Robo-Sander: Not Bait and Switch, but Bait and Sand

Listening to Ken Picou might convince you that growing up in Louisiana encourages people do strange things. Take this tale he told me about three of his friends in a boat.

“Homer, Ernie, and a guy we called The Frenchman were going gator hunting,” Ken recounted. “The plan was that Ernie would drive, The Frenchman would shoot a gator, then Homer, an ex-Marine, would throw it in the boat. They found a gator, The Frenchman stood up with his rifle, pulled the trigger, and missed. Homer, however, was so pumped up that he just assumed the shot hit its mark. He grabbed the gator and threw it in the boat. All hell broke loose and before long, the three intrepid hunters were in the water, having abandoned the boat to the gator.”

Whatever else growing up there did, it also seems to have created a yen for invention, because these days Ken spends his time making and selling some of his cleverly designed tools for woodworkers. His Robo-Sander lets you follow patterns with a sanding drum just as you would with a bearing-mounted router bit, and the Luthier’s Friend is a small, affordable thickness sander attachment that mounts on a drill press.

Not surprisingly, Ken started out as a woodworker and created tools when he felt the need for them but couldn’t find them. “My father owned a lumber yard in Ponchatoula, Louisiana,” Ken told me, “so I grew up making things as my father did. I sort of grew up knowing that if you want something, you just build it. I could have inherited the lumberyard, but instead went to LSU [Louisiana State University] and got a degree in industrial management, working my way through college working for diving companies who set deep sea pipelines. After college it was off to the North Sea doing the same thing. When I returned, I ended up in Austin, Texas, and worked construction for a while.

“In 1978 I quit my job, and working out of my house, started making helicopter toys – a sort of flying propeller on a stick. They took off, so to speak, and for the next two years I made a good living making them and selling them at craft shows and renaissance fairs, as well as wholesaling them. At the time, I thought I had invented them, until an Asian gent informed me that they had been making them in China since the twelfth century.

“Next, I made meditation stools for a while, then I expanded out into a variety of woodworking, everything from furniture to toys, always my own designs, and usually more as a design to be made as multiples rather than custom pieces. I have always been fascinated with building jigs and fixtures for making multiple parts.” He’s made music stands, hand mirrors, chairs, massage rollers, wall mirrors and even giant fishing lures, which started as a joke and quickly took on a life of their own.

“A friend of mine who was getting married wanted to go deep sea fishing instead of having a more traditional bachelor party,” Ken explained. “I made three giant fishing lures as a joke. Once we got out on the party boat, we pulled them out as if we were going to fish with them. The others on the boat immediately asked to buy them, and before I knew it, they took over everything. I make about 800 a year, selling most through galleries as kinetic sculptures. They are made of cypress, which turns and finishes well, and will hang freely from the ceiling from a single point and move with a slight breeze. However, sales dropped precipitously when Hurricane Katrina wiped out my best gallery in New Orleans.”

Along the way, Ken has made some unusual furniture as well. One notable piece is a kerf-bent mirror frame. “One of the interesting things about this mirror,” Ken explained, “is that it takes the same number of cuts to make any shape, from circle to triangle or any other number of sides in between. The only difference is where you place the cuts. That’s because each cut opens the wood a certain number of degrees, and no matter what the final shape, a closed shape is 360 degrees. The number of cuts depends on the width of the wood and kerf thickness.”

Soon, though, frustration led to his tool inventions. “In 1992, I was making side chairs as a production item using templates and flush-trim router bits. Unfortunately, they tended to tear out figured wood, so I looked for a copy sander. I couldn’t find one, so I made one for myself. Visitors to the shop saw it and asked to buy them. I started making the Robo-Sander and selling it through woodworking stores and catalogs.”

Although it was the first tool he successfully marketed, another actually came before it. “The first tool I tried to market was a cam-actuated fence stop. I tried to market it directly but could not get enough exposure to make it successful, and within a few months, several people came out with metal versions. Consequently, when I came up with the Robo-Sander, I went directly to the catalogs and priced it low enough to ensure they would buy it from me.

“These days, my main focus is the Luthier’s Friend Sanding Station, a precision thickness sander that works on any drill press using a special Robo-Sander. It works as a regular copy sander without the fence, but with it, the bearing drops into a stabilizing hole for support that prevents deflection and runout. The fence is micro-adjustable and can be set and locked to do thicknessing in thousandths of an inch accuracy. There’s also a very efficient dust collection port that works with a regular shop vac or dust collector.

“The tool came about thanks to a friend who makes high-end violins. I ran into him in 2004 one morning at a restaurant. I went to his shop – I am a fiddle player – and showed him my fiddle. He offered to do some work on it to improve it. When I went to pay for it, he refused to charge me. When I asked what I could do for him, he asked to use my shop to thickness some wood on my Performax. Instead, I made him a thickness sander that would fit on his drill press. Luthiers often work in very small spaces, and having a thickness sander that works on a drill press, one of the few tools these hand builders own, both fits their equipment and saves space.

“As I was building this tool for him, it dawned on me that there are a lot of people who would benefit from this. At first, I thought they would sell mostly to violin and mandolin makers, but was surprised to find many guitarmakers interested. However, it also has applications for furniture makers. It will sand up to a three-inch piece of wood, which is fine for most of the parts of chairs and a lot of other furniture as well. It’s great for picture frames, chair legs and slats, intarsia, making your own veneer, box parts, duplicating parts, repair and restoration, stiles and rails, table legs and skirts, molding, model making and of course, all sorts of musical instrument making. When you are not using it, the thing hangs out of the way on a nail where it takes very little room, and sets up in less than three minutes. There’s also an optional sliding vise to allow you to clamp parts in position while thicknessing them. It’s a precision tool for 160 bucks that works well, collects dust perfectly and takes up almost no room.

“I’ve sold about six hundred so far. In the mid-90s, 70 percent of my income came from woodworking and 30 percent on tools. These days, those numbers have flipped, making me more of a toolmaker than a woodworker.”

That experience molded a philosophy he is quick to share, and one all the potential inventors among us woodworkers might do well to heed.

“Don’t be intimidated about selling your ideas to a catalog or store,” insists Ken. “You can do it. There are others who do this, and so can you.”

Posted in: