Category Archives: Spotlight

Important People: Nicole Spagnuolo

There have been a bunch of folks who have had a major influence on Tom’s Workbench over the past five years. I wanted to take the time to recognize a few of the folks with which the blog would have never happened.

Today, I send a shout-out to Nicole Spagnuolo. What? Did you think one Spagnuolo would be enough?

I first met Nicole when I was up at a woodworking school in Indiana. Marc was instructing the Contemplation Bench class I was attending, and Nicole came along for the trip. During the day, Marc spent a lot of time with me, trying to prevent me from cutting a few fingers off or creating a pile of designer firewood, Nicole popped in to say ‘hey’ and help document the build.

It was one night after a hard day in the shop where I really got to know both her and Marc. Nicole was preparing a delicious chicken dinner, and she asked for help snapping some fresh green beans. While we sat preparing the dinner, I realized that these two kids where alright – the kind of folks I wish lived on my street so we could invite over for barbecues and to shoot the breeze.

When Marc suggested that perhaps I might want to start a blog, it was Nicole who did a lot of the legwork getting the domain name and helped me get the infrastructure working on the site.

Early on with the blog, there was a point where I felt as if I couldn’t go on anymore. I wasn’t drawing thousands of readers each day, and I thought it wasn’t worth keeping things up and running. As if on cue, Nicole sent a quick e-mail letting me know just how good she thought the blog was, and that she couldn’t wait to see more content.

So, you have Nicole to blame!

Today, Nicole is a proud mom, a video gamer and one of the funniest people I know on Twitter. And, yes, I have to admit, as an unofficial honorary uncle, I look forward to the pictures of Mateo she shares with the online community.

I don’t think I have said it enough, but thank you, Nicole for all of your help.

In memory … and appreciation

Today in the United States, it’s Memorial Day … the day we set aside to remember all of those who have fallen in war since the establishment of our country.

While many see it as the official kick off to the summer season or an excuse to hold a sale at a business, it means much more for the families who have lost loved ones on the battle fields around the world.

In years past, I have linked to plans for flag boxes and other commemorative items to help honor the sacrifice made by these brave service men and women, but this year, I discovered probably one of the most touching woodworking projects I have ever seen.

Portrait Freedom is an initiative of more than 400 scroll saw artists to honor every fallen serviceman and women who has fallen during Operation Enduring Freedom – the global war on terror. These scrollers have one goal in mind – to cut a portrait of the fallen to present – free of charge – to the families as a symbol of their support during these difficult times. So far, they have cut more than 1,000 portraits.

Photo: Becky Burch/Bartlesfield Examiner-Enterprise

Families of those who have lost loved ones are encouraged to submit a photo to the website. From there, one of the scroll saw artists who has signed on to the board will take that photo and design a portrait pattern.  Once approved by the board moderators, a volunteer artist will take the pattern and cut it from 1/4″ or 1/8″ oak or birch plywood. Once completed, the portrait is gently sanded and finished with a clear coat. It is then mounted with a black background, framed and shipped to the family.

To ensure that the work is of the highest quality, multiple photos must be taken of the plans and the project and submitted for review.  While the vast majority of attempts are approved, some are rejected, and the artist is asked to submit a newly designed or cut portrait if they wish.

The final step the scrollers take before they ship their work to the family is to download and customize a presentation letter that goes along with the portrait introducing themselves, explaining about the project and expressing their most sincere sorrow for their family’s loss and the appreciation of the sacrifice they have made.

The response from the families who have received these portraits has been overwhelming – not just in appreciation of the artist’s work, but how that image of their loved one means in their own personal healing process.

Thank you so much for the wooden portrait of our son.  We sincerely appreciate the time and talent of Mr. Harry Savage & Mr. James Obenstine.  Please be assured that these portraits will remain treasured memories of our beloved son.  The kindness of so many people has given us strength.  Thank you again for remembering Greg.  
Maureen and Thomas Pagano, proud parents of CPT Gregory T. Dalessio

Today, take some time out of your backyard cookout and remember what Memorial Day is all about … and, be sure to thank a veteran who may have lost a good friend on a distant battlefield many years ago – or more recently.

Species Spotlight: Santos Mahogany

Nothing inspires a woodworker like working with a fine, easy to work with timber that polishes up to a gorgeous piece of furniture. And, high on that list of most desirable woods is mahogany.

Its popularity was its undoing, as overharvesting of true mahoganies has lead to the search for a replacement for this very popular wood. Sapele is one species which has stepped in as a mahogany substitute, as has Philippine mahogany.

Another awesome substitute not to be overlooked is santos mahogany. This species – Myroxylon balsamum – is a very tall tree which can reach to heights of up to 100’ feet tall, with a wide trunk of up to 3’ feet wide. Santos Mahogany is a native tree to the Central America and South America areas in such countries as Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala.

