Rob Campbell can’t stop talking about the feel of wood. “It is almost impossible not to touch a polished wooden surface once seen,” says Campbell. “Try walking past a wooden kayak or perfectly balanced rocking chair without at least wanting to feel it — it is impossible for me!” Campbell, an IT consultant and dedicated dad, spends his extra time trying to master hand-tool woodworking. “It is nothing short of amazing to transform a chunk of recently-living tree into a piece of furniture using just some steel edges and wedges,” he says. “I feel deep peace and joy when working with hand tools. And the smell is great.”
Campbell’s interest in the craft was piqued when he discovered The Joiner and the Cabinetmaker, an illustrated book written in 1839 that details the experience of Thomas, a fictional cabinetmaker’s apprentice. Campbell had fiddled around with hand tools in the past, but reading Thomas’ story changed his life. Campbell decided to follow in the footsteps of Thomas, building the three projects featured in the book: a packing box, a chest of drawers and a school box (see image above). With Thomas’s 19th century limitations in mind, Campbell decided to use local wood whenever possible, no electricity (save for a few lights if he worked late), and a bench grinder to adjust his tools.
Campbell devised his own creative approach to learning woodworking since the apprenticeship he craved was just not available. “Where Thomas and his parents could walk down to the local cabinetmaker’s shop, that was not possible for me. I thought for a while about how to bootstrap a virtual apprenticeship, and my Kickstarter campaign was born.”
Campbell successfully raised nearly $7,000 for his endeavors, promising to give some of his wood pieces to supporters who gave the highest pledges. “The biggest challenge was living up to the expectations of my supporters,” says Campbell. “I’ve had a great reception but it is honestly a little harrowing to ask for funding and then hope that the result is pleasing to the supporters.” The Kickstarter campaign was a learning experience, and kept Campbell from taking out a line of credit. He has few regrets. “The only thing I would’ve done differently? I would’ve been more accurate in estimating shipping costs for my rewards,” he adds.
Now, a year since his Kickstarter campaign, Campbell has developed an even stronger understanding of woodworking by following Thomas’s project. “I almost think traditional woodworkers need the same type of concern and support as endangered animal species,” says Campbell. “Wood is a precious resource and needs to be put into the hands of those skilled in the craft of building enduring items. My perhaps radical take is that our society has developed a deeply unhealthy attraction towards cheap disposable furniture.” While he’s not totally comfortable assuming the reasons people chose to back his Kickstarter campaign, Campbell hopes that it was a sign that people want to move away from the mass-produced, and maybe even live vicariously through a craftsman. “I have received many messages thanking me for doing this, so that they may follow along, when it is my sponsors who really deserve the thanks. I suspect most of us have a deep sense of longing for parts of our heritage that are disappearing, and the need to protect this knowledge is intuitive.”
Campbell has now made woodworking a pillar in his life, and will soon spend three months doing full-time study at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, where hand tools and traditional methods are emphasized. “A goal of mine is to become involved in spreading this information, through a combination of writing and teaching. I have already received orders for commissions once my Kickstarter obligations are fulfilled, and I have had to even turn some down!”
For those who share his aspirations, Campbell advises starting with the basics, like whittling sticks with a pocketknife to learn about the way wood behaves. “Cuts will be much cleaner in one direction than the other — try to understand why.” If nothing else, strike up a conversation with a woodworker to demystify the craft and become more comfortable with the tools and effort involved. “Woodworking is not easy, but talking to woodworkers is,” remarks Campbell. “I get the sense most of them are dying to help someone else get started or at least to talk about it. Our friends and spouses have heard enough!”
Follow Rob Campbell’s journeys in woodworking on his blog, The Joiner’s Apprentice.