George Lewin

(Story relocated to here, and expanded to full length version)

For those of us who started our woodworking aspiring to own some of the magnificent looking orange machines we had seen on display, and on demonstration at the local Bunnings, this name would be very familiar.

To those less certain, George Lewin has been one of the most influential people in Australia, let alone the planet in getting people’s foot in the door of woodworking, having been the inventor of the Triton Workbench, and what became the Triton system.

My big foray into woodworking was based entirely on the Triton brand, and as my workshop grew, it became more and more Triton orange.  I took to demonstrating Triton in Bunnings, Mitre 10 on occasional weekends, and at wood shows, and was president of a Triton Woodworking club at Holmesglen (as well as creating their website, which became the largest Triton-based woodworking website in the world).

So it came as a complete surprise the other day when I had an email from the legend himself, saying nice things about Stu’s Shed, and asking about his beloved Triton.
George has kindly agreed to give us some background, of what he (and Triton) did back in the day, and also where he is and what he is up to today.

Please note, these will be in installments as George has time to write them.


George at 66, looking relaxed and kickin’ back in Thailand.

UPDATE: The article has now been relocated and extended, so check out the new, complete article here.

Mindfulness and the workshop

Circle around various corporate entities, and you’ll find the term “Mindfulness” cropping up more and more, as the latest trend takes increasing hold.

Now I say that in somewhat irreverent terms, but without any real intent.

I am not really on strong terms with mindfulness yet, there are many long courses all about it, but what strikes me early, is this concept of being in the moment.

Many of us drive to work each day, and yet can’t remember how we actually got there. We are walking around the house, put down our keys, and cannot remember for the life of us where they are a little later on.

These (and many others) are perfect examples of taking actions without being mindful.  Being in the moment, actually tasting the food we are eating, focusing on the activity, being particularly aware of what we are doing, not just going through the motions without concentration, without being mindful.

It got me thinking about the shed.  Some of what we do out there is without real thought – cleaning up for example, yet daydreaming (or just not concentrating).  Yet a lot of what we do, especially while working in the shed had better be very mindful, or you might find yourself fingerless, or worse.

To turn that around, I find that the shed activities really do focus the mind.  You cannot have random thoughts bubble up and become a distraction, and the activities really allow you to concentrate intensely on the task at hand.  It is like a form of meditation, and why I find I feel really refreshed after a good session out in the workshop.  Better than sitting around with your eyes closed, focusing on breathing and saying “Om”!

When I am shaping wood, solving design questions, cutting, planing, joining, gluing, polishing, there is no room for abstract thoughts, distracting thoughts, and problems at work and other stressors do not get a look in.

That is not always the case unfortunately. When having an unsuccessful day, it either allows an opportunity for these external pressures to creep in, or it is because those external pressures have been there all along, and not shut down enough to allow a successful day.

The next time I am having a bit of a bad shed day, I’m going to focus a bit more on why – am I being distracted by thoughts, or just me having a bad woodworking day.  Of course, like the golf saying goes, a bad day in the shed is still better than the best day at work!

Roadtrip

Went on a roadtrip yesterday to see the ‘superstore’ of a shed manufacturer.  Disappointing – they do not make anything but very standard sheds, and best they could do was design one that involved putting two of their normal sheds together, that would result in a post right in the middle of the largest working area.  Disappointing too – despite the simplicity of 2 basic sheds, it was in the same ballpark as the one in the earlier post (and that is with a 20% discount this company is currently offering!)

As a distraction, I dropped into Hare & Forbes which was just around the corner.

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A massive collection of machines – very impressive.  Woodwork & metalwork machines.  Some awesome industry-sized machines.  Drool.

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Found one thing that I am very keen to have in the shed.  I was looking at how to fit in an I beam for a chain hoist, but that doesn’t have a lot of versatility (being linear only).  This stand can lift and move along an I beam, and is wheeled to boot, so you can position the hoist where you need it.  It looks awesome, and a real back-saver.

I have the chain hoist already, so along with this mobile rail, I only need the carriage.  Would be great if I had one of the MLAY 1000×3 from MagSwitch – that would really cap the whole combination off!

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Don’t even know if these are in Australia!  Very cool though – imagine swinging my tablesaw around the workshop!

Looking for a workbench?

Ideal Tools are selling off each of the 6 fold-away workbenches that resided in their Festool Workshop in Williamstown.  Built solid, they are 55mm thick in total, comprising 35mm water resistant chipboard base with 19mm West Australian Karri work surface and 65mm Victorian Ash trim. Thick and solid enough to mount a heavy duty woodworkers vice. They are incredibly solid and can take significant weight and a real pounding like a good workbench should be able to when required. Worktop dimensions: 1085mm x 635mm.

Ideal for workshops which are shared with other hobbies or the family car. The workbench is mounted to the wall, and when not required their legs fold against the wall and the top folds down. Protruding only 260mm from the wall.

