Profiles: Vic Tesolin - Full Interview

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Vic Tesolin

Canadian woodworker and author of The Minimalist Woodworker, Vic Tesolin, doesn’t own a table saw, a jointer, or a router. And yes, he is still a woodworker. Vic’s minimalist message: No matter your circumstances you can work wood. No excuses. I recently sat down with Vic to discuss his unique perspective. Read on for the highlights of our conversation.

Chad McClung

WM: How did you get started in woodworking?


VT: That’s an interesting story. When my daughter was born 17 years ago, I had an urge to make something for her. They say that women go through a nesting phase when a baby is on the way and I had some version of that. I found a design and adjusted the plans to fit what I needed. I then proceeded to make the ugliest side table you’ve ever seen. I wasn't allowed to throw it away because of the sentimentality around it. But it serves as a great reminder of how I got started.


WM: Did you have previous training?


VT: Oh yeah, I had a shop class in school. Our teacher was a little Italian guy named Rudy Blasutti who would smack you for not paying attention. This was back when you could get away with that sort of thing. We made the usual stuff—a little tool box and the like. Some kids took the class for an easy grade, but I wasn’t particularly academic, so anything that I could do with my hands had value to me. But my first self-directed project was that side table.

WM: Did you have access to a shop when you built the table?

VT: I had about 40 square feet of space underneath the basement stairs of my house. Of course, there were no machines in there. So I went to the local wood hobby club to break down the lumber and do any necessary machining. Then I’d take it back home to finish it up with hand tools. That’s when I realized that you can actually do minimalist woodworking.

WM: The minimalist idea is great practical advice, but is there a philosophical nugget in there?

VT: I’ve worked in so many different shops over the years. We moved a lot when I was in the service and since I retired (from service) we've moved to our last house—knock on wood. But every shop was different. Different in size, different in tools, different in the work I did. I’ve gone from 40 square feet to now almost 500 square feet.

People say, “I can’t run power tools, so I can’t woodwork.” Or, “I only have a pantry available, so I can’t woodwork.” My experience shows that to not be true. Everywhere I went regardless of the space, I was always able to work with my hands and to create with wood. I want people to know that they can do the same. It’s not philosophy so much as reality. If you can’t run a table saw because you have a newborn baby in the bedroom upstairs, then do something else. It doesn’t preclude you from woodworking, it just means you have to come at it from a different angle.

WM: Is your book, The Minimalist Woodworker, spreading this message?


VT: I hear from people who’ve bought the book and for some, it’s exactly what they needed. They used to think that their hands were tied, but now they’re looking at a spare bedroom or a corner of a living room. A good friend of mine has his shop in the corner of his 400 square foot bachelor pad. He decorates the bench with a tablecloth when not use and then works wood when he wants to. I don’t want people to feel stuck or without options.

I have machines in my shop, and I never deny that fact. If you have space, the money, and the ability to make noise and dust, then machines are helpful, especially for breaking down lumber. I’m not one to blather on Druidically about hand tools. Do I think that a hand plane gives you a better surface than sanding? Yes. Do I think that a hand-planed surface is always the way to go? No. If you want to hitch up your wool underwear and do it all by hand, then by all means, go for it. But I won’t be smooth-planning Rosewood anytime soon.

WM: What tool gets the most use in your shop?


VT: I have a low-angle jack plane that allows me to swap out blades for different cutting actions. My toothing blade helps me hog off more material faster. Every piece of wood that comes through the shop, the first step is, joint a face, joint an edge. So my Jack plane gets used all the time.

WM: What machines do you have?


VT: Now that I have space, I have a 14-inch bandsaw with a riser kit so that I can resaw material. I find a bandsaw to be the most versatile machine in the shop. I graduated from Rosewood Studio and they encouraged us to rip hardwood on the bandsaw because it’s so much safer. So the table saw was never the central tool that it is in some shops. I was able to save money by re-sawing the sides and back of a guitar that I'm building.


I also have thickness planer. Again, you can thickness by hand—and I have done it—but the reality is that there is no joy in thicknessing by hand. It’s hard, sweaty work. If you don’t have the ability to run a thickness planer, then grab the jack and get to work. But being able to run a planer is nice. What’s available to most woodworkers in home shops is six- and eight-inch jointers. What do you do when your board is wider? You’re kind of stuck. Some guys have a huge home shop and they run three phase power with a 16-inch jointer. But the majority of us are looking at a six or eight and those can be limiting. I use my jack plane to get my one face and one edge, then I’ll go to the planer and continue processing from there. I haven’t owned a jointer now for three or four years and I don’t miss it at all.


WM: You’ve persuaded people to start woodworking with only hand tools, but have you had experienced woodworkers chuck out machines after reading your book?


