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Thread: Neander interview: Derek Cohen

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Plano, TX

    Neander interview: Derek Cohen

    1. Name (and nick names)
    Derek Cohen

    2. Age/DOB
    I am 56, date of birth 11th January 1950

    3. Location (present and previous)
    I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in the shadow of Table Mountain. Growing up amidst the political conflict and social inequality were foundation experiences that have clearly influenced my outlook on life. In the very early 80s, when political change was looking like it was not going to happen (and, indeed, it was moving in the opposite-to-desired direction, with increasing conservatism and racism), my wife and I migrated to Australia to offer our children a normal life. We lived in Sydney for a few years before moving west across the country to Perth for the laid-back lifestyle, sun and surf. We have been in Perth 18 years now and live in a small, leafy suburb alongside the Swan River.

    4. Tell us about your family.
    There is Lynndy, the LOML, who is the most warm and nurturing person I know, a kindergarten teacher all her adult years, until 12 months ago when she resigned and started a business with her best friend. And Jamie, our 13 year old son, would-be pro tennis player and would-be rock guitarist, who has just begun high school and discovered the angst of teenagerhood. Oh, I should not leave out Rufus, the two-year old golden retriever whose hobby is re-arranging the back garden. Thanks to him I have now taken up landscaping!

    Our parents continue to live in Cape Town. We have brothers and sisters scattered around the world. My dad is turning 92 in June and still climbs up on the roof to clean the gutters! He was an award-winning architect and I blame him for my love of wood and an interest in design. As I write this I look across the living room to a pair of modern-looking bentwood armchairs that he designed for a Swedish company in 1937. They were subsequently built in Czechoslovakia in 1939, and the last exports from that country before Hitler invaded. My mother was a journalist and, in later years, ran a business selling collectables as well as an art gallery. She continues to work in a consultancy role. There are some serious writers on her side of the family and I guess I had little choice but to develop an interest in writing as well! As you all have gathered about my style by now, why use one word when a dozen will do?

    5. How do you earn a living, woodworking or other, any interesting previous occupations.
    After completing high school I attended university (college) to train as a quantity surveyor (which is the accounting end of the building industry). The positive was that I did get to work on building sites and study construction, but otherwise found this so boring, that I dropped out after a couple of years. I returned to university to study journalism, then switched to a major in psychology, taking this through several degrees to qualify as a clinical psychologist. I have specialized in child psychology since 1983, working in hospitals, clinics, and private practice over the years. I am currently in full time private practice.

    I came to woodworking like many hobbyists � as a result of home repairs. Well, it was probably a bit more than that. I have always been Mister Fix-it, a role I had in my childhood where I was forever repairing all-and-sundry (or, as Lynndy is fond of saying, being a compulsive modifier). I guess I have always tinkered. Over the past few decades I renovated houses we bought, usually doing most of the work myself. Our current home began as a brick-and-tile shell, and I have completed built-in cabinets, doors, trim, and quite a bit of the furniture, such as beds, wardrobes, and sideboards. As my constructions became more sophisticated, so I turned increasing away from the Normite approach to the Neander.

    My interest in woodworking centers around building furniture and tools, it has also developed into an interest about its historical and social influences. I am now enjoying woodworking increasingly as an artistic outlet, not just as a way of just unwinding from work. I see that this is due to my emphasis on handtools.

    In the past few years my teacher-scientist-historian side has had an outlet in researching and writing reviews on handtools, as well as running workshops on techniques in using hand-planes or sharpening. Of course I continue to be as much of a compulsive tinkerer as ever, and have designed and built many jigs and tools over the years.

    6. Equipment overview (hand tools and other)
    I have both power and handtools. The power side is not as extensive as many, as I do not own the thicknesser/planer/jointer dimensioning machines. I do have a large 12� tablesaw with sliding table and in-built router table, a 14� bandsaw (with 6� riser), a floor standing drill press, a large belt sander (used to grind blades) and a lathe. There are the usual Normite range of circular saws, jigsaws, biscuit joiner, powered and battery drills, routers, and so on one would expect from a home renovator. Most of these languish in cabinets or gather dust now as my interest in developing my handskills has grown over the past 7 or 8 years especially.

