John Economaki: Tool Maker

John Economaki first came to Portland in 1973 to work as a woodshop teacher at Lincoln High School. With a background in electrical engineering and a bachelor of applied science from the University of Iowa, John found he loved woodworking and furniture making more than he anticipated, and soon he was building furniture full time. It was a major blow when his doctor recommended he give up furniture making due to the hyper-allergy he had developed to wood dust.

In true fashion, John didn’t let that get him down. Instead, he developed a new but related focus and built a business around it. Since its creation in 1983, Economaki’s Bridge City Tool Works has been producing finely crafted heirloom tools for woodworkers and collectors all over the world. Bridge City Tool Works produces tools in limited numbers, and all products are made to order. How did John turn a passion into a successful business? “Too stupid to quit,” is as much as he’ll give away.

But despite John’s quips, one look at his work demonstrates that the true secret lies in innovation and precision.

“John Economaki brings inventive genius and artistry to all his work,’’ says Jay Maisel, renowned photographer, in the foreword to a new book profiling John and his work called Quality is Contagious.

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“For the most part, toolmakers seek to make small improvements to the designs of tools that have been used in the craft for 500 years or more,” adds Christopher Schwarz, former editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, in his foreword to the book. “But John isn’t like other toolmakers. During the last two decades in particular, he’s rejected just about every accented formula for making a traditional hand tool. He’s experimented with designs, materials, and processes that at first seem insane or silly. At the time, many competitors rolled their eyes. Now they follow suit. Or try to.”

Bridge City Tool Works has produced thousands of tools over the years ranging from deceivingly simple, but also beautifully crafted try squares and scratch awls to obviously complex mini multi planes and center scribes. John strives to make tools that allow craftsmen to do the best work they can.

In Quality is Contagious, John writes, “Nothing is more important to a woodworker than his tools. If you owned a tool chest full of well-crafted tools, how could you possibly justify doing shabby work? You dishonor your tools, you dishonor yourself.”

John notes while the majority of his business is not local, Portland has made a great home for Bridge City Tool Works.

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“First of all, it rains six months out of the year and I can’t think of a better thing to do on a rainy day than go to work. I like that about Portland. I think it’s a great environment for creative people” John says. “It’s a fairly progressive place too so when you have an idea that may be radical just about everywhere else, here it’s like ‘Oh cool, what are you going to do with that?’ So that part I embrace as well.”

Bridge City Tool Work’s next venture involves stepping into a new genre of tool making: kitchen tools.

“If you go to most kitchen stores, they have some high end knives and some high end pots and pans, but everything else in those stores is under $50,” John explains. “We live in a culture that values price point over quality and I look at all those other $50 items as opportunities to make the tool like it’s supposed to be, but obviously that tool won’t cost $50. And by doing that, we will limit our market and we realize that, but that’s the same strategy we used creating Bridge City Tool Works. If a tool has been dumbed down to a price point where it barely functions, what’s the point? Let’s just do it right. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

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Quality is Contagious was published in conjunction with a related exhibition at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft. The exhibition runs through Feb. 8, 2014.

Visit Bridge City Tool Work’s website at: www.BridgeCityTools.com

About The Author: Katie Mitchell