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Mr. Al Hudson
As this months Featured Woodworker, I am pleased to introduce you to Mr. Al Hudson. Mr. Hudson is an incredible woodworker and an even more incredible person. I had the privilege to sit down with Mr. Hudson in his home and in his shop to talk life and woodworking. Mr. Hudson lives in Knoxville, TN where he builds some of the most beautiful pieces of period furniture that you will see anywhere. Mr. Hudson is 87 years young and has been building furniture for 73 years! He gives a great perspective on the craft and what it takes to continually "push the envelope" and grow your skill level.
When did you first start woodworking?
Al- I was 14 years old, a sophomore in High School and I built a table out of cherry, I can show it to you later.
Was this in a shop class?
Al- Yes. Back then they had classes called manual training. I took 4 years of shop in high school. That's where I got interested in woodworking. My father was a superintendent of a large planing mill in Chattanooga. His father, my grandfather, was the master cabinetmaker there. At 15 (my father) put me to work sweeping the floors, and when I was done with that I'd say now what do I do and he said go over there and help your granddad. So for 4 summers I apprenticed under my grandfather. I probably learned what it would have taken (me) years to learn in school. (If we were all so fortunate).
What has kept you interested in woodworking all these years?
Al- Learning. I have a sign on my shop cabinet door that says, "The life so short, the craft so long to learn". I never spend a day in the shop that I don't learn something. No one in woodworking knows in all. Wood has a perverse nature. It will reach up and bite you when you're not looking. It's just a challenge to learn about (wood) and how to handle it expertly. It's just a everyday process of learning. That's what I love about it, plus I love to use my hands. It's satisfying to make something and be able to say I did that.
Would you call yourself a self-taught woodworker?
Al- No man is an island. In my early days working at the mill with my Dad and my Grandfather, I learned the basics. And in high school in manual training I learned a lot of the basics. But the skills, by and large are self-taught as a result of doing, reading, and taking classes from other expert woodworkers. You can watch somebody do something, you can read how it's done, but if you don't take a piece of wood and start trying it yourself, you'll never, never, reach any degree of craftsmanship.
What has been your career for most of your life?
Al- I was Head Mechanical Engineer in charge of design at TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority). My primary responsibility was designing large steam plants like Kingston Steam Plant and Little Run Steam Plant.
Where did you go to school?
Al- Right here at the University of Tennessee.
Al- The thing that I find myself striving for is a degree of perfection that you have to exercise in engineering. I find myself using that same type of effort in my woodworking.
Do you ever sell any of your work?
Al- Never have.
Most amateur woodworkers at one time or another have dreamed about what it would be like to go professional and make their living at woodworking. Have you ever had similar thoughts?
Al- Not seriously, but let me say this. Getting into professional woodworking, particular selling furniture is hard. The market for quality furniture is very, very small. This desk (see picture below) is an example. I have had it appraised by a professional and it's worth $10,000.00. One time a lady saw it at a show and told me it must be worth $1500.00. I said lady the lumber cost that much [laughs]. There's wood and then there's wood. Someone might tell me that they built a piece out of cherry. My first question to them would be well is it just cherry or is it curly cherry, there's a big difference. In fact there's three time the cost in raw lumber. I like to build one of kind pieces and I choose the prettiest piece of wood that I can find to do that with.
What style furniture do you most enjoy building?
Al- Yes, period furniture, which includes Federal, Chippendale, Sheraton, and others. The designs for these types of furniture are timeless. They will never go out of style. In addition to that when you start looking at a period piece to build right away you realize that this is going to be a challenge. You’re either going to get into some advanced veneering or advanced inlay or advanced carving or advanced joinery, you have to know how to do it all. Period furniture requires good craftsmanship in all the various faucets of woodworking. And that’s why I like it.
What are some of your favorite woods to work with?
Al- My favorite woods are cherry, walnut, tiger maple, and mahogany. The woods to embellish those are numerous. Woods like holly, ebony, padouk, and blood wood are just some of the woods I use for inlaying.
What are some of your favorite tools to work with?
Al- I have various types of hand planes that I love to work with, the smoothing plane, jointer plane and block plane are a few. I suppose that the block plane is the most picked up tool in my shop. A close second would be my card scraper. I tell all the students that I teach in my hand tool class that a card scraper is the most cost effective tool in the shop. It only costs about $6 but it’s worth a million.
