJAWhat is happening in the hand tool world (toolmakers, blogs, books, projects) that you think need more press?

JM: We need to hear more about what people are building, not just he fancy project but the bread and butter of simple furniture for daily living.

TJAIs New York Pizza the best there is? Have you had anything passable outside of NYC?

JM: The pizza in Milan is so much better than anything I have had in the USA it's just not funny. Sad really if you live here. I haven't been to Naples or Rome so I can't speak of what's going on there. There is great pizza all over the US. Different styles, not all to my liking, but worthy of note. I don't hold with weird ingredients, I like it simple. If you go to any independent pizza place in a big city, unless they are really clueless they should be able to do a decent pie. Sometimes even a great pie. It's about wanting to and having access to good sauce and cheese.  Craftsmanship is Craftsmanship no matter what you are doing - but it's true in some places the standards are really low.  (I've had excellent pizza in New Haven and Chicago too)

TJA: Thank you, Joel!

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