Volume: 142
Issue: December 2012 - January 2013

Fall Seminar: Robert Van Norman














Once again the Guild brought in a highly renowned woodworker for a weekend presentation to Guild members.  Robert Van Norman  is the founder, resident craftsman and teacher at the Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking. Robert apprenticed under master cabinetmaker Erich Janisch, further refining his skills at the College of the Redwoods under the direction of James Krenov. In 1991 he founded a small woodworkers cooperative where he began to make commissioned and speculative pieces of his own design. Robert's work has been exhibited throughout North America, Europe and Japan. He has taught and lectured at schools throughout Canada and the United States. Robert maintains a small benchroom at the school, where he continues to work at his craft.

The seminar opened on Friday evening with a slide show presentation by Robert of his work and that of his students.  As the photos were projected Robert pointed out design strengths, influences of James Krenov (Jim, to Robert) and particular challenges to the build.

On Saturday Robert talked about the wood and tools of fine cabinetmaking. Regarding the tools, Robert described himself as a tool minimalist.  The primary power machine tool at the College of the Redwoods is the bandsaw.  Not to say that they don't have other machines, but there is a strong leaning towards the use of hand tools whenever possible.

Robert's discussion of materials included discussion about the effects of various milling techniques (quarter sawn, etc.) and about matching of pieces such as book matching and slip matching.  The overall theme was what he called "grain graphics."  He stressed the importance of making the grain work with the piece.  He went on to demonstrate a technique he developed to build a double curved crest rail for a chair (arched both horizontally and vertically) in which the grain direction follows both curves.  Robert laid a finished crest rail on a flat surface (table top) and demonstrated that from the table top to the highest point on the curve was 3".   He mentioned the difficulty of obtaining good quality 12/4 stock in some exotic species so he demonstrated a procedure to cut the crest rail from 8/4 stock and get the grain lines to follow both curves!  

Another example of the techniques used to obtain the best grain graphics is making drawer front, back and sides that have a continuous grain pattern at all four intersections.  He accomplishes this by cutting the drawer parts from a resawn board.  

Robert described his hand planes as the tools he considers dearest to him. During the class he built a plane from scratch during the weekend and auctioned it off (proceeds to the Guild) at the end of the session.  His plane making process includes 32 primary steps, and when he is done the meticulous care that he exercises results in a precision tool that is a thing of beauty as well. What started coming through on Saturday and was reinforced further on Sunday, was that great woodworking happens due to patience and a non-rushed approach.   Robert put more time into creating a gluing caul that exactly fit the pieces to be glued up than most of us put into the finished piece.  Frequently he would take a few moments to sharpen his chisel so that he was always shearing with a "perfect" edge.  

Attendees took the opportunity during breaks to inspect Robert's specialized (often times handmade) tools, and the pieces he made during the seminar. He gladly answered the many questions directed to him as well.  Auction activity on the handplane was spirited with Mark Laub emerging as the winning  bidder.