Jason Lonon from North Carolina, woodworker, ironworker and tool maker, is in his barnlike woodshop when he answers my video call. He happily shows me around; the saw, the bench, the lathe and a multitude of tools covering the walls.
This building is actually portable and I’ve moved the whole thing once.
Oh wow. It looks very well organised. Are you an organised person?
Naaa, it looks pretty chaotic to me… We’re in the middle of a batch of draw knives right now.
How did you get into tool making?
My dad had a workshop and by the age of 10 I got into really simple woodworking. I tried blacksmithing when I was 16 or 17, and one of the first things I made were tools for myself. They were not very good, but they worked and I was proud of them.
Are you someone who appreciates functional things perhaps?
Yes, my natural inclination is to re-create functional things from the past, and if they are also beautiful that’s even better.
When did your tools get good?
That’s a good question. I can’t tell you a point in time. If you make a tool and it doesn’t work, you go back and fix it. It’s a natural progression of improvement.
So how do you know if a tool is good?
I have three criteria. One, it must function as it was intended. If it doesn’t do its job, it’s not even a tool. Two, it has to feel good in your hand, for hand tools that is, and be intuitive to learn how to use. If it’s hard to use, it will be hard to convince someone to learn to use it. Three, it must be beautiful. If these criteria are met, it will be a pleasure to use the tool.
Do you use your own tools then?
I do. I’ll give you an example. We use our draw knives in order to fit the handle on our axes. Primarily I’m a blacksmith though… I make tongs for holding the iron, hand hammers and things like that. I use antique power hammers and make the tools for that as well. We have multiple generations of toolmaking going into the process here.
What generation of tools are we in now? Are we on version 5.0 for example?
We’re at the end of a long, loooong generation of tool making – a modern generation of ancient. It’s a continuum of refinements and improvements. You can’t really say that we’re at a specific version like you can for software.
That makes sense. Tell me, what’s the best thing about your profession?
That would be the ability to work from home and the flexibility to spend time with my wife and small children.
And what’s the worst thing?
I don’t really know a worst thing about it, I really thoroughly enjoy it. Some people might not like to get up and go to work, but I really enjoy getting up going to work so…
Do you have any role models?
In a broader sense, I’ve had many through the years, but let me highlight a few. Firstly, my parents obviously, giving me the encouragement, physical space and free rein to go about my things, saw and make a mess. Other parents pushed their children to study hard and go to college, but my parents gave me space to also pursue other interests. Secondly, our neighbour, a wood cabinet maker, took me on as an apprentice when I was a teenager and he was over 80. He helped me cultivate my work ethic, attitude and understanding of work. Thirdly, B.E Hensley, an elderly blacksmith. I wasn’t an apprentice of his but he always took his time to look at my work and critique it. That encouragement was very important, and I’m still friends with his son and grandson. I learned so much from these men. They had to be willing to take time for a child, and I had to be willing to take time for an old man. The value of cultivating relationships across generations is unmeasurable.
I also want to give a nod to the Swedish tool makers Hans Karlsson and Svante Djärv.
We have an interview with Svante here in the blog actually.
Yeah, I read it. Makes me wanna meet him even more…
On a different note, have you noticed much difference to your business due to the pandemic?
Sales have increased, which took me by surprise at first, but so many more people are at home now with more time on their hands, and they are looking for something to do so it makes sense. This is coupled with our hunger in society to make something real.
Can you elaborate on that notion?
Sure! We are living in some interesting times, not just the pandemic, I the mean the post modern world. We have electricity, internet, cheap transportation. This is unprecedented. Never have so many people been able to live disconnected from their food source. 200 years ago everyone was a farmer, even if you had a profession or trade you also grew your own food. Our ability nowadays to disconnect from our food supply I believe is leaving us empty. In the digital age so many people are involved in a profession that is virtual, and that leaves a huge empty space. I believe we were meant to live more in touch with our food supply, creating what we need. Into that vacuum, people start talking about the real things they are doing; carving, growing stuff in their backyard, the tree that fell down down the road…
The interesting thing is that the very digital things that are starving us are also spreading the craft movement. It has fuelled the problem but also some of the antidote.
