Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


A Conversation with the Founders


Looking Back and Looking Ahead

We recently gathered for beverages at the Uptown Tavern (recording device in hand) and the founders reflected on the growth of the School, some of their most rewarding moments, and ultimately how the School has changed them as individuals.

What’s one of your most rewarding moments?

John: If you’re dealing with experienced woodworkers, a lot of times they have blinders on and don’t want to do it any other way than the way they’ve been taught. There were two guys who came up from San Francisco for an Introduction to Furniture Making Class. Both were really set in their ways, and one guy never did anything but go right down the line; but the other person at the end of two weeks, came up to us at the end of class and said: “You changed the way I do woodworking, you changed the way I see projects. I don’t always have to do it the one way I was taught. I can think about it. I can examine the project. I can look at the different  influences. I can say I want to do this and I can do this!” He was very pleased.”

Jim: I’m thinking of an encounter with a teacher who occasionally comes to teach for us. He’s the foremost instructor in US, Chris Schwarz.  The first time he came, he and I had a conversation and he said “You know you are only one of three schools that when I walk in all the tools actually work. They’re sharp and they’re ready to use. There’s one school on the east coast, there’s one in Germany, and you’re the other one.”  That was great for me to hear because that’s one of the things I want our school to offer, to make it stand out and to teach the way I think you should teach woodworking, is tools that are premium grade and work the way they’re supposed to.  When the students get them they’re sharp, they’re tuned up the way they should be.  The first one’s free and students get to tune them after that, and they know where the bar is. 

Tim adds: Chris taught the Toolchest Class and after two days he said “The students who’ve been through your school just get it.  I’m really not having to show them that much. They got the design, the tools… the ethos of what it takes to be a craftsman working with hand tools.”  He was kind of stunned, he’s never experienced that.
Tim: Steve Brown was teaching a Tlingit Mask-Carving Class and Gordon (the chaperone) brought down two students from Wrangell, Alaska. At the beginning of the class the students introduced themselves. One spoke for about three minutes introducing himself in Tlingit. Then he translated what he said.  My heart almost stopped because it was an acknowledgment of the quality and intent of Steve’s craftsmanship.

What are some of your  aspirations for the future of the School?

John: I hate to commit to any one class I’d like to see us offer because I don’t necessarily want to tie myself down. I think one of the things that is fun about the school is that we’re always learning from the students. There are clearly some skills that must be taught because they’re building blocks to other skills, but we learn from what students want as well. We see where they take us and respond.

Jim: One of the things I’d like to see most at the School, which is beginning to happen, is our alumni developing more of an identity. Our Foundation Students really do form a community each time, they become their own family.  (In fact, we’re going to have our first wedding!)  What I see is a new generation of woodworkers being developed and they’ll say that our School is where that happened.

Tim: I want to pick up on what Jim said, if we as the School can be this genesis, hub, incubator, something equivalent to the boatbuilding community here, if we can do that for other forms of woodworking, we can create an intentional community for craftsman in Port Townsend. If people are coming here for the depth of craftsmanship that will be one huge spin off from the school.  And it’s beginning to happen. Foundation graduates are figuring out how they can hang out and remain engaged with the School. 
    The other big ambition I have for the school is determining how to be part of rebuilding Fort Worden.  We’ve done Building 365, the windows project, the porch furniture project and there are options in the future. If we can develop our part it will direct how the school will work.  If we can say come train with us, come be part of an apprenticeship program rebuilding the Fort, then students can take those skills elsewhere, and that will be when the school really succeeds.

How has the School changed you as an individual?

Jim: Recognizing generational change and passing this on to the next generation.  I would have said this when we started the school, but now I’m really seeing it, this is another generation of woodworkers. As Chris Kluck said: “You know we’re the ones who are suppose to be good at this stuff, so we better be really good at it, and pass it on while we can.”  I’ve taken this to heart more than ever.  It’s changed the direction of my life and made me focus on teaching teachers.
John: Tied in with what Jim is saying, I find myself examining how I do things in woodworking and why.  If I’m going to explain and justify this to a student, I ask myself: Why do I do that, how do I make it clear?  And sometimes I can’t be clear and I don’t want to tell them this is the only way to do it.  I want to show them some options and make sure they can think about it. I’ve had to re-examine my whole career thinking about what I do and don’t want to pass on. 
Tim: I’ve had to so totally immerse myself in the School that I’ve left my craft behind and so what’s changing for me is the way I approach it. I’ve always viewed the School as an enabler.  We give people permission to try and fail, and learn from that failure. I’ve had to give myself  permission to do this as well.  I’ve always held myself to this standard of “Damnit I can do it anyhow!”  But now I’m building my house and shop and I’ll have to give myself permission to learn or relearn how to do things. It’s a big transition for me to allow myself to do things in the shop and fail.  

Jim: I want to add what we always tell students at the beginning of a course: “We don’t want you to make a mistake in this course: we want you to make lots of mistakes!”