Photo: Joachim Rode

"I cannot just go with the flow"

Friday 07 Sep 18


Tom Hornshøj Bruhn
DTU Diplom
+4593 51 14 11
At the prototype workshop at Ballerup Campus, seven tradesmen share tasks and knowledge. Tom Hornshøj Bruhn is a furniture joiner, an expert in 3D drawing, and the ‘guy with the crazy ideas’.

Tom Hornshøj Bruhn has a lot to say. The words come rolling out in a light, warm tone on a wave of smiles and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for the course, for the many opportunities the prototype workshop at Ballerup Campus offers, and for the team of employees he is part of:

“None of us has the role of manager. All viewpoints are equally valid here and there are no big egos in the room. People have gotten over themselves long ago. We each have our own competences, and happily ask each other for help. This is the best foundation for making something good.”

And this is what is most important to Tom—to make something good and to constantly develop and improve:

“Joinery is otherwise a very traditional profession. People are still doing what they did 200 years ago. But I’ve always thought that there must be a better way—something new to learn—including from other fields. I am open to everything I see around me. I have also found the same attitude among engineers. They are not so tradition-bound. If they discover something better, they change tack, which I heartily approve of.”

From sergeant to furniture joiner

There was no careful planning behind Tom’s career choices. Several steps have happened by chance. It started when he drew an unlucky number for military service conscription. And once that was decided, he chose combat troops and was assigned to Sergeant training. But he found that he was good at it, and stayed on voluntarily.

He was sent to the former Yugoslavia three times during the volatile times in the 1990s.

“It was tough experience, and not something you get over in a hurry. I still sometimes sleep badly at night,” he says.

Yet it was also somewhat by chance that he left the Danish defence forces. He was taking time off in lieu up until Christmas, and had imagined spending four months on relaxing leisure activities. But his mother asked his aunt in jest whether Tom could make himself useful at the small furniture workshop where she worked.

“My aunt took her literally and immediately called her boss. I went out there to avoid making her look bad, and after talking a few minutes her boss said: ‘you can start at 6.00 am on Monday’. And that is how I became a furniture joiner. I knew nothing about it beforehand, but when we got to Thursday, I was offered an apprenticeship.

It was only meant to be for the four months, but I fell more and more in love with joiner work, and started thinking that maybe it was time to leave the defence forces before I got seriously injured. The army leaves its mark on you. It is extremely hard on your body, you suffer privation, and sometimes I also thought:

‘What have I actually taught people there?’ It has always been difficult for me to have to teach the young conscripts how to kill another human being. It wore on my conscience.”

"We make sure that students are familiar with all the machines and know which ones are good for what purposes. Some things can be done faster and better by hand."

Photo: Joachim Rode

Non-stop work

The first year as a furniture joiner was hard in a very different way.

“I worked 94 hours a week. But it was fun. I looked forward to getting started every morning, and in the evening I felt that it had been a great day.”

After just two and a half years, Tom had learned so much of the trade that he could begin to pass his knowledge on to others. He was employed by Copenhagen Technical College to single-handedly establish their joinery department. He had teaching experience from his time in the armed forces, and he also had something else very important—enthusiasm and the desire to see the students continually surpassing themselves.

In the meantime, he was surpassing all time boundaries:

“I had the principle that if there were just five students who promised to show up, I would open the workshop on Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t care what they were doing. It didn’t have to be a school project. They could do whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t get injured. And it was fantastic to see how the class improved. Several of them became so good that they won medals at Danish and Nordic championships.”

Tom was named ‘employee of the year’, but some of his colleagues thought he was setting the standard too high, and were afraid the management would expect the same from them.
“That was not how I was thinking at all. I just had the time for it, and enjoyed giving the youth this opportunity,” he says.

Never stops learning

But it did end up being too much for him, and after five years he left to become a self-employed joiner. He built models and prototypes for an engineering company and did projects for large companies like Lego, and earned so much doing so that he could work on the more crazy things on the side, as he puts it.

One of the things he experimented with was building guitars—electric and acoustic. Initially based on the normal standards, but he quickly wanted to explore new avenues. He used materials other than wood and changed the shape, with the aim of making the instruments easier to play and the sound more resonant.

This sector also has a certain degree of conservatism, but Tom has convinced many guitarists—including professionals—that there is something to be gained by working creatively with the old craft.
“I just don’t seem to be able to go with the flow. My students call me nerdy, and it’s true. There is always a world outside that I really want to explore. I never feel that I am finished.”

Tom began working in the Prototype workshop at DTU Ballerup Campus three years ago, at the same time as his colleague Bo Hagelskær Larsen, a trained toolmaker. The employee assigned to their induction went on sick leave, leaving Tom and Bo to work out everything themselves, and giving them the opportunity to shape the workshop from the outset. They introduced 3D printers—a technology that lecturers were not very familiar with. So Tom was involved in the courses and asked to develop a compendium for drawing and realizing ideas in 3D.

Tom has become an expert in 3D drawing using SolidWorks. But he is far from fanatical about this technology.

“We make sure that students are familiar with all the machines and know which ones are good for what purposes. Some things can be done faster and better by hand. We show them a whole palette of options, and try to make them curious about the latest technologies by showing them videos and samples of various things.”

No time for family

Tom has always loved to teach. He communicates well with the young adults and is pleased that he and his colleagues get the chance to participate so much in their education.

“It’s fun to see how quickly they start to get immersed in the workshop. All the theory that has been poured into them is suddenly being expressed in their hands, giving them new insight.

Occasionally a student will even create a prototype that we advise them to seek to patent. And some of them have won awards in Green Challenge over the last three years. Which is great.”

The workshop in Ballerup takes up a huge part of Tom’s life. So much that he does not feel he has time for a girlfriend and children.

“They would always take second place. I love my job and the opportunities it gives me to make a difference. I can’t help but continue to work on things in my mind after I go home. I often come here on the weekend just to try something. My colleagues do the same. We have fun, and go out for lunch together. It’s great.”

Tom and his colleagues also come to the workshop at odd hours some times to help students who are having problems with a product that has to be finished for a specific event, such as Roskilde Festival.

“They are extremely grateful. Almost too grateful. You get embarrassed. We feel we are just doing our job.”

Politiken’s teaching award

While Tom was teaching at Copenhagen Technical College he was nominated for the Danish newspaper Politiken’s teaching award three times. And in 2014 he received the special prize in the vocational education category. Some quotes from a few of the many nominations:

“You forget that you are in school and learning about the subject. It quickly becomes a way of life. Tom constantly inspires, and gives you the feeling that nothing is too difficult. That you can make anything you want—that nothing is impossible or too difficult.”Anna Axelsen, student

“Tom taught us methods and techniques that we were only meant to learn much later in our course, so we learned to make more advanced things than the other classes. Each day he would present a ‘tip of the day’. It became so popular that the other students came into our class to listen as well.” Anonymous student


Photo: Joachim Rode

Tom Hornshøj Bruhn is 42 years old. He is unmarried and lives in Copenhagen.

2015: Employed as assistant engineer at DTU Ballerup Campus

2010-2012: Self-employment as a furniture joiner

2007-2015: Taught furniture joining at Copenhagen Technical College

2006-2015: Fire fighter at Falck

1996-2000: Sent on peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia

1994-1996: Conscript in combat troops and sergeant

1994: Graduated from Svendborg Gymnasium