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A Walk through the Valley

April 11, 2011

I was invited to speak at the Ottawa Woodworkers Association annual event this past weekend and had an inspiring time to say the least. Let me start by saying thanks again to all of the members who were able to attend and a big shout out to Vic Tesolin for the invitation as well as looking out for me all weekend long.

It was really great to connect with others on this path we choose in working wood and everyone seemed to have a really good time sharing stories and talking tools and wood.

My trip kicked off in high-style on Friday afternoon when I arrived at the Lee Valley Tools Head Office in Ottawa. Once there, I was given a three hour tour by none other than company president, Robin Lee.

Now for those who don’t know, Lee Valley has been a leader in hand tool manufacturing and mail-order retail for over 30 years here in Canada and continues to be the leader in hand tool innovation across the board.

From the main building with over 100,000 square feet housing offices, warehouse spaces and state of the art manufacturing abilities to the flag ship retail outlet and the ‘collection’ of antique hand tools, I was absolutely blown away by not only the sheer size of the place but by the openness, friendliness and willingness to share his thoughts and ideas from Mr. Lee. I’m not sure if everyone gets a tour as extensive as the one I went on but it really opened my eyes to just how much work goes into the running and maintaining a company this size.

From the staff filling boxes for quick mail-order turn around to the engineers and industrial designers manufacturing some of the finest tools available this place is truly unique.

I was thrilled to see new product designs not yet released and hand tool ideas, with some machines that I didn’t even know existed yet- serious science fiction kind of stuff that if I told you about it here I think I may just become a ‘marked man’ ; )

We kept joking about how at the end of the tour, visitors must surely get their memories erased but it seems like I still have some images rollin’ around up there so I’d better keep ’em under wraps for now and just say that there are some exciting things due out over the next few months from Lee Valley Tools.

The private collection with just about every example of hand tools manufactured anywhere through history is one area I could have easily spent another few days in. I asked Robin if he ever considered making it a public display and he did say it is something they plan on doing in the future. I look forward to seeing it again someday and can’t wait to talk about some new tools from Veritas in the coming months.

So that was only the beginning of my trip,  the first three hours and already pretty incredible.

From there it was off to the venue to get things set for the Saturday event and the morning came quickly with my first lecture scheduled for 9am. There seemed to be a really good turn out and as mentioned I was able to meet some incredibly talented wood workers.

Vic Tesolin who you may already know from reading this blog is a talented furniture maker and designer, past Editor of Canadian Woodworking Magazine and is now working for Lee Valley Tools. Vic gave a great talk on ‘Getting into Veneer’ with lots of laughs and some really good information and advice as well on the veneering process. Vic and I became friends back when he was at CWM and it was great to finally see where his shop is and some of his own furniture projects in person.

The next speaker was Karen McBride, an Ottawa based artisan who did a great demonstration on bending wood. From the steam box method with and without a backing strap to hot pipe bending, Karen’s talk was both informative and inspiring. Her afternoon topic was another hour of inspiration as she walked us all through her process of design. She is currently working on a commissioned piece that blends veneers with bent forms and borders on fine art work and she shared with us the trails and tribulations of getting the piece to that point.

The fourth and final speaker of the day was Ron Barter, the owner and program director of Rosewood Studio- School of Fine Woodworking.  Ron’s first talk was about Woodworking as a living and he discussed some of the in’s and out’s of the wood working business with some great advice along the way. Ron’s talk was about an hour in length but I could have listened to him speak all afternoon.A very unassuming individual with a soft spoken delivery he shared many pieces of wisdom he’s picked up through his own experiences as a wood worker and business man over the past 20 years and an hour was just enough to scratch the surface.  It’s one of my goals to someday get up to Rosewood for some classes and learn some more from Ron.

Now besides all of that there was a great antique tool Bazaar with Doug Orr and Gerry Schultz and Doug brought out a few gems for the Association. Lots of humor mixed with some good ‘ol fashioned, hand tool advice.

To finish off the day there was a ‘Name that Wood’ competition put on by the Wood Source that asked everyone to guess the name of about  20 wood samples. It was a challenge to say the least and congrats again to the winner !

There you have it- a fantastic day on Saturday and I hope you’ll be able to make it out again next year, I know I’m going to try to be there again. If you’re in the Ottawa area then you should seriously consider joining the OWA, it really is a great way to meet like minded people interested in all aspects of the craft. If you’re not in the Ottawa area then have a look around your own neighborhoods for Wood groups and meetings; wood working can be a lonely craft with hours spent at a work bench- having others to bounce ideas off of and share thoughts and information with is a great way to develop your own ideas and techniques as well as just meeting like minded new friends.

And speaking of new friends, Sunday morning came in the Valley and with it a visit to Karen McBride’s studio just outside of Ottawa. As mentioned, Karen is an extremely talented wood worker who’s work is as fine and unique as any you’ll see.  Since we both were giving talks on Saturday we didn’t get the opportunity to really connect so I made it a point to get out to her home to say hello before leaving the area.

What can I say?

Her work and work shop is every artisans dream come true, a 200 year old log home she dismantled, moved and fully restored into her studio back in 2001. With state of the art equipment and an awe inspiring collection of hand tools ( one being Konrad Sauers first ever infill planes) she walked me through every step of her process and gave me a wonderful tour around her work space. It’s great to connect with fellow artisans and we even had a 1972 Volkswagen bus in common!

One of the many, wonderful details in Karens work space is in the risers leading to the second floor of her studio. She took the time to hand carve out a quote that reads from step to step as you’re walking up-

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Here’s a link to a great article about Karen’s workshop- from the dismantling to the resurrection…

Well that was the end to a fantastic weekend and like I said I’m going to try to make it make next year to Woodworks 2012.



I had taken a few shots at Karens studio but for some reason can’t upload them ?

I’ll keep trying and will update when I figure it out- damn computer !!!

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