Woodworking or machining – Where are the kids these days?

As an apprentice there were two categories involved in making things from wood. There were wood machinists and there were woodworkers; two very distinctly different spheres and two only moderately crossed over by one to the other. In my four decades working wood that line has shifted and whereby at one time machinists were a minority category, they are now the absolute majority with 98% using machines only. The sad thing is that those now becoming woodworkers settle for a substitute that stands in truth’s stead in the same way lies do and it’s this that changes the way we perceive skill, fulfilment and enjoyment.

It’s a weird thing really, and one that’s perceived but rarely experienced. Go into most stores selling woodworking equipment such as Rockler, Axminster, Woodcraft and many more and the main thrust in education of woodworkers is towards machines and machining and yet, as I said, 40 years ago what they now tout as woodworking would have been called machining, so why don’t they call what they sell machine woodworking classes and tell people that they can become woodworking machinists rather than woodworkers?

The answer is of course that most machine salesmen are not woodworkers but salesmen machinists. If you can learn all you need about woodworking in an afternoon course in a tablesaw class then that has dumbed woodworking down to the limits of the rotary cut. Mastering skill demands self discipline, self control, mastery in multidimensional spheres unnecessary using machines. Real woodworking is very different and in my experience even carpenters and joiners in North America and the UK were actually looking for this when they chose careers in woodworking.

Problem was that as soon as a young man talks to his careers advisor in school he’s automatically steered towards carpentry and the construction trades which is less about wood these days and more about fitting plastic and metal components. What happened to violin making and guitar building, boatbuilding and furniture making? Any work that todays ‘craftsmen’ do comes from the machine in a square cut and the parts are held together with Kregg Pocket Hole screws, which is not woodworking.

Just a few thoughts. It’s sad what has happened to woodworking because of a few misnomers created by manufacturers. Machines have become”power tools”. Circular saws “skill saws” and so on. The problem is that woodworkers today see these as an evolutionary advancement whereby we encourage young people to see that being able to use “power” equipment, which are simply dumb brute machines, ideally suited to some very specific tasks that indeed we need, is somehow advancement in their skill sets. In actuality it’s a highly diminished sphere of manufacturing using highly refined mass-manufacturing methods designed for mass production. There is no skill needed for most types of machine woodworking. Most monkeys can push a button and push wood and if a CNC router carves a rosette, flower or leaf, then of course you did not.

Let’s join the Real Woodworking Campaign and get children back in the home workshops, otherwise we won’t have a next generation of woodworkers that remember how it was, but a generation that only knew woodworking as an ‘adults only’ machinist who thinks that it’s a woodworker. Can any responsible adult let any child use the machines shown here. These are not power tools but ‘disempower’ machines.

Let me know your thoughts on this. Let’s not abdicate our responsibilities as parents and grandparents. More on this early next week.

7 Comments

  1. Jim B on 28 October 2011 at 1:36 pm

    Good point, well made Paul.



    • Paul Sellers on 28 October 2011 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks Jim,
      I hope that by proactively tackling the core issues we can turn this thing around and get back into the workshop on a different basis and one of these days and even out the disparity. Thanks for commenting.
      Best for now,
      Paul



  2. Paul Sellers on 28 October 2011 at 3:56 pm

    It’s a sad state that the macho woodworkers on TV decked out with pouches and a zillion pieces of equipment drugged the power-hungry viewers unwittingly into a world devoid of real woodworking. Bit like dangling a chainsaw in front of a 30-year old kid in an Amazon rainforest. Before you know it we’ve destroyed our children’s inheritance by creating an irreversible problem. Our becoming purist consumers buying cheap imports put our own economies out of business and thereby our work ability for young people. But we don’t have to live with that. We are the solution within our own families and friends.



  3. Derek Olson on 28 October 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Paul, Great post. I love the distinction between woodworking and wood-machining, that explains so well in words the distinction I have been trying to explain to myself for a few years now. I have to admit I started off as a machine man, and spent the first 8-9 years of my experience more or less playing around. Then something made me start to pick up hand tools more, and I was a soon a changed man. I started to pay more attention to the things I was building, I started to invest myself in the process and create pieces that had more meaning to me. I started to branch out and as I progressed I started to feel proficient. Changing from a machinist to a woodworker re set my whole perspective on the craft, and getting away from the machines has made what I do something that is much more share-able with my children because if an accident happens we can fix a cut easier than a missing finger.

    I can’t wait to hear more about the Real Woodworking Campaign
    Derek Olson
    Oldwolf Workshop Studio



  4. KevinWilkinson on 19 March 2012 at 2:35 am

    This “thickie” supports you 100%.  



  5. Jim Chrisawn on 24 October 2014 at 10:30 pm

    I tried to add a picture of my six year old grandson at the workbench with a scrap of wood and a coping saw. I am a fourth generation woodworker and for several years I mixed machine with handtools, however I am now back to the, if you will, the basics. There is nothing like lifting the plane and feeling the word surface you just brought from ruff to smooth. The smell of the wood and a bit of perspiration upon the brow. Nicholas loves using the handtools. My Stanly #4 dates to my great grandfather and to see my grandson standing on a stool planing with it cannot be replaced with the sound of an electric motor. Paul, I just wanted to let you know your feelings are shared. Keep up the good work one person at a time. Jim



  6. Angus Beer on 27 June 2017 at 10:31 pm

    I must agree with you Paul.

    I’m only 37 and was blessed with a much older farther than most, after the war he trained as a wood machinist in a factory. Later as it was closed and moved to China he went into other fields, but although he was trained on the machines he had the skill to do it all by hand and did, he tried to teach me and my brothers. Sadly we are the “younger” generation and saw his ways as old and slow, I have built a fair collection of power tools to handle most jobs but, a few years ago I relocated and have no workshop, I had watched quite a few of your YouTube videos previously and my good lady bought me an old saw for 50p at the booty, I sharpened it as per your instruction and used it. As I took the first few cuts I realised my mistakes of the past, I had only ever bought orange handle Jack saws used them and binned them. I now have none but I do have a growing collection of proper sharpenable tools, I have made four versions of the wall clock and am now building the tool chest project. I wish bitterly I had listened more to the old bugger as he was right, just as you are, skill is learned, honed and then most importantly passed on. I missed so much but I will pass on all I can including and ever growing collection of tools.
    Thank you so much for your words of commen sense in this upside down world.

    AngusB