chat transcript

a Special Guest Chat with
Author, Furniture Designer, Educator and
  Director of the Northwest Woodworking Studio

with host
Ellis Walentine

November 19, 2012
9:30 pm EST

We had a very informative evening with Gary, focused mainly on his woodworking school and his views on woodworking and design. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation. Thanks again to Gary for joining us in the WoodCentral chat room.
... Ellis Walentine

PS For more information on Gary and his woodworking program, CLICK HERE (or on the image below).

EllisPlease join me in welcoming Gary Rogowski, director of the Northwest Woodworking Studio in Portland, OR, and a long-time contributor to Fine Woodworking magazine. Welcome, Gary!
Brian_CameronHello Gary
CharlesWelcome to the chat, Gary
EllisSo, I am so glad to have Gary with us. I just visited him in Oregon a couple weeks ago, and I was very impressed by his school and his woodworking program there.
Gary_RogowskiThanks Ellis. It was a treat to have you.
Brian_Camerontell us about it please Gary
Gary_RogowskiThanks again. Our approach is fairly simple: give the best learning experience we can in the shop.
Gary_RogowskiWe have evening classes, weekend workshops, and a two year Mastery Program
EllisAnd, what are the key elements of a great learning experience?
Gary_RogowskiOh an easy open ended question.
EllisWe serve softballs.
Gary_RogowskiWell, I think you need an empathetic instructor who understands what it was like to learn something new.
EllisThat would be you, of course.
Gary_RogowskiI tell my instructors that if they ever get to feeling smug they should demonstrate something left-handed.
EllisHumility is good to have.
Gary_RogowskiYeah, I do remember what it was like. My standard for quality 40 years ago was if I could get on top of the piece and jump up and down on it. My standards have refined some since then.
Gary_RogowskiFor a great learning experience a student also has to feel comfortable.
EllisDo you get mostly intermediate woodworkers in your program?
Gary_RogowskiNo, we get all levels.
Gary_RogowskiThe key is making folks understand that it's okay to fail. Making mistakes is how we learn. You just have to make adjustments after you make your mistakes.
EllisWell, you have the comfortable thing down, Gary. Your students were really in the groove.
Gary_RogowskiThe next key is getting them to understand what mastery really means.
EllisI know I learned mostly by trial and error. I think we all do.
Bob_in_NJYes most of my errors are a trial.
Gary_RogowskiRead your Henry Petroski, Civil Engineering professor at Duke, on The Evolution of Useful Things. His principle thesis is that form doesn't follow function, it follows failure.
EllisDo you find that people come to you for your teaching style, or your reputation, or for some characteristic style of furniture that you are known for?
Gary_RogowskiOOh, I don't know. I think they come because I have a beagle.
EllisYou're too modest.
EllisWhat is your concept of mastery, Gary?
Gary_RogowskiNo seriously, I think it's reputation somewhat, but I hope it's for my approach to woodworking and then to teaching. My goal is to teach them to build furniture. Not to create the perfect joint or perfect chisel edge or perfect jig. It's to use the tools they have to get the work done and to have a great time doing it.
EllisResults oriented.
Brian_CameronI like that philosophy..
Brian_CameronI am like a lot of shop is for fun first...production for me is a by-product
Bob_in_NJYes for me too, Brian, though it is nice to finish a project a couple times a year:)
StuartHHello, Gary. I've read many of your magazine articles and I really like your approach to the craft.
Brian_CameronYou bet, Bob
EllisThis seems to segue into our main topic tonight, which is design. Design is at the root of just about everything we do in the shop, whether it is results we want to achieve or enjoyment we want to have.
Gary_RogowskiDesign is great fun and a great challenge for most of us left-brain types.
EllisI'm in agreement with Gary about having fun and getting things done.
CharlesI am not a designer, I am woodworker
Gary_RogowskiOh Charles you're wrong. You have the capacity to design all sorts of things. From the pulls on your tool cabinet to the details on a piece.
EllisSo, Gary, tell us how you approach the design of a new piece of furniture.
Gary_RogowskiOkay, I approach a design from several views and then try to get them all to merge.
CharlesNever took the time to learn design Gary, I build from my head not from paper
EllisSo, Charles, your design process is in your head.
Gary_RogowskiI build from my head too but think about any great piece of furniture, great architecture or great art, it's done first in the head and then in the hands.
CharlesYes Ellis
StuartHTrue that, Gary
CharlesI built a lot of projects like that unless I am working from someone else plans
Gary_RogowskiAnd great artists are constantly redoing a design, reworking a design and tinkering. And it's tough to do that with wood because it can be so slow sometimes. Also, my wood stretcher is still on the fritz.
EllisLet me know when you get that stretcher perfected.
Gary_RogowskiCharles, you have to try modeling in cardboard. It's so quick, you can cut up a sheet on the table saw, hot melt glue it together and see your piece and its scale and form in an hour.
StuartHNow that I've got my workbench basically finished, I can start on that blanket chest I promised my wife four years ago!
EllisGood advice, Gary. Mockups tell a lot.
