Tom Fidgen and The Unplugged Woodshop

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My favourite comment about Tom Fidgen goes like this: ‘I love Chris Schwarz, he’s like the American version of Tom Fidgen’. Canadians get it, Americans roll their eyes and we British are still waiting for the punchline.

Tom Fidgen runs the Unplugged Woodshop – not in wilds of British Columbia but, much more improbably, in downtown Toronto. Tom describes himself as an author/musician/designer/maker. But actually he also teaches classes in woodworking.

Tom grew up on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. From back yard projects to home renovations he describes how ‘the wood bug’ bit him. After working for 10 years in the film industry on set design, and having the opportunity to travel from Mexico to Monaco with it, he started building traditional wooden boats in a one-man boat shop on the East coast of Canada. He soon began using hand tools more and more in his work. When the global economy took a turn for the worse he started building custom furniture using only hand tools. Tom has written for Popular Woodworking Magazine, Fine Woodworking Magazine, Canadian Woodworking Magazine and many other journals and periodicals. His first book, Made by Hand was the top selling wood working book of 2010 – so the boy can write.

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His second book, The Unplugged Woodshop is now available and I have read it cover to cover…

The first things that hit you are: This book is big, beautifully illustrated and the projects are mouthwateringly enticing. Like all those who ‘do woodworking properly‘ Tom Fidgen shows the value of making jigs, fixtures and workshop appliances: this is not a coffee table book about boutique tools.  It is clear Tom loves what he does – and he does a lot of it.

The meat and potatoes of the book are the 11 chapters of furniture, shop appliances and tools that Tom has designed and built.  Each project is accompanied by tips and advice that have a constant thread running through them: Get into good habits with your work.

For example there is excellent advice here on measuring out your joinery (twice), cutting and also checking it AFTER you have cut it to ensure you really did do what you thought you had done. Many people miss that check and it bites them later when they come to fit parts together.

Fidgen is opaque on why he chose some of the projects in the book but there is no denying each of them have presence, the Architect’s Table probably most of all.

For me his choice of materials sometimes dance on what the late Bill Hicks used to call ‘The Ledge Beyond the Edge’; check out the veneering on Toms card catalog as exhibit A (but then perhaps that is Canadian humour at work?)  Let’s not forget however that what he is doing here is showing readers how to apply techniques and he is packing a lot into each project. Ergo: this book is great value if you want an overview of a large number of hand tool techniques.

The Unplugged Workshop is pitched to a constituency of readers who are a known quantity:  There is a certain amount of assumed knowledge from the get-go and because of this the book is not perfect. This is demonstrated by Tom’s explanation of how to dimension rough timber:  TF advises us to put a cupped board with the cupped side down and create the reference face by traversing the opposite face with a jack plane.  This is all good and true but Tom also assumes a certain amount of skill in planing technique: Anyone who has tried this and got it wrong will know that planing the crowned side of a board can be difficult if you are not experienced; following the crown with the sole of the plane or digging deeper from one side of the board to the other to end with an offset crown being only two ways in which a neophyte can make a bit of a mess of the operation.

TFs message is seductive and it is easy to see why the unplugged workshop has its appeal: No power means much less noise, less dust to deal with, no extractor system to clean out, no need to worry if the table saw is about to eat your fingers or the router is about to go haywire across your freshly veneered box top. The ‘downside’ is hand tools take skill to use and building that skill takes time.  With the right mindset however that is not really a downside at all.

I have worked alongside some people who would (and actually do) claim that what Tom is doing is all so much romanticised hooey.  Those people would use the oft-touted aphorism that ‘If Thomas Chippendale had possessed a router he’d have used one.’  Well, I don’t doubt that is true but it misses the point of this book.  For Tom (and other hardcore hand tool users like him) the journey IS the destination.

Do you really need to make your saw bench out of Cherry? Nope. Is a kerfing plane an anachronism? Well, yes. Does this book make me want to make each and every project within it in my own way?  Ohmyyesindeedy…

Why is Tom Fidgen one of the best selling woodworking authors on the planet?… Because he makes you want to prop his book up in the workshop and start building.

– Paul Mayon

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2 thoughts on “Tom Fidgen and The Unplugged Woodshop

  1. Pingback: The New English Workshop – Woodworking plans, projects and videos. Furniture making and design with hand tools - The Unplugged Woodshop

  2. This past December I was fortunate enough to take a one-on-one class with Tom. His respect and love of tradition is very clear but I also came away with an understanding that working with hand tools can also be an efficient, satisfying way to work, if you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and work at it. I think that your comment about assumed knowledge is a fair one; his online blog does help to fill some of the gaps. In fact, I view his blog as an essential companion to the books.
    Tom is a genuine guy from a part of Canada (Cape Breton) that has produced a lot of genuine and talented artisans, musicians and writers. Tom is all three and we’re immensely proud of him.
    Thank you for the review and your great website.

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