In the US, traditionally we see ourselves as very independent – as self sufficient. But we were always dependent on the neighbours in our community and in need of their various trades. I believe in investing in the community around me, not isolating myself from it. For example, we have some good friends down the road that got really sick recently. My wife left three different meals at their gate at three different times. She called around the neighbours and the community rallied around it. You can’t buy that. That’s community and that’s what we need. It’s not independence… it’s something that we had back in the day, inter-dependence on my neighbours. Nowadays, for milk I’m depending on this huuuuge system of farms thousands of miles away. Before, we were dependent on the neighbour who had a cow.
Do you grow your own foods?
A little bit. And we live in a rural agricultural area, with farms and national protected forest around.
Where do you get your wood from?
Mainly locally. There are lots of lumber yards and other sources of wood around here.
When you’re not making tools, what do you do?
Take care of the family, educate the children and expose them to work. My wife and I were both home schooled, and we are both educators so we decided to home school our five children.
How does the future look?
It looks good and I’m very optimistic. Part of it is because our business is rooted in reality. It’s tangible and we create something that is useful and necessary. Right now spoon carving is really hot and I think it will be for some time, but who knows what tools people will need in the future. However, people will always need some sort of tools, and I’m in a good place to change with the times.
Anything else you want the readers to know about you?
First off, the foundational background of who I am is that I’m a Christian – I believe God created heaven and earth and it colors everything I do. I believe God created us to live in community with our neighbour, and to take care of our neighbor. This is my foundation. People ask me how’s it possible to support a family with five children when I’m the only one working. My family’s lifestyle is made possible due to the concept of contentment. We are content with a small modest house, older vehicles, second hand clothes and simple foods like our ancestors’ foods.
You must have a really low carbon footprint…
I’m not sure, but I can tell you that I used to teach welding at a community college, commuting five days a week. But now I’m solely self employed, and the gasoline bill dropped massively when I stopped commuting.
Can you share a bit more about your work style at the woodshop?
I have two men working with me. One is my best friend from childhood. He does the grinding and finishing on forged tools. The other is my brother in law who does the spoon knives and sloyd knives. We’re more like a cooperative working on a unified collection of tools, without the employer-employee relationship and without everyone working 9-5 in the same place. What we found is that it gives us freedom and flexibility, but also a cohesion that multiplies our efforts. There is only so much one person can do, but in team work with others, it doesn’t add, it multiplies.
Sounds like a dream… Is it?
There is a book called A handmade life by William Coperthwaite which has inspired me. (He’s also the one who brought Wille “Billy” Sundqvist to the states). Let me share a bit of my schedule… My workflow, a little sporadic because of working from home, is a combination of very intense labour sessions and more relaxed work. Generally I’m in the shop three days a week for anything between four to six hours. That’s my production forging time. I’ve got my earmuffs and safety glasses on. I’m getting a lot done, then it’s over and I go home. The rest of my time for the business is a little more relaxed – answering messages, shipping orders, marketing, testing tools etc. My children love pushing the wheel barrel to the mailbox to ship items.
I’m suspecting many of our readers will find your lifestyle very appealing.
Well, there was a gentleman not far from me who lost his corporate job as an engineer and started carving spoons full time. Now he does that for a living…
That’s amazing. I’d love to talk to him. Do you think he’d be up for it?
I think so. I’ll give you is IG.
Thanks a lot.
One final comment if I may.
Social media works very well when it mirrors or facilitates face to face relationships. I have met loads of people online, for example the man who remodelled our house. But never underestimate who your neighbor might be. For example, a friend had an accident and was stuck at home so I gave him a few tools to occupy his time. He got talking about them with his neighbor, who it turned out, had at some earlier point in time bought tools from me online. If we look, we may find people right next to us who share our very interests and passions.