Simon Watts: Furniture Maker, Boatbuilder, and Teacher

Simon Watts: Furniture Maker, Boatbuilder, and Teacher

“From a very early age, I had an interest in how things worked and in making things with my hands,” explained Simon Watts.

That interest could have taken him in many directions, but fortunately for woodworkers, it led to Simon’s lifelong involvement in woodworking. Over the years, he’s emerged as a leading authority on the subject, both as a builder and teacher of furniture making and boatbuilding and as an author and editor of numerous articles and books on the vast subject.

If you’re lucky you may have come across his book “Building a Houseful of Furniture: 43 Plans With Comments on Design and Construction” (currently out-of-print, available used); seen his numerous articles for woodworking magazines and web sites (including the print and online versions of Woodworker’s Journal); or had the chance to attend one of his boatbuilding classes at the San Francisco Maritime Museum or at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia.

Simon was born to an upper middle-class family in England in 1935. His father was a well-known illustrator for magazines like the British humor magazine Punch. Growing up in London (and living through the German Blitz of World War II), Simon was steered by his family in the direction of engineering. And upon completing a degree at Cambridge in 1953, he set out for Canada to work on the St Lawrence Seaway. Upon arrival, however, he discovered that only Canadian citizens were being hired, so he headed out to Vancouver and snagged a job designing roads and bridges for the forest service in British Columbia. He knocked around Canada for a while, and finally ended up at MIT studying architecture in the early sixties.

“It was a wonderful three years,” Simon recalled, “very interesting with good teachers. But while I was there I became more and more involved in their hobby shops, which were group of shops — print, machine, electrical, and woodworking — professionally maintained for the use of the students. I found myself spending more and more time in the woodworking shop designing and building stools, tables and other furniture. I was newly married, and we needed things for our house in Boston.”

After three years, however, his money ran out, and Simon was spending most of his time in the woodworking shop anyway. Though he didn’t stay long enough for a degree, he feels that his studies in architecture provided him with a good training in the aesthetics of design.

“My interest was finally focused on woodworking,” Simon recalled, “and I found it was what I should have been doing in the first place. But when I began making furniture, I knew about structure, but had no training in woodworking — especially joints — and consequently I made many ghastly mistakes.”

To make up for this deficit, Simon began to study furniture, Shaker furniture in particular, and its structure. He and his wife eventually ended up in Putney, Vermont, living on an old tobacco farm. Simon turned the old drying shed with its large louvered doors into his shop and began acquiring more equipment. But he still felt hampered by not having any training. That changed when he teamed up with David Powell.

“I was spending my summers in Nova Scotia,” Simon recalled “I was interested in finding someone who could run the shop while I was away. I met a man named David Powell, who’d been a pupil of the late Edward Barnsley, a well-known English furniture maker with a direct link to the Arts and Crafts movement. David had a very thorough training, and I invited him to run the shop while I was away. When I returned he stayed on. David was my education. He was a good designer and a superb craftsman.

Over time, though, the two men’s style diverged, and they eventually had an amicable parting.

During the early 1970s, Simon noticed a growing demand for apprenticeship training. To give them real pieces to work on and to offset his expenses, he charged apprentices $1,000 for nine months of training. The Labor Department, however, decided the apprentices were actual employees and ordered him to provide back pay to his students. Thanks to his lawyer, the fine was rescinded, but Simon had to stop taking apprentices. Simon was ready for a change.

“I’d been spending summers in Nova Scotia and owned a house up there. While there, I’d hired an elderly gentleman to build a boat and asked him if I could work with him. He agreed, and I worked with him building several boats. Then I went to work with a younger man, and we built a 26 ft. sailboat in six weeks. It was an education for me to work with craftsmen who never had to stop and think what they were doing & they just knew it.”

According to Simon, the locals used the lapstrake technique [using overlapping planks] to build their boats – a technique considered too difficult by many craftsmen. Simon, however, found it a very forgiving method, since it didn’t matter if the planks overlapped a bit.

Around the same time, he met John Kelsey, then the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine who asked him to write a series of articles on woodworking techniques and design. In 1984, the articles were the basis for Simon’s book “Building A House Full of Furniture” which sold about 60,000 copies. In the meantime — tired of the Vermont winters — Simon had packed up his family and moved to San Francisco. Becoming a specialist in lapstrake boatbuilding, he began to teach in the Bay area.

When an article about his classes came out in Wooden Boat magazine, he started to get teaching requests from individuals, institutions, and woodworking organizations all over the country. Six to eight people would build a boat together over six days. The students drew lots for who got to keep the boat. The biggest challenge came when he decided to lead a class in building a 19-1/2″ recreational rowing shell.

“It was enormously difficult to build because it was so big, so long, and so narrow. I think we took eight days to build it, but it was a magnificent boat.”

Thus was launched Simon’s career and passion as a boatbuilder and teacher. And in 1996, he became co-director of the Arques School for traditional boatbuilding in Sausalito, California. Today, he divides his time between California, Nova Scotia, and working vacations studying woodworking in Portugal. Just last year he led a class in building a Norwegian sailing pram.

But as a writer, he’s continued to share his insight in numerous magazine articles on woodworking techniques, furniture making, and of course, boats.

Posted in: