An old-fashioned businessman with a modern approach, Thomas Lie-Nielsen has been selling high-quality hand tools since the early 1980s
In a big white clapboard farmhouse on the side of Route 1, Thomas Lie-Nielsen is sharpening a blade from a block plane. His fingers hold the gray metal steady as he guides it slowly across the waterstone in long, smooth strokes. While he works, he narrates his actions, explaining each step, providing little tidbits of insights and notes about his personal preferences. His hands are graceful, long, and pale. His voice is calm and low.
I’m not in the room with the toolmaker. I don’t have to be. Lie-Nielsen has been producing educational videos on hand-tool maintenance and use for the past 20 years. You can watch them from home, and it’s almost like you’re inside that big white farmhouse where Lie-Nielsen sells his hand planes, chisels, saws, and floats. It’s almost like you’re working alongside the revered craftsman.
Lie-Nielsen runs an old-school company that reaches its customers through modern means. Founded in 1981, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks sells over 100 different types of tools made from local hardwoods and selected metals. “There are people who like hand tools, myself included, because they are traditional,” says Lie-Nielsen. “Using them connects you to the past.” Power tools, he explains, are a “purely twenty-first-century phenomenon. But the things you do today with planes and saws and chisels and hammers aren’t that different from what you might have done 500 years ago.”
Although Lie-Nielsen isn’t a furniture maker himself—he’s a toolmaker, first and foremost—he knows how many woodworkers and aspiring woodworkers crave a deeper connection with their materials. The Lie-Nielsen headquarters functions as a traditional retail shop, plus a movie studio, an education center (they hold around a dozen weekend courses every summer), and a help desk. It’s important to the woodworkers and craftspeople who work at Lie-Nielsen that people not just buy their tools but also know how to take care of them and use them. While they hold demos and events around the country throughout the year, Lie-Nielsen knows that the easiest way to reach people is by bringing the workshop to them. “These days, it’s easier to disseminate infor-mation over the internet, so we’re expanding there,” he says. “I’m focused on making more in a YouTube format.” In just seven minutes, you can learn to sharpen your chisel or hand plane. This, he says, is the “gateway skill.” Once you’ve mastered sharpening, you can do so much. Beginners can carve wooden spoons and hew wooden bowls. More advanced woodworkers can learn how to make dovetail and drawbore joints. “We want people to get the most out of their tools,” he says. “We try to simplify the process as much as possible.”
It’s an interesting contradiction. Lie-Nielsen is suggesting that you go online in order to log off. You plug in so that, later, you can unplug. But it makes a certain amount of sense. The storefront in Warren isn’t accessible to would-be woodworkers around the globe (though people have traveled from far and wide to see the charmingly old-fashioned store and its founder). But anyone can order a low-angle jack plane or a tapered dovetail saw and start working from their garage or basement.
Lie-Nielsen is passionate about accessibility, partially because he believes the benefits of spending time around natural materials shouldn’t be limited to rural dwellers. He points out that so much of the world is made of plastic, metal, and concrete. It can feel a bit hard and cold. When asked why he has been drawn to working with felled trees, Lie-Nielsen laughs a little. “Well, I don’t know, that’s kind of personal,” he says. “I have a wooden house. I heat with wood. I like wooden furniture. It seems warm and friendly and human.” Wood, he says, is truly wonderful. “It lives, it grows, and it keeps coming back.”
- If you’re on a budget… Look for poplar. “It’s an underappreciated species that is easy to work,” says Lie-Nielsen. “It can be quite attractive and takes finishes well. You can build things for around the house quite inexpensively.”
- If you want to make an heirloom… Maple is Lie-Nielsen’s personal favorite. “It ages beautifully,” he says. “It’s durable, and it doesn’t bend easily, which makes hard maple in particular a great surface for a bench.”
- If you are trying your hand at spoon carving… “One of the coolest things about making spoons is that you can go out into your yard, find wood, and make something from it,” says Lie-Nielsen. Some species, like lilac or rhododendron, are ideal for this task. “They both have nice, tight grains with dark heartwood and beautiful light sapwood,” he adds. “They’re small, and you might find one with an interesting curve that is already quite spoonlike.”
- If you want to go local… Ask your local lumberyard for some birch. Lie-Nielsen calls it a “lovely wood to work with, that is native to Maine and has a tight grain with blond or yellow tones.”
- If you can find it… Lie-Nielsen uses hornbeam for his chisel handles because it’s very hard and “stands up to abuse very, very well.” He continues, “Hornbeam is a native species that I feel is underutilized.” If you find a lumberyard that mills it, stock up.