Monday, 12 September 2011

Ameza Ya Babaji Yimbyeyi: The Big Boss Workbench

Jean Paul in Canada

Jean Paul, or Paulo to his friends, is a remarkable individual. On first introduction you will immediately notice two things: he has the most charming smile and secondly, he has only one ear – a result of a highway bicycle crash that killed his best friend, almost ended his life and sent him into a month long coma and a year in hospital. Not noticeable are his other exceptional qualities such as honesty, resilience, humour, and determination. Even the trauma of the 1994 genocide and his family’s two year exile in a Congo refugee camp, that effectively  halved the six years of education  available to him, failed to wear down his resolve.

Visiting Drumheller, Alberta

In 1998 he was granted entry into a carpentry program established by Vjeko Curic, a Franciscan missionary from Croatia. Later that year Vjeko was assassinated, most probably as a consequence of his role in saving thousands of lives during the genocide. A few years back a movie, starring John Hurt, was released that is based upon Vjeko’s life.

Next year, near the end of his two year carpentry program Jean Paul was in the accident that placed him in a coma and almost took his life. After recovery from the coma, and with the help of his mother, he had to learn to read all over again. A year later the scar tissue became badly infected and the missionary, Ivica Peric who had taken over leadership of the school, drove Jean Paul across the border into Uganda for treatment. Father Ivica was a fellow Croat and long time friend of Vjeko.

After months of treatment in Kampala, Jean Paul finally came home and was employed as a helper at the school. A few years later due to his hard work, honesty and resolve Jean Paul was offered a position as an instructor.

While working at the school two years ago we became acquainted with Jean Paul. He was unquestioningly faithful to the school and we were immediately charmed by his intellect, character and integrity. When we returned to Canada my son Tim convinced his friends at high school to raise money to enable Jean Paul to come to Canada for four months of study at Olds College. Through their Interact Club (a Rotary affiliated service club for youth) and with the support of students, staff, and community, an art auction and banquet was held to raise the funds.

A visit to Jean Paul's house. A video by my son Tim.

Olds College Campus

Although I am a teacher at the same high school that my son attends I teach out of the Olds College carpentry labs. Our school is unique in that it is located on a college campus and many facilities are shared and the carpentry lab is a natural fit for me as I hold a journeyman’s level trade certificate in carpenter and a B.Ed in Vocational Education.

The carpentry lab is located on the other side of the campus and I often joke to my superiors that I have a shop teacher’s dream job. They ask: “Is it because you have the largest shop in the country?”

“Or is it because you have access to millions of dollars worth of tools and equipment?”

Jean Paul with carpentry instructor Chris
“Neither”, I reply “It’s because at any given time I’m a half mile away from administration!”

The other part of my job during the last four years has been to establish and pilot dual credit programs whereby high school students may take college courses and receive both secondary and post secondary credit. In implementing such programs, the level of support and accommodation I have always received from both institutions has been remarkable and the level of support we received for Jean Paul was no exception. Setting up a specialized training program was near child’s play. Jean Paul took a combination of apprenticeship level courses, high school courses, and individual tutoring. He studied teaching methodology and honed his carpentry and woodworking skills.

At the end of his four months of studies Jean Paul returned home. On the same day as I finished teaching, my son Tim and I accompanied Jean Paul for two months of volunteer work at his school. We would return the day before school started in the fall. My wife, Jayne, was unable to come with us this time as she had to work but she had gone to Rwanda last Christmas to teach English and will return again this November for a month.

Workbench at comercial furniture shop, Gitarama, Rwanda
One of the many projects Jean Paul and I took on this summer was the “Big Boss Workbench” – Ameza ya Babaji Yimbyeyi in Kinyarwanda. In many parts of Africa workbenches are almost unrecognizable as such; sometimes they are as simple as a couple logs nailed together and usually no more than a four legs haphazardly attached to a few old planks. The benches at CFJ are of no exception. In fact around here I cannot recall seeing any workbenches made much better.

For the last two years I have been trying to convince the carpentry instructors at the school to start building better benches. Two years ago we had the first carpentry instructor from Rwanda to come to Olds College in Canada for further studies. While he discovered that flat workbenches were much easier to work on, he had either no desire to change or no idea as to how to implement the change. Jean Paul, the Rwandan instructor we brought over this year, was similarly impressed with the benches at Olds College but was even more impressed with the two Roubo-style benches that I had made for my home workshop. He also had the desire, drive, and self-confidence to initiate change.
Typical school workbench

For the school benches we selected what is locally called cypress (pronounced here, “Sip – rus”) as it was by far the cheapest wood available. It is also very durable and hard – in fact, too hard to drive in a nail without pre-drilling. The wood grain is quite decorative; it is very wavy and has a strong contrast between the heart and sap woods. This leads to some difficulty when hand planing but the end result is a very impressive finished wood.

One thing everyone had to learn was how to hone a blade.
Plane irons were never honed and always resharpened to
the primary angle. This resulted in short blade life and
well worn stones. Banana stones, I called them.
In Rwanda the very concept of furniture is of recent introduction by European colonialists. Under the guidance of Belgium master carpenters the Rwandans were renowned in East and Central Africa for their craftsmanship. During the 1994 genocide a generation of craftsman and teachers disappeared. Their voices silenced, the collective knowledge gained from untold years of hard won trade experience was lost forever.

Trade training literally had to start from the beginning. Vocational teachers generally had at best the six years of state education plus from a couple months to two years of training in the trade. Some trade schools had no more than three or four tools in total and their graduates may never have had actually used any tools during their “studies”. Instruction was often in French, a language neither the instructors nor students spoke. Words would be written on a blackboard, the students would dutifully copy the words and memorize the answers – all without really understanding what was written. Most of the instructors I have met in Rwanda try hard but their lack of training is a hindrance. A high ranking Rwandan official confided to me that such is the state of the trades in Rwanda today that he had to hire workers from the Congo just to paint the trim on his house; he couldn’t find Rwandans capable. If I had the time and resources, I would establish a training facility for vocational instructors.

Nothing is wasted. Even the shavings are
collected and sold. One bag of sawdust
sells for the equivelent of a days wages.
As a result of a generation's worth of lost knowledge and the subsequent poor training, sturdily built furniture is rare in Rwanda. Straight and square furniture is rarer and when a workbench is constructed with more attention to detail and finished to much higher standards than is any other item of furniture in the village, it is sure to attract attention. And so it was that the students decided that the workbench was suitable for use as a table or desk by a very big and powerful boss, hence “the big boss workbench”.

The construction of the workbench, and its accessories, were perfect examples of project based learning. Many new tools and techniques were introduced to the staff and students. New tools such as jointer planes, tongue and groove planes, winding sticks, block planes, and card scrapers were introduced, demonstrated, and tried out by anyone brave enough to fight through the crowds. Techniques such as honing a blade instead of completely re-sharpening each time, saw sharpening,  truing the top by planing diagonally or cross-grain rather than always parallel with the grain, and drawbore joints were taught.

Dancilla varnishing the
second bench.
The No. 48 Lie Nielsen tongue and groove plane was a special hit. Jean Paul had seen and used mine at home and immediately saw the potential for such a tool. Without power, the joint was very tedious to make with a hand saw and chisel. Plywoods, apart from a cheap 1/8” Chinese import, are all but unavailable. Panels were made by butt joining and gluing with a locally available thick PVC glue of uncertain origins and quality. If the glue joints managed to hold, the differences in humidity between dry and wet seasons split the wood. Tongue and groove joints would greatly improve the durability and appearance of their work.

At the end of April I took Jean Paul to the Lie Nielsen Toolworks event at SAIT in Calgary. He was like a kid in a candy shop. Lie Nielsen’s team was accommodating; demonstrating the use of the tools and letting Jean Paul try all he wanted.

In Rwanda a carpenter or a teacher makes only about $40.00 a month but I am sure that if Jean Paul had the means he would have carted back the entire stock of tools in the room. In Kigali, even very cheaply made Chinese #4 planes go for three months wages; a Stanley #4 goes for about the same price as Lie Nielsen’s. However Jean Paul asked of nothing for himself, he only queried as to the possibility of getting the tongue and groove plane for the school. That, he decided,would be the single most valuable item in Lie Nielsen’s inventory. I ordered one to take over and also a Bronze edge plane that I would stingily keep for myself.

It was as if magic was preformed when Jean Paul and I demonstrated the plane to the students and staff at his school. Jaws literally dropped, and I suspect that some thought it was just a trick. At least an hour was occupied as we had to show and reshow everyone all the details of its use. The plane was taken apart and piece by piece it was examined. Over the next two months it seemed that every board that wasn’t nailed down suddenly had tongues or grooves cut into them!
A close scrutiny of the Lie Nielsen tongue and groove plane

As a carpenter schooled in North America I am quite naturally dependent upon power tools. I have always enjoyed using hand tools and my proficiency with such was probably greater than the average carpenter. Thirty years ago I used to sharpen all my own hand saws and circular saw blades. Carbide toothed blades and electric reciprocating saws left those skills somewhat on the sidelines. Cordless drills forced me to hang up my Stanley Yankee screwdriver. Biscuits replaced mortises, and routers and hinge templates replaced chisels. Although I left the trade as a means of full time employment, I have always kept busy renovating my house or helping friends.

