21-25.07.08: "Training the Hand" course with Rob Cosman

My week's work (well most of it): Dovetails, dovetails, dovetails!

Last summer I met two people who really gave me the inspiration for this trip: one was Konrad Sauer (plane maker extraordinaire, who I'll tell you about in another entry) and the other was Rob Cosman. To give you some background, I was on a two-year furniture design and construction course in Scotland which was proving to be less than satisfactory in terms of developing my skills. After some time of looking around for other inspiration, I bought one of Rob's DVDs - "Advanced Hand-Cut Dovetails". It is no exaggeration to say that watching it was like finding water in the desert - it was the first time I had seen such a high level of skill and attention to detail in woodworking (thankfully not the last!). So I began practising dovetailing, and eventually got Rob's other DVDs, which in many ways taught me a workable method of cutting joints well. It was also Rob's influence that convinced me that Lie-Nielsen tools are well worth the money, and although I have since discovered a whole world of fine tools, at the time as a novice (and somewhat due to small-mindedness at college) they were a revelation to me. I was taking baby steps towards becoming a craftsman. 

So when I heard that Rob was coming to the UK for the Festival of the Tree at Westonbirt Arboretum, that the best tool company in Blighty was in charge of the tent (Classic Hand Tools), and that there were going to be others there that REALLY knew their stuff (Konrad, John Lloyd, James Mursell etc.) I knew that I had to go. So I spent four days at the woodshow and chatted extensively with everyone, bought my budget's worth of tools from Mike Hancock (Mr. Classic Hand Tools) and by the end of the show had myself an invite to take one of Rob's courses in Canada. "That would be nice" I thought, "but quite impossible". Despite that I knew that I had to go and visit not only Rob and Konrad, but try to find a way to see all of my furniture heroes, which is how this trip came about. 

Rob showing us how it's done. There were lots of really interesting people there: Mal the dentist (who hooked Rob up with getting a tooth pulled in the middle of the week!), LaRue (in the green tee) the priest, Cosmo (at the far end) who owns every tool known to man, and Paul (far left) who used to be the drummer in The Mavericks!

So, the first confirmed point on my journey were these five days in Calgary with Rob. He runs his courses from the workshops of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (otherwise known as SAIT), which have very extensive workshops. For the machine lovers out there, this would have been a tantalising place to be: massive shops full of the best machinery, on a hand tool course where you can't use any! But for me (who has a general dislike of machines) it was great. Now I should say that this course went through basically the same things as Rob's DVDs: dimensioning boards, dovetailing, mortise and tenons, tool sharpening, etc. all totally by hand. However, although the "curriculum" was familiar, as were the techniques, I found that nothing can have a higher value than the direct experience of seeing something done in real life, being able to ask questions, then doing it yourself with correction and direction from an expert. And that's what Rob is: he's not really a furniture maker, but he is excellent at what he teaches. 

Rob's sickeningly perfect pins...

This was a course for people who want to WORK though. We did about 73 hours in 5 days, which is no mean feat, and I think for most of us it was a bit too much. I was keen to do as much as I possibly could, but I'm young, dumb and full of... passion (by the end of the week I was knackered though). But this is how Rob is: he's tough, plain-speaking and likes to work. A lot. For me the course allowed me to develop: I thought I had sharp tools and I saw what sharp really is, and developed my sharpening. My joints were already pretty good, but I had the time to practise them until they were as good as Rob's (his words not mine) although he can do them in 10 minutes (we timed him) and I can do them in 45. I was saying to my benchmate LaRue (from NC) that it was a real pleasure to have the time to make joints without having to worry about them going into a piece of furniture. If I screwed it up, I just went and got some more timber and started again... It was heaven!

Me, happily cutting dovetails. Check out the hairy arm! And you thought it was just a silly name...

Now I think it would be fair to say that in the world of woodworking Rob has made something of a name for himself, and not always in a good way. I would say that Rob is a man of strong opinions, and I can see how this would not go down well with other professionals. However I also think that he spends a lot of his time teaching beginners, and I think that at the start a strong guide helps you to progress quickly, and I certainly cannot deny that my early progress has been largely attributable to him. It is also true that a significant part of his business is selling tools, which is dangerous water to navigate when you are a teacher of skills, and Rob is not shy in his salesmanship. That said, he doesn't recommend tools that he doesn't believe are the best, so he manages to maintain a certain integrity at the same time as his strong personality! 

Something that I did appreciate was that most of us students were staying in the SAIT residences (as recommended by Rob) which were clean, spartan but most importantly had no fresh air - tiny windows, no fans, no a/c. In Calgary, in July (on the 24th floor). Ouchy. Once we all started saying what it was like though, Rob was straight on the phone to sort it out, and got many people some money back by way of apology. Talk about a pit bull!

One person that deserves special mention is Rob's assistant Tim, who was an absolute legend through the whole week - he was incredibly helpful and supportive, in addition to being a brilliant laugh. We really had a great lark!

The Cosman class: tired, but happy!

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