Sandor Nagyszalanczy: Explaining the Practical and Presenting the Beautiful

If you’ve ever read a book by Sandor Nagyszalanczy, you’re in good company. A quick Internet search reveals his literary output is read around the world. His book on dust control established clear guidelines for safe and healthy woodworking. His lush photo book of antique and handcrafted tools found a wide general audience. And his book on setting up a wood shop has set countless woodworkers to dreaming and turning dreams into reality.

Who is the man behind the well-crafted words and beautiful photography? He was born in Hungary, but shortly after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, his family moved to California. Initially, woodworking was only a means to an end … he desperately wanted to build a crossbow. He recalled riding his bike to the lumberyard, so he must have been thirteen or fourteen. He picked out redwood for his stock, which was terrible to work and produced toxic dust. But combined with a kid-sized fiberglass bow for power, he got it to work! Later he earned pocket money making wooden pistol grips for friends. Unpromisingly, he hated woodshop in high school.

“It wasn’t conducive to creative work.” Sandor recalled, “The stupid little projects they wanted us to build did not pique my interest. It was most definitely not my first step into serious woodworking; in fact it, was almost my last step.”

But near the end of his college studies in 1976, he started getting involved in woodworking again. A design major, he’d originally intended to study architecture in graduate school, but after graduating, he decided to hang out a shingle and become a cabinetmaker.

“I thought, well America is the wonderful land of opportunity, and I can build cabinets and stuff. I had an old Sears table saw I’d bought for 30 bucks at a friend’s garage sale and not many other tools … I think my first shop was 650 square feet, but I made do as we all do. And I got a couple of jobs from professors I knew at college. There wasn’t much formal training that I was aware of, and so I did a lot of reading and kind of made it up as I went along. One of my biggest influences was Fine Woodworking. It got me, like so many others, excited about the prospects of doing hand made woodwork. And fortunately, Mendocino (nearby) was a real hotbed for custom furniture. And away it went. For the next ten years, I worked my way up to doing some pretty nice custom furniture commissions.”

By 1986, Sandor was ready for the next phase in his career. He and some friends started the Santa Cruz Woodworker’s Association and associated themselves with Baulines Craft Guild, a long-established group in California. As chairman of the association, he thought it needed a newsletter … even though up to that point he’d had very little interest in writing.

“I put one together, and it was a kind of joke. I didn’t type and we had the spouse of one of the members pound out the text on an old Remington. In some ways, I emulated and imitated the kinds of articles I was reading in other woodworking magazines. Then to no one’s greater surprise than mine, a couple of magazines contacted me and one bought an article right out of the newsletters! Fine Woodworking contacted me, and wanted me to write a longer piece based on a newsletter article I’d written on belt sander drag racing.”

That began a long relationship with Fine Woodworking, culminating in the magazine’s editor offering Sandor a assistant editor position.

“I told them I didn’t know anything about editing, and they said you’re a good worker and we can teach woodworkers how to edit, but we can’t teach editors how to be woodworkers. I thought it would be a fun ride and moved to Connecticut late in 1986. Fine Woodworking had wonderful travel budgets in those days and as the only unmarried guy, I was glad to travel and ended up getting most of the really good assignments. I had a chance to travel around the world, learn to take good pictures, and worked my way up to senior editor.”

He ended up staying for seven years. But after he got married, his wife expressed an interest in living in California and Sandor wanted to be back close to his folks and friends. He’d kept his house in Santa Cruz and armed with a book contract from Taunton Press (FW’s publisher), the couple moved back to sunny California. And that began the latest and current phase of Sandor’s career — writing books about woodworking.

From the beginning, Sandor had a long list of book projects he wanted to do. Then he and his editor would agree on the order of completion, based on Taunton’s needs. During his first three years back in California, he maintained a relationship with Fine Woodworking as a contributing editor. Then he began to forge new relationships with several other woodworking magazines … including Woodworker’s Journal. He also found time to consult with several tool and machinery manufacturers, and become a much sought after speaker at woodworking shows, guild meetings, and schools around the country. But most of all, throughout this latest period he honed his writing and photography skills, and has just completed his tenth book … including revised editions … with the working title Home Improvement Tool Guide. The idea for it came from his editor and initially he wasn’t very excited about it.

“I told her there are a million books like that already on the market. But then I looked at more than 20 different tool guides. If you looked up a basic hammer, it was the same kind of hammer you’d find in a hardware store 150 years ago. But if you walk into the hammer section of Home Depot, you’ll find 65 different kinds of hammers …titanium hammers, anti-vibration designs, and hammers with interchangeable heads. And look at all the new laser levels out there, but I couldn’t find a single book that addressed these “new” kinds of tools. It ended up well over 300 pages long. It’s not just a woodworking guide. In fact it’s being done in conjunction with Fine Homebuilding, so it was a little different for me. It’s due out next summer.”

But as busy as he keeps, Sandor still makes time to fit in some woodworking. He describes his work as a contemporary melding of Deco and Chinese influences.

“It’s a synthetic style that is really distinct.” Sandor explained, “If you saw a coffee table of mine and then saw one of my dining tables, you’d say these two are obviously the work of the same person. When I did a show for Macy’s in San Francisco, an interviewer asked me what I call my style. For want of another word I toldhim it was Hungarian Modern.”

His next book will be a sequel of sorts to his The Art of Tools.

“Its tentative title is The Golden Age of Tools and it’sgoing to be another look at wonderful old tools from collections, Sandor explained, “And this time I get to go to Europe and photograph tools over there. The golden age of tools time period is different for every tool collector, but it’s mostly during the 19th Century … with Leonard Bailey’s first modern metallic hand plane as a good example. Like the first book, it should have crossover appeal to people who can appreciate tools as works of art.”

He also still does occasional commission work for friends and family, and he’s finally getting around to pieces for his own house … or as Sandor puts it, “the shoemaker’s children are finally gaining soles on their shoes.”

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