Gary_RogowskiModels are one way of eliminating guesswork from our designs and a way of ensuring some design satisfaction.
Gary_RogowskiThink about how you view a piece of furniture. How you first encounter it.
Gary_RogowskiYou look at its form.
Gary_RogowskiIf you like the form, then you go up to touch it.
Bob_in_NJWhat other materials are good for mock ups? I always seem to build too big, and mock-ups would seem to be a great way to prevent that.
Gary_RogowskiWell, foam core works, cardboard as I mentioned; but — and I am not kidding — cheddar cheese works great. :)
Gary_RogowskiAnd you can eat the offcuts.
Bob_in_NJ...for small carvings, I guess:)?
CharlesI am a carpenter by training so I would like to improve my woodworking skils
Gary_RogowskiCarpenters are plenty creative.
StuartHI've heard that styrofoam can work well for the mockup stage.
Gary_RogowskiYeah, mostly smaller pieces for the cheese model.
EllisGreat idea with the cheese. I'm going to mock up a dining table.
Gary_RogowskiStyrofoam (how can I put this nicely?) sucks to cut on the band saw. Nasty, bad dust everywhere.
Gary_RogowskiYou can stack laminate cardboard and cut it up or just use modeling clay.
Brian_CameronI agree with that...been there
StuartHI had a friend that used a hot-wire styro cutter for his sculpting ideas.
Bob_in_NJNot too long ago I built a set for VBS at church and used an oscillating multi tool to cut 1" foam insulation board, not too messy and pretty easy to do. There was a good bit of dust, but not so airborn like from the tablesaw.
EllisBut, what are the decisions you need to make before you even start mocking up the piece?
Gary_RogowskiYou start Ellis with the purpose of a piece. What does it need to do, how does it need to function, how big is it, what are its proportions,and finally, can you get it out of your shop?
Gary_RogowskiThen you move to intent which is completely different than purpose. A table is a table. But a dining table's intent is different than a work table's.
EllisDo you consider cost at the outset? And is style included in the intent?
Gary_RogowskiHow do you want to feel when you look at the piece. Besides like a proud papa. Yes style is absolutely included in intent. Is it Shaker then it's pared down to some simple forms.
Brian_CameronGary.. I would have thought that one primary consideration would be...can you DO it in your shop?
Gary_RogowskiThat comes later Brian.
Gary_RogowskiFirst you have to dream. Then you have to figure out if you can make your dream come true.
Gary_RogowskiI get to joinery down the road in the design process. But first it's purpose and intent.
EllisYeah, that's kinda the way I always approached it. You need to know what the best solution is before you can start backing up to a realistic solution.
Bob_in_NJSeems to me that most anything is do-able in any shop, though the selection of tools and/or machines may make it easier or harder to do.
Gary_RogowskiJoinery has a huge impact on your design. You can hand cut dovetails for a chest or nail it together. It shows in the end and that has an effect on your intent.
EllisRight, but nails can be appropriate, depending on the intent.
Gary_RogowskiI didn't say they weren't. They can be absolutely appropriate and quick. But file those nail heads off and your piece looks completely different.
Brian_Cameron...but would not your physical circumstances give you guidance on the dream aspect?..I don't look to build huge projects in my basement shop...sorry for the pro's with all he room.
StuartHI would think that pretty much everything around you would color your decisons on style or design, Brian.
Gary_RogowskiJoinery, Brian, is based on several factors: What you can do in your shop, what you're capable of and what you're tooled up for, how fast you want to build the piece, how long you want it to last, and finally how late is it. If it's a Christmas present, usuallly those have to be built faster.
Ellis...which is why I brought up cost. Your materials and your construction labor all add to the cost of a design, so you need to be aware of the tradeoffs.
EllisDo most of your students aspire to be furnituremakers? Or are they in it for a more general mastery of woodworking skills?
Gary_RogowskiIt depends on the student. Some are eager to be building work, others know that they need to keep their day job as a surgeon or machinist or computer guy, and some just love to learn.
Gary_RogowskiI would say that of my Resident Mastery students, most of them want to go on and make a living at this stuff. I tell them that woodworking is a terrible way to make a living, but a great way to live.
CharlesGary, do you teach fine woodworking or cabinetmaking?
Gary_RogowskiI teach fine cabinetmaking.
EllisYou seem to specialize in Arts & Crafts styles, Gary. What brought you to this preference?
Gary_RogowskiThe Chinese furniture that I studied, and then Charles Rennie Mackintosh and finally Greene and Greene.
Gary_RogowskiA&C is something I like because of its honest approach to joinery and construction. It's very solid looking and dependable looking. It's also furniture that I can live with.
EllisWhat do those styles and makers have in common?
Gary_RogowskiWell, CRM [Mackintosh] and G&G [Greene & Greene] stole heavily from the Orient. As most U.K. designers of the early 20th century did. It had a huge impact on styles.
Bob_in_NJInteresting to hear that said out loud, I've never heard that, but thinking about A&C, I can see the oriental influence.
EllisI would agree there, too. It is also realistic to make.
Brian_CameronI find myself drawn to Shaker furniture...the pureness of the line I guess.
Gary_RogowskiA & C is simple like Shaker but more lyrical I think.
Gary_RogowskiIt is also far more naturalistic which is something I love about CRM.
Brian_CameronThk you
EllisYou seem to have taken Greene & Greene furniture a few steps beyond the original.
Gary_RogowskiThe cloud rise form of G&G that you see everywhere in their work is a direct lift, pardon the pun, from Chinese domestic furniture. There are two more good books I would recommend, one by George Kates (Chinese Household Furniture) and the classic by Gustav Ecke (Chinese Domestic Furniture). Check these out.
Gary_RogowskiYeah Ellis, I don't do reproduction work. I like to riff off other people's stuff much more like a jazz musician than a classical one. I see the notes, I just want to play around with them. It's the creative side that I enjoy so much when I do this work.
EllisExcellent metaphor, Gary. You succeed very well.
EllisIn fact, I think we need to explore the lyrical touches that elevate a design.
StuartHOne question I've had is whether Mission style is an offshoot of A&C, or a precurser?
Gary_RogowskiMission came after A&C as Stickley started to market his work in his magazine, The Craftsman. The work of Morris and Ruskin and their philosophy spawned this movement 50 years before Stickley and his Mission style.
Gary_RogowskiYeah, you have to understand this about design: It's all been done. The best we can do is to lift from good sources and produce work that is reverent theft. Plagiarism is a drag, but being respectful of your predecessors is golden.
EllisWell, we're dealing with the same old functional concerns, so a lot of the basic design parameters don't change much.
EllisI think Stickley's furniture was a bit heavy and simplistic compared to G&G.
Gary_RogowskiYes, but look at some of Stickley's other work. It can be quite lyrical.
Gary_RogowskiOkay we have purpose and intent and joinery in our design. We're not done.
Gary_RogowskiWe still have what I think is the most important thing after the form of the piece: details or delineation.
EllisTell us more.
Gary_RogowskiThe functional concerns rarely change and we're dealing within the confines of wood. But once you have your form, your purpose and you know how the piece should feel when you walk in the room, how do make those touches that set it apart?
EllisHere comes the right brain stuff...
Gary_RogowskiThat's the key to detail. Look at Bogg's chairs and how he hand carves the ends of his chair legs or look what Maloof did with a simple hard line that followed that chair around its perimeter.
Gary_RogowskiIt elevates a simple piece to another level by looking at these small things.
Brian_Camerondarn..don't have one..
EllisAnd how do you conjure up those details, Gary?
Gary_RogowskiDesign has a vocabulary like any other language. You have to study it and learn. You have to try things, mock them up, build prototypes, make mistakes in order to see what can fly or not fly in a design.
Bob_in_NJThe devil is in the details
Gary_RogowskiThe devil was an angel remember.
EllisThis is where I like to doodle.
Bob_in_NJtru dat
StuartHThat right there, Gary, is what I enjoy about the craft the most. Visualizing the piece and how people (mostly my wife) will react to it is what keeps me pushing to learn everything I can.
Gary_RogowskiDoodling is where I start, whether it's with a cocktail napkin or my sketchbook.
Bob_in_NJIt's also fun to doodle a shape into a hunk of scrap
Brian_CameronNite all.. Thanks for your insight Gary..
StuartHnight Brian
CharlesNite Brian
Bob_in_NJNight Brian
EllisGoodnight, Brian. We'll be archiving the chat log.
Gary_RogowskiBrian, dream of furniture tonight.
Gary_RogowskiArt Carpenter, Espenet, said he couldn't draw and drew instead with the band saw. It's just a lot more wood to use up coming up with designs.
Bob_in_NJSome of the Sam Maloof videos I've seen, I think he also drew with the bandsaw
Gary_RogowskiHe did some Bob, but he was a graphic designer first. He knew the value of a pencil sketch.
EllisWhether you draw it or saw it, it starts with your dreams.
Gary_RogowskiI can visualize great pieces of furniture. The trick is to get that onto paper or onto wood. The translation is the tough part.
Bob_in_NJYes, lots of wood to use up, 'drawing' that way, but to see it in a piece of wood sometimes makes all the difference, the wood often speaks louder to me than the sketch on paper.
EllisI think previsualization is the key. Once you have that, you have a yardstick to measure your progress.
StuartHOnce in a while things just come together. I did a memorial box for my brother-in-law's ashes. I had no plan, just picked up some wood and in two days I had made something beautiful. It was my first piece, and my mother-in-law said it was perfect.
EllisPerfect is good enough for me.
Gary_RogowskiMy design work seems to flow better when I plan for serendipity.
EllisNow there is a concept. Keep an open mind and see where it takes you.
Gary_RogowskiYeah, it's where your details can change. For instance I never design my pulls until the piece is done.
Bob_in_NJNow how do you go about planning for that?:)
Gary_RogowskiYou may add some inlay or square plugs, change the color of the piece by ebonzing or fuming it.
StuartHThat makes sense to me, Gary. You don't reaally know what will feel right until you see the thing "large as life"
Gary_RogowskiThe details are huge for any piece and I agree Stuart you don't know until you see the piece.
Bob_in_NJOk, I get it, yes, being flexible or tuned in to the piece, the sketched-out pulls or inlay or wahtever may need or want to change when the piece finally takes shape.
