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This article is from Issue 3 of Woodcraft Magazine.
By Earl Stresak
It’s not often that a woodworking hobbyist’s favorite project is helping others learn woodworking. It’s even rarer for a hobbyist to invite total strangers into his shop on a daily basis. John Lucas’ passion is doing both.
John Lucas’ popular Web site is taking a “megabyte” out of many a woodworker’s appetite for quick and easy ways to learn techniques.
“We received over four million hits last year,” Lucas said of the labor of love he started on a whim four years ago.
Posted on woodshopdemos.com are pictures of his wife, children and grandchildren, and the family dog. But don’t let the homey feel of it fool you; Lucas, a 68-year-old woodworker from Hope, R.I., packs tons of useful information into his personal woodshop class in cyberspace.
He reviews new tools and equipment, and posts photo storyboards for step-by-step projects and shop techniques. His archive page lists equipment and techniques by category.
“My objectives for the site are quite simple,” he states in the introduction. “First, to review new products that can help woodworkers — newbies and experienced. Second, to show step-by-step pictures and captions that readers can really follow — and even print out and use to follow in their shops. Third, I want to use these products, jigs and processes to make real things.”
Lucas estimates his site has 840 pages. “A page usually consists of 10 to 15 how-to steps with photos and captions in a storyboard format,” he said. “So there are about 14,000 pictures in there somewhere.”
Those step-by-step photos have bolstered the Web site’s popularity.
“I’m a very visual learner,” said Gail O’Rourke, who used the Web site’s archives to perfect her woodworking skills before becoming a part-time Lucas assistant. “So, to get a book and read about how to do something is harder for me than when I see his pictures. He does the pictures so step-by-step that there are no gaps.”
Others have e-mailed to voice similar opinions.
“First, I want to thank you for such a wonderfully informative Web site,” wrote one fan. “I enjoy seeing your approach to each project and your hints and tips for each step are very useful.” The writer goes on to ask Lucas for help in fixing his dovetail work that produced a drawer too wide for its cabinet.
“He gets a lot of e-mails,” O’Rourke said. “When I was using the site, before I even met him, he answered every one of my e-mails personally.”
Over the years, answering letters has come to take more time out of Lucas’ routine, but it’s work he relishes.
“I find I spend about three hours a day answering e-mails,” he said.
Lucas’ wife, a critical care nurse, also spends Sundays editing the site’s pages before a new edition goes up each week.
Checking the logs
After leaving the U.S. Navy, where he served as an officer aboard a destroyer in the Pacific, Lucas joined Johnson and Johnson in 1963 as editor of their company magazine. He worked as a new product manager at Union Carbide for 15 years, occasionally working at other corporate marketing jobs before deciding to go out on his own. He started a production company that created corporate training and promotion programs in New York.
“Video and videodiscs were coming into the marketplace. They were fun to do and I did that for about 20 years,” he said. “About 1999, I was feeling burnt out and not doing what I really wanted to do, so I moved to Rhode Island.”
Lucas had been a woodworker throughout his life, so he chose a transition that seemed natural: building reproductions of English country antiques. He planned to use resawn timbers, available in the area.
“If you think about it, some of those timbers were around when Paul Revere made his ride through the countryside,” Lucas speculated. The romantic historical aspect of reproduction pieces appealed to him, but a shop accident derailed his plans.
“I was making a workbench out of 4x4s,” he said. “One day I did what everybody does and kicked it into position against the wall, but ripped my foot in four places.”
Lucas had to keep his foot elevated for several months while the injury healed. “That gave me time on the computer,” he said. “I began to visit all the woodworking Web sites.” Lucas quickly realized that most of the sites he surfed were either “still under construction” or offered very minimal information.
“So, I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’ It was a natural extension of what I had done all those years in telling a story,” Lucas said.
First, Lucas called his old corporate contacts, but none of them bit on the idea. So he decided to build his own site to keep in touch with woodworkers.
He began with two simple pages, one dedicated to family photos. The other displayed his reviews of tools he already owned. Lucas continued his “lean” two-page publication during his four-month recuperation period.
“It was so much fun to get the response from readers that it just self-propelled,” he said.
Lucas began to approach manufacturers with the idea of reviewing their products on his Web site. The idea didn’t garner an exuberant response at first, but manufacturers warmed up as the site grew in popularity.
“As time went on, it became easier and easier to get manufacturers to let me review their tools,” he said.
After getting back on his feet, Lucas began to expand the site.
“When I first started the Web site, I lived in a building that had four or five apartments by a lake,” Lucas said. He photographed himself doing step-by-step woodworking projects in his garage workshop.
He had a law school student as a neighbor who would drop by to see what he was doing. She became interested in his projects, began borrowing tools, and eventually started working with Lucas. For a change of pace, he photographed her working on projects that he supervised.
“It looked better than the readers staring at me, the old bald-headed guy working in the shop,” he laughed. His neighbor eventually graduated from law school and moved away. Lucas himself moved to a new home where he set up his present-day shop in his garage, but he continued the practice of using both experienced and inexperienced woodworkers to model his project storyboards.
