Teaching in Israel

Teaching woodworking I often get a different perspective of a country than a tourist might. For me teaching is all about person-to-person connection, so while I’m sharing my love of woodworking, my students naturally share about their work, families, life, dreams. All of this helped me recently to understand better a part of the world I read about nearly every day but really knew little about.

My wife Carolyn (who is an integral part of these adventures) and I were invited to Israel, to the small village of Yad HaShmona outside of Jerusalem. We were high on a hill as many of the villages seem to be, with long views towards dry forest and endless bands of limestone outcroppings, with many birds flying in and out of view. The shop we were working in was once the communal village workshop, making simple functional furniture for sale. Now it is rented by a young maker Gil, who both makes furniture and teaches classes there. He’s a magnet for lots of different woodworkers and kinds of woodworking. 

The shop was a rough metal sided building, high roofed and open along one long side to a sort of covered courtyard with piles of wood, small gardens, and worn chairs that always seemed to be occupied. The open side let in lots of natural light and any breeze. Inside the shop is more wood, many well-used benches, and walls covered with artifacts from past projects or projects underway, hand tools, metal and metalworking tools, a tiny kitchen corner. What was absent were machines. Even the grinder was hand cranked. There was a wonderful funkiness to it all that was very relaxed and welcoming — a hippie shop encouraging all sorts of creativity. 

I was invited by Gil and Mishael, an architect turned tool seller (tooleden.com) and very warm host to us, to run classes on using hand tools and decorative techniques, with a final half-day talk about my work and design. This is new and unusual to invite makers such as myself.  It’s all part of an effort to expand woodworking in Israel and bring it to a higher level. 

At least two other schools have sprung up recently, run by young makers who studied in the US. But there are plenty of hurdles for Israel’s woodworking. Wood is not their natural material, stone is, and nearly every part of every building is stone or concrete. I never saw any large trees unless they grew in protected parks, and almost all of these were pines, so almost all furniture quality wood is imported and expensive.  

The tools are expensive tool. From the number of old and worn Stanley #4s used, I suspect that most of my students had only modest incomes in an expensive country. There were also some LUBANs, a very good Chinese knockoff of Lie Nielsen that Mishael sells, and a few Lee Valley tools. This all makes me wonder if the biggest hurdle to Israel’s woodworking might not be finding a market for handmade furniture.

Speaking of tools, one evening we were invited to a private tool museum of a carpenter/carver Gilboa, near Tel Aviv. For years he has been buying Stanley’s and Sargents and all manner of rare and not so rare American woodworking tools, for his own enjoyment and to preserve them to be studied in Israel. It was a rich array of eclectic tools, what you would expect from chance Ebay purchases over many years. All the tools were displayed in sealed display cabinets on the inside of every window, labeled, and grouped with other like tools. There were even some old pedal power machines — a big grindstone you can still find here in Vermont, a jig saw, and unusual tablesaw. 

My classes were not much different from teaching in Europe, and working unplugged was not a big issue — everything just took longer. What was different were the unusual student names and/or pronunciation, which to their amusement I learned by writing in a little book I carry. Some were professionals working mainly in sheet goods, many more were amateurs.The energy and enthusiasm was high —  woodworking seems to be that way — and the shop was always busy with visitors curious to meet me and see what was going on. Evidently the word spread throughout Israel. Maybe we will see some fun Hack inspired inlays or decorative details in future work by this group. 

One of the reasons we agreed to go to Israel was because we were curious about the land, the people, the architecture, culture, and to gain some insight into the politics. For thousands of years this land has been contested, overrun and won by different cultures — Arabs, Jews, Persians, Ottomans, Egyptians — right up to the present. The Old City within Jerusalem is divided into four parts, each claiming a piece of the deep religious history there. You would think that all of this cultural diversity would enhance their material culture, but we didn’t sense that it has. On the street you see Arabs, secular Jews, Ethiopian Coptic Christians dressed in all white, along with Orthodox Hasidic Jews dressed meticulously in black jackets, sometimes with big fur hats. And everywhere is military, mostly young, almost always toting machine guns. Jerusalem was truly an amazing mix.

While we were there the Palestinians in Gaza were protesting and burning tires (which we could see one day from Jerusalem) and the US was opening its embassy, so politics were front and center. They spilled over into our conversations during the classes and afterwards. Everyone had opinions but no one had a solution, and there probably wont be one by the time we visit again. That’s their challenge. My challenge is bringing people together through what I know best — woodworking.

Gil (with beard) runs the shop

Gil (with beard) runs the shop

Gilboa's tool museum.  From left: Gilboa,  Nimrod (a student), and Mishael

Gilboa's tool museum.  From left: Gilboa,  Nimrod (a student), and Mishael

The Dead Sea, 400'+ below sea level, Jordan in the distance. Dunking in it was surreal.

The Dead Sea, 400'+ below sea level, Jordan in the distance. Dunking in it was surreal.

The Church of the Hole Sepulchre, one of the holiest of sites. 

The Church of the Hole Sepulchre, one of the holiest of sites. 


I want my furniture to be fun. Useful and elegant is nice too, but I love lots of delightful surprises — discovering a secret drawer or some sparkling detail. A tall cabinet I have been working on has many drawers, all of them fun, some secret, some not so secret, three swing out and are a combination lock for a door, and one is curved. 

The curved drawer arcs to the left as you pull it out. It’s surprising and unusual. The shape is amusing too — a drawer with sides that appear elastic enough to bend into a curve. Otherwise my curved drawer doesn’t look that complicated— but it turned out to be. 

I usually start building a drawer with the pocket made, guides in place, and carefully fit the face first, and then build the drawer to it. Because of the way this cabinet is constructed the interior around the drawer is not accessible later, so I had to build from the inside out. My drawer also had some tight tolerances, fitting within 1/16” of a tambour door that slides by it. An accurate paper pattern seemed the best way to get the tolerances right, and to see how the curve of the drawer felt. I also used it to set the left guide; the right one I could fit after the drawer was built. 

For a drawer to work smoothly it has to be a consistent width — parallel sides —so it glides in and out of its pocket without any looseness or snugness. The guides that control it must be parallel too, and in this case the same curve as the drawer sides. I knew that by laminating the sides I could make them thin, strong, and smoothly curved. I cut a pine laminating form to an arc of 20” radius and laminated the two sides on it. With 4 thin laminates, for sides just under 1/4” thick, I got very little springback.   

The problem is that these sides were only parallel when right next to one another, and as I unhappily discovered not at all when I built them into a drawer. For my next drawer only 2” wide, parallel sides would have to be arcs of 20” radius and 18” radius. That would require two pretty exact bending forms, and even then I wasn’t sure they would yield truly parallel sides. I worked on other parts of my cabinet while I thought about my next move. 

The solution turned out to be easy and accurate. I made a single form to the smaller radius and laminated the “inner” side on it. And then I laminated the “outer” side on top of the first, only spaced with blocks the exact width of the inside of the drawer. Since my drawer was so small I actually did both laminations at the same time. These sides are perfectly parallel, even if they are not exact arcs of a circle (due to springback).  Before unclamping my laminations I marked the sides with a line perpendicular to the form, so I could keep them in the same orientation within the drawer. 

A simple solution to bending two parallel drawer sides — separate them with blocks equal to the inside width of the drawer.

A simple solution to bending two parallel drawer sides — separate them with blocks equal to the inside width of the drawer.

My sides were wider than I needed. Some of that extra width became the guides. The rest was cut away jointing the top and bottom edges. I use either of two methods (or both) to hold curved parts to joint them. One way is to hold an end in a wooden jawed clamp fastened to my bench. Another is to jam the far end into a “stop” or V slot in a piece of scrap clamped firmly. I occasionally checked the side on my jointer table to see if it stood square.  

For my first curved drawer, the one with the same radius sides,  I cut half blind dovetails to join the face and sides. It wasn’t easy, but if you lay out the parts together (on that paper pattern) and get the angles accurate for the ends of the sides and the face, those are the surfaces that guide cutting the joint. For my second much smaller drawer I cut a locking rabbet joint by hand. The form was a useful place to support the sides while laying out and cutting the joinery. 

The curved bottom and curved groove were further challenges. I’ve used a router with a three wing cutter (cutting a groove horizontally) housed in a rounded “fence” to cut accurate grooves in curved parts. I’ve also made a simple scratchstock cutter to scrape a groove. Then there was the issue of how to slide the bottom in on a curve.

My solution was again simple. In Japan I saw many drawers with a thin paulownia bottom merely glued (and sometimes pegged) to the underside of the sides and face. The drawer rides on the bottom, and since paulownia is very stable, it somehow works.  Since I am using as many native woods as possible for this cabinet, I chose curly maple for the bottom, reasoning it was hard, fine grained, and would slide sweetly. Since I can ignore seasonal movement in such a small bottom, for simplicity and strength I ran the grain down the length of my drawer. 

I was going to add a fancy face to my drawer, in this case birdseye maple with some inlaid dots, so I hung it down to cover the thickness of the bottom. 

The last step was fitting the outside guide. I slid the drawer in, laid a piece of paper as a shim along the outside, moved the guide into position, and screwed it down lightly. After trying my drawer a few times, and a light tapping here and there on the guide to position it perfectly, I secured it with a few glue blocks on the outside.  A pine block at the rear is the stop for the drawer.


What’s next? A secret drawer hiding in the back of a larger drawer could be fun.