Last month, Alex contacted me to ask if I would be interested to take part in the OOAK member interviews, and I was honored and excited to participate. I wasn't sure what kind of questions I might get, and when they started coming in, I knew I was going to enjoy answering them. For the most part, I answered the questions in the order they were submitted, but I combined a few that were similar. So, here goes... Your blades are works of art but what in order are the 3 most important end goals when making a blade eg asthetics, feel, performance, quality of contruction and finish etc?
The ultimate end goal is to meet the requirements of the person who has commissioned the blade. The blade has to meet certain physical and functional requirements - speed, feel, size, weight, shape, etc. - and that gives me a basic framework within which to work. But, if it ended there, I would not be making blades. I do my best to achieve the specified requirements in a way that results in a beautiful blade. For me aesthetics and quality of construction go hand-in-hand. If I start with quality materials, am able to exercise creativity when suggesting and selecting woods, and use a consistent process for assembling the blade, the result is a quality blade that is easy to look at. How much time on average does it take to make a blade from start to finish and how is it broken down (please include correspondence between you and your customer as that's preperation work and should be acknowledged)?
It depends upon the person. Some are happy to provide me with some initial requirements and allow me to make all of the decisions about the composition and handle wood selection. At a minimum, it probably take 6-8 emails to get the details needed to begin building.
On the other hand, some people enjoy being totally engaged in the building process or have special requirements for the blade, and that naturally results in a lot more email communication. I think Tassie52 quoted that his latest required over 100 emails. I’ve had some suggest I need to start charging by-the-hour.
The actual construction time varies depending upon some material choices - primarily the core and handle wood selection. Some core material I purchase pre-cut to various thicknesses, others I mill myself. Building the handle is where I spend a large part of the time, especially if it involves custom stripes, etc. Best case, I estimate it takes about 5-6 working hours to build a blade, but that’s not all contiguous. It does not include things like waiting for glue to dry (for the blade blank, wood edging, handle), waiting for sealer to dry, waiting for roundtrip email questions to be answered from around the world, taking/sending photographs, etc.If you were to make a blade for yourself today, what qualities would it have to have, why, and what would you construct it of (types of wood)?
I enjoy trying out new compositions and playing around with handle shapes. There have been times when I’m building a custom composition that piques my interest and I’ll build one for myself. Normally, I don’t have time to build a personal blade, but I think the next one will be a 7-ply OFF or OFF-, kiri or ayous core, and plies TBD. I would use medium-hard/hard outers and the blade would have a small amount of flex. What was the biggest disappointment you had with a blade you constructed and why?
I had nearly completed a commissioned blade (a 9-ply, IIRC), and as I was doing the final finish sanding, it slipped out of my hand and the blade hit something pointed as it was falling. It sustained a nice dent right in the middle of the FH. I was really disappointed (in myself). I offered to build the blade again or discount the damaged one. The client thought that the dent was not that bad and chose to accept the damaged blade. Have you ever made a blade for someone and liked it so much you've wanted to keep it for yourself?
I’ve sometimes wanted to build a second one for myself, but I’ve never had the urge to keep a commissioned blade. What's your favourite blade you've made to date?
That’s hard to say. I don’t have the luxury of using most of the blades that I build. My current favorite personal blade to use is my Sotto Voce with white obeche outers. But, I’ve built many more blades that are more visually appealing (IMO). There have been some that have just the right combination of grain, color, shape, etc. that they made me smile. I can’t pick a favorite, though. What are your favourite woods to work with and why?
I like using figured wood in general for their visual appeal - smoked eucalyptus is just amazing when finished. Same with bloodwood. But, not everyone needs that hard of a wood as an outer, so I get a lot more use out of woods like limba. For handle wood, I'm obviously all over the spectrum. I try to select/suggest woods that complement the blade, and most woods are not difficult to work with. Some have a nice grain pattern without being overly heavy - some East Indian Rosewood falls into this category. Some polish up to a high shine, like Jobillo. Some have a 3-dimensional shimmer like Chakte-viga and Yellowheart. Again, it's really hard to pick favorites here. And, there are aspects of a working each wood that doesn't come across in photos - their scent. Did you know that cocobolo has a cinnamon scent when it's milled? Many woods have their own unique scent like that. What are the most difficult woods to work with that you use and why?
Purpleheart is probably the worst offender. It’s heavy and resinous and it easily burns when worked. Quilted maple is really hard to work without tear-out. If someone was to start up making blades themselves which pieces of equipment would be essential?
It depends upon whether they just want to make a few blades to satisfy their curiosity or if they want to start a business of making blades. The power tools that I find critical are, routers, stationary sander, drum sander, random orbit sander, band saw, jig saw, vacuum press. Your handles tend to be very ornate and distinctive. Is that done deliberately because ultimately the vast majority of the visible surface of the blade will be covered up by rubbers so the handle is the main part of the blade which is left visible?
Exactly right. Also, hardwood handles are more durable and because they are heavier than conventional handle wood, they can be used to help balance the blade. What do you think you'll be doing in 5 years time, eg do you have a business plan to become a bigger producer or do you think you'll stay in a niche market of true custom made blades?
