Woodworking is a lifelong journey of discovery and rediscovery. Along the way you’ll meet a lot of great folks and interesting characters who are surprisingly willing to share advice and help you out. The craft has been passed down this way for millenia.
Everything Old is New Again
Modern woodworking media seems to go in cycles much like clothing styles or car designs. Right now it’s popular to study the early works of Moxon, Roubo and Nicholson etc., or prove you have the best router or table saw trick. Others are interested in espousing the mix of old and new tools and techniques which is not a new concept. Manual training programs like those at NBSS have been doing it for over 125 years and the Shakers before them etc.
I want to buck the current trend and take a trip back to the 20th century. When I got started in traditional woodworking one of the first teachers I had was Tage Frid via the ‘Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking’ 3 volume set with its iconic white covers. I haven’t seen these books or Tage’s work come up much lately and thought it would be helpful to blow the dust off those books hopefully re-kindle some interest as I think they are a great resource.
Tage (Pronounced ‘Tay’) taught me and countless other woodworkers the basics via his books and teaching. He grew up in Denmark and apprenticed as a cabinetmaker. His time as a journeyman took him to various other shops including the Royal Danish Cabinetmakers. In 1948, at the age of 33, the American Craft Council persuaded him to immigrate to New York and teach woodworking. Tage lead the woodworking program at the School for American Craftsman in Alfred NY which was later moved to the Rochester Institute for Technology. From 1962-1985 Tage was a professor of Woodworking and Furniture Design at RISD helping to propel that program to national prominence.
Also notable was Tage’s involvement with Fine Woodworking where he worked as an editor from it’s inception in 1975, through 171 issues until his passing in 2004. Described as having a sharp tongue and an ‘impish’ smile you can get a small taste it it through his writing and interviews which often have some memorable nuggets.
He could cut a dovetail while joking and flirting with the ladies. He referred to nails in furniture as ‘Swedish dowels.’ When critiquing a piece of work, which was nerve-wracking for students, the blow was slightly blunted by his sarcastic humor. Hank Gilpin recounts some memorable zingers:
“Oh, good curve. Too bad it’s the wrong one”
“Nice dovetails. What’d you use — a chainsaw?”
“Beautiful legs Henry. What were you thinking about — an elephant?”
And the classic: “Congratulations, you’ve just figured out the most complicated way to hold a board 30 inches off the floor.” [*]
The goal was not to put anyone down, it was to help each student stay humble and push him or herself to reach new heights in a fatherly kind of way. I had a similar experience during my own training and find myself rehashing some Frid one liners and Rich Friberg-isms in my own shop and classroom. Thankfully the flavor of sarcasm I learned from Rich is a little less harsh, but still fun.
When asked about teaching repetitive topics Frid had the following to say:
Don’t you get bored demonstrating the same old dovetail?
“Maybe you left too early. I always demonstrate difficult joints and techniques depending on what the audience wants. The dovetail is just the overture. What I like about teaching is that I learn something new every day. A student asks me, ‘Why can’t I do it this way?’ and I think, ‘Why not?’ Then we figure it out.” — Tage Frid (excepted from an old interview in Fine Woodworking you can read here.)
Levity aside, Frid’s teachings focused on teaching solid joinery — form should follow function, wood has a beautify of its own that should be enhanced and not hidden and instilling an innate sense if proportion via a keen eye for detail.
“The best tool is the eye. Train the eye. The eye guides your hands to achieve the form. If the eye says ‘It’s right’, it is right” — Tage Frid [*]
With a solid grounding in the basics and exposure to a wide range of tools and techniques students are able to take on whatever challenge a project or shop can throw at them. During his lengthy career as a teacher, writer, editor and studio craftsman Frid helped teach several generations of woodworkers. You can see his work live on through his students and their students.