EllisTo what extent do you design for a particular client or interior?
Gary_RogowskiI design for each particular client if I have a commission. I interview them first and then do 20 or 30 sketches of ideas that they look over. We narrow that down to 3 or 4 and I work on those sketches.
EllisAha. So you involve them in the early sketch phase.
Gary_RogowskiThe best parts, or the parts the client likes the most, we put into a final design and drawing.
Gary_RogowskiYeah I like them in on the process. Up to a point. To speak to something earlier, never ever show a client a design you cannot build.
EllisDo you sketch little perspective drawings for customers? I always found that most of them don't visualize orthographic drawings very well.
Gary_RogowskiI don't do perspectives unless called for. I do isometric drawings to get an idea of scale but then I go to a model to nail a design down and, without fail, a client.
EllisExcellent. Yes, they do like models.
EllisGary, you say your school is "tradition-based." What do you mean by that?
Gary_RogowskiWe focus on both hand tools and power tools, building furniture the best way we know how. So that is in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
EllisSounds like a good balance. Your program is very common-sensical.
Gary_RogowskiThat's my approach to building.
Gary_RogowskiI'm just not that tricky a guy but I like being creative and spending time at my bench. Woodworking is my hobby.
EllisIt's great to have a hobby that is also your profession and your passion.
Gary_RogowskiIt's no fun to get to the end of any journey is it? It's the journey that makes the trip worthwhile.
EllisWords of wisdom.
Gary_RogowskiYeah I feel lucky I made the choices I did so many years ago and still be able to work at my bench.
Bob_in_NJAh my philosophy about my woodworking, it's all about the journey.
EllisHave most of your students gone on to fulfill their woodworking aspirations?
Gary_RogowskiOh who can say? I hope they're still aspiring to them.
EllisDo you have any plans for more books or magazine articles?
Gary_RogowskiI've got an article coming out on a million-dollar trick — maybe two million dollar trick — done on the table saw to level chair legs.
Gary_RogowskiThat's with Popular Woodworking and another with them on a cove-cutting jig for the table saw.
EllisWhoo. Big money. I guess you'd have to kill us if you told us the trick.
Gary_RogowskiThe book I have planned, oh no I wouldn't have to kill you. :) The trick uses the table saw like a lawn mower. It's the best analogy.
Bob_in_NJOh that sounds interesting. My first coves were cut on the TS I think I used a 2x4 and clamps for the fence. It came out ok.
Gary_RogowskiYou use the table saw to trim the bottom of your "long" legs with the blade set at 1/64".
Bob_in_NJThen what do you do with the one that is left 1/64th long? :)
Gary_RogowskiOh you just keep trimming until you have a milking stool.
Gary_RogowskiYeah freehand. You have to know which legs to cut but you're trimming so little off and you keep checking for flat on your table saw table. It works great.
Bob_in_NJAh, there's that planning for serendipity!
EllisBeats trying to hand plane them.
Gary_RogowskiOh and you thought all glue ups come out perfect? Not mine. And it beats hand planing by a mile.
EllisThe saw table acts like a jointer table to keep the end parallel to the floor.
Gary_RogowskiYeah and acts as a reference surface to see if the piece is still rocking.
EllisSweet technique. The coving jig will be intriguing, too.
Gary_RogowskiBoth coming up in Popular Woodworking. But you can see the table leveling and coving jigs on our website at We have YouTube videos up on them both.
Bob_in_NJHere's the chair leg trick on YouTube.
EllisThanks, we will check them out.
EllisAre you making anything right now, Gary?
Gary_RogowskiI have this older cabinet that I'm going to put some inlay into. We'll see. A jewelry box to finish up, an award for a college.
CharlesGary is your woodworking school your personal woodworking shop as well?
Gary_RogowskiI don't have a personal shop. It's a drag. I need to make up a shop at home. I have to sneak in real early to get any work done. The problem is I need hours of warm up and coffee before I'm productive.
EllisI know what you mean about getting productive.
CharlesI am a coffee drinker myself
EllisI always likened it to critical mass.
Gary_RogowskiIt can take so darn long sometimes.
CharlesA personal shop would be nice
EllisBut once you're in the zone, everything clicks.
Gary_RogowskiYeah once in, you're good.
Bob_in_NJYes that's the problme I have as a hobby woodworker, getting enough solid hours of time in the shop to acclimate and get productive.
Gary_RogowskiYeah, it's tough I hear ya.
EllisI have a dream shop, but we're planning to downsize in the next couple years so I've got the opposite conundrum to worry about.
CharlesSince I am self-employed, I get to work in my shop anytime I get ready.
EllisWell, it has been a pleasure having you here, Gary. Thanks so much for being my guest tonight.
Gary_RogowskiEllis and all thanks so much for chatting with me tonight. It was my pleasure. Come visit us in Portland. Just drop on by the Studio.
EllisI will do that, probably next summer.
StuartHYes, thanks Gary! It's been a treat for me!
Bob_in_NJGary, thanks so much for sharing with us. I enjoyed it!
EllisYou're a remarkable craftsman and a great guest. I wish you continued good luck and sweet dreams.
Gary_RogowskiMerci. Good night all. See you sooner I hope.
EllisYou bet. Thanks again.

