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Old Skills

Not so long ago, shop class was a rite of passage in American schools.

Boys took up hammers, saws and screwdrivers to transform pieces of wood into a shelf or a step stool or a lamp shaped like an old farm pump. For many, it was an introduction to the subtlety of hand planes and chisels, and how easy it was to make major mistakes. A few discovered they loved working with wood and found a career or a lifelong hobby.

Woodshop has disappeared from many schools, as priorities have shifted toward what some called more "relevant" instruction. But the old skills still thrive among craftsmen such as Tom Phillips, who builds custom furniture in his Ashland shop.

"There's something about wood and human civilization that goes back centuries," Phillips says. "Doing the things that make us human is tied to many kinds of wood."

For years, Phillips and fellow members of the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild have offered a series of classes to share their knowledge and pass on their love of the craft to new woodworkers. The guild, a regional association of woodworkers with a wide range of skills, is probably best known for its annual show on Thanksgiving weekend in Ashland. This year's "Insight into Woodworking" classes begin Tuesday, March 5, and continue through April 30.

All of the instructors are experienced woodworkers. Some, such as Phillips, depend on their skills to earn a living. Many others turned (or returned) to the woodshop after successful careers in other fields.

"The guild is a fascinating group of people," says Dan Fischer of Ashland, a self-described "computer nerd" who got his first taste of woodworking at the age of 7. His dad was a sales manager for a tool company and made sure his son got an early start. When Fischer retired and moved to Southern Oregon, he enrolled in the guild's classes to see how other people set up their workshops and get to know other woodworkers.

Like many guild members, Fischer flashes a ready sense of humor. When asked what he makes in his shop, he says "mostly sawdust and mistakes," but he eventually confesses that he made a cradle for his granddaughter from a cottonwood tree, a species most non-woodworkers would consign to the firewood pile.

The classes teach woodworkers how to appreciate each tree species — even cottonwood — for its particular attributes. Cottonwood, for example, is a member of the poplar family, which produces wood for everything from pallets to the backs of violas.

Another guild member, Gerry Holmquist, earned a doctorate and worked in molecular biology and gene sequencing for 45 years before retiring to Shady Cove and setting up his woodshop.

"I knew I was good with my hands," he quips. "I had a knack for it, and I decided to become a famous furniture maker."

Holmquist says guild members' knowledge and expertise span every aspect of woodcraft, from choosing a log and cutting it into lumber to applying stains and coatings to a finished project.

"If you go (to the classes) as somebody who's willing to learn woodworking, it's like visiting Nobel Prize winners," he says.

Holmquist will teach a class in making jigs, those one-of-a-kind specialty tools that woodworkers use to hold a piece of wood securely while they cut it to shape, or to make a number of pieces with identical dimensions. He's built a number of jigs using magnets to, in his words, "precisely and repeatedly shove your piece of wood past the (saw) blade."

He says the classes help beginners learn how to evaluate the grain of their wood to create the best visual effect.

"Your eyes see that the difference between a piece of furniture you buy at the store and a piece of hand-crafted furniture is the arrangement of the grain," he explains.

The wood itself requires some understanding, too. Even dry, seasoned lumber changes shape, reacting to changes in temperature and humidity. Woodworkers have to account for the wood's movement when they put pieces together in a piece of furniture.

"When it's humid, it expands," Holmquist says. "When it's dry, it contracts. When you make a piece of furniture, it looks like it's glued solid, but it's put together with a bunch of slip joints so it won't bust apart. You learn (how to do that) from all these pros."

Classes also focus on mundane nuts-and-bolts aspects of woodworking, such as tool sharpening. Keen-edged chisels and planes help craftsmen achieve the clean, precise joints that make hand-crafted furniture such a delight to the eye. Russell Beebe, a carver and woodworker from Talent, will teach a class in tool sharpening. Beebe is best known for his 18-foot sculpture "We are Here," honoring American Indians who lived in Southern Oregon prior to European settlement. The statue formerly stood outdoors at the north end of downtown Ashland, but was recently moved into the Hannon Library on the campus of Southern Oregon University to protect it from the ravages of rain and freezing temperatures.

Beebe studied furniture making in Asia, where there's a long tradition of embellishing each piece with elaborate carving.

"That's what got me into carving," Beebe says. "When I was learning furniture building, I learned how important the carving was."

He'll also explain how he makes his own tools for specific tasks.

"If I need a tool, I make it," he says, "rather than wait three weeks for (delivery of) something I'm just gonna have to rework anyway. It drives me crazy to wait."

He'll also talk about how to care for sharpening tools themselves, such as the Japanese waterstones he favors. Sharpening stones can be used for decades if they're given proper care and flattened regularly to maintain a flat sharpening surface.

"Part of sharpening is taking really good care of your stones," he says. "I'm proud to say my stones have been in use for 30 years."

Guild members offer the classes with the intent of passing on what they've learned to new generations of woodworkers, Holmquist says.

"They love the wood," he says, "and they'll instill in you a love of the wood and the grain."

Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at bdkettler@gmail.com.

Tom Phillips works with a homemade wooden hand plane on part of a coffee table Friday in his Ashland shop. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore