Several months ago, I received an invitation to Judge the 2011 Fresh Wood Competition; a national competition for high school and post-secondary woodworking students. I was honored and frankly, I don’t mind admitting, a bit nervous. I have judged several local competitions in the past but this was a whole new level of awesome! Having made videos of the Fresh Wood Competition in 2007 and 2009, I knew exactly what caliber of woodworking projects I would be passing judgement on. I also knew this would be a heck of a responsibility with more than a little work involved.
The judging for this competition actually began over a month ago when each judge received a massive packet of projects to review and rate. This was the first round of judging to decide which pieces make it into the actual competition in Las Vegas. This process, no kidding, took me three days! I could have devoted even more time if I had it to spare. At the competition itself, the judging was a full-day event. Over 40 projects were on display and it was our job to rate them on various attributes and in several categories. It was a challenge to say the least. All I could do was try to be as fair and consistent as possible.
I wasn’t able to get video of the projects but I did take a number of photos. What follows are some of the pieces I had an opportunity to photograph. This is by no means meant to represent my “critique” of each piece. I’m only bringing your attention to projects and details I thought you’d be interested in seeing.
Padauk and Ash Table Tennis Table – Although the title reminds me of “The Department of Redundancy Department”, the table itself was quite awesome. This was easily the largest project in the competition and with its loud contrasts, you just have to stop and take a gander. Everything was made from wood, including the weaved net and the mechanism that holds it in place. One thing I was quite impressed with was the lack of red staining. Whenever you put an oily pigmented wood like padauk next to a lighter colored wood like ash, you have to be VERY careful about your smoothing and finishing methods. Most standard practices will result in red color bleeding into the lighter colored wood. So kudos to this student on their finishing technique! As you can see, we couldn’t resist testing out the table. That’s David Wade of Sam Maloof Woodworking pretending to help me ruin the table by actually using it. As if judging this competition wasn’t enough, I got to goof around with one of the guys responsible for carrying on Maloof’s legendary work! Pinch me!
The Katana Bench – If you can believe it, the inspiration for this piece apparently came from a birdcage! A casual observer may pass by this bench and think, “a board with some sticks glued into it…meh…”. But upon closer inspection, you’ll notice this is a stunning and masterfully-crafted sitting bench. I could just stare at the back for hours, being drawn in by the asymmetrical shape and the carved crest rail. Most times, I find asymmetry unsettling. But in this piece, it feels balanced and just works for me. Now the big question is, how does it feel? With only four skinny back rails, I didn’t expect much. But after sitting in it, I was amazed at how well the pieces cradled my back. A lot of time must have been put into achieving just the right contour and shape for each back rail. Either that or they just got real lucky!
Evolving Shelf – This unique shelf system consists of numerous hinged “fingers” that are all connected to one another. As you pull one finger down, the adjacent fingers soon follow and you get the awesome wave you see in the picture. The fingers are connected to small rods that provide a spring-like resistance, so when there is nothing on the shelf, it snaps back up into the vertical position. Pretty darn clever and one heck of a conversation piece!
Computer Chair – This chair was under the Production/Contract category and was made with sheetgoods and knock-down hardware. Frankly, I rarely find chairs like this interesting or comfortable. I am happy to say in this case, the chair looked good and was a pleasure to sit in. It certainly wasn’t the most comfy chair to ever grace my cheeks, but it was much more than I expected from something that can be batched out by a CNC machine. Care was obviously taken to create a very nice grain pattern which helps the piece not look so “cookie cutter”.
Table for Dali – During the judging, I was sending out pictures over Twitter. Without a doubt, this table received the most attention and its pretty obvious why. This tribute to Salvador Dali truly lives up to its name. Lots of folks inquired about how you might make something like this and believe it or not, its a lot like making an end grain cutting board. Imagine making two boards where in several places, a cluster of 4 squares extends up and connects to the other board. Essentially, its like making a double decker cutting board. The pieces that represent the drips can be made in the same way, only they terminate and don’t connect to the other board. And given the consistency and perfect cylindrical shape, I’m guessing the drips were all pre-turned on the lathe. So that’s the “easy” part. Where the skill and artistry comes in is the carving, shaping, and blending. Making this piece look smooth, silky and “melty” must have taken a lot of time and attention. You think its hard to smooth a flat end grain cutting board? Try something like this! A very cool project!
Anne Boleyn’s Writing Desk – This table is like a master’s class in grain matching! Notice how the grain in the apron runs vertical and travels right through to the table top border? The drawer shares this continuous grain perfectly. Perhaps the biggest surprise that the casual observer might miss is the fact that the legs are also grain matched!
Look closely and you might see that the grain patterns in the legs flow right into the apron and then into the top! Exquisite! Now I know many of you are “hidden drawer” freaks so you’re going to love this. The desk makes use of its empty space with a concealed drawer. Pull the primary drawer out and then use the provided magnet to pull the drawer from it’s pocket. Nice!!
Houdini – While I was very impressed by all of the furniture on display, there aren’t many pieces that I would actually want to see in my own home. Clearly that’s more a matter of taste than anything else. But this piece really spoke to me and I could easily see it fitting into my home’s decor. Lovely shaped legs with a secondary top suspended by metal rods in the legs. Love it!
As you can see by the length of this article, we can’t cover every piece in the competition. I certainly mean no disrespect to the projects I didn’t feature. These young folks should be proud of their accomplishments. All I can say is there is some serious hardcore young talent out there and its nice to see that many high school and post-secondary woodworking programs are still alive and hopefully well!
This experience was inspirational and challenging to say the least. I’d like to thank the folks at AWFS and the Fresh Wood Competition for giving me this opportunity. Most importantly I’d like to thank the students who poured their hearts and souls into their work and allowed me the privilege of observing it with a critical eye.
So I have a question for you folks. When you see exceptional work by young woodworkers, are you inspired, discouraged, or something else? I would love to get your perspectives on this.