Sharp Pieces of Metal that Shape Wood

Wilbur Pan, like so many others, has been teaching online during the past year; here, he’s doing so from his basement shop.

When Wilbur Pan was doing his pediatric residency at Children’s Medical Center/University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, he and his colleagues developed a routine. Each Saturday, when they were on call, they’d go through their rounds as swiftly as possible so that the residents who were on call the previous night, and any patients who could be discharged, could go home – as Wilbur notes, no one sleeps well at the hospital, and that includes children.

Wilbur calls this shot “Time wasted in medical school.” He spent a lot of spare time playing in bands as part of the Chicago music scene. Here he’s playing at Kingston Mines, a Chicago blues club.

They were usually done with rounds by lunchtime. Saturday afternoons were generally quiet – they got few kids in the Emergency Room. So Wilbur and his colleagues would “sit around in the residents’ lounge watching college football,” he says.

After the football Wilbur would grab the remote control and switch the TV to PBS “to watch Norm or Roy.” Because they watched “The New Yankee Workshop” or “The Woodwright’s Shop” every Saturday afternoon, they quickly figured out how the episodes typically progressed. At some point during any given episode of “The New Yankee Workshop,” Wilbur recalls, “one of us would say, ‘Hey, I bet Norm’s going to get the dado stack.’ And then Norm would say, ‘I’m going to get the dado stack!’ and we would all high-five each other.” Ironically, he goes on, “none of us did any woodworking.”

What a bunch of geeks.

Wilbur made this replica of an Enzo Mari bookcase using Japanese hand tools and cut nails, even though the parts look as though they were made by machine.

Today, Wilbur does as much woodworking as he can. He started – or more precisely, started back up – around 2006, after he and his wife, Mary, bought a house in East Brunswick, N.J. After living in apartments for most of his life, it was the first time since high school, when he took a shop class that taught him to make a bellows (which his parents still use), that he had a place to do woodworking at home.

Wilbur was born in Lafayette, Ind., in 1964. His parents had emigrated from China to Taiwan in the late 1940s, and from Taiwan to the U.S. in the late 1950s. His father, Jaming, completed a master’s in physics, eventually completing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering as well; his mother, Clara, has a master’s in accounting. They met in Chicago, then made their home in Homewood-Flossmoor, a suburban area south of the city.  Dr. Pan senior taught at Purdue University-Calumet, in Hammond, Ind., just over the state border; it was less than a half-hour commute, which gave the family the best of both worlds: steady employment, while continuing to live close to the city they loved.

Wilbur (top, center) with his parents, Clara and Jaming, and siblings, Wileen (left) and Huby. The photo is from a family trip to Taiwan in the 1970s.

When Wilbur was a boy, his father built a set of bookcases for their home, a project that Wilbur found inspiring. You could turn some bit of creative imagination into practical, handsome objects for the family? Pretty amazing, when you think about it.

Among Wilbur’s earliest woodworking influences is this pair of bookcases built by his father, Jaming. Although Jaming built these oak-veeered bookcases out of necessity (there are no fancy joints, just nails and glue), they have lasted more than 45 years and survived a move. To this day, Wilbur appreciates this project of his dad’s for inspiring him with the idea that you can build things for yourself.

Wilbur attended Northwestern University, then graduated with an M.D./Ph.D. from the University of Illinois College of Medicine in 1994. After completing his pediatrics residency in Dallas, he did a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at Children’s Memorial Hospital/Northwestern University Medical School back in Chicago. Bart Kamen, an attending physician he’d worked with in Dallas, happened to get in touch one day; he asked whether Wilbur might be interested in caring for children with brain tumors…in New Jersey. On a lark, says Wilbur, he flew to New Jersey for the interview; on the way back, he had a job offer – the hospital wanted him to build a pediatric brain tumor program from scratch.

By this time, Wilbur and Mary, a Chicago native, had married. They moved to New Jersey with a mutual understanding that they could always move back to Chicago if the East Coast didn’t feel like home. That was 21 years ago; they’re still in New Jersey.

Although he uses Japanese tools almost exclusively, Wilbur’s shop looks like those of most hobbyists, with a workbench and assorted power tools.

His shop is in the basement of their house, which was built in the 1940s. On moving in, they learned that their neighbor Marc was an excellent woodworker who had built the kitchen in his family’s house, as well as most of their furniture. Wilbur credits Marc with showing him the difference between a finely sharpened tool (specifically, it was a handplane) and one that…well…is not.

Having lived next door for many years, Marc was able to share what he knew about the Pans’ new-to-them house. The father in the previous family had used part of the basement as a woodshop – one wall still had the painted outlines of tools he’d hung there. Marc recalled that after spate of noisy banging around, his former neighbor emerged from the basement with a boat.

Mary and Wilbur with their sons, James and Kevin, wishing you a happy Chinese New Year.

In around 2006, Mary thought a gift certificate to a woodworking class would make a good present for her husband. Marc referred her to an adult education program run by their county’s community college. The teacher, Mike Zaslav, had trained at the College of the Redwoods. Wilbur signed up.

“I go to the first class and Mike spends the whole time teaching us how to sharpen a chisel,” Wilbur reports, adding that enrollment had dropped by 50 percent by the time he showed up the following week. But Wilbur was hooked. He learned how to sharpen and picked up the basics of working with power tools. He made his first dovetail joint, edge-glued boards together and made his first mortise and tenon.

Beyond that course, his training as a woodworker has been less formal. “It was a lot of me messing around and reading, and trying to figure out how things work.”

Regular readers of this blog will recognize the inspiration for this joint stool in quartersawn oak. Wilbur built it using Japanese tools.

When Wilbur was first getting started in his 10’ x 20’ basement shop, he understood that he’d be working with limited space. He had to choose between a table saw and a band saw – the shop was too small to accommodate both. He chose the bandsaw. Besides its small size, his shop’s location beneath the family living space led him to minimize the production of fine-particle dust, which the HVAC system would spread around the house; both of their kids were young, and Wilbut knew the kind of damage dust can do to children’s lungs. Hand tools would be better for everyone.

Then Wilbur learned about Japanese hand tools. So many woodworkers were crazy about them and considered them superior to Western tools. He couldn’t figure out why they had the cutting properties they did, so he starting researching the question through practice, as well as reading. He was intrigued, as a woodworker, as a scientist and as an American of Chinese descent. “Probably the whole Asian thing kicked in and it was easy for me to get interested in them,” he suggests (I imagine with a wink).

His father had taught him to look at things from the perspectives of science and reasoning, so Wilbur was not about to accept that Japanese tools were superior without some systematic investigation through reading, reasoning and hands-on research. “Japanese woodworkers have the same priorities as Western woodworkers,” Wilbur says. “They have sharp pieces of metal that they use to shape wood so they can build things, and they want to do things as efficiently as possible. If that was true, then the tools must be similar,” he inferred, adding “at least, in certain ways.”

He decided to focus on how the tools were similar instead of how they were different. Based on his research to date, he says, “If there is a divide, it’s not an East-West thing but a pre-industrial versus industrial thing,” He shared what he learned along the way through his blog, articles, an “End Grain” essay for Popular Woodworking Magazine and presentations at Woodworking in America. It was at Woodworking in America that Wilbur first came to my attention.

“It’s true that there are obvious differences between Japanese and modern Western hand tools,” Wilbur acknowledges. “But if one looks at pre-industrial Western hand tools, when blacksmiths were making chisels and plane blades, there are similarities that stand out. Chisels and plane blades were made by forge-welding a hard piece of steel to a softer piece of steel. And both chisels and plane blades were made in a way so that there was some concavity to the back, for ease of sharpening.

“My approach is that I want to present a straightforward explanation of how to use Japanese tools. I try to stay away from the Zen stuff. I go on the assumption that the audience’s workshop is your typical hobbyist workshop in the U.S.; I’m not expecting people to work on the floor. The things I teach are centered on your typical woodworking shop – I have a typical workbench, a band saw and a drill press.”

What about Chinese tools, I wonder? After all, they would be more directly related to Wilbur’s cultural heritage. “For woodworkers, China has a tradition that may be more interesting to woodworkers interested in furniture making,” he replies. “There’s tansu [in traditional Japanese woodworking], but people in Japan didn’t have chairs and tables for the most part. They sat on the floor.

“China had furniture you’d recognize, made with tropical hardwood species – lots of rosewood and ebony. The joinery is very intricate; decoration can be very elaborate. But not much is known about the tools that Chinese woodworkers used.”

He attributes the differences between what’s known about Japanese and Chinese tools partially to differences between the two cultures in how they think about objects. “I think there’s a case to be made that in Japan, objects seem to be fetishized. There seems to be this reverence for objects that doesn’t exist to the same extent in China.”

For example, in Japan, much attention has long been paid to samurai swords. China has a similar tradition with respect to swords, but in China, swords occupy a less-central position when it comes to symbolic appeal. “In a Chinese movie a warrior may have his sword that’s a family heirloom. And then he loses or breaks his sword in a battle,” Wilbur has noticed. “He picks up something else, like a chair, and fights with that.” In Japanese films, the warrior often seems lost without his sword.

In China, he says, tools were historically valued in instrumental terms: They got the job done. The Cultural Revolution resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge; such information is still hard to come by, especially for those who are not based in China. “It’s coming back, though,” he says, mentioning a school that teaches traditional techniques for carving with hand tools. But today, he notes, this school also teaches students how to carve by CNC, because they recognize it’s a means to produce furniture that’s affordable to vastly more people.

This joined box is a late-1700s American form, but aside from the turned feet, Wilbur made it entirely with Japanese tools.

Wilbur values woodworking as a counterpoint to his daily work. He still cares for patients, although now indirectly as a director of breast cancer clinical trials for the pharmaceutical company Merck; he left pediatric oncology after 18 years on faculty at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. But when it comes to his medical work beyond basic physical exams, it’s very hands-off. He spends “a lot of time in front of a computer.” As a result, he says, “woodworking fills this urge to be able to create something physical and scratches an itch I think a lot of people have.”

That said, he notes that while “a lot of things in medicine are done with protocols and algorithms, there is a lot of creativity in medicine because there’s always the patient that comes along and doesn’t fit any protocol. So you have to figure out how to take care of that patient. Plus, the process of diagnosis is a creative act, because there’s a puzzle you’re solving.”

He ends with a nice metaphor. Several years ago he made a joined box (pictured above), “a completely American form going back to the late 1700s in the Philadelphia area.” The one he made “looks just like an old one.” But he made it entirely with Japanese tools.

“It doesn’t matter what part of the world your tradition comes from,” he concludes. “There are more similarities than differences than you might think.”

– Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work”

When Wilbur Pan was doing his pediatric residency at Children’s Medical Center/University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, he and his colleagues developed a routine. Each Saturday, when they were on call, they’d go through their rounds as swiftly as possible so that the residents who were on call the previous night, and any…Read MoreUncategorizedLost Art PressRead More

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