3 questions with Phil Lowe
About a month ago, I spent the afternoon at Phil Lowe’s school and shop, taking photos for an upcoming Fine Woodworking article. That gave me a chance to ask him three offbeat questions (and one follow-up question). Here they are, along with his answers.
A note for readers: If you wonder whether Phil is just being a jerk, or perhaps is having a bit of fun, take a look at the second photo above, the one of the guy on the ladder. If you still wonder after looking at that, relax.
A second note for readers: I feel really bad for Phil. He doesn’t deserve the personal attacks. He has been teaching woodworking for several decades and making furniture for longer than that. He has given way more to the craft than most of us can ever hope to. He is one of the best furniture makers in the country. And he incorporates hand tools into his work all the time. He is a tremendously humble, kind, and generous guy. This happens to be his opinion about a single plane (and there’s a bit of good natured ribbing involved). If you disagree, that’s fine, but don’t attack Phil personally. Instead explain why a block plane has a place in the furniture maker’s shop. Healthy level-headed debate is something that benefits us all.
Q: I’ve heard stories about you refering to block planes as a carpenter’s (and not a furniture maker’s) tool. Really? Why are they carpenter’s tools?
A: The block plane is designed to be held in one hand, allowing a carpenter to make trim cuts while hanging from a ladder or while perched on top of staging. The work is usually braced against the side of the building, a ladder, or some part of the staging while being held by one hand. That leaves just one hand to hold the block plane. Cabinetmakers or furniture makers work at a bench with a vise, which holds the work. So, they have two hands to hold a plane.
Q: You seem to always have a pencil behind your ear. Does it come out on the weekends?
A: I do generally have a pencil behind my ear. It serves a couple of purposes: One, of course, is to convey information. And I use it instead of my finger to clear away offcuts at the table saw, the bandsaw, etc. (using the eraser to grip the offcut and move it out of the way). Occasionally the pencil does come out of my ear on weekends, but a lot of times I am working around the house doing repairs (replacing windows and the like), so it does spend most of its life in that position.
Q:What do you do when you’re not woodworking?
A: My wife and I are do-it-yourselfers so we spend a lot of time taking care of repairs around the house and yard. We also enjoy visiting with family and friends. But when spring rolls around I spend some time preparing my sailboat for the water. During the summer I try to get out on the water as much as I can, and one night a week participate in sailboat racing in the bay.
Q: Is your sailboat wooden?
No. I gave up the wooden ones early on, figuring out that I like sailing them more than working on them.
Ladder not included. Phil sent me this photo, explaining that this "is the only way a student can use a block plane while building furniture at The Furniture Institute of MA." (Phil owns and is the head teacher at the Institute.) Oddly, none of the block planes I've ever bought came with a ladder. Looks like I need to get one.