you're a woodturner, you've likely heard the name Ernie Conover. He
-- along with his dad, Ernest Conover Jr. (Ernie's number III) -- is
one of the inventors of the Conover Lathe. He's also a founder of the
American Association of Woodturners, and coordinator of its first
symposium. Plus, these days, he's the regularly featured writer in
the Woodturning department of the print edition of Woodworker's
got into turning originally "mainly doing parts for my general
woodworking -- chair legs and such." He'd come from a background
of making his own tools, partly because new ones were unavailable,
partly because they were unaffordable. And, while he and his dad had
previously purchased old lathes to restore, they decided to make a
woodworking lathe "because we didn't like the ones we could
dad was primarily a metalworker, and Ernie himself is trained as both
a woodworker and a metalworker, and they were aware, Ernie said, that
"up until about World War II, in England, could buy a lathe and
add a headstock and a tailstock." All of this led to their
creation of the 16" Conover Lathe, for which the end user
supplied a bed made from 2" x 6" lumber.
the Conover Lathe is no longer manufactured, it does factor in to how
Ernie got into woodturning education. In addition to the lathes, he
was designing other woodworking tools, as well. Mike Dunbar (founder
of The Windsor Institute) convinced him to offer courses to teach
people how to use the tools.
early summer courses have grown into today's Conover Workshops, which
offers scheduled courses, private lessons and apprenticeship
opportunities. This month, Ernie was in the midst of teaching a Hand
Tool Joinery workshop, "which starts with the willing suspension
of disbelief: that machine tools do not exist." For the first
day of the course, Ernie also dresses in 18th century attire and has
the students sign an indenture contract from that time period.
always been a tremendous history buff," Ernie said, which shows
up not only in his classroom, but in his projects, books and tool
collection, as well. A collector of antique tools, all of which are
in good working order, he says, "I don't know if I like using
'em or collecting 'em more." Ernie's collection includes a full
range of hand planes, from 1 to 8, as well as a Boice-Crane band saw
and a South Bend metalworking lathe. "I use many of 'em every
day," he said of his antique tools. "It brings me a great
deal of pleasure."
also proud of including information in his nine books that is
"something I felt was valuable now, and valuable for posterity."
Particularly in his book The
Ernie said, "I set down a lot of things about lathes that I
think could be lost with the drive to turnkey." For instance, he
said, "jam chucking: you turn a pocket in a piece of wood, and
tap a piece into it. Until you can use a faceplate and a set of
centers, you have no business using a commercial chuck."
also extremely proud of The
Woodworker's Guide to Dovetails,"
another of his books, Ernie said. It covers both machine and hand
tool dovetail joinery, since, he noted, "Both are valid. If I
were going to build a kitchen, I'd get a dovetail jig out. On the
other hand, if I was going to build a highboy, I'd probably hand cut
has, indeed, "made a lot of complicated stuff" with his
turnings, he said. For instance, he made a complicated spinning wheel
for his wife, in the style of the 19th century great wheel version of
spinning wheels. Ernie's wife is a weaver, as was his mother, and it
was in making threaded parts for them that he first became involved
in designing woodworking tools -- the threaded tools were useful for
woodworkers, too. The spinning wheel, Ernie said, "had 40 to 50
turnings in it by the time it was done. That was an awful lot of
also turned 65 balusters and 10 newel posts for a spiral staircase in
his home, and created 8' x 3" bedposts from true 4x4s for a
Sheraton style bed. "I've had some sculptural fun, too,"
of my messages is 'You never regret buying good tools, but they
aren't everything,'" Ernie said. "It's like buying a piano:
if you don't practice, you're never going to get anywhere, so
spending some time in the shop is good, too."