The Woodworker Sessions #12 - 10 Questions with Mike Aldous of Johannesburg

Posted by Tobias Lochner on

As we plunge enthusiastically into 2019, the first Woodworker Sessions Interview of the new year is with Mike Aldous of Johannesburg. 

Mike is more than a friend, he is a fountain of woodworking tool knowledge and he is our go-to encyclopaedic authority on all things Stanley. Mike has an infectious enthusiasm for hand tools and shares his knowledge freely and graciously.


Question #1

Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?

Mike: As far back as I can remember, I have always had an interest in creating tangible works. My grandfather was a coachbuilder for the railways and my dad always had a keen interest in woodworking.

Many of my fondest memories go hand in hand with the smell of sawdust.

My high school career was characterised by the support of our headmaster, who at the time also happened to be the chair of the Witwatersrand Woodworkers Association. This provided access to fantastic workshop facilities that continued even after I had matriculated.

As an engineer, I still enjoy a fair bit of tinkering and something to drag me away from “digital” design and back into the workshop for some tangible hands on time, making shavings.

Over the years, more and more of my time has been spent collecting and restoring vintage woodworking tools, as this history slowly fades away and the opportunity for a new generation of woodworkers to emerge is lost.


Question #2

Tobias: What aspects of your craft do you find most enjoyable and least enjoyable?

Mike: I find the quiet peacefulness of hand tools extremely soothing, the sound of a finely sharpened blade as it cuts, while wisps of timber fall away.

I also derive a great sense of reward bringing vintage tools back from the dead,

Taking a collectible vintage Stanley from garden ornament back to fully functional fresh metal is my little contribution to saving a piece of history and I often wonder about the stories behind some of the tools that pass through my workshop.

On the least enjoyable side has to be dust control, I seem to spend an awful lot of time sweeping and vacuuming which is my Sunday afternoon ritual.



Question #3

Tobias: What are your favourite hand tools?

Mike: Planes, planes and more planes. Without a doubt, the hand plane and block plane are the quintessential woodworking tools. I am also a big fan of the router plane such as the Stanley #71 and #71-1/2.

A close look at some of the leading modern plane makers shows how they still follow very much the same design and original patents of the likes of Stanley and Norris. Not many products these days can boast a 140-year design life with only minor improvements.

In fact, most bladed tools hold some appeal for me. 

I probably border on the obsessive when it comes to sharpening. I can’t imagine too many woodworkers have subjected their sharpening skills to an electron microscope assessment of their cutting edges, just out of interest...


Question #4

Tobias: What are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?

Mike: Mmmm, where do I start ?  On the big side, my Sawstop Table Saw with Incra TS/LS Fence System does most of the heavy-duty work with an incredibly solid setup, very much a case of "it does what the box says it does" – no nonsense. My Jet Drill Press fitted with it's Woodpeckers Table and my Woodpecker Router Table are also essential tools that excel at delivering that last bit of accuracy.

On the mobile side, most of my Festool again delivers the goods when it comes to getting things done right. The Domino gets a fair bit of mileage over weekends and my Sunday afternoon chore is readily accomplished with my Festool shop vacuum.

Question #5

Tobias: What machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?

Mike: You can never have enough tools, invariably there is always something that just works better with the right tool. Given the limited time I get to spend in the workshop, every tool has its place and the tools that see a lot of use are the Festool vac and sander, Woodpecker router table and the drill press.

Another no nonsense tool is my trusty “robust” series Bosch Blue 18v drill, also known as “the beast” – this drill just never gives up – from reinforced concrete to railway sleepers, if it needs a hole this is my go-to!

Of course, all of my hand tools are necessities!

Question #6

Tobias: Do you use a dedicated space for your craft, what floor area do you have and how much time do you manage to spend on woodworking per week?

Mike: Over the years, I have been on a slow acquisition process and finally liberated a single garage that now contains my entire tool collection. At 20 square metres, it’s a tight fit between woodwork and tool restoration.

Everything is on wheels, so it does make things a bit easier. On weekends, I spill out into the other two garages for handling bigger sheet goods.

As far as time goes, a great deal of time is spent away from home for my work, so woodworking tends to be fitted in as the time allows.  One of the major benefits of hand tools is that I can keep the peace with my neighbours when working at 2am! My workshop is my man cave, where I go for some peace and quiet.


Question #7

Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you wish to build?

Mike: I have turned out various bits of furniture over the years and the family seems to have no shortage of good ideas to add to my to-do list. I have just finished off some new mobile tool drawers for the workshop and started working on a new credenza and wooden feature wall paneling for the tv room.

Question #8

Tobias: What are your favourite timbers to work with, what timbers do you avoid, and why?

Mike: I am a big fan of some of the more reasonably priced African hardwoods, especially Kiaat. I love the grain of Panga Panga, but it's definitely not the easiest wood to work with. Beech and Maple are also great to work with depending on the colour palette you are looking for. I am also an enthusiastic user of Scandinavian Birch plywood, the quality of the top grade boards is fantastic, once you have used these, you will struggle to go back to SA pine plywood.

I love working with American Black Walnut, but the price has become a serious barrier for all but the most exotic projects.


Question #9

Tobias: What is your standard finishing process for your pieces?

Mike: On the finishing side there are so many variables to take into account that determine the finish selection.  I use a lot of Danish Oil as well as Woodoc 10 for interior use, I also use shellac and some of the newer water based products which can deliver great results.

I always encourage people to try the helplines offered by many of the local finish suppliers, as you can often get some really good insight that is not necessarily printed on the tin, the same applies to adhesives, I have had some great interactions with the team at Alcolin.

I always remind people that you don’t have to know everything, you just have to know where to find it. Finishes are an area of personal preference and a constant learning experience with new products, new techniques and new problems – woodworking is a lifelong learning curve.

Question #10

Tobias: If you could add another discipline of woodworking to your arsenal, what would it be?

Mike: I am definitely keen to improve my marquetry skills and also get a hell of a lot better on the lathe, even just for small turning projects.

I am also trying to incorporate some of my day to day digital engineering tools into the workshop, to come up with more efficient design workflows that can blend some of the cutting-edge tech like generative design and digital fabrication alongside the traditional arts.

Should a substantial pile of cash ever come my way, I would certainly look at a year or two at one of the top international woodworking schools in Europe to really nail down the core skills, I think everyone would like a Paul Sellers in their workshop to up their game!

This is my nice to have list:

  • A bigger Workshop.
  • A beautiful Norris smoothing plane.
  • A few dedicated Powermatic machines on the jointing and thicknessing side, with helical cutters and all the bells and whistles.
  • A good CNC Machine with a decent bed size.

Anyone have a Norris #50 Smoothing Plane needing a loving home?

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  • Very interesting article. Gee whiz Mike I did not know that you are such an expert! I lift off my hat to you

    kevin owen on
  • Hi Andre. Thanks for you kind comment. Very glad you are enjoying The Woodworker Sessions. There will definitely be many more insights into talented woodworkers, their tools and workshops coming up this year.

    Tobias Lochner on
  • Thanks for the read. Nice collection of tools.

    Andre Niemann on

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