VT: Yes, actually. I’ve had a lot of emails saying, “I got rid of my table saw!” It seems to be the table saw that everybody gets rid of. I do make a pretty hard case against them. For me, the footprint and inherent danger make them not worth it. Now if you’re running a SawStop and you’re working safely, sure, you’re going to be okay. And there are lots of people who’ve worked with table saws for many years—myself included—and not had an injury. Knock on wood. You always see people’s shop layout and it revolves around the table saw. There are safer, faster, and more efficient ways to work. Save your money and buy a bandsaw. The tools that people tend to dump after they read the book are the table saw and the router. A router is a versatile tool, but it’s loud and it belches dust everywhere. And unless you own Festool, it’s difficult to properly exhaust the dust. Those are the two tools: table saw because people have a healthy fear of them, and routers because there are other ways to cut a dado.

WM: That is contrary to popular thought. Do find people bucking that idea?


VT: Absolutely! I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are these things on the internet called forums. So if you’re looking for an idea to get bucked, that’s where you want to go. I’ll try not to rag on forums too much. But I get a lot of people that say, “I would never get rid of my table saw.” Some people are obstinate about it. Be open-minded and ask yourself, “What does this tool actually do for me?”

When I started getting rid of power tools as a result of smaller shops, I didn’t randomly throw out tools. I just stopped using it and left it there. “Can I get away without it?” And the first thing to go when I conducted that experiment was the table saw. Ninety percent of the time I would spend half an hour clearing crap off of it. And then set it up and then make the cuts. By the time I got a table saw set up and test cuts made, I would have had them cut at my bench and then moved on to the next step. Table saws are nice if you’re a production woodworker, but that’s not me. I don’t need the advantage of making shoulder cuts for 25 tables. How many of us are production woodworkers anyway? I have never built the same piece of furniture twice and I hope it stays that way. If I were a kid today, I’d be highly medicated. I get bored near the end of a project, I’m ready to kick it out of the shop and move on to something else.


WM: What’s wrong with woodworking today?


VT: Somewhere along the line we got hyper-focused on accuracy. We try to make up for a lack of skill by buying hyper-accurate tools, like fences that you can dial in a half thou’ at a time. Look at furniture done in antiquity. They managed to do this without dial indicators. We stress ourselves out because of companies like Ikea, for example. Their furniture may not last very long, but their surfaces are perfectly flat, perfectly smooth, and perfectly finished. The tree goes in one end and comes out the other end flat-packed and ready to ship. We’ve come to expect that from furniture. So we get the machines going and try to achieve the same thing.


I was teaching classes for a while as the resident craftsman at Rosewood Studio. We had this one engineer—don’t get me wrong, I love engineers—who was making a side table. He was checking his tabletop with a micrometer. His brow furrowed and he looked upset. I ask him, “What’s going on?” He said, “I’m not sure what happened, but I left for lunch and when I came back, this corner is four-thousandths of an inch thicker than this corner.” I asked to see his micrometer under the guise of ‘let me take a look, maybe your micrometer isn’t setting right’ and I took it away from him. Wood is always taking on moisture and always changing dimensions. Chasing tolerances like that in woodworking is foolish. Woodworking isn’t about the numbers. I tend to do more referential style work where there are no ‘numbers.’ I rip one part from the other. You can do that with hand tools. With machines, every subsequent step requires that the first step is perfectly accurate. If you’re out by a minuscule amount, the machine setup won’t work. While machines are useful, we can’t trust them too much.


I'm working on a bench right now for our mudroom. I took a stick and I held it up on the back of my wife’s leg and marked where her knee bent. That’s the height of the bench. I don’t care how tall it is in numbers—it doesn’t matter. It’s freeing to understand that. The overhang on a table isn’t to prescribe numbers. The overhang on the table is what aesthetically looks good. We forget the fundamentals, which is that the overhang is there to create a shadow. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2.5 millimeters or three inches. It’s a way to quantify it, but it’s not necessary.


WM: Do your project ideas come out of necessity like the mudroom bench, or do you have well of inspiration to mine?


VT: Well my goal for this house is to have every wooden piece of furniture made by me. I’m getting there slowly, but surely.

I don’t do many commissions anymore because it’s a different animal. When I did build furniture for money, some of the passion disappeared. It was surrounded by other aspects like the finances and marketing. It sucked the fun out of it. But having a day job allows me to make what I want to make. Right now, I’m starting a guitar. I’m not good at it, but I've played for 30 years. It’s a natural thing that if you’re a woodworker and you play a musical instrument, you’ll make a guitar.


WM: Can you talk a little bit about your day job?


