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From apprentice to craftsman to fine toolmaker, he has always had a passion for woodworking.
Torben Helshoj’s passion for woodworking began when he was a boy by observing the skilled craftsmen in the shipyards of Denmark. But his path to becoming a skilled craftsman, tool designer, and co-founder of Laguna Tools included a number of detours.
After graduating from high school, Torben began college as a major in mechanical engineering. But at the age of 19, he took a break to take a little trip and hitchhiked from Denmark to India. Upon returning, he decided to undertake a traditional apprenticeship in woodworking.
The first shop owner Torben turned to was about to close, but Torben’s sincerity impressed him, so the shop owner recommended Torben to a friend who ran one of the best bespoke furniture stores in Denmark. Torben was accepted as an apprentice; becoming a factory worker took four years of hard work.
As Torben recalls, “The only tools I used for the first year and a half were sandpaper and a broom. When my fingers got hurt I put duct tape on the tips and continued sanding. But I learned a lot as an apprentice and the guy I worked with was great.
“Every year they sent me for six weeks of specialized training. In the end I was cutting the dovetails by hand, but that too was an apprentice’s job, because it took a long time: they paid me 70 cents an hour, while the workers made at least ten times that amount. But they treated me very well and I got a chance to work on some great furniture.
“We worked closely with several prominent architects and built mostly modern Scandinavian-style furniture for wealthy Danes, oil sheikhs and royalty. We cut in tape as much as possible and then hand sculpted the rest with rasps and files. We have worked with all types of fine hardwoods, including Cuban mahogany. The shop had a large inventory of this amazing wood in the attic. Dark red, very dense and stable, it is one of my favorite woods. We also used Oregon pine. This wood is called Douglas Fir in the United States, where it is commonly used to build houses; we used it to build fine furniture “.
To complete his apprenticeship, Torben had to build a final project and have it judged by the leaders of the woodworking union. As Torben puts it, “It was a big deal, and it took place in the center of Copenhagen. The Queen of Denmark participates and personally congratulates the winners.
Torben’s finely crafted Brazilian mahogany desk has gained a silver metal. This was a prestigious honor, considering that gold metals were not awarded (because “nothing is perfect”) and it had been twenty years since the last silver metal was awarded in the woodworking category.
After Torben completed his apprenticeship, his passion for travel hit back and he decided to take a trip to America. “My big dream was to sail to America,” says Torben, “because boating is the only correct way to get there. I went to Portugal and made arrangements with the owner of a schooner for the passage to America the following year. But their schedule changed and I lost the boat. So I flew to America and landed at JFK International.
“After spending a couple of weeks on the east coast, I went to California: I had a business card for a carpenter in Laguna Beach. He offered me a job and before I knew it, a year had passed. I came as a tourist but ended up staying!
The woodworking business was good, but the shop was modestly equipped, so we borrowed money and imported a container of woodworking equipment from a company in Denmark. We were just trying to improve our store, but the company was interested in setting up a distribution in the United States, so we were soon building furniture and selling woodworking equipment. Both businesses flourished.
“But in the early 1990s, the dollar became weak. This made it difficult to import equipment profitably and my partner decided to switch to other businesses. I had no intention of becoming an importer of woodworking machines, but I wanted to take one last chance. If that didn’t work, I’d go back to being a carpenter, as Southern California is a great market for custom woodworking. By this time I had met Catherine, my future wife and business partner. It helped me get the machine business going. But after six months not much was happening, so I decided to take a video of our combined machine, because most American carpenters were not familiar with how these European machines work. We distributed the video in the mail and business began to recover. Since then Laguna Tools has continued to grow. “
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