Michael Grace says the biggest challenge for woodworking students is not wood, tools, or technique.
Dave Fraser agrees. “Woodworking is the easy part.”
“The hard part is yourself,” says Grace. “We have people who will not challenge themselves enough and people who challenge themselves too much. But at some point you come up against yourself. Your Achilles heel is you, so you’ve got a bunch of wood and you start working and then discover your first mistake, and then your second, and you say, ‘Why do I always do that?’ Then your fifth, and you are whacking your head against the wall, ‘Why am I like this?’ So you come up against your own personality fairly quickly, asking yourself why you are like this.”
Dave Fraser has been instructor Michael Grace’s assistant in Selkirk College’s fine woodworking program in Nelson for the past 20 years. They are both retiring this year.
Two lives converge in Nelson
When Grace was a young man, living in Ontario, some people were skeptical about his plan to become a professional woodworker. It will be tough, they said. But he didn’t care.
“This is it. I am going to do this, and I’ll do whatever it takes.” That was his attitude.
He was in furniture design school at the time, and later he did become a professional woodworker, designing and making one-of-a-kind furniture for high-end clients. Eventually he got to the point where the clients came to him. He didn’t have to go out and drum up business.
At the same time, in Yellowknife, Fraser was a carpenter, then a finishing carpenter, then a cabinetmaker, then a college instructor of all those things.
In the mid-nineties they both decided to make a move and a career change. Their lives converged at the Selkirk woodworking program, with Grace as instructor and Fraser as his assistant. And it’s been that way (with the exception of a couple of years off for Grace) until this year, when they both retired.
A reputation for the finest work
It’s been a creative and productive 20-year collaboration. Anyone in Nelson who goes to the fine woodworking year-end shows and marvels at the advanced and sophisticated student work knows this, as do the organizers of any number of fine woodworking competitions across North America where juries who have never heard of Nelson BC have awarded prizes to Selkirk students’ work. And so do the students who come from across Canada on word of mouth recommendations of the program.
“Mike and I have come from two different avenues of the wood world,” says Fraser. “Mike’s philosophy is to try to walk the line between the art world and the trades world, where the students are getting a good approach to both design and the technical side of things. The two of us come from both sides, and it is a benefit to the students.”
Their secret: keeping the bar high
How do they repeatedly manage to get even novices who had never before picked up a tool to produce such professional-looking work? What’s their secret?
“Holding the bar high is a big part of it,” says Fraser. “Not accepting, if you make a mistake, ‘Oh well, next time.’ Instead, it’s ‘Oh well, make a new piece.’
“Quality is a given. Have a look around in the world, have a look at what professional work looks like, that is the given, everything else is just not there. So the objective for everybody is to get that proper fit and finish from a technical aspect as well as the design side. You get it right, and then you get fast. You don’t get fast first. You get your technique right and then you move on.”
Fraser and Grace laugh recalling a former student who had a tendency to move too fast, but they slowed him down so he’d learn more. But the student complained, “If I wasn’t learning so much I’d be done by now.”
Living in unknown territory
Grace says their teaching method involves throwing the students into the unknown and insisting they stay there.
“We have spent 20 years building a system in which the students spend most of the year not knowing how to do what they are doing next,” he says. “You are always getting ready for something you don’t know how to do. From a student point of view that is a scary place to be in.”
Michael Grace and Dave Fraser at this year’s year-end show of their students’ work. Photo by Bill Metcalfe
Grace and Fraser are big on strict deadlines.
“Our job is to motivate people,” Grace says. “The fine woodworking part takes care of a lot of that. They don’t show up in the morning saying, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ They are showing up excited, every day. (So we tell them) here is where we are now, but in two weeks we need to be there. So get going. We keep them moving, we keep them accountable.
It’s the push to the year-end show that really gets everyone on track, says Grace.
“Putting your work in front of the public and standing there, that is a real deadline, so that last month and half, you see a lot of really focussed people.”
Fraser: “There is a school of thought that says if you don’t have at least a couple of students mad at you, you are not pushing the group enough. I think that is part of the motivation to retire. I don’t think we are pushing as hard as we used to. We are a bit worn out on that because it is taxing.”
An idealistic view
Students come to the program from all across the country and from all walks of life.
“The breadth of people we get,” says Fraser, “in age, education, social maturity, life experience, creativity, it is just all over the map.”
“Some people are so easy,” he says. “They just drink in everything you give them. I say how about doing it this way, and they say, ‘Good enough for me, see ya,’ and away they go. Those people make your life easy. They have a mature approach to learning.”
“But some people come in with an idealistic view of what being a woodworker is,” says Fraser. “I think there is a bit of a reality check that happens along the way, and at the same time, the reality of how big it is, and how much there is, and how much there is to learn.”
Fraser and Grace say they often hear from former students, years later, who thank them and say that only later did they realize how much they’d learned.
“I was reading something about what you can to in retirement,” Fraser says with a smile, “and they said, take a woodworking course….”
He says he’s going to work on his house, and “hope that I will have juice for the creative side. I still need to. It is still old-school apprentice type idea where everybody had to build their masterpiece, and I still have that on tap. It will be nice to do it just for the love of it.”
Grace says, “I am still a maker. That’s the way it has always been. When I get up in the morning, that’s that I want to do. I am going to see where it ends up. But I am not going out there and getting back into deadlines and clients and 60 hours a week.”
“Mike and I have worked side by side for 20 years,” says Fraser, “and there have been challenges but I have been fortunate to have worked with somebody all those years who I consider a friend, not just a colleague.”
“It was a good partnership,” says Grace. “We found our rhythm, and played on each other’s strengths.”