View Full Version : Neander Interview: Bob Smalser

Zahid Naqvi
02-17-2006, 9:54 AM
1. Name (and nick names)
Bob Smalser

2. Age/DOB
57 Years, Sept 10, 1948

3. Location (present and previous)
Camp Union, Washington above Hood Canal, where we are building our retirement home and shop on a tree farm weíve owned since the late Ď70ís. I grew up in rural South Jersey and PA and have lived and worked in Colorado, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia, Rhode Island, Virginia, and also overseas while in the service.

4. Tell us about your family
My family were originally Swiss Anabaptists (Schmaltz), later German (Schmaltzhaffen/Schmaltzhaf), and later American (Smalser) beginning in 1837.
Bettyís forbearers were Dutch Lutherans and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and she specializes in teaching math to special-needs students. Weíve been married for almost 30 years. Two living sons, one a software engineer and part-time musician/luthier and the youngest is a senior in HS when he isnít working for me. We lost our middle son to cancer a couple decades ago. Betty assists in the shop, in homebuilding, and is presently restoring a 60ís-vintage Airstream trailer.

5. How do you earn a living, woodworking or other, any interesting previous occupations
Iíve worked either part of full time since the age of 12 or so when I began helping my uncles and father in a number of woodworking and building trades, and some flavor of wood has been at least a sideline since then. I began as a boat builderís gofer, was trained as a forest and habitat biologist in college, and later as a gunsmith and stock maker. Iíve restored antique furniture, reproduced it in various styles, and conserved/restored antique firearms for museums in addition to restoring and building traditional wooden boats. I can consult on forestry, land and habitat management, and I grow, harvest and mill my own wood. Custom sawyering alone could easily be a full-time job if I let it, and I often turn down work to maintain the variety of jobs I prefer. A near-term, 5-year goal is to complete a custom, 2500sf Victorian home using woods entirely harvested from the building site and adjacent forest, to include doors and cabinets.

6. Equipment overview (hand tools and other)
Like my Mennonite forbearers, austere. I donít believe in owning tools I donít use regularly, although I probably own more than twice as many hand tools as the men who taught me. How few tools those old professionals owned would shock todayís woodworkers. But I donít need much. A basic 10Ē contractorís saw, a 6Ē jointer, a 12Ē planer, a 14Ē band saw, a 12X36Ē lathe, with assorted tailed and hand tools. In hand tools, I like prewar, and I like inexpensive. I can make it work.

7. Describe your shop
Sheds and tents until I get the home up, then the basement will be the shop and Iíll build a proper boat barn after we move in.

8. Tell us about the hand planes you own, and your favorite one(s) to use
Mostly Stanley and various hand-me-down woodies. They all work to suit my purpose, and I donít have any favorites. Sweetheart models generally take less work to bring up to speed, and the old woodies remain the most versatile.

9. You favorite chisels
Iíve come to prefer Witherby and Swan as the best compromise between edge holding and ease of sharpening. But there are other prewar chisels their equal, just not as consistently. Of the new ones I got to play with courtesy of FWW and Joel Moskowitz, I liked the Ashley Iles bench chisels a lot.

10. Your favorite handsaw(s)
Disston 12ís and 16ísÖ.the 16 being a sleeper. Nobody today makes a hand saws their equal. In back, dovetail and specialty saws I have shop-made frame saws, Disston back and dovetail saws, modern pull saws, and an odd, old prewar no-name dovetail saw that outcuts them all.

11. Do you use western tools or Japanese, why do you prefer the ones you use
Iíve owned and enjoyed Japanese tools, but generally prefer western tools because thatís what I grew up using.

12. Do you have a woodworking home page
As itís a value I was teethed on, my writing concentrates on teachingÖthese are all chapters in a future book for my boys:

13. Do you have any influences in your work? Certain styles or designers you follow/prefer
I rarely do original work. One reason is that creativity isnít one of my gifts. The other is I donít believe you can often top 900 years of trial and error, and are usually wasting time tryingÖeither your time now, or in joinery, the person who has to restore your work some day. I can and do copy anything, however, and prefer restrained Victorian furniture and design, as it lends itself to efficient and artful machine and hand tool use. Also any wooden boat designed by any Herreshoff or most timeless traditional boats drawn by Chapelle or Gardner. Iím biologically programmed to like curves.

14. Do you have any ancestors who were woodworkers that served as inspiration

Uncle Paulís dad was a carriage maker who encouraged his son to switch to wooden boats, as carriage making was becoming auto body work. Paul built boats out of an austere shop and marine railway in New Gretna, NJ from 1920 until just before he died around 1990. To make ends meet, he sold hardware on the road in winter and conserved antique furniture for various Philadelphia-area museums. I have many of his tools.

Uncle Howard was a finish carpenter and home builder based out of the family farm in Lackawanna County, PA. Howard could build just about anything using fewer tools than Uncle Paul owned. He owned and drove school busses in winter to make ends meet, and also did custom welding.

Uncle Merle was Howardís older brother, who managed a large wood lot in addition to the truck farm and greenhouse operation, bringing in custom sawyers to supply the family with wood. Merle retained a work horse for his strawberry fields throughout my childhood.

Granddad was a farmer, excavation contractor (using draft horses) and stone mason based on the family farm in Wyoming County, PA. He died when I was a youngster in the late 1950ís, but I remember helping him in one of his last masonry projects. My Dad left the farm during the Depression to provide cash as a journeyman, the farm eventually failed, and he wound up as a shipwright in Philadelphia during and after WWII. More men who could do almost anything with their hands, and I also have many of their tools.

15. What is your favorite neander project, or part of a project, you have ever done and why
If the goal is skill in woodworking, Iím not much of a believer in ďNeanderĒ projects, except for maybe one or two early on to develop basic skills. Unless you just like to plane and saw for exercise, the time spent in grunt work once left to apprentices isnít being spent developing higher-order skills.

16. Do you believe there is any spiritual dimension to woodworking with hand tools
I believe in the spiritual dimension of a life well found in family, well found in hard work, and well found in passing on values and skills.

17. How much of your work is done by hand tools. Do you use whatever is best for the job or do you use hand tools even when they are less efficient
Boatbuilding is one of the last refuges of modern hand tool use because the work piece canít be moved to the machine and many angles are too complicated for any other tool. I much prefer them, mostly because of the quiet, but I wonít sacrifice efficiency for it. There simply isnít enough time.

18. What is your single most favorite tool, and why
Probably the brace. No tool is as versatile. Or timely.

Zahid Naqvi
02-17-2006, 10:09 AM
I’m biologically programmed to like curves.

So am I Bob, but it has nothing to do with woodworking ;)

Thanks for the interview, I have always appreciated the time and effort you put into creating step by step tutorials on various WW'ing techniques.

Ken Fitzgerald
02-17-2006, 10:11 AM
Great interview! Bob is one of the most respected and admired members here at SMC! I always learn a lot from his tutorials!

Stu Ablett in Tokyo Japan
02-17-2006, 10:26 AM
Nice to meet you Bob, thanks for you thoughtful answers to the interview, and thanks to Zahid for doing it.

I really like these interviews.


Tyler Howell
02-17-2006, 10:37 AM
Thank you for sharing. Most informitive and inspirational.

Louis Bois
02-17-2006, 11:36 AM
Cheers!!! To a man who openly shares knowledge in hopes of preserving a love of woodworking with a common sense approach. I always welcome your articles Bob. Thank you again. You have taught me much.

Don Baer
02-17-2006, 11:39 AM
Excellent interview.

I hope to stop in and visit your shop sometime when I am in the area. Thanks for sharing.

Tom Saurer
02-17-2006, 12:05 PM

If you write a book about woodworking, I'll stand in line to buy one!

Alan Turner
02-17-2006, 12:30 PM
Nice to learn more of your past and present, Bob.

Cecil Arnold
02-17-2006, 5:02 PM
Bob, thank you.

Glenn Clabo
02-17-2006, 6:18 PM
Not for just the interview but for all that you are willing to share.

Jim Dunn
02-17-2006, 7:03 PM
Not for just the interview but for all that you are willing to share.

I echo the above comments. Good luck in your "retirement" home:D

Mark Singer
02-17-2006, 7:42 PM
That is a great interview...Bob has been a really inspiration to most of us here at SMC....he has a true depth of knowlege that comes with a lot of experience...it is great to learn more about him. Very nice interview Zahid!

Joe Mioux
02-17-2006, 8:34 PM
That is a great interview...Bob has been a really inspiration to most of us here at SMC....he has a true depth of knowlege that comes with a lot of experience...it is great to learn more about him. Very nice interview Zahid!

Ditto what Mark typed.

Tom Hamilton
02-17-2006, 8:44 PM
Lovely. What a nice man, and a nice interviewer also. Great concept, great execution.

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to share. The Creek is a very interesting and unique place.

Best regards, Tom

Dave Ray
02-17-2006, 9:37 PM
Zihid thank you for starting this interview thing, and making it happen. Your first woodworker is a winner all the way around. I try to read everything the man writes. Thank you both. :)

Jay Knoll
02-17-2006, 10:17 PM

This is a wonderful idea, kudos to you for starting it and for two (I think?) great interviews!

I think all of us can learn a lot from them and that they warrant their own category -- what do you think creekers and creekers/moderators?


Allen Grimes
02-17-2006, 10:27 PM
Great interview, Im not a neander fan, but Bob has always been a person who's posts I have always read carefully. He is one of the people on this forum that I feel really knows his stuff, and I love to read anything he writes because I always learn something.

Bob, I noticed in your website that you also do leather working. I am a fellow leather worker, as well, but I have put it aside for the last couple years. One day when I have time I would love to go back to it as I plan on incorporating leather into just about all of my original projects.

Anyway, one day I hope to build a fishing boat for my son and I and I will no doubt be asking you for help. Since day one of my time here in the creek you have always been one of my biggest inspirations and it was actually from reading your posts that I decided that I wanted to build a boat in the first place.

Mike Henderson
02-17-2006, 11:24 PM
Zahid, great interviews, both Alan and Bob. Now how about doing yourself. It should be easy to schedule the interview and we'd all like to learn more about you, also.


Zahid Naqvi
02-18-2006, 12:14 AM
Guys, the true credit for the interviews goes to Mark Cothren who started these on the turners forum. I just stole his idea. I thought it was a wonderful concept, hence here we are.

Dan Forman
02-18-2006, 3:45 AM
This is such a great idea.

Bob---Nice to get to know you a little better, and thanks for all the help you've offered on this forum (and others).


John Bailey
02-18-2006, 7:17 AM
16. Do you believe there is any spiritual dimension to woodworking with hand tools
I believe in the spiritual dimension of a life well found in family, well found in hard work, and well found in passing on values and skills.

This is the essence of my woodworking, although I'm woefully inept in the mentioned dimensions. Thanks Bob for your inspiration. And thanks to Zahid and Mark for the inciteful interviews. I know a lot of folks are fans of the shop tours - me too - but the personal interviews are the best.


Jerry Olexa
02-18-2006, 11:54 AM
Thanks for these great interviews. Bob is a man I greatly respect. Interesting to hear his thoughts. Thanks.:)

Todd Davidson
02-21-2006, 7:51 PM

The breadth of your knowledge and your willingness to share said knowledge and now even a little of yourself is remarkable. Thank you!

In peace, Todd

Bruce Shiverdecker
02-22-2006, 8:18 PM
Great interview, Bob.

What you're leaving for your children, on the web site, is priceless.