Lucas said he rarely makes a prototype for a project, so mistakes can happen during the photo shoot.
“People love the fact that I make mistakes and that I’m willing to share them,” he said.
Four years later, Lucas is in an enviable position as a woodworker, receiving a steady supply of free tools to review. Lucas says he does his best to evaluate products fairly.
“If he doesn’t think that tool is right for you, he won’t recommend it,” O’Rourke said.
With all the woodworking goodies that are shipped his way, people might wonder if he keeps them.
“I do if it is something I can really use in the shop,” he said. “If not, I ship it back.” He also said that means there are products that don’t make it onto his Web site. (On one of his pages, Lucas explains how he photographs each stage of unpacking a new tool shipment he has received. He does this since learning the “hard way” that he might have to repack a tool for return shipment.)
Judging the response
Lucas uses tracking software to decide which tools to review and which projects to include on his site.
“There are some products that I enjoy reviewing and enjoy using, but they are going to be of minimum interest to the reader,” he said. “I have a stats program that has been compiling data for the last two and half years. It tells me, week by week, who likes what kind of stories. It tells me how many minutes they spend per page.”
For example, he has noticed that routers and their many uses have always been popular topics among his visitors. Subject interest also varies seasonally.
“I look at the readership in three different areas,” he said. One is articles for new woodworkers who are looking for anything they can get their hands on. The second is for more experienced cabinetmakers who build kitchen cabinets, home offices and entertainment centers. The third area is design, including subjects such as wood selection, structure and style.
Lucas likes to include a mix of those areas throughout the year. He also constantly monitors the market in an effort to be the first to review a new product.
So, what could a person glean by sorting through Lucas’ mass of information? That depends on the person, but let’s take Gail O’Rourke as perhaps an unusual example.
She and her husband Michael, of Plymouth, Mass., decided to put down hardwood flooring in their home. Neither had extensive woodworking experience, but after accomplishing the job, they acquired some basic woodworking tools including a table saw.
One day while flipping through a furniture catalog, Gail decided she didn’t want to pay the high prices demanded for painted furniture. With no experience, but a lot of determination, she built a replica of a wine cabinet in the catalog.
After finishing that, she was eager to learn more about woodworking and spotted a newspaper ad placed by a cabinet shop looking for a worker.
“It read, ‘Experience not necessary,’” she recalled.
Gail figured she had nothing to lose by applying and landed the job, working 20 hours a week around her schedule as a busy mom of three small children.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” she said of the cabinet shop work. “That’s where I gained all my casework experience.”
After one year at the shop, she was anxious to test her creativity in designing and building cabinets.
“At the end of the year, I decided to break out on my own, and do my own projects,” she said. Like having a sawhorse in the only walkway of a crowded shop, Gail had one problem in her way.
“When I left the cabinetmaker my big conundrum was, how am I going to learn more?” she said. “I didn’t have the flexibility to go to school full time for cabinetmaking.” She attended some weekend workshops, but money and time prevented anything on a grander learning scale.
Enter John Lucas.
Gail ran across Lucas on a woodworking forum, and eventually ended up at WoodShopDemos. She began to use the site and to e-mail Lucas for advice.
Noticing that he lived only 90 minutes away, she decided to visit.
“We made an instant connection,” she said. “We talked about how we could work together and if he would mentor me, and help me expand my skills.”
Gail began building and modeling many of the Web site’s step-by-step woodworking projects. Apart from helping create instructional material for thousands of readers, she received a priceless hands-on woodworking education. She has been with Lucas for a year and half.
“He’s helped me bring my woodworking to another level,” she said.
She spends time once a week at Lucas’ shop and also appeared in Lucas’ new woodworking DVD.
Gail’s own business, Hometown Woodworking in Plymouth, is thriving. She is currently backlogged on her custom cabinetwork. Her own Web site can be found at hometownwoodworking.com.
“We put a big 20' x 20' addition onto the house last year,” Gail said. “We have the garage on one side of the house and my basement shop on the other side.”
“She has far surpassed me in woodworking ability,” Lucas said.
O’Rourke has some difficulty accepting the praise.
“There is no way I’ve surpassed his skill set by any means. He just knows so much about everything.”
A true teacher, Lucas plans to keep passing along his stockpile of knowledge.
“I’m going to keep the Web site going as long as I can,” he said. “I think there are plenty of things to cover. I am never going to run out of things. There are plenty of pages I can add.”
Although the work is time-consuming, Lucas still considers his Web site a labor of love.
“On the days when things get a little hectic around the shop, my wife reminds me that I started WoodShopDemos for fun,” Lucas said. “Most days it is fun and when someone tries one of the projects they find on the pages, I hope they have fun doing it, too.”
Earl Stresak is a Branson, Mo., freelance journalist who specializes in articles on outstanding woodworkers. By day, Stresak is a newspaper reporter who covers local issues and stories.
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