VT: I hang my hat in the Veritas R&D department. I am the woodworker in the room. I work with our designers and engineers to suss out tools and figure out…ya know…does it need a laser? Actually, a big part of my job is to stop the engineers from putting lasers on things.


Once we have a prototype of a new tool, they’ll hand it to me and say, “Okay, what do you think?” I’ll bring it into my shop and use it instead of another tool to see how it performs. If I have enough time with it, I’ll bring it into my shop workflow.


I had the PM-V11 in my shop for a long time. I swapped out my chisels for those and used them like I would normally. That provides them with good feedback.


I do a lot of training for the Veritas stores and various distributors throughout Canada. I also do videos for Veritas products.


WM: What tools or techniques do your audiences react to?


VT: The crowds love anything with a handsaw, especially when cutting joinery. Whether it’s a mortise and tenon or dovetails, people get shocked at how accurate you can be with a handsaw if you just practice. The best way to cut straight with a handsaw is to cut stuff with a handsaw.


WM: What advice do you have for beginners?


VT: Don’t be afraid to screw up. I worked with an older fellow at the wood hobby club. His line was, “If you screw up, you can always drill a hole in it and call it a birdhouse.”

It’s taken me a long time to gather the guts to build a guitar. And most of that was being afraid to screw it up. Even though I know that screwing up is part of the learning process and essential for growth, it can be paralyzing. Just go for it.


WM: Do you have a woodworking hero?


VT: I learned a lot from Garrett Hack. I was fortunate to study with him at Rosewood Studio. I would watch him do amazing work. A hand plane or chisel would become an extension of his body. I could still sit and watch him work all day. His unconscious competency with the tools is unbelievable. He doesn’t even think about it. There are some processes that I realize I’m doing and not thinking about, but it takes a long time to get that. When I first started woodworking and reading Fine Woodworking, he was the guy. He doesn’t wear a cape or anything so I don't know how heroic that is.

WM: I noticed that you did photography for your book. How did that develop?

VT: When you make furniture, you need a portfolio. So rather than spend half my profits on a photographer, I learned how to shoot. I needed examples of my work; it became a necessity. I dabbled in photography back in the film days, so I had an understanding of how it worked. I took the time to read several photography books and learned how to do it. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m getting there.


WM: I understand you listen to vinyl in your shop while you work? Do you have problems keeping the records clean?

VT: No trouble keeping them clean. I don’t make a whole lot of dust in the shop. If I’m running machines, I don’t put albums on because I couldn’t hear them anyway. But when I’m working with hand tools, I do listen to vinyl. It’s a good indication of how long certain processes take because I have to flip the album every 20 minutes. I know that it takes me about ten minutes to cut a mortise by hand. I can cut two mortises per one side of an album. So it provides a good background while working and it serves a practical purpose as well.

I hadn’t listened to albums in a long time, and then I was visiting with a friend of mine, Tom Fidgen. He has a record player in his shop. We started flipping through records one night and stayed up far too late listening to music and drinking beer. That night rekindled my love for the warm sound of vinyl.


WM: What kind of music do you listen to?


VT: I have an eclectic love of music. You can find in my record collection everything from Michael Jackson to Pat Matheny. There’s also Metallica, U2, and The Tragically Hip.


WM: Do you have any other hobbies?

VT: I play the guitar. We have a music room with guitars and ukuleles and drums and other various noise-making things.

Recently my daughter and I started kayaking. I never used to, but I like being outdoors. When you’re in the Army, you’re outdoors a lot. They’re forcing you to be there. Being outdoors can be fun when you’re not forced to be there for weeks on end, and you can shower at the end of the day.


WM: Who should we interview next?

VT: If you like the hand tool thing, talk to Tom Fidgen. He lives in Toronto and is doing incredible work. He’s written two books and now he has a school right in the heart of Toronto. And there is not a single machine in that school. Except for the record player.


I went down there with another guy to help Tom start up the school. We set up a production line to make benches for the classrooms. It was an assembly line, but with only hand tools. We made eight Nicholson benches that way.

Tom’s an interesting guy with a neat philosophy on life. He’s a musician with a few albums and has played with some big Canadian names. Between the school and his philosophy on woodworking, he would be a good guy to talk to.

WM: So what’s next for you?

VT: Writing the book was a fantastic process—and I enjoy writing—but I’m taking a break. Everything has circled around the book for the last two years. I want to get back into the shop.


WM: Well then, I’ll let you get back to it. Thanks so much for your time, Vic. I appreciate it.

VT: It’s been nice chatting with you. Cheers.

The Minimalist Woodworker

Read more about Vic’s Spartan approach in The Minimalist Woodworker from Spring House Press.


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