In the spring of 1980 I decided to take a year off from Middlebury College where I had just completed my sophomore year. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with my life (who is?) and thought it might be a good idea to try to figure that out before continuing at Middlebury.
I moved back home to Putney, VT and after several months of working as a mason's tender moved to Burlington, Vermont in the late fall and got a job as a carpenter's helper building a house. I had never really done any carpentry but it seemed pretty straight forward. I bought a set of books on rough and finished carpentry and would read the chapter about what we were going to be doing the night before we did it so I'd have a clue. I enjoyed the work and found it very satisfying to see a house take shape from the ground up. The rough part was framing a house in northern Vermont in the middle of the winter. I can remember shingling the roof in mid-January when the temperature was 15 below. The asphalt shingles could be cut by scoring them with a knife and then snaping them in half on the scored line.
That winter I also took a beginning woodworking class at the Shelburne Craft School. A friend suggest I might enjoy it. It was a very basic class - learning about how to use the various power tools and making some basic joints. Each student had to design and build something so I decided it would make sense to build a workbench. The class was 1 evening a week for about 10 weeks and I got the bench about 3/4 done. That spring, after finishing the house I was working on I was out of work for about a month and finished my workbench. I use this workbench to this day in my shop. Around this time I also bought a small, used tablesaw - my first stationary power tool.
My next job was working as a finish carpenter on a large house in Underhill, VT. The house was being built for a local sawmill owner and the whole house inside and out was being finished with V grooved solid hardwood paneling that was made from lumber sawed at his mill. Every floor, wall and ceiling was solid hardwood. There wasn't a single piece of sheetrock in the whole house and it was a hugh house - about 10,000 square feet plus a 2000 square foot garage. It was fairly monotonous work but towards the end of that job I did get to build a large built-in bookcase headboard with night tables for the master bedroom.
By then, my year off was up and it was time to go back to Middlebury. However, I really was enjoying carpentry and woodworking. I returned to Middlebury to register for classes but once I got there I realized what I really wanted to learn about was woodworking and that wasn't an option there. During my year off I'd read a number of books about woodworking and woodworkers and found it very appealing. I decided not to return to Middlebury and went back to Burlington.
That winter I continued working as a finish carpenter, reading about woodworking and buying more tools. In my free time I made a few simple pieces of furniture. I also started to go around to furniture stores examining the furniture and thinking "I could build that".
In the spring of 1982 I decided I knew enough about woodworking to go into business and started Richard Bissell Fine Woodworking. I moved back to Putney where I set up shop in the basement of my parents' house. It is fortunate that I was very young and didn't need much income.
Since then I have learned how much I didn't know back then. It's probably a good thing we don't know what we're really up against when we're just starting out otherwise it might be too daunting.