Woodworking Spotlight: Mike Siemsen

There is nothing quite as noble as teaching others – especially when it comes to woodworking.  There’s just something that happens in that interaction between the students and instructor when a rough board makes that journey to becoming a masterpiece.

And, when it comes to teaching about woodworking, there are few instructors as patient – and funny – as Mike Siemsen.

Mike’s school – the appropriately named Mike Siemsen’s School of Woodworking, is located north of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metroplex in Minnesota.  His first memories of woodworking have helped shape the direction his school takes with students. “My father was always doing carpenter work and built things well, square and straight, mostly with hand tools. That gave me the interest when I was a kid, and I ended up making things with coping saws from scraps. Wooden fruit crates from behind the grocery store and off cuts from construction sites were rich sources of material.”

While Mike was out earning his woodworking chops, he did learn all about power tools.  However, the more he learned about them, the more he realized what a great experience it is to come back to those hand tools.  “Hand tools better communicate back to the user what is going on with the material and the tool. They allow the woodworker to get closer to the work and see what is going on.” Mike pointed out a classic example. “When I start a saw cut with a handsaw my knuckle is right against the blade so I can accurately get the kerf going and ensure a clean cut. Needless to say, I’d NEVER do that with a table saw!”

Mike’s instruction process is very methodical, giving his students the best chance of success. “In the beginning stages of learning woodworking, it is not speed we are after so much as understanding of the material and the processes. For instance, sharpening is number one, two and three on the list of things beginners need to learn. Getting the tools to work properly, along with other aspects such as wood movement and joinery are critical to enjoying woodworking.”

For the grunt work, Mike’s not against turning to power.  Many tasks –such as thicknessing and resawing – go faster when power tools get involved. Mike sees these tools as a replacement for  strong-bodied teenage apprentice who would traditionally do the drudgery work during a long day in the shop. “I am not against the use of power tools, I have just heard too often the lament from someone wanting to get started in wood working, ‘I can’t afford the equipment and I have no place to put it!’ A decent hand tool kit isn’t that expensive, and doesn’t take up much room. I typically ask students what they have in their shop to work with so I can teach them methods they can use at home.”

Mike is the primary instructor for most classes; however, the school has no trouble attracting other talented instructors.  Tom Schrunk and Garret Hack have signed on to teach different aspects of woodworking.  “Garret was our last instructor.  He is a meticulous craftsman and an all-around interesting guy. We built a demi-lune table with a bent lamination front apron and tapered legs. Many of the students improved their sharpening and planing skills along with learning the joinery for the table. It was a great class, and the students appreciated the hands on assistance.”

Mike’s students come from all walks of life. “The only thing truly common about my students is a keen interest in learning more about woodworking. Some are beginning woodworkers and want an overview to help them understand what it is they need to learn, others are more experienced and want to take things up a level or get past a stumbling block.  I have had a nuclear physicist, a farmer, a surgeon, a dentist, an accountant, a mayor of a small town, and an actuary, as well as many others.  There doesn’t seem to be a common profile – we aim to please all of our students. If you like woodworking, we’ll help you out!”

What does the future hold for Mike?  “I would like to grow the school to the point where I need to add on to the shop. Eventually, I plan to add on a bench room and some more storage, and offer some more amenities. Maybe even some small cabins for students to stay in. I want to offer more in depth classes on details and design, as well as longer classes on bigger projects.”

Mike’s always looking to hear from the experts – his potential students. “I am still trying to figure out what people would like to see for classes, and I gladly accept suggestions!”

Now, that’s a teacher!

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