A China Woodworking Story that is Barely Believable…

Drivel Starved Nation!

We have been selling Jointmaker Pros through our distributor in China for several years now, along with numerous other BCTW tools. As you know, it is a big country and avocational woodworking is in a pre-nascent stage (if such a stage exists). So the sales are not large but they are growing—right up there with our sales to Cooter Ditchman.

As a token gesture of gratitude for the business, I volunteered to attend China’s largest woodworking show as a guest in our distributor’s booth. My goal was to replicate the squiggle wood chopsticks demo that I concocted out of boredom at a similar trade show in Japan.

The Japanese are typically not outwardly demonstrative, however, these worthless chopsticks had folks laughing their asses off watching others try to pick up a grain of rice with chopsticks that were not capable of picking up a feather… actually you can’t pick up Jack Squat with these things. I never forgot how humor can unite disparate cultures.

Like other ideas of mine that should never surface, I realized, rather late, that I was going to need a chopstick supply. And although it would be no problem to buy them in China, in order for the squiggle wood part to work without a lot of effort, they all needed to be identical in size. I then embarked on a chopstick making jig with zero thought of ever making them for sale. It was a folly idea. A gesture for a good friend. Or so I thought.

I sent my CAD files to one of our suppliers without really knowing how I was going to hold these things. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend my time in China sharpening irons, so I designed the bed of the jig to be just under the plane iron width (we used the all-aluminum HP-8 block plane with depth skids). I ordered 10 prototypes because I blabbed this idea to my foodie friend, Wake, who owns the E-Bike Store and he wanted some for Asian themed dinner parties. I laughed.

About four days before my China flight, I actually made some chopsticks only to learn that my math was off, and the most important part of the jig, which facilitates making the octagonal business end, was impossibly flawed. I had that same bad feeling from eleventh grade, when I was handed my 100 question trig test and the number of correct answers was a single digit.

Furthermore, my friend and host wondered out loud as to whether my idea would actually work. I was running out of time.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, my friends asked me why I was going to China. I replied that I was going to teach the Chinese how to make chopsticks. “A tad arrogant don’t you think?” was a common sarcastic response. Most just awkwardly laughed and I could see in their eyes that a pity party was in the works.

The math error was corrected with a couple of shims. I fixed the octagonal goof with a piece of brass super-glued to the jig. The night before I left, I made a perfect pair of chopsticks. And believe it or not, this is not a simple, slam dunk project. I am talking gallery quality chopsticks. The 13 hour flight, which is never fun, was much less stressful than it could have been.

I hauled four flawed prototypes in my luggage. On the China side, my host made 500 pairs of 7mm square x 270mm long chopstick blanks in a mix of hard maple, padauk, and some brown wood.

I don’t know how this happened but within the first hour, there were 60 or so people in line waiting to make chopsticks. In the second hour, two of the HP-8 planes were apparently needed by others so we were down to two functioning stations with over three days to go. Staff were assigned to guard the remaining planes on hand.

In my opinion, the most important part of the chopstick design was the diamond cut on the fat end and it is a staple of well made chopsticks. These four hard lines unite all the hard lines and when perfect (and they ARE perfect), it is special. Oh, a pair of chopsticks takes less than 5 minutes. No sawdust, just shavings. Here’s a pic;
Woodworking Story that is Barely Believable...

This is fifteen minutes worth of work;
A China Woodworking Story that is Barely Believable... Shavings

For three straight days, there was a line to make chopsticks. Young, old, women, and kids, all made perfect chopsticks. We gave them a little canvas bag with “Chopstick Master” printed in Chinese. On the drawstring was a little card that said “These chopsticks were made entirely by hand by _________________ on ___________.

A China Woodworking Story that is Barely Believable... Chopsticks

For those of you who follow this Totally Awesome and Worthless Blog, you know that this is the place where I don’t have to try real hard to be moronic. But what I am about to say is from the heart;

Never in my life, which includes almost 50 years in the woodworking community, have I witnessed as much joy as I did those three days in China. One maker came up to me and in an excited, yet broken English, said; “Giant white guy came to China to teach us chopstick making. THANK YOU!”

So now among my other nebulous titles is “Giant White Guy”. And in a politically incorrect world, I am honored to be “Giant White Guy”.

For many of these folks, it was their very first woodworking experience. And the results were perfect. How cool is that? My first woodworking project wasn’t perfect and it got me kicked out of Cub Scouts—but that’s another story.

One man I will never forget asked to have his picture taken with me. With moist eyes, he shared that his son was three years old and when he graduates from high school, these chopsticks will be his gift.

“I want buy!” was the most common thing I heard and I heard it several hundred times. The Chopstick Master has now been perfected and it is being licensed for manufacture in China. We will have them available this summer and it is a complete kit, some of which I can’t share because of the patents in the stream. But I can tell you that I don’t think it is possible to make any other perfect wood project in 5 minutes. Maybe I am wrong, but this is simply plain fun.

I had to pose for lots of pictures (not my favorite thing), most likely because I was the “Giant White Guy”, but I can tell you that I love the Chinese people who crossed my path those four days. We have much in common, including a readiness to bitch about our respective governments. At the end of the day, making is fun. Making perfect is indelibly fun.