About five years ago, through a friend, I got introduced to the school. She was a tailoring instructor and had developed that program for CFJ in Rwanda. She said they could use a bit of help with their carpentry program. As is often the case, one thing leads to another and I found myself in Rwanda.

Jean Paul with Chris Schwarz designed saw bench

After working in a setting without any electricity I came to realize that I would have to brush up on a few techniques. This is how I came across the works of hand tool guru Christopher Schwarz and his books, articles and videos. I quickly appreciated his skills, knowledge and ever-so-slightly offbeat sense of humour. Unrepentantly I expropriated his plans for workbenches, saw benches, layout squares and adapted them for use in Africa. I wrote him an email to thank him. He offered to put out a call to his readers for surplus tools. Once I work out the logistics of collecting and shipping the tools economically I will take him up on his kind offer.

Similarly, a chance email and photo sent to Lie Nielsen in reply to a confirmation of a shipped item resulted in contact by the marketing department and the possibility of a story about CFJ. I was a bit shocked by the interest from Lie Nielsen Toolworks and Christopher Schwarz, both of whom I hold in extremely high regard. I am more used to people nodding politely and half listening when I talk about Rwanda.

The most used tool in the school.
The English layout square.
Using Christopher’s Roubo-style workbenches as a base we adapted the plans to allow for local conditions and limitations. We decided on a leg vise on one side of the bench as I had picked up an old garage sale shoulder vise screw for a dollar. It lasted about two weeks before the casting cracked on front guide nut. We were not able to locate any vise screws in Rwanda. Luckily my tailoring instructor friend is heading over in a couple weeks and she lives very close to Lee Valley’s Calgary store where I could pick up a Veritas shoulder vise screw. I told my wife that the other bag I carried out of the store was just the instruction sheets for the vise! Experience dictated that she didn’t believe me.

In Rwanda, tools, vises included, generally cost two or three times what they cost in North America and they are usually of very poor quality. A cheap little 6 inch Chinese bench vise (not even quick release) was selling for over two months wages. I know China can produce high quality goods when it wants – take the iPhone and iPods for example – but the stuff they send to Africa is of extremely poor quality. I have had nuts from plumbing fixtures break as I hand tighten them.

Cam lever vise
Closing the vise
Opening the vise

Making dowel for the
drawbore pins.
Using spruce for the model I made in Canada it worked like a charm but with the resinous and oily cypress the wedge would just slip. A piece of sandpaper nailed on the wedge solved that problem. I don’t know how it will stand up to long term use but in the month of operation while I was there it became the vise of choice. Everyone much preferred it to the standard screw leg vise as they thought it easier and faster. A days wages worth of wood for a local carpenter now can accomplish as much as a few month’s wages worth of a commercial vise. To overcome the lack of affordable and decent quality vises, I designed a prototype cam operated leg vise that can be made entirely out of wood and made with the limited tools at hand. It was based upon I drawing I saw somewhere in an old book of a child’s craft bench.

No matter how many times I
see this, I still wince!

We also made three bench hold-downs. After a day’s search we had managed to find in the capital, Kigali, a supply of 15 mm round stock. With scraps of 2.5 mm by 15 mm flat iron welded together we managed to fabricate easy to make and functional hold-downs for the benches.

The hold-downs and the vises should expatiate a few operations. At least it should certainly be better than the usual way of chiselling out a dovetail joint which is to straddle the wood and chisel between your legs. I can only surmise that over the years Darwinian sexual selection plays a role in the acquisition of accurate of hand eye coordination.


Here is a short video, made by my son, highlighting the workbench. You can see the cam vise in action.

We also made a couple of sawing benches to compliment the big boss bench and to make the work more efficient. Add to that a couple of bench hooks, shooting boards, whetstone boxes and the school is now well on the way to having a functional woodworking shop.

Sometimes the Big Boss Bench was the only bench in the whole school that was being used.


Making lumber


  1. This is great. Thanks for this story. Is there a way to donate tools or contribute to the purchase of new tools for the school?

    1. Thank you for the kind words and your interest. Contact me at: