Like the little engine from the popular children’s book, this woodworking show is chugging along, making its way in the world against some larger competitors. Unlike some of the others, though, this one distinguishes itself by being, in the words of its directors, “the education show.”
For Jonathan and Judy Frank, Woodworks is much more about spreading woodworking knowledge, and the fun that brings, than it is about selling tools. Don’t get me wrong; there is an abundance of new and familiar tooling and wood to be seen at their shows, but there is even more in the way of seminars, lectures, workshops and loads of free demonstrations.
“If you are only coming to shows for bargains,” Jonathan points out, “you will probably be disappointed. That’s not to say there are no deals at these shows; there are. However, you can now see and buy almost everything on the Internet or in the big box stores. As a result, the world of woodworking shows is transforming. It has to, or it will cease to exist.
“Fundamentally, shows are about people,” he continued “so educating and inspiring woodworkers is at the heart of Woodworks. We have tried to make the connection between woodworkers and the experts that they frequently read about. We bring in some of the leading experts in the world in various woodworking fields. They do free demonstrations on the show floor, teach in paid seminars and conduct hands-on workshops. For us, woodworking is not an afterthought to commerce; it is the primary focus of this show.
“This year alone,” he continued, “we have 23 different teaching woodworkers, and have brought in experts over the past four years from 14 different countries. You can learn about what is going on in the European turning world from a German turner, learn to make a traditional African drum from a native, or pick up techniques from a master scroll saw expert from Norway. This international flavor gives woodworkers a much broader perspective. Where else can you see people like Toshio Odate, Frank Klausz, Andy Rae, Stuart Mortimer and David Ellsworth?
“In addition, we make a point to represent all areas of woodworking, not just cabinetmaking or furniture construction. At our shows you will see turning, carving, scroll saw work, power and hand tool techniques, finishing and a host of others. You might watch a Japanese woodworker crafting a shoji screen, see a bodger working on a shave horse and spring pole lathe, or take in marquetry, intarsia or a range of other decorative wood arts.”
All this came about because Jonathan felt a there was a void that needed to be filled. “Woodworks was started in 2002 because I saw a need and an opportunity once the American Woodworker show folded,” Jonathan told me. “For two seasons, I ran the American Woodworker show for Rodale Press, and ran the first three seasons of shows for Reader’s Digest after they bought it from Rodale. I left because there were philosophical differences. They were more concerned with generating revenue than enlightening woodworkers.”
Apparently, there was wisdom in what Jonathan said, because one year after he left, Reader’s Digest discontinued their shows. That was the impetus for Jonathan and his wife, Judy, to launch Woodworks. Judy had been a professional event planner for over five years, and Jonathan spent over a decade managing the largest indoor flower show in the world. In short, they both had the experience and credentials to mount a successful venture in woodworking, and decided the time was right. Once Reader’s Digest folded their show, Jonathan and Judy replaced it seamlessly so that not even one year was missed, and in 2002, Woodworks was born.
“The first season we did four shows; three on the East Coast and one on the West,” recounted Jonathan. “We expanded to eight in our second season, adding the South and Central regions of the country. Due to a downward spiral in the economy in 2004, we decided to scale back to three shows that year, but the public let us know that they wanted to see more shows. We scheduled eight shows again for the 2005 season, but unfortunately, our season was cut short due to a medical emergency, and only five of the eight were produced.”
What upset the apple cart was that Jonathan had to return home for a corneal transplant, and had surgery only four days after the fifth show. Because he and Judy do virtually everything, that meant the show had to take a breather while he recovered. To compound things, they decided to move from the West Coast to the East. Between Jonathan’s recovery and the big move, they decided to approach this year modestly and are running only four shows, in Portland, Maine; York, Pennsylvania; West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Ontario, California.
“I think that the show will evolve to become even more education based,” Jonathan predicts, “and follow the model that AAW [American Association of Woodturners] has created. They call their show a symposium, and it is far more about education than about commerce. People attend not necessarily because they will have the opportunity to buy a widget or get it at a discount, but because they are going to see the cutting-edge woodturners and learn from them. They do only one show per year, but people put it on their calendar because it is that valuable.
“We’re pretty confident that our shows are offering very good educational opportunities. In fact, we go beyond just thinking that; we offer a 100 percent money-back guarantee on all of our presentations. We figure that if we are touting ourselves as the education show, we should have some darned good presenters, and if we do, we should stand behind our offerings.
“Of course, we can’t be all things to all people,” Jonathan admitted. “We are happy to be in the niche we occupy. I don’t see our show trying to put together a traveling circuit. That requires mass production, and that is not what we are about. We are strictly a custom shop. In a sense, I think of our shows as being handcrafted, and that can’t be mass-produced.”
“I suspect we will eventually plateau at about half a dozen shows. That seems to be the point where we could maintain the quality without compromise. That model also gives us the opportunity to take the show to new areas and not just repeat the same ones indefinitely. There may always be a couple of anchor shows, but don’t be surprised if you see Woodworks arriving at an entirely unexpected venue.”
Even if it doesn’t, you might well decide to make the nearest show a destination. There are far worse reasons to travel than to indulge in education for your favorite hobby.