Quality is truly contagious.

So what really happened? I wish I knew, but I know it touched a deep nerve. Clearly nobody knows how chopsticks were made, including me three weeks earlier. The Chinese invented chopsticks over 6,000 years ago and they are a ubiquitous part of their culture, and for the five or six minutes it takes to make a pair, perhaps we were able to reunite some disconnected synapses that were patiently waiting to be reconnected with generations past. Personally, I despise working trade shows, but I would do this everyday for the rest of my life. The joy, the smiles—I just don’t know how to describe it other than it was magic.

We made approximately 400 pairs of chopsticks in three days and probably could have doubled that if my planes were not hijacked. Ironically, I did not make a single pair of squiggle wood chopsticks.

The only camera I had was my cell phone and it unfortunately ran out of storage on day two. Though the video is a little crude, I think you will get the vibe. The crowd was so crazy they brought in a DJ1 quad copter to shoot from the above. Insane.

My favorite story from this experience?

A gentleman returned the next day to make more chopsticks. He told me that he gave his first pair to his mom.

“They are too skinny,” Mom replied.
“But Mom, I made these!”
“They are too skinny,” she retorted.
“Mom, do you understand I made these?”
“I made these!”
“YOU made these?”
“These are BEAUTIFUL!”

Thank goodness for Mothers. I really wish my mother was still among us. I would give anything to see the look on her face after this experience — I am certain it would be much different than “the look” after seeing my report cards.



PS. Chris Schwarz stopped by our headquarters recently and made chopsticks entirely by hand using the Chopstick Master. Read more about his experience here.


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19 comments on this post:

  1. What an absolutely wonderful blog post, John-I-mean-Giant-White-Guy. So fun that something as seemingly trivial as a chopstick could transcend culture, age, language or sex. Your anecdotes are wonderful, and brought smiles to my face. Wish I’d been there – it must have been extraordinarily enriching.

    I’m looking forward to the perfected Chopstick Master. Do your potential customers know they’ll need to get a plane, too? I’m sensing another HP-8 run coming up…

    Thanks so much for sharing with us.

    — Peter

    P.S. “Pre-nascent” would probably be sperm…

  2. Thanks Peter. BTW, and HP-8 is included in the kit as is everything else one needs to replicate what you saw in the video.


  3. John,

    Great story, although seeing all their faces tells the story in pictures, pure joy.

    This thing is going to be a blast and maybe I’ll finally make some friends!

    What kinds of woods can be used? I’m sure the standard maple, cherry and most domestics would be fine, but what about exotics, I know you said Cocobolo would be too toxic, what about Ebony, Purpleheart and others?

    Make sure you have enough blades made.


  4. The faces on the pictures should be added to the next edition of your book! So lovely. Also… “I want buy!” Looking forward to it!

  5. I have never made chopsticks before. I bet if I had one of your new planes it would be possible. I knew your
    mother and I know that the look on her face was not one of joy when we put racing stripes on her Ford Falcon.
    Send me one of your planes and I will send you some chopsticks.
    Your Buddy, Al

  6. Holy crap! Yes you did know my mother, and I knew yours! OK, here’s the deal, I moved away from Iowa to escape my criminal past. Now you have found me! I plead the fifth. And by the way, I would be happy to send you a plane, after you send me a check!

    Good to hear from you Fred!

    – John
    BTW, you can verify my report cards, I was skipping classes with YOU!

  7. OK, the check is in the mail. However because of my financial unbalance it will be in installments. The first is a dollar. I will send $2,722.22 at one dollar per payment. Looks like your enjoying life and doing a fine job. Good to see this. Fred

  8. I know what you mean by the positive reaction people had over these chopsticks. Awhile back, I turned some wood pens and was in the process of pressing the brass bits on to complete them when my Grandmother saw what I was doing. She watched me press all those pens together, she was that intrigued. She thought they were beautiful. Now I wish I would have taken the time to show her from start to finish how to make a pen. Unfortunately, she passed on and I never got the chance. I got some nièces that might be interested, though, so there’s hope for me yet. Plus, one of them knows how to use chopsticks, so I may buy one of your kits.

  9. This is great! Two questions about the kit options: will you offer a jig-only option for people who already have an HP-8? And at the other extreme, in the video I gather that you use the JMP to cut the pyramid on the end. When you say that the kit has everything you need for the chopsticks, does this really mean that it includes the JMP, or have you come up with a lower-tool-demanding approach for the end? Thanks!

  10. Josh,

    There are some things I just can’t talk about right now. But I can say this, don’t worry!
    And, you will like the price.


  11. Just before I saw this blog entry, John, I had watched Kevin Rudd’s TED talk. He was formerly the Primer Minister of Australia. He talked about how the dominant global power (the U.S.) might co-exist peacefully with the ascendant power (China) when statistically this has proven unlikely. His formula included a large dose of humility on our part. Here’s the link: http://www.ted.com/talk/kevin_rudd_are_china_and_the_us_doomed_to_conflict.
    I have watched and re-watched your video. You have touched on the secret to working constructively with these delightful people. I only wish the folks at the State Department would watch as well and bring you along with them on their trips to China.

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