Included are tool boards which hang on the wall using a simple French cleat system. These tool boards feature two Victorian Ash tool holders which hold the tools via two rows of concealed magnets. There is no direct magnet to tool contact, only timber on tool to avoid tools being scratched by the mounting system. Additionally they feature a whiteboard for project notes. Back board dimensions: 1130mm x 1150mm.

Four of the six workbenches have a series of 19mm dog holes in the worktop. These dog hole work brilliantly with Festool MFT-SP surface clamps and Walko surface clamps, as well as lots of other workbench dogs and clamps.

All surfaces are finished in tung-oil for easy cleaning and refinishing. They are in excellent condition as they have only had two years of intermittent use and only need a light rub-over with fresh oil to bring them up like new again.

Valued around the $1,000 mark, these workbenches are available at $480 each. Contact Anthony at support@idealtools.com.au or call 1300 769 258 if you are interested.

Humble Beginnings

There are so many different reasons someone might catch the woodworking bug, and in so many cases it will be a combination of many small triggers.

I think the toys you have as a kid can play a big part: it is the first experience of just how real timber products are. I wrote about it just recently: the best kids toys are wooden, and even better if homemade.

When I was 2 or so, I remember being at a house (in America), playing with the children on a marble roller. It was a small one, and it was fun. Years later, my father made a large one for my brother, for about his 4th birthday. Not sure how much he played with it, but I spent hours and hours rolling marbles down it, seeing which side the marbles ended up. I can still hear the sound- it was hypnotic!

I can’t find an image of one exactly like the one Dad made, but this is the sort of concept

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A year later, and we were on a PanAm flight (well that is my memory, but recently it sounds like it was actually Lufthansa), and an air hostess gave me a round container full of small painted wooden animal shapes. Simple, uncomplicated, each painted a single solid colour. Probably hard to find these days- toys seem to need to be so complicated now. The toys have become so complex, but I really don’t think kids have actually changed that much. We teach them their expectations.

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Another year passes, and it was my 4th birthday. By this stage, our family had moved to New Zealand (my Father following an academic career). My RAAF uncle (one of the influences for me joining the military later on perhaps?) was visiting as he often did due to joint Australian/NZ operations. I was outside the garage, and the two of them (Dad and Uncle) were inside making something, and I was (unusually) not allowed in. I was devastated.

It didn’t take long, and my Uncle came to find me, to find out my favourite number. Well that wasn’t hard, 4 of course!

Soon there after, and the doors to the garage open, and a homemade billycart rolls out.

(Again, I don’t have photos of the real thing- all these so far are the best equivalent I can find online)

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This became the first of many, many billycarts I made over the years.

The ability to make, and not just buy was constantly being reinforced, time and again.

Working with wood has been one of those themes that has followed me all the way through, but in a subtle way. There was never an actual woodworking workshop (although I knew another of my Uncles did have one, and my brother and I got a very cool marionette each he had made while we waited, that I still have, but I actually only saw the workshop for the first time 25 years later). It was all woodworking with basic tools – handsaw, circular saw, jigsaw, router, hammer, nails and screws.

Still, the seeds were sown, and from humble beginnings, look where it has all lead.

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You know you want to!

Colour my (shed) world

Even from early shed days, there was an interesting trend in the colour schemes in the shed, that paralleled where I was at in terms of equipment, and woodworking in general.

From slow beginnings, almost a precursor stage where there was an influence of GMC Blue.  This expanded somewhat, but then Triton orange appeared, and surged.  The amount of large machines grew significantly, as did my capabilities to produce a decent product.

Jet beige tried to make an appearance, but for a number of reasons, never really establised a foothold – it may have been just too early, too pricey (at the time) or for whatever reason it just didn’t catch on.  Don’t get me wrong – good product, but only one machine remains in current use.

The real surge (colour-wise) was from Carbatec blue (and some Tormek blue), and as you can see from the (very rough) diagram, it firmly pushed Triton out of the workshop, each orange machine getting replaced with something blue (and silver).

The workshop has been expanding a little since, with a combination of Torque green, and Festool green (yeah, I know the tools are mostly blue casings, but I still think of Festool based on the colour of the logo, and the colour of the latches on the systainers.)

I’m not sure what point there is to these observations.  If I drew a line through the current point and had started there, I would have saved a lot of buying, then selling of items.  But that just would not have happened – at the start there would have been no way I’d invest that much into a hobby that was not certain.

My introduction into woodworking is easily credited to that spike of orange.  It was a dominant force, and really set the hobby in motion.  That it has faded now only reflects some opportunities I had, and that my requirements outgrew it to some extent.  There is little I make these days that couldn’t have been made back then either (excluding the lathe that Triton prototyped but never released, and the unique capabilities of the Torque).  My ears are probably a lot happier – induction motors are so much quieter!

There is still some GMC in the shop (very little – a drill, a 3 mill. candle lamp, a router) and some Triton (circular saw and routers) but that is pretty much the extent of it.  The lack of Jet is a bit of a surprise – not a reflection on the brand, but some opportunities that were missed that others grabbed.

Are there any lessons in this for someone either starting out in woodworking, or considering doing so?

Woodworking is a very personal pursuit.  Every single person will have a different story, different requirements, different resources (space, time, money), and a different degree to which they want to become involved, so it is very difficult to even make generalisations.

I know a number of years ago (when Triton was still very popular, and readily available), as the influence of Chinese manufacturing was starting to be felt, there were a lot of comments out there about why buy Triton – you could get a reasonable tablesaw for the price.  Perhaps true, perhaps not (at the time).  It is certainly the case currently (but again, that will change).

Triton was very much a feeder brand – it bought people into woodworking that may never have gotten involved otherwise.  And because you could build up your collection of tools, accessories and additions over time, your budget didn’t take the same hit than if you spent it all at once on a dedicated tablesaw. It could be folded away, (and transported) which was another important consideration for those space poor, and not necessarily looking at setting up a full workshop (not at least until the addiction takes hold and spreads).  Many woodworkers to this day are still happy using their Triton workbenches, and may not have invested much, if any more than that.

If asked today, Triton probably would not be the answer I’d first think of, given the price has risen, and even more so compared to the price other brands have come down.  Get a shed, or workspace that is dedicated (if at all possible), some basic tools, and take your time to build from there.  A jigsaw (the puzzle, not the tool!) is completed one piece at a time, each is contemplated, assessed and placed before moving onto the next.  Treat your tool acquisition in the same way.

These days, now I’ve had a sentence or two to think about it, I’d probably say, start 2nd hand.  Acquire, contemplate, assess, place, use, then as your workshop grows you can then look at moving items on and scaling up the collection to bigger, better, perhaps newer.  At least when you do decide to, you will have a much better idea of what the replacement should be, and you should be able to recoup a large portion of your investment to reinvest.

Triton Tools during my Holmesglen courses

In my case I outgrew the Triton range.  However in saying that, the money invested was not a complete loss.  When I on-sold the tools, I still got around a 75% return on my investment.  The money that I didn’t get back could easily be put down as being paid for the use I got from the machines, the education I received in using them, the lessons I learned.  That 25% is not a bad investment!  On top of that, some of the work I did on the Triton saved me a great deal compared to the alternative – buying the furniture items from Ikea and the like.

Without even counting the magazine articles I wrote, the demonstrations I was doing, the courses I ran, once the last item was sold, I could easily say that the Triton made me money.  A hobby that paid for itself!  That is not a bad hobby to get into.

What you need to do is determine what sort of woodworking you want to pursue, at least initially – no matter your choice, you are not locked in.  The way to work that out is quite simple.  When you imagine yourself in 5 years time, a veteran woodworker, what sort of things do you imagine you have made?

Turned bowls, vases?

Penturning?

Fine furniture, Krenov cabinets, Windsor rocking chairs?

Practical furniture, bookshelves, kitchen cabinets?

Scrollsawn masterpieces?

Kids’ toys, dollhouses, marble rollers?

Kids’ furniture, playhouses?

Fine boxes, dovetailed joints, fancy lids?

Pyrography, burning pictures in wood?

What you visualise will determine what path to pursue initially.  You can then find books and magazines on the topic (libraries are a great initial resource, and the price is right).  You could enrol in a course.  You could join a club or get into the woodworking forums (but be aware that everyone has a bias (even me), and they may guide you to what would be best for them and their version of this pursuit, and not necessarily yours).

Whatever direction you choose, if it is something that really excites you, then that is an excellent place to start. Start small, build up your collection, and challenge yourself.  But most of all, enjoy it – life is too short not to really enjoy what you do.

Berwick Woodworkers

Took an opportunity to visit Berwick Woodworkers at the old Cheese Factory, and admire their permanent clubrooms and workshops (including the new 2x shipping containers – one full of toys ready for Xmas distribution, and the other full of timber ready to be turned in the the aforementioned toys!

I dragged along a Router Master to give them a bit of a look at what these machines are capable of – particularly suited to toy makers (and the Torque Workcentre even more so).

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Back to the club workshop, and they have an excellent range of tools, and even better, dedicated working areas.  There was the finishing shop, a lathe workshop (with a few other tools still in there as well), a cutting room (with bandsaws and tablesaw), a painting room (complete with Hills Hoist clothesline for hanging components to dry), and as mentioned a wood store and toy store.

Behind one nondescript door was a massive 3 phase dust extractor, with finger bags and this was coupled up to the three lathes (it is in the process of being relocated).  I was wondering if you needed to actually do any turning with such an extractor – it will almost suck the wood off the lathe without human intervention!

The last couple of photos is a table made from a stunning piece of black-hearted sassafras.

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