What method do you use to sharpen your various woodworking tools?
Al- I flatten the backs of plane irons and chisels with a diamond stone because they cut quickly. But from there on, I use water stones. The diamond stone is 650 grit, and then I go to 1000 grit, 3000, 6000, and then finally a 8000 grit. The 8000 grit stone will put a mirror finish on the tool. No tool is worthy to use unless it will cut the hair off your arm.
How long will it typically take you to sharpen a dull plane iron?
Al- It would probably take an hour.
How long would it take normally for that plane iron to become dull again?
Al- I have two planes out in the shop that haven’t been sharpened in over a year, so it’s well worth the effort you put into sharpening in the beginning. Let me say this, after you have a plane iron or chisel properly sharpened after it becomes dull again you only have to touch up the bevel. Once you flatten the back you don’t have to go back to the diamond stone and flatten it again it’s a one-time operation. So to sharpen that plane iron again will only take about 5-10 minutes. Touch it up on the 1000 grit stone and work your way up to the 8000 grit stone.
From conception of a piece, designing, getting your materials together, the working of the wood, the finishing, to the completed project, what’s your favorite step in the process of working with wood?
Al- It would be facetious of me to say all of it, but it is. But to answer your question my favorite part of the process is cutting a joint to fit so that I have a hairline joint. But let me say this to help others because of my background as an engineer, I’ve spent a lifetime making drawings. I make a detailed drawing of every piece I make. Even if a person is not gifted at making drawings, if they can make a sketch of what’s in their head that may show them a pitfall that will save them ruining a piece of lumber. I’ve found that good accurate drawings save time, lumber and money.
Who are the woodworkers that you have found to be an inspiration to you and have had the most influence on your work?
Al- The person that has caused me to push myself further than I have gone before is Alf Sharp. When I got to the point that I thought I was pretty good, we (the East Tennessee Woodworkers Guild) had a Master Woodworking show back in 1997. I took my stuff up to display. Then Alf brought his stuff. I had to get down on my knees! He pushes me to continually do better work. Others ways that I’ve been inspired is in studying the designs of Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Queen Anne; so called period furniture. These pieces of furniture have caused me to push myself a little harder, to work a little harder.
What woodworking organizations do you belong to?
Al- I belong to the East Tennessee Woodworkers Guild, and I belong to the Society of American Period Furniture Makers.
What has being a member of these organizations meant to you as a woodworker?
Al- It’s played a very important role. I was very bashful about anybody seeing my work, because I wasn’t sure it was up to standard. I then went to a meeting of the East Tennessee Woodworkers Guild and they encouraged me to bring a piece of my work (a chair). And with that I realized that I wasn’t too bad after all, because of the feedback I received. That was twenty years ago. I’ve been very active in the guild and I’ve made a lot of friends. I’ve also learned a lot from them that has made me a better woodworker because of the transfer of information. So, to put it all in a nutshell, belonging to the guild has made me a better woodworker.
I know that you teach some classes at the local Woodcraft store (in Knoxville, TN), tell us what the classes are about.
Al- Over a period of a year I’ll teach classes on using hand tools, power tools, wood finishing, hand-cut dovetails, inlaying, veneering, and how to cut cabriole legs. Each of these are three hours of demonstration and lecture. Then I teach a week long class called Woodwork 101 that teaches how to use hand tools.
Do you have any tips or advice for beginners to woodworking?
Al- A person, regardless of age, who wants learn to work with wood, number one, needs to find somebody that can teach them. You have to start with the elementary process first. You need a good experienced teacher to start you out learning the basics. Anyone that's starting woodworking, and seriously want to get into it, number one you have to have some tools. Don't go to Sears and buy a bunch of junk. If you're going to invest in it and you have a limited budget, buy a few of the necessary things first, but buy good stuff. You can't put a sharp edge on a chisel if the steel is no good. That would be my word of caution to everyone serious about starting out as a hobbyist. Use your budget wisely. If you can only buy one chisel, buy a good chisel. If you can only buy one plane, buy a good one. There's a reason one plane cost $49.00 and the other cost $249.00
Mr. Hudson’s shop