The tree’s wood gives a very sweet and spicy aroma when cut due to the large amount of resin – known as balsam of Peru – which it contains. This is used in perfumes and natural medicines.

The wood is dark brown with a deep red heartwood. It has a very fine grain – just like other mahoganies, making it great for woodworking projects that need to be polished to a very lustrous finish. The one word of caution is that – like sapele – the grain is interlocked, which could lead to issues when planing and surfacing. Very sharp tools with very light passes are the order of the day.

Another thing you will notice about santos mahogany is just how darned hard the stuff is. It’s janka score comes in at 2200… putting it nearly as hard as hickory, and considerably harder than bubinga (1980), purpleheart (1860) and hard maple (1450) – making it a good choice for flooring. Carbide tools should have no issue with santos mahogany, but hand tool edges may need to be honed quite frequently while working with it.

Natural oils grant it excellent decay resistance – so, it could work for some outdoor furniture. As with other tropical woods, these oils have been known to cause allergic reactions. Although severe reactions are quite uncommon, it cause skin and respiratory irritation. So, be sure to use a dust mask and good dust collection when working with it.

The furniture is definitely something to behold. Crisp detail stands out prominently and the strong color and fine grain create a classic, timeless feel to the pieces. You might just find that santos mahogany becomes one of your favorite woods.


Species Spotlight: Leopardwood

I have a friend who – many years ago – used to work for Busch Gardens here in Tampa. He was involved in the transportation of animals between zoos and the theme park, and that involved getting up-close and personal with some very large – and very dangerous – animals.

So, I asked him, what was the scariest animal he ever moved? A lion? A tiger? A bear? Oh my!

Nope. It wasn’t any of those. It was – surprisingly enough – the leopard. Unlike the other big, strong animals that made their presence known, the leopard was always stealthy… moving carefully in its enclosure while the staff would coax it into a vehicle for transportation. My friend told me several times that the leopard’s stealth was so good, he would often lose sight of the big cat while it moved through its habitat…

While the big cat that bears the name leopard can be sneaky and covert, that’s the last thing you could call the wood bearing the same name. Leopardwood grows in carefully managed forests in Brazil. The tree is a magnificent specimen, growing nearly 100 feet tall with trunks as large as 48 inches in diameter.

While it’s gorgeous to look at on the outside, once it is cut into, the real beauty starts to show through. The wood is a reddish-brown with a coarse, straight grain.

But, that’s not where the beauty ends. As with white oak, leopardwood has rays in the grain. Unlike white oak, these rays are numerous and closely packed, giving the wood a lacelike appearance similar to quartersawn sycamore. These rays are similar to figure in maple or other hardwoods, and can make working the wood a bit of a challenge. Using very sharp tools and skewed cuts gives the best results.

As with many tropical hardwoods, leopardwood sawdust can cause skin irritation or respiratory issues with some people, so dust collection, a mask and other precautions would be a good idea.

Leopardwood is readily available, so finding boards shouldn’t be an issue. Its figure is so prized, it also makes outstanding veneer and works well in that application. It also accepts finishes beautifully, so once your project is sanded, planed or scraped to a fine finish, have at it.

So, the next time you are looking to sneak a little exotic wood into your project, why not give leopardwood a shot?


Woodworking Spotlight: Franklin Street Fine Woodwork School

Renaissance. Just the sound of the word conjures up images of people like da Vinci, Michelangelo and Galileo driving the inspiration of the day to expand the arts, science and other pursuits.

In much the same way, areas of cities undergoing an urban renaissance often rely on forward-thinking people to spark the rebirth of a particular neighborhood and create a new and vibrant future.

That’s just what’s happening on Franklin Street in Tampa. Located across the street from two colleges and less than a three minute drive from the city’s bustling downtown, the area was once a set of dilapidated auto dealerships and parts stores. But, no longer.  There you will find the large yet comfortable shop of Franklin Street Fine Woodwork School. I recently had the opportunity to pay the shop a visit and meet a woodworker genuinely excited about the craft.

Co-owner Carl Johnson let me into the shop and gave me the nickel tout of the facility. Large windows restored to the yellow brick facade let the natural daylight flood in to the 2000 square foot shop. We walked up a slight ramp to the shop’s floor. Carl explained that’s because they laid down wooden sleepers and built a double-thickness 3/4 inch plywood floor to make it easier on their feet while standing during a long day, and to provide a raceway for the shop’s dust collection and power supplies.  Work benches, large stationary power tools, stacks of beautiful lumber and complete works of art share space on the shop floor.

Carl and his business partner Alison Swann-Ingram have been working together since 2004. In 2009, they merged their two separate businesses – Swann Woodwork and the Artisan’s Workshop – and relocated to their new facility. “It took nearly a year’s worth of renovation to bring the building to where it is today,” said Carl. “We wanted to preserve the old character of the building while making it function for what we needed. That involved some careful planning and working closely with the city.”

Part of that was preserving parts of the old architecture and building fittings (Carl proudly pointed the shop’s original cast iron wall mounted sink as an item saved during the demolition) while creating new ones that fit the spirit of the building’s timeframe. Carl drew my attention to the fact that he built all of the interior doors for the building out of poplar. “It was funny. I told the painter how I wanted them done, when the painter told me he couldn’t paint over the beautiful wood. Looking back, those simple poplar doors really do make a statement.” A comfortable classroom, glassed off from the shop, gives Alison and Carl the opportunity to hold a class in a less-dusty environment.

Back in the building’s loading dock area, Carl and Alison have kept the original slide-siding loading door and the building’s original brick facade. But, they have also installed a modern, stand-alone spray booth for their finishing work. “We love to spray lacquer. This booth is a semi-custom structure where we can shoot the pieces in the right environment and ensure we get the best possible finish.” The sci-fi looking booth comes complete with two huge filtering stations and a ring of waist-high fluorescent fixtures to give the operator raking light across the project to check their progress.

Since the shop functions as both a custom furniture shop and classroom, it provides students a unique opportunity to both learn and observe during their time at Franklin Street. “Alison is the one who loves to teach. And, she’ll have a class of students going throughout their paces while I’m working in the other half of the shop. During their breaks, the students will always come by and watch or ask questions. In many ways, I’m providing the bonus coursework, and they always walk away learning even more than the bargained for!”

As I left the shop and shook hands with Carl, I noticed some other things going on in the neighborhood. Next door, a computer company was setting up shop, finishing the renovations on their unit in the building. Nearby, the employees of several law offices were moving about.  The pulse is coming back to Franklin Street in Tampa. And, if you are ever in the Tampa Bay area, you owe it to yourself to pay the Franklin Street Fine Woodwork shop a visit and say hi to Carl and Alison.


The Spagetti is here!

Yes,  folks, it’s true.  Marc and Nicole Spagnuolo just welcomed the newest member to their household today!  Welcome to the world, Mateo Xavier Spagnuolo.

I’m still trying to get the particulars, but he’s happy, healthy and seven weeks early!

I feel like that extra proud extended family uncle….

Species Spotlight: Olivewood

In case you were wondering, I am an Italian American. And, I’m from northern New Jersey, just outside of New York City. So, I can say that I lived in one of the premiere centers of Italian cuisine in the United States.

Pizza. Strombolis. Calzones. Zeppole. Man, that stuff is awesome. And, it’s tough to find food like I used to have up in Jersey. (However, if you find yourself in the Tampa Bay area, Sardo’s Pizza on Ulmerton Road in Largo is a welcome taste of home.)

Since this is the case, I often find myself cooking at home. The recipes that my mom and my grandmothers used to cook. I make my own gravy (no, it’s not tomato sauce… it’s GRAVY). I make my own lasagna. Meatballs. Braciola. Cutlets. The works. Heck, I even make my own pasta when the mood strikes me.

While many of these dishes are different, they all seem to have a few basic ingredients in common. Garlic. Tomatoes. And, most important of all – olive oil.

Ahh, olive oil. That magical substance that tastes so darned good… and it’s good for you. It’s high in monounsaturated fats… good ones that don’t clog up the arteries. It was harvested from olives in the Mediterranean basin as far back as 5,000 years ago and helped build empires.

“Oh, I’m a big olive oil fan,” said Eric Poirier of Bell Forest Products. “It’s great on a salad or some fresh Italian bread. But, if you love the oil, you are going to love the wood for your projects.” The wood of the olive tree (related to ash trees) has a greenish brown tint and a very distinct and attractive grain pattern. The wood is exceptionally strong and hard (sharing that trait with its cousin ash), and works very well. It can take an excellent polish, which makes it a natural for pens and other small turned items.

Since the trees are pruned primarily for harvesting their valuable fruit, they typically won’t grow very tall.  This means, of course, that you are very rarely going to find long boards, so if you are looking for a small project, hey, olive may be your wood.

While it’s easy to see why olive is a great wood to work with, it’s the smell that sets it apart. “It has a very sweet, heady scent when you cut into it,“ said Eric. “You just might wish they made an olivewood scented aftershave.”

Since olive trees grow well in the Mediterranean basin, people have known about them for a very long time. This includes the holy lands mentioned in the Bible, Torah and Koran. “Because of this, olivewood is a very popular choice for items with a religious theme.”

Many countries have strict regulations on the harvest of olive trees. However, enough trees are culled to provide hardwood for woodworkers to do their thing.

So, while you are sitting and thinking about how you can incorporate some olivewood into your next woodworking project, slice up a ripe tomato and some fresh mozzarella cheese, hit that with a little salt and pepper, add a few fresh basil leaves and drizzle that with some high quality extra virgin olive oil. It may not help you figure out what to build, but oh, it tastes so good….