Every year the woodworking club that I belong to (the Rochester Woodworkers Society) hosts a series of guest speakers. The speakers usually do a lecture on Friday night and on Saturday they sometimes do a workshop for the club members.
Last night, we had the pleasure of having Kelly Mehler speak to our club. If you are not familiar with Kelly, he is a frequent contributor to Fine Woodworking. He has also written several books and done a few instructional videos. He is most noted for his book and video: “The Table Saw Book” and “Mastering your Table saw“. During his lecture he kidded that as a result of this book and video he has now become known as the “table saw guy”! This was not something that he was aiming for but he doesn’t mind it. I can tell you that Kelly’s book and video were some of the first things I read/viewed when I started woodworking and I found them to be a very good source of information for the beginner.
Kelly’s lecture started with a brief history of his woodworking career. In his early twenties, he lived in Cincinnati and had a strong interest in woodworking. He said that he was young and inexperienced and did not know what a hard road it might be to pursue a career in the craft – that’s probably what allowed him forge ahead and pursue it. He decided that if he went to school to learn the craft then he might be able to eventually teach and he could also make and sell custom furniture which is what he really wanted to do. So, Kelly moved to Kentucky to attend a technical college in Berea (where he still lives).
After a time at the college he decided to quit school and start his custom woodworking business in a building that formerly housed an car dealership. That first shop was where he got discovered by Fine Woodworking and in fact his videos were actually shot there. Fast forward to today, after a long and successful career in woodworking Kelly has sold that first shop building and built a new shop and school on land adjacent to his home in Berea. Kelly says that the only furniture he builds now is for his home (by order of his wife). He concentrates all of his other efforts on his school, which is well regarded.
The school itself is a two story building with an upper floor housing a bench room and a lower floor with a well equipped power tool shop and wood storage. Kelly teaches only half of the classes at his school opting to bring subject matter in experts for the balance of the classes. When I spoke with Kelly before the formal lecture he said that he is really pushing students to develop hand tool skills because he finds that very few students have them – he feels that power tools only get you so far and hand tools really allow you to execute fine joinery and details.
While there was a lot more that the lecture covered, the two things that struck me the most were Kelly’s discussion of design and building and his information on safety.
Being the “table saw guy” is a responsibility that Kelly takes very seriously and he has been a strong advocate of mandated safety features on power tools including the new upcoming regulations for guards and riving knives on table saws. In fact, Kelly has switched to mostly European equipment in his shop/school for the efficiencies they offer and more importantly for their safety features.
As for Kelly’s furniture design and woodworking, he tends to create pieces with simple lines. Most of his pieces are reminiscent of the Shaker style although, he did show a couple of Federal style reproductions that he has done that were full of detail. His approach is to allow the wood to define the piece. Kelly works in all solid woods (including drawer bottoms and case backs). He feels that a piece with simple lines can be made spectacular by taking time to choose and match the wood and grain. Some of the simply designed pieces that he showed exhibited this very quality. He joked that he has a “sickness” because when buying lumber he obtains the stock from entire trees and stores it in his shop waiting for the right project. I can tell you that the pieces he showed using matched woods from the same tree were both exceptional and inspiring.
Unfortunately, I was not able to take part in Kelly’s workshop demonstration today – he was to build a Shaker side table out of a single board showing the very techniques that he espouses for wood and grain matching. It would have been nice to see his techniques in practice. None the less, it was an informative lecture that I’m glad I got to attend.