Q & A with Tom Fidgen
I grew up on Cape Breton Island and always had a passion for making. Right out of high school I signed a record deal and spent the next decade writing and recording music. I toured from coast to coast, but whenever I wasn’t on the road playing music I would be back in Nova Scotia making stuff. A simple bench for the backyard, a patio for a friend’s place, a timber frame cabin in the woods. Always writing and playing music, always making and creating things from wood. The two seemed to go hand in hand. That didn’t seem to be unique to me as many of my musician friends also worked wood and made stuff. In fact, two of my band mates from the early ’90s also went on to careers working wood. The bass player studied guitar making at the Roberto Venn School of Lutherie in Arizona and the drummer from that same band is now a high school shop teacher back on Cape Breton. All three of us went on to careers working wood and considering we were only a three-piece, that’s some pretty good odds!
Fast forward another decade and I started building wooden boats. Most of the work in those days was done with power tools but during the fitting out process, when the power tools were put away, I fell in love with hand tools.
Not long after, I also began building custom furniture. At the time, I started to write about building furniture using only hand tools. This was in the early 2000s before smart phones, Facebook or YouTube. I would tell people I wrote a blog and thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing and documenting my path using hand tools for woodworking and design.
A few years later, I signed a publishing deal with F&W Media and my first book was published in 2009. Made by Hand: Furniture Projects from the Unplugged Woodshop became a best-selling book and a year later I signed my second publishing deal with The Taunton Press.
In 2011, The Unplugged Woodshop: Hand Crafted Projects for the Home and Workshop was released and almost immediately I started getting invited to teach in woodworking schools around the world.
From the Yukon to Australia, Jerusalem to Germany, I spent a number of years teaching hand tool woodworking in schools. Every month a new school in a new city, a different country and often on a different continent. This afforded me the unique opportunity to see what really worked and, perhaps more importantly, what didn’t. I studied business models and curriculums and eventually decided to open my own woodworking school.
In 2016, The Unplugged Woodshop opened its doors and we’ve been pretty much sold out since. I enjoy sharing my passion and experience with students who come from all over the world to study with me. We’ve had students from New Zealand, Australia, India, China, Europe, Mexico, South America and, of course, the U.S. and Canada. Everyone with their unique stories and skill sets. Men and women, from 18 to 68 years old, from all walks of life.
During these past seven years since becoming a small business owner in the biggest city in Canada and, like everyone, navigating the last three years of pandemic life, I’ve been able to maintain a steady amount of commission work. Lots of custom furniture as well as some pretty unique projects. One was a carved plaque for Massey Hall, the iconic theatre here in Toronto that recently underwent a massive renovation. The plaque was commissioned by the theatre as a thank you to Allan Slaight, the philanthropist who donated a large amount of the money needed for the renovation.
Having a background in music, playing guitar for 35 + years and being a furniture maker for the last 20, it was inevitable that these two worlds would someday collide.
The winter before COVID began, I had a student from Buffalo who encouraged me to try my hand at making a guitar. This had, of course, been on my radar since my old band mate studied lutherie back in the early 2000s. With my young student’s encouragement, I decided it was finally time. I purchased a few books, bought a few special-purpose tools and supplies, and started building my first guitars.
Three years later, I’m still building guitars. Still with only hand tools and currently working on guitar number 10. To say this has been a life-changing event would be an understatement. I basically go to bed thinking about guitar making and it’s the first thing I think about in the morning. The melding of these two passions makes perfect sense.
The road from hand tool furniture making to luthier wasn’t a huge stretch, although like any new discipline, it comes with a learning curve. Most of the hand tool work is the same except the tolerances are a little tighter. I’m also much more aware of wood species, wood cuts, extremely sharp tools and perhaps the biggest thing, relative humidity. All of these things get amplified (no pun intended) when building musical instruments.
We have the luxury of “close enough” in timber framing, furniture making and general carpentry, but close enough doesn’t cut it when it comes to musical instrument making. It has been a welcome challenge and I can already see there’s a lifetime of learning ahead.
For the past two years, on my days off from teaching, I’ve been studying with a luthier on the west side of the city. I finished my first guitar under his guidance and mentorship and am now ready to start designing my own.
Working with wood, making and creating, writing and designing—these are creative elements that keep me inspired and motivated. Every day is another new challenge and I truly welcome the journey.
Whatever it is you make, I encourage you to try something new. Get out of your comfort zone. Make something different, push your boundaries and challenge yourself as you strive to be better. Master your tools, keep them sharp and get yourself a hygrometer so you can monitor the relative humidity in your workshop. Sharp tools, relative humidity and nice wood. What more can we ask for?
Music and Woodworking
This guitar cabinet in Tom’s teaching studio showcases some of the guitars he has made.
On the Go
Sketches, books and projects all made by Tom add ambiance to his teaching studio in Toronto, Ontario.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.