Sam Maloof: Woodworker

Last week I attended Sam’s memorial service. It was the finest memorial I have attended—which likely comes as no surprise to those who have crossed paths with Sam. The service was rich with music—extraordinary music actually. The testimonials were heartfelt, deeply moving and richly informative. But most important, it was celebratory—Sam liked parties.

After the service we migrated to Sam’s residence to find an IN-N-OUT food truck serving burgers and chips—turns out this was Sam’s favorite fast food. Although I do not eat beef, I ate two IN-N-OUT cheeseburgers in Sam’s honor Tuesday evening. Good thing one of those outlets is not in Portland because I would have to add this as yet another influence this man has had on my life…

In the early 1970’s the Portland Public Schools maintained a film depository for teachers. I quickly learned that most of the woodworking related offerings were film strips. My woodshop “classroom” was a series of tiered benches surrounded by windows reinforced with chicken wire, a needed safety measure to protect students from the occasional explosions which occurred in the adjacent welding lab.

The room was too small to show film strips—the heat from the projector caused immeasurable discomfort I was told—and it was explained to me by one student that they “messed “with glue set-up times. Truthfully they were dorky.

Sometime in 1974 I noticed a new film title; Sam Maloof: Woodworker and ordered it for review.The next day after classes were over, I rolled a projector into my classroom, turned out the lights and watched a movie about a woodworker unbeknownst to me. It is probably important to mention I was 23 years old and as a condition of my employment I was forced to coach freshman baseball.

Time erodes my memory—beer too—but I believe the film was around 30-40 minutes in length. That late afternoon I watched the film five times in a row. It was the most humbling experience of my life. Here I am, teaching woodworking and realized I knew nothing about woodworking.

Produced by Maynard Orme (whom later served 19 years as the president and CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting) Sam Maloof: Woodworker was impossible for me to ignore. I remember having a raging internal debate as to whether I should show this to my students for fear of exposing my own ignorance. My training prevailed; “The role of the educator is to open minds, not close them.” So I say now, to the professor who shared this mantra; “See! I was listening!”


I have seen Sam Maloof: Woodworker well over 50 times and have learned something with each viewing. At that time I did not know about pattern shaping, never had seen a rolling pin sander, and it never occurred to me that wood could be sculpted in such fashion.Hate to admit it, but at that time I was Forrest Gump dumb in regards to woodworking—probably everything else too.


Within a year another film made the catalog. Wendle Castle’s music rack (can’t remember the title) was a cool how-to film set to Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition. Then in 1975 I received the first issue of Fine Woodworking (which I still own).I did not know it at the time but my life was being molded in ways that leads directly to this overly long blog entry.


Sometime in early 1978 I noticed an ad in Fine Woodworking for the Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, Colorado. Listed was a three-week summer hands-on workshop with… Sam Maloof!  Had to go.


It was dusk when I pulled into the Anderson Ranch and while driving through the campus I noticed a barn with doors wide open. Alone inside was Sam Maloof oiling one of his rocking chairs.I was such a chicken I quickly sped past to the check-in counter for chickens.


The Anderson Ranch woodworking classroom was two columns of workbenches. I took the very last bench because I would not like to look around, or over, a 6’3” view hog.And besides, I was awestruck.


On the third or fourth day an interesting thing happened. Sam’s glasses broke at the bridge and for the rest of the class, they were held together with white tape—Hanson brother style for you hockey fans.


The significance of this event was transformative for me because I then realized Sam was just as susceptible to life’s quirks as the rest of us. I also noticed that he worked fast. Really fast.


On the last day of class there was a picnic. Sam sought me out and apologized for not spending much time with me. It was a grand gesture, sincere and he really did feel bad. I told him I was not there to talk but to learn and that I was going to go home and quit my job to be a furniture maker. It was the easiest decision I ever made. Everybody else thought I was crazy, which strangely enough, persists to this day.


Before we parted company Sam asked to see my portfolio. All I had were a couple of pictures of a try-square I designed for my beginning woodshop classes—I was really embarrassed. In his customary way, he told me he thought the try square was beautiful.


Within a couple of years my work—strongly influenced by Sam’s forms—was being accepted by juries. At some point Sam called to congratulate me and I confessed how hard it was to design without thinking about how Sam would do it. He told me not to worry, that this will pass and I will find my own voice. It was not long and I had a three-year backlog of work and just as he predicted, my later work bore no resemblance to Sam Maloof.


Unfortunately, I have an abundance of dumb genes. I never once saw Sam wear a dust mask, and neither did I. My furniture making career came to a quick halt in 1983 with a hyper-allergic reaction to wood dust.


A couple of times a year there would be tool shows in the Los Angeles basin and I would stay with Sam and Freda on the lemon grove property. We would talk until Freda made Sam go to bed.It is here that I learned that objects should be worthy of the space they occupy—he was surrounded by the visual richness of others in addition to his own work.There was a canoe hanging from the ceiling—how cool.


Sam was an avid customer of Bridge City and during one trip I asked him where all the tools were that he had purchased. Oh, they are right here behind the sofa and he pulled out a box and opened it. I said “Why don’t you use them?” He said “I do. I tell everybody about these beautiful tools.”


My last visit with Sam was a year ago—I took Sam and “the boys” to lunch.Sam asked to see our latest tool, which was the CT-14 Shoulder Plane. When told the price, Sam commented, “$800 is a lot of money for a plane.”I retorted,  “$35,000 for a rocking chair is a lot of money for a piece of furniture.”


One of the boys interrupted, “Sam, you are not going to win this one.”


And with a wink, he put the hand plane on his lap and asked if I could send him an invoice.


I don’t believe Bridge City would exist without Sam Maloof. So on behalf of all of the Bridge City family, particularly the big oaf at the helm, I offer a collective “thank you”.It was a grand thirty-one years.


Thanks Sam—


–John

5 comments on this post:

  1. John

    This was a wonderful tribute to Sam and a great reflection and story on the price of your tools and his craft.

    I was in LA the week before the memorial and made it out to his shop and museum. It was wonderful to finally see his facility, but I was saddened that I did not get a chance to see Sam. We left the Sunday before the Tuesday memorial. I am sure it was quite a gathering. I had heard that the catering would be by California’s finest burger joint!

    I too had attended a course by Sam at Anderson Ranch and was fortunate to have dinner with Sam and Freda back around 1990. He was quite a person and a wonderful teacher.

    Thanks for sharing -

    neil

  2. I guess one thing I share with Sam is an avid love of BC tools. I only wish I could share in his amazing craftsmanship! But the tools certainly help in the inspiration department.

    neil

  3. Thank you, John. I didn’t meet Sam until about a month before he passed on, but his work has had a strong influence on mine for at least 3 decades. It was an honor to finally meet my god, my muse. I wish I had had more time and opportunities to learn from him in person. But I do have the singular joy of having learned from him remotely, and from having caressed his beautiful pieces. Amazing that there are so many people who feel like we do about this wonderful man. What a good life he led!

    Thanks again for sharing your story.

  4. One of my favorite lessons from Sam involved the chair I built at the Anderson Ranch. It was my first scooped seat and when I thought it was perfect Sam suggested that I remove the “lumps”. I said, “What lumps?”.

    Sam asked if I was right or left handed. I said left. He then told me to put a pencil in my left hand, close my eyes and feel the seat with both hands–when I felt a “bump” to color it with the pencil with my eyes still closed. A “dent” was bumps on each side.

    I then was to open my eyes and scrape the pencil marks off with a curved scraper and repeat the “eyes closed” process. The entire seat was scribbled with pencil marks!

    Holy cow–who would of thought that perfect work is achieved with closed eyes!

    What a lesson that was.

    –John

  5. John, thanks for your comments on Sam Maloof. Woodworking is a journey which Sam made well. I believe I am just now beginning to understand what that journey is. “the more you learn, the less you know”. I have seen some recent videos with Sam and really respect his attitude and approach. Marc Adams holds him in very high respect, but I didn’t KNOW why until recently. You have been lucky to cross his path personally.

    Dennis

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