Tiny shop, big talent

An 85-year-old master and his 300-sq.-ft. shop
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Located a few minutes’ drive from the geographical center of the 50 states, Ken Froelich is an accomplished cabinet and furniture builder. He works in a space in Spearfish, S.D. that most woodworkers would consider little more than a closet – two 10’ x 14’ sheds connected with a 6’ x 8’ passage. Froelich has watched as generations of woodworkers began their craft with hand tools, spent years working with machines and finally found peace again when they rediscovered planes and chisels. Well, at least that’s his story. But he’s a little biased because even though he owns a few basic power tools, his main work area is completely packed with the finest quality hand tools. It’s a collection that would make even the most ardent machine fan drool.

Through his 60-plus year career, quality has always been a constant. His love of craft was first honed when repairing and restoring fine antiques in a Rapid City woodshop. Many of the pieces came home with servicemen who had returned to South Dakota via Ellsworth Air Force Base. Some came from sea level in humid tropical climates, and they didn’t like the high, dry air in their new home. Panels shrank and joints popped apart as they acclimated.

“It was an education in wood movement,” Froelich laughs. “If a board could possibly misbehave, it did. And most were unfamiliar species, so I had to do a lot of homework.”

Froelich’s shop has a place for everything, and everything is in its place. The tool room connects to the machine room with a passage. 

Froelich’s shop has a place for everything, and everything is in its place. The tool room connects to the machine room with a passage. 

Half a century later, he is still reconstructing furniture that hasn’t handled the seasons as well as he has. On the day that Woodshop News visited, he was wrapping up an oak cabinet that he had essentially rebuilt using whatever he could salvage from the original. That had been a built-in piece in a historic Deadwood home, where only the case sides, a shelf support and some door parts had survived. The customer was realistic. She wasn’t as much interested in an authentic recreation as having a similarly sized piece built that contained some elements of the original. Froelich switched the construction method from shiplap to frame and panel, planed the warped but thick salvaged material down to about an inch, and added a couple of hand-cut dovetailed drawers in the base. For the doors he built floating panels with rabbets around the edges, and then locked them into pinned mortise and tenon frames. The new oak doors and the walnut drawer faces are all inset with perfect reveals.

“It’s hard to do that on a machine,” Froelich quips.

Confined quarters

The two main areas of the shop are divided into a hand tool area and a power tool room. The workbench is under windows in the former, and the large cabinet he’s working on is placed on a platform with casters so it can be moved when he needs to get by. The little passageway that joins the two rooms has one wall lined with a clamp rack. The other wall has a door, and behind that is an insulated-for-sound closet where the dust collector lives. Because of its miniscule 140 square foot dimensions, Froelich was forced to be a little inventive in the machine room. Several of the tools line up with little insulated doors that can be opened to the outside, so that long pieces can pass through.

Everything is on casters, but he rarely needs to move anything. He has become comfortable in this organized space, and everything is close at hand and familiar.

When asked why he had built such a small shop, he smiled.

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“Back then,” he said, “the building code allowed homeowners to put in a garden shed up to 140 square feet without having to pull a permit. And you could do that twice, in different years. But I also like to be efficient. I don’t like waste, and it’s a lot less expensive to heat and cool this little shop than most.”

Born between the wars, Froelich grew up in an era that was deeply influenced by memories of the Great Depression. That inherent frugality is apparent throughout the rest of the property, too. His adjacent home is no more than 600 sq. ft., and it was built with obvious care and dedication. Every detail is perfect, from the wood paneled walls to the Greene & Greene influenced cloud pattern in the kitchen casework. He and his wife, Ann, grow most of what they eat. The slightly oversized city lot has a greenhouse, vegetable garden, fruit trees and even a creek running through with a bridge that takes one to Ann’s art studio. She was an elementary school teacher who had the charming habit of saving her student’s second grade work and returning it to them at their high school graduations.

There’s a shed behind the house that is chock full of almost every hardwood species imaginable, much of it salvaged. Most of the shorts are stored on shelves above the tools in the machine room. Located half a day from the nearest large city, Froelich knows that he can’t just run downtown to pick up some Honduras mahogany or quilted maple for a project, so the on-site inventory is one key to his success. Another is the care he takes to maintain and sharpen all of the hand tools. It’s a distinct pleasure to watch him work, where card scrapers deliver perfect ribbons, and a No. 4 plane fills the silence with the swoosh of severed cells. Well, it’s not complete silence. He usually has Bach or Brahms playing gently in the background, somewhere between the volume of white noise and distraction.

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Above the workbench and the window is a collection of smoothing and smaller planes, most of them quite old. They have paper tags with details, to keep his memory fresh. On the north wall is an alder tool cabinet with about three dozen drawers and a compartment above. The latter holds mostly planes and saws from the catalogs of toolmakers such as Lie Nielsen and Veritas. Handsaws and straightedges occupy wall space above the collapsible assembly table, which today has its legs folded as it’s not needed (and besides which, with the large cabinet that he’s working on, there simply isn’t any room for it). On top of the tool cabinet is a state-of-the-art dovetail jig with a thin film of dust on it. Froelich lays out hand-cut dovetails for all of his drawers, scoring rather than scribing a straight line along the butt ends of the tails. He likes to leave that scratch in place just to remind future generations that routers don’t have much personality.

He has passed that message along in one-on-one teaching sessions in his woodshop, or in demonstrations about sharpening or joinery for the members of the Black Hills Woodworkers’ Guild.

He is a generous and patient teacher who emphasizes that the journey is as important as the destination, and if you’re traveling there on a hand plane you should know how to hone it if you want a smooth ride.

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Watching the world

Ken Froelich is an optimist. One doesn’t stay busy and productive into one’s eighties without a good attitude. I interviewed Sam Maloof when he was around the same age and still spending full days in the woodshop. He and Froelich have invited many of the same attitudes into their lives, and their work.

Even in these days of uncertainty and social distancing, Froelich remains upbeat about the planet, the country and the future of craft. While the loss of life during the pandemic weighs heavily on his heart, Froelich remembers other disasters and recoveries that help give him perspective. June 9th, 1972 comes to mind. Back then, he was a member of the Rapid City fire department when 15” of rain deluged the Black Hills in a few short hours. By the time it was over, 238 people had lost their lives and more than 1,300 homes were gone. Froelich spent much of that Friday and the following weekend helping people to safety or doing what he could for families when it was already too late.

The civil unrest of this past couple of years has also dredged up some uncomfortable memories. He recalls being in the service in his early twenties and visiting the South with an African American friend from boot camp. This was just before the Civil Rights movement jumped into high gear, and Froelich had barely outgrown his Iowa childhood. He was shocked and is still angered by the social and legal norms that his friend, an active serviceman, had to endure.

But now he says that he has lived long enough to see Rapid City bloom and prosper and grow into a regional hub, and he has watched as African Americans have risen to the highest positions in public life. The pandemic, he says, will soon pass on and there will be new challenges. He has had his Covid vaccine, still wears a mask when there’s company, and goes to work in his well-organized woodshop every day. He takes no more from the planet than he needs, and as a teacher, volunteer, soldier and firefighter he has given back far more than his share. 

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.

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