Working in the Danish-modern style a lot of Frid’s pieces had a distinctive look compared to many of his American contemporaries. They were generally lighter looking with delicate lines and curves that celebrated the grain. The designs are especially interesting when you view them in the context of the time they were produced — the 1940s-1980s. Many of them were years ahead of what we think of as the the mainstream designs of the time .
For me, one of his most iconic pieces is the now famous 3 legged stool. If you read his 3rd book you’ll learn about how he came up with the design while watching a horse show and sitting on a fence. It was an interesting case study as he explains some of the revisions he went through to hone the design. These stools have been on my mental to-do list for about a decade now and I hope to eventually build some for myself.
When he first arrived in the US in the 1940s there were no good places to get a solid workbench. As a result Frid had to design and build a bench for himself and for his classrooms. Based on a traditional continental design with a shoulder vise and a tail vise the bench below was well suited for a cabinet maker. Over the years many a student, both in person and via his writing, would build and use one of these benches or a similar variant. In some upcoming posts you’ll see me build a scaled up version for my own shop.
What’s with the book report on Tage Frid?
Tage Frid’s work has shaped several aspects of my woodworking, design and teaching and I had a laundry list of odds and ends I wanted to share with you here. I also have been working to finish off my Tage Frid inspired bench and wanted to set the stage for it. And lastly because once I saw it, I could not un-see it — my Dad (who was my first woodworking instructor) is a bit of a doppelganger for Tage Frid. (Check out the picture below and compare it to the first picture of Tage Frid in this post) They both have very similar body shapes, taste in glasses, hairline and half smiles. I can’t talk too much because I look a lot like my Dad, I’m just the taller model at 6′-2″, so I suspect there will be a similar picture of me someday in the shop.
If you are interested to learn more about Tage Frid please check out the links below, it’s worth the time.
Other Tage Frid Resources:
- From Fine Woodworking Issue #1
Tage’s thoughts on the history of the chair, designers and craftsmen, good designs and joints of today will becomes classical furniture of the future
- One on one with Tage Frid from FWW
- Oral history with Tage Frid from the Smithsonian
- A great first hand account of what life what like in Tage’s classroom from FWW and Hank Gilpin
- Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking Boxed Set + DVD
Time to get back out into the shop — it’s cold outside.
P.S. I never got to meet Tage Frid in person, he passed away while I was living out in Seattle but I would have loved to meet him. If anyone knew him personally I’d be curious to know a few things I haven’t been able to find online:
- What happened to his shop, bench and tools? Are they in a museum somewhere? Did they go to his grandson?
- Anyone have a picture of him in the classroom near the iconic benches he used to build?
19 thoughts on “Tage Frid — The Great Dane”
Nice write up about the venerable Dane. His books were a significant foundation for me. Through his written guidance I was able to jump in and starting making stuff with confidence.
Thank you for the comment. That is great to hear.
Great post. I also learned via his articles in early FWW and later from the trilogy. I don’t believe he will be forgotten. Certainly not by me.
Thank you. 🙂
I have 3 sets of these books. One set in the shop, one set in the restoration room, and one set a home. I reference these books all the time. Tage Frid was an amazing man, full of talent. We as craftspeople are so lucky to be able to read his words, and work like the master once did.
I completely agree. Thanks for the comment.
I have books 1&2 that are just about worn out. I took them to sea with me when I was in the Navy. He inspired me and continues to do so every time I look at his books or see a piece of his furniture. I learned after he past away that he lived about 25 miles from me.
I went to college and spent most of my adult live in the Boston area but only learned of Frid when I was living out in Seattle not long before he passed away. When I moved back to Boston and eventually went to NBSS it was too late. I did go to the RISD museum a few years ago to see some of his pieces on display. Last time I went they didn’t have anything of his out. 😦 The MFA in Boston has benches that you can sit on from Frid, Maloof and others which was neat to sit on and examine up close. Thanks for the note.
I never met Frid, but I studied at RISD shortly after he retired. I attended an introductory woodworking course one winter in the very same studio he set up. Like many others, I worked at those Frid-designed shoulder-vise benches when I barely knew anything about woodworking. The curriculum was still Frid’s, and they even used his first book as required reading. The shop was always a warm, creative place to escape the cold Rhode Island winter. I remember the white steam-bending tube (from the article) that they had just outside the shop door, often leaking clouds of steam into the Metcalf Building’s alley. Every night I worked as late as they would let me in order to get my fill.
We learned Frid’s use of a belt sander to put a grind on a chisel and iron, basic sharpening on oil stones, performing required joinery and planing exercises, learning basic machine use and designing/building a small table in a bare six weeks. So transfixed, I nearly defected from my chosen major to pursue furniture making.
I think it was Frid’s concise pragmatism (so apparent in his writing) that I always find so appealing.
Thank you for the note, that is a great vignette of life in Tage’s shop.
To answer your question, from the horse’s mouth literally, most of my Grandfather’s tools and benches got divided evenly between my father and aunt. Some of the tools are here in New Hampshire at my parents place (including two work benches) and the rest are at my aunts in Rhode Island. My father still makes a few things around the house and helps me with projects that I have from time to time. I keep meaning to get more into woodworking but I currently do painting.
I know that a large selection of photos, slides, and writings has been sent to the Smithsonian, the links bellow are a few I could find.
Interview circa 1980.
The three legged stool on display.
The archive, on appointment.
– Oliver Tage Frid
PS If you have any further questions please let me know.
Thank you for the detailed reply — it’s great to hear back from you. I’m glad to hear Tage’s tools and benches stayed with the family.
Swedish dowels aka. X” Swedish rod glue
Great read. Although not a furniture maker, as a fellow dane and trained carpenter, I have a hard time wrapping my head around why I’ve never heard about Frid. It seems his teachings are quite renowned both in the US as well as in Denmark. Something to catch up on!
…and, might I add: Tage… Tay might be as close as you can get in the written english language, but it is nowhere close to the correct danish pronunciation. You will have to seek out your local dane to hear it. I’ll give it a go at explaining it anyway: For starters Tay is setting the a sound flat, which is correct. The g (called a soft g in danish) is muted and acts as an elongation of the a, meaning to stretch the sound of the flat a. The e at the end is a bit more problematic. It is pronounced, but sounds more like the french ea in eau. Shorter and sharper duration on the e. This is a lay man trying to explain it – not sure if it adds to the confusion, but use it if you can
Thank you for the comments. Hopefully future posts and of course the book will help get the word out on some lesser known aspects of Frid’s work and huge impact on woodworking instruction and the studio art movements in the 20th century and in the US in particular to a new generation of woodworkers around the world. It’s great how much easier it is to share now over the internet. Yep since I wrote that post a few years ago I’ve learned how better to pronounce Tage and Frid.
I also learned a bit more about my own family history wherein I thought I was mostly English and German but have come to find that my English side which dates back to the 1300s or so in England (the village of Rainford) which was likely was settled by Danish Vikings who came from an area that was referred to as Randers Fjord. It would explain why some Danish and Swedish friends often thought my Dad and I looked kind of Danish. Someday I should get one of those DNA tests that shows what regions your ancestors came from.
Randers fjord? Really? There are remains of an old viking fortress not too far from there. Stout people in that region. Yes – thank god for the internet for wood workers thirsty for knowledge – most definitely!
I have roamed the internet in trying to find out how where and when germanic carpenter tradition mixed in or took over from traditional viking methods here in Denmark, but I gather it has been very gradual and inspired from many places. Equally there has been a transition from the peasant society to actual trained carpenters. How much is danish and how much has been imported? I know for a fact that the German gesellen system has been widely used for at least the past couple of hundred years although fading. If the trades in Denmark are well documented, they are also very well hidden. For obvious reasons resent history is easier accessible.
Should you decide to come visit the home of your ancestors – let me know. There could be different exhibits or places to go not easily found on trip advisor. I’d be more than happy to give you a few pointers and do a little digging with you, should you encounter the language barrier. Or anything else you might want to ask. A good summer here is not unlike that of a good Seattle summer, although shorter, a smidge colder but with longer days, since we’re situated on more or less the same latitude as Ketchikan, AK – The Gulf stream makes all the difference.
I’ll look forward to see what you and the guys at LAP come up with.
Have a good one
If you know the name of the viking fortress near Randers Fjord, please let me know. It would be interesting for me to search around on online see what I can learn about it. With a 2 year old and an 8 month I likely won’t get back to Europe in the next couple of years but I do want to visit the UK, Denmark, Germany and France with the family in a few years so I may have to take you up on your offer for some guidance. 🙂
Thank you for all the notes.
I’d be happy to – It’s called Fyrkat and is located near the town of Hobro about 30 mins. away from Randers in northern Jutland. You can see it here: http://m.com.visitmariagerfjord.dk/ln-int/fyrkat-viking-center-gdk650293
In the interest of woodworking there are several places to go. Of course the density of museums is greater around Copenhagen, but this should not keep you from seeking out some in the more rural areas. There is everything from the complete fully furnished home of the late Finn Juhl over landscapes with fully functional half timbered houses from centuries ago, Viking ships (Ladbyskibet and vikingecenter Roskilde) – replicas and grave sites with the original remains and of course “Den gamle by” (the old town) in Aarhus and the H. C. Andersen quarter in Odense, where also “Den fynske landsby” (the funen village) is situated. If you’re lucky you might be able to see the attic of a 12th-15th century church. This is not a usual guided tour, and will most definitely need to be arranged in advance. Hjerl hede rural museum. Sandy beaches are scattered along the shoreline – the greatest dunes and waves of course towards the north sea on the west coast of Jutland. You will not find the extremes of nature in the US around here. You have mountains – we make do with rolling hills. Same goes for the dunes, if you have been to the Oregon dunes. Ours are ok, but not for four wheeling. It’s mostly tiny and pretty, although many things are great as well. I grew up with it, so it’s kinda hard for me to tell what you might appreciate the most. Be aware that danish restaurants (at least amongst americans) are notorious for bad service. Not necessarily bad food (although it is to be found as well) or dirty surroundings, just maybe sluggish or indifferent. This can partly be because of not using the tipping model, where the customer grades the value of the service, partly bad training and probably the most significant thing – Danes are reserved, even in a professional setting, which means you get left alone in peace to do your thing until such time you call out for help. You will absolutely be able to find good eating around here. No problem. Castles and manor Houses are abundant where soils were/are rich, which translates mostly to the islands. Especially southern Funen. There is lots of history to be found. To mention but a few besides the obvious royal residences, there are both Egeskov (Oak forrest) built on oak piles complete with moat, labyrinth and automotive museum. Also the gorgeous Valdemar castle/manor on the island of Taasinge, situated right on the brink of the island rich waters of southern funen. Of course – these are built through power and wealth, and do not represent the modern danish/nordic approach, although I’m convinced much of the furniture would fit right in anyway. Public transportation works just fine between the bigger cities/towns, although I would recommend renting a car for exploring the rural areas and ocean side. Bicycles are very popular too.
visitdenmark.com is a good start. Alternatively visitdenmark.dk – choose international language.
My very own favorite is in the spring when the beech forrests turn the most wonderful sharp crisp fresh green with a backdrop of clear blue sky in early may.
Ps. Denmark is only a quarter size of Washington state, and you can drive from one end to the other in less than a day. If you do, you’re missing out.
There should also be a vast array of sources to Wegener, Mogensen, Jakobsen, Klint and other danish furniture architects on the web – if you have doubts or trouble with any of it, we’ll see if I can help you out. I do think most of it would be published in English by now.