I don’t see myself doing any volume production. I enjoy focusing on each blade and I couldn’t do that if I somehow ramped-up production. I’ve been working at refining my building process over the last 2 years, and I do like to work as efficiently as possible. But, I have no plans to increase my production rate in the few years. What's the most frustrating and rewarding part of making blades for other people?
Language differences can be frustrating at times. Usually this is only a minor issue, but there have been a couple times where I wasn’t entirely certain I was building the blade that the client was asking for! The most rewarding part is hearing back from people who have received their blade and are delighted with how it looks and how it plays. That’s a good indicator to me that I’m on the right track. And when I get a repeat customer, that’s icing on the cake. How did your love of working with wood come about?
I lived next door to a building contractor when I was between the ages of 5 and 9 years old, and he would always supply me with scraps of wood and handfuls of nails. I think that helped to support a natural inclination I had to work with my hands. No one else in my family worked with wood, so it was something that was inherent. As a designer and builder of watercraft (can't quite remember what they're called), how did you get into that? Were you inspired by where you live?
I do enjoy building wood-strip kayaks, but that’s a much bigger investment in time and space, taking about 350 hours to complete one. By comparison, building a TT blade is almost instant gratification. My wife and I got interested in kayaking many years back, and after renting for a time, then buying a couple production kayaks, I discovered a magazine article that described how to build a wood kayak. I decided to give it a try. Since then, I’ve built a number of kayaks, started a website to share the building process, photo chronicled each project, and developed software that allows me (and others) to design and build their own kayaks. For those who are curious, the site is http://blueheronkayaks.com
(named for the Great Blue Herons that I often see when kayaking on local lakes and reservoirs). When not in your shed tinkering with wood, what else are you passionate about?
Being generally handy and having perfectionist tendencies, I have a seemingly endless number of projects to choose from. I’ve renovated rooms in our old house (old to us - 1936) including the all-important basement workshop, rewired the entire house, built outdoor deck and pergola,... I’ve got a number of winter house projects that need attention when I can spare it from my TT blade activities.
I also became interested in espresso machines a number of years back and have since restored two commercial espresso machines. I have one of them installed in my workshop, so anyone in the area is welcome to stop in for an espresso, cappuccino, or latte. I know you like to paddle (on the water), what's the biggest trip you've made?
While each of my kayaks has storage for gear to support camping excursions, I’ve never done any “kayak camping”. I’m more a fair-weather kayaker and would rather spend the night in a warm inn or B&B. I have driven 13 hours to attend a geeky kayak builder’s event (on at least 3 different occasions). So, that would be the biggest trip. Your photography is of the highest standard, what do you like to photograph besides your creations?
I like photographing architecture - old buildings, although I don’t get a lot of time to do it. I had a blast a few years back when I got to go to Sweden for my brother’s wedding, and I was in heaven walking around Gothenberg and old Stockholm. If you could invite three 'famous' people to dinner, who would they be? And why?
I think I’d prefer to find out that they were famous after dinner was over, otherwise I’d be all fawning and servile during the meal. But, if one of them could be Helen Mirren, that would be awesome. Have you ever made a V-grip blade?
Nope. I don’t really know what that is - I’ll have to do some research. I made a kayak once from marine plywood, 1/8 in. Do you use that type of wood for boats or other woods? Do you use any "table tennis type woods" for boats?
I don’t use any pre-made plywood in my current blades, but I did on the first few. For kayaks, the most sought-after lumber is western red cedar for it’s light weight and flexibility. I’ve also used redwood on a number of my kayaks. I’ve used both of those timbers in blade making. Do you use a vacuum press?
Yes. I glue all of my blade “blanks” (the rectangular stack of plies that is later cut to blade shape) using a vacuum press. The glued plies are placed between perfectly flat granite slabs and then pressed in the vacuum press until cured. This produces a uniform clamping force across the entire surface of the blank and results in a perfectly flat blade. What type glues do you favor for different type blades?
Right now, I use polyurethane glue for all of my blades. It’s a moisture cure adhesive, so it doesn’t need air to cure (and in a vacuum press, the air is drawn out). Have you ever tried "Contact Cement Glue" to glue veneers?
Yes, and a number of pva-type glues and epoxy. The contact cement results in a fairly thick glue layer in comparison to the poly glue, and it’s not as easy to make it a consistent thickness. If you want a bouncy blade, it might be something to reach for, but since I’ve not used it a lot, I can’t say a lot about it. What difference has being "Custom Blade Maker of 2010" made to your life?
Well, I was quite honored to even be on the list. I think it made me realized that I might be on to something with my blade building endeavor. Your Art Blades are things of extraordinary beauty. Is there a market for them?
Not yet. Are you buying?
Seriously though, I’ve had such a great time trying to make blades that are both functional and easy on the eyes, I thought that I could build some blades that are simply to showcase the beauty of different types of wood. I make sure there’s still thought put into the composition for playability, but on these blades it’s secondary. I’ve got some ideas for future blades, but just haven’t had the time to build them yet. If it were funded by members of ooakforum, would you be prepared to make a prize blade for "The Forum Member of the Year" (hereafter to be referred to as TFMOTY or Your Magnificence)?