    Woodworking is now synonymous with handtooling, and I have an array of both old and new handtools, some collectable(-ish) and some I have built myself. Working wood in Australia places added demands on the tools and steel used. We have seriously hard and gnarly wood here. It commands much respect, but it certainly returns the favour in its beauty. The wooden handplanes by HNT Gordon are just wonderful, offering both form and function. I have been fortunate to review and obtain many of the Veritas handplanes, especially the bevel-up ones, and these have a superior ability to tame the rebellious nature of Aussie timber. I do own several block-, edge and side rabbet planes by LN as well. When there is an opportunity to work softwoods, or easier hardwoods, I often reach for the Stanley planes (in the main these are USA-made versions).

    It is difficult to convey the breadth of the handtools I have without making it sound like a gloat list, so I will suffice to say that there are Stanley combination planes, various block planes, a half set of York pitch H&Rs, and a budding collecting of molding planes. I have this huge curiosity about handtools and I want to try them all out.

    I have far too many chisels for one lifetime!� I do so love using chisels � the sense of connectedness to wood is only rivaled by spokeshaves and block planes. Bergs for paring, Witherbys for general work, Nooitgedacht for rough work, Iyoroi butt chisels and Matsumura dovetail chisels, vintage UK firmer and oval bolstered mortice chisels (such as Sorby and Ward).

    I am increasingly taken with handsaws as my confidence grows. Several Disston and Spear & Jackson rip and crosscut saws, vintage 12� Disston and 14� Nurse tenon saws, and 4 or 5 dovetail saws. I recently built a stairsaw for dados and sliding dovetails, and at the end of last year I actually won a medal at a woodworking show for a bowsaw.

    Both Mike and Leif have been a huge inspiration for me, and now I am determined to make a few dovetail and tenon saws of my own. Thanks guys!

    7. Describe your shop
    The shop consists of most of a double garage, and the tool cabinets take up 1 � walls. Still, it is space shared with the family and there is one wall of windsurfing gear.� The open rafters serve as storage for lumber. The shop doubles for metalwork as well. It is also home to a vintage Porsche 356 (1957 �A� Coupe) that I have been restoring for about 8 years. I have done all the panel work myself, and had help with the mechanics and electrics. It is now at the point where I can drive it to work some days. The �real� workshop looks like this!

    8. Tell us about the handplanes you own, and your favorites one(s) to use
    Two stand out. One is a Stanley #62 (low angle jack) that I restored. The other is a Stanley #65 Knucklejoint block plane. Both have a light, almost delicate balance that aids the illusion that they are an extension of one�s hand.

    I have built a few planes � an infill smoother, a chamfer plane, and a dovetail plane. I am in the early stages of a Stanley #51 copy (with low angle modifications). I like the idea of building more planes in the future.

    9. Your favorite chisels.
    I have a set of dovetail chisels I made from unhandled Berg orphans. I ground the sides and turned the handles to suit my grip. They are for pushing only and have an incredible delicate feel. At the other end of the spectum I have discovered oval bolstered mortice chisels. I have had fun making up a set and building handles from different hardwoods. These provide tremendous control and slice into wood like nothing else.

    10. Your favorite handsaw(s).
    My LN Independence dovetail is moving up the list. It is a beautifully made and balanced saw, but it has been more difficult to get to work comfortably. It is becoming the saw I hear so many rave about. I have an old, much pre-loved (not-as-pretty!) John Cotterill dovetail saw that I renovated and sharpened. It has a similar feel, is just as accurate but cuts less aggressively and with less effort.

    11. Do you use western tools or Japanese, why do you prefer the ones you use.
    I have a number of Japanese chisels and saws. The chisels are often the ones I turn to first if I plan to chop into hardwood. With their short, hooped handles, I find them less comfortable for paring. The saws are simply the easiest and cleanest to use of all types. However they are better suited for soft woods, for which they are reserved, since our Aussie hardwoods sound the death knell for their teeth.

    12. Do you have a woodworking home page.
    At this time I am scattered over the internet. You can find some of my reviews at and articles at

    I am in the process of putting together a website at This will then bring together much of the above and much more.

    13. Do you have any influences in your work. Certain styles or designers you follow/prefer.
    My taste in furniture is for simple lines with good proportions and subtle curves (my designs are increasingly including curves, such as this recent Jarrah and Blackbutt sofa table). And the use of interesting grains to set these off. Shaker and Japanese designs, the work of Maloof, Krenov, and Nakashima.

    14. Do you have any ancestors who were woodworkers that served as inspiration.
    I am filled with a mix of envy and wonder for those who own tools handed down through the generations. I suspect that I am the first woodworker in my family. My father was a boy scout and taught me to use an axe, tie a knot, and start a fire. This has not been terribly helpful when building fine furniture! On the other hand, my childhood included camping out among the forests, and dad was ahead of his time in building our home with woods from around the world.

    15. What is your favorite neander project, or part of a project, you have ever done and why.
    Two stand out. The first was a Shaker chest of drawers I built for my son a few years ago. I intended that he keep it when he one day moves away, so have left a couple of messages secreted in the construction.

    The second piece is just a simple box that I made for my mother (pictures one and two). It was her 80th birthday and the box was used to transport her perfume present. Needless to say, she preferred the box to the perfume (isn�t that what mums do?).

    16. Do you believe there is any spiritual dimension to woodworking with handtools.
    I think �spiritual� may be going a bit too far. Perhaps �intimate� would be more appropriate, as in the artist with a brush and palette. Handtools allow for a delicacy of movement, the opportunity to add subtleties that power tools cannot approach. I find no pleasure in, for example, donning earmuffs, mask and safety glasses to use a router table. The neander workshop is a quiet and relaxing refuge from the stresses of deadlines and the intense exchanges at work. My best time is a quiet Sunday morning, with the stereo playing 60s and 70s jazz � the piano of Bill Evans, a selection of handtools, and a drawer to dovetail�

    17. How much of your work is done by handtools. Do you use whatever is best for the job or do you use handtools even when they are less efficient.
    Most of my wood comes from salvage yards. Old Jarrah, Blackbutt and Bluegum floorboards and roof beams dominate. These are seriously hard woods, and there is no way I am going to try to rip them to rough size with a handsaw! For this I will use a tablesaw or bandsaw. Crosscuts are another matter, and I will use a carcass saw or a mitrebox. I may also use the bandsaw to resaw and to shape curves. As I mentioned earlier, I do not own a planer/thicknesser/jointer, so all further work is completed with handplanes � a variety of scrub planes, jack planes, try planes, and jointer planes. I use a shooting board, refine curves with spokeshaves and finish the surface with one of many smoothers. I rarely have to use sandpaper (I would if I needed to) and generally find card scrapers are sufficient backup if the smoothers are not enough.

    18. What is your single most favourite tool, and why.
    A sharp paring chisel

    Derek Cohen

    March 2006��
    Last edited by Zahid Naqvi; 03-09-2006 at 10:52 PM.

  2. Wonderful interview--a thank you to both Derek and Zahid for doing these.

    Take care, Mike

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2005
    Montreal , Canada
    My thanks to Zahid and everyone who has consented to be interviewed. These interviews put more than just a face to the people involved, they give an insight into their answers on the forum.


  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2003
    Laguna Beach , Ca.
    I especially find your history and family very rich and interesting. Many of my California friends are from Capetown and have left for the same reasons. Your approach to woodworking is both genuine and personal....I love the subleties the quietness of the shop and the satisfaction found in woodworking.....something we all enjoy in our own way....thoughtful and insigtful answers! Thank you Derk and Zahid!
    "All great work starts with love .... then it is no longer work"

  5. #5
    Great read, just like your reviews!

    A true asset to the woodworking community.
    Life is about what your doing today, not what you did yesterday! Seize the day before it sneaks up and seizes you!

    Alan -

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Spokane, Washington
    I enjoyed this very much. It is so nice to be able to connect the personal story to the technical side we have grown accoustomed to reading in previous posts. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, and again to Zahid for making this series happen. The liberal sprinkling of pics is an added bonus!

    Eternity is an awfully long time, especially toward the end.

    -Woody Allen-

    Critiques on works posted are always welcome

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    Charleston, South Carolina
    Great interview!! Thanks to Derek and Zahid.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    South Carolina
    Derek, thanks for sharing with us. I really enjoy reading all of your reviews, and really learn something from every one of them.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Sep 2003
    Columbia, SC

    Thank you for your interview, and thank you, Zahid, for your initiative in this project.

    Derek, I have followed and enjoyed your posts and articles on this and other forums with great interest. I admire and respect your woodworking and toolmaking accomplishments and your enthusiasm for all aspects of the craft. I always learn something from your posts.

    I must say that I'm dumfounded to learn that you don't own a tailed jointer or planer, given the nature of your local timbers. I can't decide whether that's a mark of real manhood, or simply nuts. In any event, It's a real pleasure to learn something about your personal history, your family and your passion for woodworking, and I look forward to your future posts.

    Finally, we have close friends in Brisbane and hope to get down your way in the next year or so. I'd like to say I'd pop in for a visit, but I think that would be tantamount to visiting D.C. and popping in on someone in San Diego here in the States. If we do get there, I'll give you a call.



  10. #10
    Join Date
    Feb 2004
    Perth, Australia
    Mike suggests a picture, and Zahid responded, <I>"... if any of the previously inteviewed personnel would like to add an "at work" picture ...</I>

    The trouble is I am usually at the other end of the camera. Still, I have come up with these..

    This is a picture of myself demonstrating the LV Honing Guide Mk II at a recent sharpening workshop:

    <center> <div><img src="" border="0" alt="" /> <br /></center>

    I also managed to find one in "work" mode. Here I am demonstrating that I actually do use all 8 edges of a card scraper.

    <center> <div><img src="" border="0" alt="" /> <br /></center>

    Guys, many thanks for the kind words. If the woodworking community was not such a friendly bunch who actually show their appreciation for effort, then the time that goes into writing reviews and the involvement on the forum simply would not happen. I do hope that any of you who are passing through Perth make a point of contacting me. The beer is cold and the barbie is still hot.

    <center> <div><img src="" border="0" alt="" /> <br /></center>

    Kind regards from Perth


  11. #11

    I don't post too often but I am an avid reader of your neander posts and find them both enjoyable and informative. Your interview above is just another fine example. I find your woodworking/life philosophy very inspirational. Thank you!

    ...and Zahid, very nice work. Keep them coming.


  12. #12
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    KC, MO

    Great interview-- thank you for your efforts here on SMC!!

    I learned my Freshman year of college that Perth has the best climate in all the world-- I always wondered if I would move there

    Your reviews and honesty are wonderful -- many continual blessings to you and your family!!

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    St Thomas, Ont.
    Just like your reviews, thoughtful, thorough and insightful, a pleasure to read thanks for sharing Derek, and to Zahid for doing this.

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Jul 2005
    ex Zimbabwe, relocated to New Zealand
    Derek, most illuminating reading. I may nip across the gap there to have a look at your workshop at any time.
    I suggest you graduate onto Jaguars-specifically the Mark two model-the walnut there is the best-the Porsche-ugh man, yust move it into the garden.

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Feb 2004
    Perth, Australia
    Hi Philip

    A Mk II Jag - that takes me back! My father once owned a 1963 Mk II 3.8 - ivory paint and red leather upholstry. I was in love. It was, and still remains, one of the most beautiful cars ever designed. Such a fluid line. And Fast - I recall taking it for a midnight jaunt (quite illegally, mind you) and topping the ton.

    I used to dream of a XK 150, and that would have been my first choice of a car to restore if (a) I had the money and (b) I could find one. I had this idea of building a car with my son (he was just 4 years old at this point, mind you) and started looking for an old VW Beetle to turn into a beach buggy. Then I stumbled across the 356 and it rekindled the feelings of lust I had felt at 25 when I saw my first one in the flesh. Along with the Jags it has the best lines of all. My wife was quick to dub this one the "Menoporsche".

    You are a man of taste but a terrible tease (do I get extra points for the alliteration?)!

    Hi Roy

    Perth is indeed a city with a great climate, although it can get a bit much for some - just how much blue skies and sun can one take? It can get quite warm - in summer we frequently have days over 40 degrees Celsius (104 F). Fortunately humidity is very low.

    Perth has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with a coastline of warm Indian ocean water and fine white sand. Threading its way through the city is the Swan River, which is home to yachting (we did hold the America's Cup at one time) and windsurfing (one of my other passions).

    South of Perth the vegetation becomes increasingly greener and builds into Jarrah and Karri forests, and vineyards. North of Perth is desert and more rugged terrain (much like California I am told).

    Friendly people live here.

    Kind regards to all


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