About Gary Rogowski:

    Gary Rogowski has been woodworking and building furniture since 1974. He is a designer, maker, writer and the director of The Northwest Woodworking Studio, a school for woodworkers, in Portland, Oregon. For the past 15 years, the Studio has been the center for tradition based woodworking classes in the Pacific Northwest.

    He started woodworking when he found an old wooden hand plane outside his house. For some reason, picking it up and then picking up the skills of the trade made sense to him so he taught himself how to work with wood and tools. He started showing his design work in galleries in the late 70's. He built furniture for both local and national clients for public and private commissions. His work was seen in the 1989 Oregon Biennial at the Portland Art Museum. In 1991 he was awarded the Oregon Arts Commission fellowship in Crafts. His library tables and desks populate the Oregon State Archives in Salem, Oregon. He has always focused on no nonsense solutions to common woodworking problems. His hobbies include walking his beagle Jimmy, gardening, and not surprisingly, woodworking.

    He has been writing about woodworking since 1988 with dozens of articles, videos, and two books on joinery published including The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery for Taunton Press. He was a contributing editor to Fine Woodworking Magazine for 15 years and continues to write articles for several national woodworking magazines including Popular Woodworking and Good Woodworking in Britain.

CLICK HERE to visit Gary's website and learn more about his work and his woodworking program.