a visit to the candy store

A month ago, a postcard came in the mail. I squealed like a teenage girl at the mailbox, but then tried to look uninterested by the time I brought it in the house. It was an invitation to a Lie-Nielsen Hand Toll Event taking place in what was formerly (practically) my backyard, Durham, NC. I love hand tools and I take any chance I can get to go back to Durham, but in my head this was clearly a dream that would never materialize.

And then my wife saw the card and said “You should go.”

(cue more squealing)


October is brutally busy for me every year, so for the last month this postcard has graced the front of our refrigerator as a sort of carrot at the end of the maze. If I can just get through all of the responsibilities of the month, I’ll go cut loose for a couple of hours. And cut loose I did.

First, a word about Durham. When we moved to Durham a dozen or so years ago the downtown was deserted. Tumbleweeds literally rolled across the streets and vultures sat on street lights. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but what was once a vibrant industrial city sat pretty well vacant. By the time we left, some of those warehouses were luxury condos and they had put in a first class performing arts center. Microbreweries were popping up all over the place and the cool kids were coming back to town.

One of those once abandoned factories is now home to Liberty Arts sculpture studio and foundry. A place dedicated to creativity, craft and carrying this banner in a time when people are newly interested in what seem like lost and arcane arts of fabrication and furniture making. John Parkinson is the current standard bearer for the latter, making his studio home at Liberty Arts and creating world-class works of functional art.

It was through John’s work catching my eye on Instragram that I became aware of Liberty Arts, and all of the threads started coming together when the postcard arrived.

So, back to the cutting loose. When I pulled up at 923 Franklin St in Durham (very different from Franklin St in Chapel Hill, mind you), and saw this sign I felt a little like a kid in a candy store.

And this was the candy store.



John was there, of course, acting the gracious host and demonstrating tools and technique. Erik Curtis was also there demonstrating and answering questions. (As a Pennsylvania native it was nice to see someone else from the Keystone Commonwealth) and Elizabeth Leino was more than helpful and a wonderful ambassador for the company.

In fact, not only were all of the Lie-Nielsen tools you could ever want to try present and accounted for, the spirit and ethos of the company was present as well. There was an authenticity to the event and it was clear that LN is about more than just heirloom quality tools. They’re also about providing the quality education, service and support to put those tools to good use.


Aside from all of that, one of the unexpected treats for me was the opportunity to meet Elia Bizzarri face to face. Like John, Elia is another skilled creator of usable art, (his windsor chairs are second to none) but also just a nice guy. A real guy. The kind of guy that you meet and you immediately want to get to know.

Having seen Elia and his  handiwork on The Woodwright’s Shop I was excited to hear that he was going to be present at the event demonstrating his work and doing a little teaching as well. I had my hand at hollowing out a windsor chair seat with some tools that are unfamiliar to me. A scorp and a travisher of Elia’s own design.

I also had my first run at using a drawknife on a shaving horse, and I can see that I’m going to need to build myself a shave horse just as soon as I build a new bench.

Elia was as gracious with his time and instruction as he was with his tools, and I’d love to be able to take one of his classes some day.

In the mean time, my conversation with him still sits at the back of my mind. I noticed that of the tools he was using in his demonstration, all were vintage and many were tools that the forum folks would look down their noses at. His jack plane was a Bailey that was (*gasp*) Made in England! His drawnkife and scorp were vintage flea market finds and his chisels were blue handle Marples.

After checking out all that Lie-Nielsen had to offer and being duly impressed with all of it, I went back, one last time to ask Elia a question. But he asked one first:

“Did you spend all your money yet?” he joked (although, I don’t have a lot of money so this wouldn’t actually be a stretch). That question lead to a conversation about tools and quality and the conundrum many of us face when getting into hand tools: Do I buy used and learn how to tune it up or do I buy premium so I know what it’s supposed to feel like in the first place?

For those of us who start out in junk stores and flea markets sometimes that leads to a pile of tools (some of which are very fine and some of which will never be) gracing our shelves. And that lead to another question, and a revelation:

“I had to decide if I was a tool collector or a tool user” Elia said “I build things and starting out I needed tools that could get the job done and I could afford.” 

Now, he conceded, he keeps a couple sets around because he teaches classes and he needs enough tools for his students to use, but in general they’re all very standard (vintage) makes and models that have been sharpened and are ready for use.

After that conversation I had one last walk by all the things that glittered and shined, and I stopped by the checkout to ask Elizabeth if they had any stock left of the one tool that I had been so impressed by I couldn’t leave without. They did.

Thanks Liz. Thanks Tom Lie-Nielsen. This is a beautiful (functional) work of art.


One Comment Add yours

  1. erikhinkston says:

    They are coming to my neck of the woods in January, just in time to spend my Christmas money. I might get one of those as well.


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