I would definitely be on board to do this in one form or another. I’ve said before that I appreciate the welcome and support that I’ve received on this forum and would be happy to work on a prize blade for TFMOTY winner. How many blades did you make before they turned out well?
Well, my first blade I made back in high school (that was quite a few years ago), using primitive tools and a patch of a car inner-tube for the rubber. (Hey, what did I know about building blades?) I used it through high school. The next one was about 2 years ago when a friend showed me a custom blade he had commissioned and he wasn’t very happy with the result. I looked at it, thought (naively) that I could do at least as well, so I offered to give it a shot. I used two layers of some thin, 3-ply plywood to build the blade with a conventional head, but Jpen handle (as requested). Being a engineer, I had to make it interesting by making the Jpen handle adjustable to customize the fit. My friend was happy with the result, and played with the blade for a time. Meanwhile, I had been bitten by the bug and kept on building blades. My friend continues to use my blade exclusively to this day. Some of my earlier blades were less usable than the first as I began to experimenting with different materials. So, to answer the question, you can make a useable blade on your first attempt, but a total flop on your third attempt. What is the process you use to tune a blade to the (future) owners wanting?
Lots and lots of emails. I did not start this endeavor with a deep knowledge of blade construction and an understanding of how different types of blades supported the various playing styles. I consider myself still climbing that steep learning curve. I look on each new blade project as an opportunity to gain a little more knowledge. So, for those who commission a blade, I do try to engage them in the process and pick their brain a bit along the way. I think this has been a successful strategy given the positive feedback that I’ve received not only on the performance of the blades, but on the communication during the construction process.
This is a bit of a double-edged sword, however. I spend a great deal of time answering emails. As the blade requests have increased, I’ve been less able to be quite as “chatty” as I had been in the past in order to keep the projects moving along. I’m very grateful for the increased interest in my blades, although it does limit how conversational I can be and still build the blades. When you make a blade for a forum member, knowing that it will be 'shown off' here, do you feel extra pressure to get it right? Do you take some extra pride when they're happy?
I think most of the orders I’ve received are from members of some online forum, whether OOAK or MYTT or other. However, I make the blade for a specific person, so I’m always anxious to hear back about how the blade worked out for them. I am always appreciative when I see positive reviews on the forum, but I do encourage people to be perfectly frank with their comments - good and bad. I am very confident in my workmanship, but I do want to hear about any issues with how a blade performs so that I can try to improve on the next one. Can you ever see yourself as making blades as a full time job (assuming it isn't already ￼ )? How far would you be willing to take this?
I really enjoy building the blades as a sideline business, and part of that enjoyment is because I don’t have to count on it for a livelihood. I don’t want it to become just a job where I have to churn out blades to pay the bills. I want the freedom to be creative with each blade that I build. So, I see myself continuing to build blades for some time, but not as a full-time activity. Do you take the rubbers that the customer proposes you use, into account when designing the blade?
I do to the extent that I understand how the type of rubber supports the player’s style. As I mentioned, I’m still on the learning curve regarding TT and all of its variety in blades, rubbers, etc. I don’t mind revealing my ignorance, because it would benefit no one to conceal it. If I don’t understand something, I’ll ask questions. Do you have a role model as a blade maker, someone you look up to and heave learnt a lot from?
There’s really only one person that I’ve developed a friendship with who has a background in blade making, and that’s OOAK member theOldDuffer. He apprenticed with Bernie Hock at one time, so he’s got a pedigree. We’ve worked on some blades together, and I’ve always appreciated his depth of knowledge and gracious comments. I think you took up TT blade making due to gaining interest in TT. So how is your TT progress going?
It’s coming along slowly. Is there some kind of pill I can take to advance more quickly? I wish that I had more time to spend developing my own game, but blade building takes up a lot of my spare time. Kind of a weird irony there. Are you a member of a club or have you played any tourneys?
The friend who got me started building blades has opened up a new club this past year (http://www.clevelandwestttc.org/
) and I’m loosely affiliated with the club. Assuming you've made yourself many blades, what is your favourite to play with?
Currently, I’m using a Sotto Voce with thick, soft obeche outers, and experimental anatomic handle. I like a stiff blade, but want the control of the softer outers. Another reason my game doesn’t develop as well as it could is that I have the luxury of making up a blade and playing with it for awhile. I’m fickle that way. I have, however, been married to the same woman for 26 years, so that kind of balances it out. What blades have you used that are mass manufactured?
Not one that I’ve purchased myself. I’ve tried a number of my friend’s blades to get a comparison to my own - Acoustic, Mizutani Jun, HK, Timo Boll ZLC. I think I would invest in some blades myself if I were a little more skilled at blade evaluation. Of course, blade evaluation skills would come if I just developed my game some more. It’s a vicious circle. Have you gotten any further with the idea of working with carbons?
I’m sure I’ll eventually try it, but not in the near future. How many blades have you made now, in total?
I didn’t keep track of each build very well at the beginning, so I don’t have an exact number. My best guess is around 130. Not very many, actually.
Thanks again to the whole OOAK community for really welcoming me and encouraging my blade building endeavors.