The Rough Cut Brain Trust deemed the Pencil Post Bed project of Episode 03 complex enough to skip the traditional Road Trip, opting instead to use the additional time in the shop capturing the many steps involved. This also meant bringing in the big guns — otherwise known as Steve Brown.
Steve’s been a frequent guest of the show since the first season aired half a decade ago, and for good reason, too. Not only is Steve an instructor in the Cabinet and Furniture Making Department at the North Bennet Street School (NBSS), he was head of the department for 10 years and taught a younger Thomas MacDonald when the Rough Cut host was working his way through the school’s 2-year program. Fans of Rough Cut appreciate Steve’s patient, detail-oriented approach to the projects he helps out on. The instructor in him certainly shines through on the Pencil Post Bed episode, where some particularly intimidating tapered octagonal posts called for an attractive but challenging lamb’s tongue transition.
We caught up with Steve in between classes at NBSS to talk about the Pencil Post Bed, Tommy’s time at NBSS and what Steve looks for in a budding woodworker.
You’re a frequent guest on Rough Cut. Tell us, which is your favorite Rough Cut project to date and why?
I liked the Serving Tray as a teaching project. The piece was simple but had complex challenges. It was a good way to introduce the kind of technical challenges which can intimidate people, but the tray was simple enough to include that kind of information.
I like any of the episodes where Tom (I call him Tom for some reason) and I are relaxed enough to banter back and forth. He is very quick and funny and in normal everyday interactions we tend to joke back and forth a lot. On camera it isn’t always easy for that to happen. But it does happen and that’s a lot of fun. In the first season on the Shaker night-stand episode, he made some comment about my nice legs (referring to the table’s legs) and I thanked him and said I’d been working out. Neither of us expected it and it was funny in the moment and it didn’t get edited out which was great.
Figuring out how to cut the tapers on those long posts and doing it somewhat efficiently is a real challenge. And adding the tapering of the chamfers to that adds some elegance but makes it even more difficult. But the posts have such a great presence! They can simple but really elegant too!
What advice would you give a woodworker tackling the Pencil Post Bed project?
I would recommend building the bed with the slats and no box spring. Not only does it make the bed easier to move with, not having to drag a big box-spring with you every time you move. But I like that it simplifies the construction.
Other than that, it presents a lot of typical challenges that require careful planning, good stable lumber, careful milling and layout, etc.
We understand that you were once one of Tommy’s instructors at NBSS. Tell us what he was like as a student:
He was hard to miss. He is so friendly and gregarious. He seems so sure of himself that some people peg him as cocky. But when they get to know him, they see him differently. He wins you over with his humor, quick mind and fearlessness.
As a student he was really ambitious with his project choices. That is pretty typical for students in our program. But we really encourage people to focus and start off learning the fundamentals with straightforward projects and work towards more complexity as they gain understanding. And Tom bought into that whole-heartedly and consciously. That was less typical. But it served him well. He ended up making well beyond the typical number of projects, the last being the impressive Boston block-front secretary.
What did you see in him that made you believe he would be a successful woodworker?
He came in with a great work ethic and real determination to get the most out of the opportunity of being at the school. He knew it was special. And he knew it was only 2 years and he didn’t want to waste time. He had an open mind and a willingness to trust the advice of the faculty concerning how to focus his energy.
One quality that he had that was rare was how much he valued the work that was being created in the program. This was evident with the fact that he sold, I believe, almost all of the pieces he made as a student. And he got good money for the pieces. He expected to get paid for it, unlike most woodworkers, who almost seem to feel guilty about charging too much money for their work. He knew how hard it was to create the work and he valued it, and if you wanted to buy something from him, he expected that you should value it too. He always encouraged other students around him and after him to see it that way. That impressed me.
What are some of the other qualities you look for in a student/woodworker?
When I was a student the most important quality I was as essential was the ability to work patiently. The school was going to give me the information I needed to gain understanding of the trade. The work was too challenging to rush through and have it turn out well. And developing the skills took lots of practice and therefore time. And since I’ve been in the trade and teaching the trade for the past 20 plus years, I’ve seen only a couple students who pick everything up quickly and can do the work with seeming effortlessness. I know it takes me time and effort to do something nice.
The other helpful quality is an open mind. Even students with previous experience are going to learn new ways of doing things. And maybe they have things they need to unlearn. My teachers, who are still in the trade after 30 years or more, still act like they’re students. They are still learning new ways to solve problems and new techniques. It’s kind of like golf. No one has ever golfed a perfect game. There is always room for improvement.
If you had to pick one artist (woodworker or otherwise) who has most influenced your work, who would it be? And how has that person influenced your work?
It’s hard to limit it to one. I worked for Phil Lowe for almost 9 years after I finished at NBSS. I learned a lot from him. My instructors were all students of his. I learned a lot from all of them. But the person who most shaped who I am as a woodworker and a teacher of furniture making is Will Neptune. He has a gift for making sense of this huge collection of information and not only break it down to simpler steps, but also he makes meaningful connections between the many aspects of the work. He has insights into woodworking and the teaching of it that put him on a level above anyone. I couldn’t be teaching woodworking without knowing what I learned from him.
Check out the teaser for the Pencil Post Bed project below, and don’t forget to use our Station Finder to check your listings for the next Rough Cut episode airing in your neck of the woods!