More thoughts on working wood

My hands have always provided for my needs and the needs of my family. I think most people like myself are happy to work this way and there are few smells like the smell of lumber that evoke a passage of time when we were infused with something bigger than ourselves.

Woodworking has given me a balance I strive for in the everyday of life. Balance is as critical to my wellbeing as the food I eat and the air I breath. WIthout balance in the way I work and the things I do I can soon feel quite lost.


I am often criticised for my stand in encouraging people to work with their hands more. My belief that skill can be for everyone seems to annoy the machinists in the world of working wood, yet I have never said that there was anything wrong with machines except when manufacturers, magazines and educators present the machine as an evolutionary advancement that bettered hand skills and methods. They have said and done that for five decades to my knowledge and that is where the rubber hits the road for me. I think that magazines in some measure attempt to address some of this with articles on hand tool techniques and so on, but they are, whether they say they are or not, controlled by their advertisers and their advertisers are powerfully mass makers of machines. They are the TV promoters that have the biggest clout and even that is quite fine with me. In fact, it’s nothing to do with me. They must sell what they mass-make. That’s what their business is all about; selling machines and related equipment. It’s when I see a world filled with frustrated woodworker who thought that they could accomplish with machines what we can do by hand more quickly and efficiently that I fee it’s time to say that this or that is not true.

Woodworking for me is about working the wood. If I feed a board through a machine, the end result is perhaps a parallel board or billet with squared edges to boot. The surfaces are never finished well enough for all aspects of my work and if I have one drawer to make or ten I personally would never use a router to make each joint. To me it seems quite, well, primitive. No matter how you slice it a machine cut dovetail looks like a machine did it. Hand cuts, even though equally perfect, look hand cut. People don’t come to me because I am efficient and have the machines to get the job done yesterday. They come to me because they want something made by hand. I use machines on the work, most of the time to dimension my wood, but I still prefer to hand cut my joints, plane and scrape every surface, layout every project full size on a big board and everything else by hand. It’s dead simple; my life I mean.

Finding the balance is the answer to fulfilment. That’s my thought for the day. There is something about being rooted and grounded with a thorough working knowledge of both machines and hand tools. You can learn enough about machine woodworking in a few days. mastering skills can go on all the way through your life. Depends on what you want.

When I sign my work, I want to know that it was made to the best of my ability and that the finished work reflects integrity


6 thoughts on “More thoughts on working wood”

  1. At the risk of being a snob about it all, I use the analogy of sailing. There are many parallels to working with hand tools.

    I enjoy power boating, especially when you’re trying to get somewhere fast, but any drunken fool can pull a throttle, as evidenced by the boat traffic in Boston Harbor on a sunny summer day. But to get out there and harness the wind and make a sailboat go requires skill. You have to develop the sensitivity for the boat response, adjusting the sails, reading the wind and the current, maneuvering. Your whole being is engaged.

    Like hand tools, it’s you making the boat work, your skills, not a machine. That takes time on the water to develop, but once you do the experience is enormously satisfying.

    1. I don’t know about being a snob, but there is something I’d say on the issue. One is that sailing is a sport. It’s an unnecessary occupation if you will and the end of it is pure pitting of self against elements be they calm or extreme. Risk is a high factor in the same way I as a rock climber might pit myself against a severe grade pitch or an easier one with less exposure. Skill is pitched against conditions, exposure and grade of climb.
      Now then. Here is a concern for me and it will always be so. I want to see men and women become furniture makers and woodworkers of every different type again throughout the western world. Real woodworkers. I want to see us counter cheap violins from Asia. Imagine being trained in violin making and finding that an import violin in a case with rosin, bow and polishing cloth can be had for under $100 with free shipping. To become a craftsman or woman does not mean you have to give up your regular job in the same way it doesn’t mean you must set up a factory in your garage. I would however love to see creative artisans in cottage businesses working with their hands in viable enterprises like guitar making, violin making canoe building and much, much more.
      I am a worker of wood, a non specialist, and I can make anything I choose to from wood because I went through a foundational passage we call an apprenticeship. That’s changed, but its not irreversible. You CAN make a living and support a family on one wage working for yourself as a furniture maker, boat builder or birdhouse maker. I have done it and now in my 60’s I am still a furniture maker helping others along the way. It’s a lifestyle and one I choose to live. For me, this means a change in the way I live.
      No matter the craft, craftsmanship is based on skill not mass-manufacturing. It is not a microwave mentality of instant credit that gains people’s respect and support but the hard work of mastering skill, becoming efficient and working for something other than money alone. And very often it’s not plain sailing.

      1. Patrick Anderson

        I hope to be able to make a living with my hands eventually as it makes me far happier than moving a mouse and draughting on cad. I used to really enjoy draughting by hand but no one wants it done that way anymore.

        Thank you for taking a stand to promote craftsmanship. I hope that someday, the punters who buy and demand the made for the masses cheap rubbish, will someday realise that our world is not a disposable one.

        Best wishes for your shows in the US. If I’m lucky, I might be able to attend the Baltimore show.

        1. Thanks Patrick,
          Though many make claims to know about me without having met me, the reason this book exists is not for me but because it was written for you and thousands like you who want to discover themselves in the work they do. We don’t all work only for money and so when ever we step out of working for a living and live for working we counter that culture that does everything only for money.
          Whereas people patronise mass market producers that steadily and progressively put people out of working with their hands and onto keyboards, we strive to work quietly in our own businesses working with our own hands. There’s a place for both and we all sit on cheap chairs, but what price is the real price for Asian goods and making men into robots to satisfy our own creature comforts. All we have done is replaced the factory owners of old that once owned its workers in the pits and the factories to become remote factory owners of today ourselves with our demands for ever cheaper goods. What a sad thing it is to resort to such a strategy and be governed by such things.

  2. Good article and captures my feeling in fewer words than my attepts.

    For along time, each time I went to the shop, I grabbed two 1/2″ pieces of pine and cut a dovetail corner. It was “practice” before working in laying out, cutting to a line and chisel work. Eventually, I just started using scraps for practicing hand tool skills when not working on a project.

    I extend my thanks to Mr. Sellers. After seeing his candlebox parts 1-4 on on Youtube, it struck me that it encompasses most handtool skills I want to keep current with. The thickness is resawed on the bandsaw but that is where it ends. The pieces are smoothed with a plane, the dovetails are hand cut, the lids rounded over, the box “leveled”. The hinges offer layout skills, chisel and hand drill work (I use it for pilots). He offeres a great and simple finish idea for small projects and the end result is something tangible that many friends and family are happy to have.

    If I had to give up hand tool work, I would give up woodworking completely – there is no turning back for me and being a “Machinest” is something anyone can do and a process I derive no enjoyment.

    1. Thanks for posting this. That’s what real woodworking is and will always be. We should never be put off making because we don’t have something. We just use what we’ve got and make the best we can. The first water bed was a floating air bed filled with water.

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