Is Woodworking More Fanciful Than Real?

Has woodworking become more a fantasy world? That’s what I fight against, but can we still win?

I almost didn’t write this post, or should I say post it, because it seemed so negative, but in reality the show didn’t meet my expectations so what follows may seem a little more negative than normal. I do feel it’s better to blog than not.

I went to Woodfest yesterday and worked through each of the booths I found interesting and some I didn’t. I was more than open to finding hidden gems somewhere in the show as I had in times past. This time I met with only disappointment. Perhaps others attending might have felt like me and perhaps that’s why there seemed to be so few people there  interfacing, interacting and engaging. I tried to examine myself and especially my personal expectations. Perhaps it was the first day and perhaps it was the misty moisty weather, but it wasn’t raining at all. Anyway, I don’t think any of that was indeed the case. I did have a thought about craft shows and again this is more my thoughts really. Let me try something anecdotal first. A man picked up a square sided piece of steel 5″ long with a bulbous area in the centre from some crates filled with many tools the bulk of which were most likely junkers. To some of course it was all junk, to others there were treasures to be had. He twisted the piece of steel between his fingertips and rolled it to look at it more intently. The woman I assumed to be his wife said, “What is it?” He answered, “It’s a double-ended nail.” “How does that work? she said. “You stick one point in one piece of wood and the other point in another piece of wood and hit one piece of wood with a hammer.” “Oh, I see.”, she said. He tossed the steel into one of the bins and left. I picked it up and showed it to Phil standing near by. I said, “Look at that. Best find today!” “What is it?”, he asked. It’s a very nicely hand-made square awl.” Oh, wow!” Phil responded. Now that’s the difference between mere opinion and actual hard fact.

The difference between relational knowledge and abstract. To the man who twisted the piece of steel and offered his explanation it was a two pointed nail. That was an explanation based only on mere opinion. Instead of admitting he didn’t know he came up with a use that was nothing more than pure fantasy.

As I walked around the showground I became aware that most of what was there had very little practical application to much about life. I asked myself could this be what people are looking for or is it that much of life has lost the kind of  meaning people knew as practical answering to the needs of life. Here at the Woodfest most of what was here, not all of it, was little more than mere amusing with amusing things to entertain people. Was that really what people were looking for or could they have been looking for things they might actually DO. It seemed a bit like walking down the modern-day high street in most towns and cities in the western world and trying to find something useful. The scene of what is now called green woodworking seems mostly about making something called gypsy flowers, dozens upon dozens of knife-carved wooden spoons and spatulas that seem to take a very long time to make and whimsical things I know nothing about but that look strange and out of place in any kind of real world.

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I didn’t spend too long here with the pole lathe turner but at least it was real. He chose something of a hard path turning bowls this way and he may have some hard times ahead of him but he was real and so was his product. He worked hard educating his audience which I think is critical to survival and future long term. His mate was making an axe shaft on a shaving horse and saw a nice drawknife I just bought for John. He jumped from the shaving horse and hotfooted it to Tony Murlands booth where I told him Tony still had a dozen drawknives still for sale. I bought John a beaut of a Robert Sorby curved blade. Funny thing though, I found no evidence of any other types of lathe for turning there except people selling turned work the like of which left every piece looking the same as the other.

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It was sad not to find but a couple of chair makers and no furniture makers. Some garden furniture made from 2x4s and some jigged screw fastenings holding everything together was about the height of the offering. I did find my usual oasis of secondhand tools in crates and Phil and I found enough for us to realise the real world. I picked up some nice bits and bobs including a pair of brass trammels, a nice brass holder that fit my Stanley knife blade and another miniature brace. there was a lot more.

Going through the Woodfest show I watched a man talk about turning and in the past three years I have only ever seen him turn toadstools (see above). In the carving with chainsaws I again saw lots of fantasy shapes formed with the tip of a chainsaw. Birds of prey, strange looking mystical shapes and so on. I wonder what visitors now think woodworking is all about. Do they now think woodworking is about men dressed in strange garb shaping goblins and wizards and gargoyles with gas-powered chainsaws. It was a relief to see a single chair lost in the backdrop until I realised I saw the exact same chair in the same place two years ago.

Could this be my last Woodfest? If the predominance will be fantasy and the same old same old I think that it could. In previous years I have enjoyed sitting and chatting with basket weavers and horse loggers, real woodsmen and conservators maintaining woodlands. I enjoy watching specialists in all the different fields surrounding my craft. Woodworking is so living and vibrant in all of its diversity and my expectations were sadly disappointed. I asked myself today if this type of event reflects the future course of woodworking and I told myself, NO. There has to be more than this.
There is so much more to working wood than fantasy figures, wooden spoons and woodland flowers and mushrooms. How we turn this tide I will never know!!!

I think that there is a place for many diverse things in woodworking as long as the predominance offers real life not fantasy. I also think that people come to events looking for real stuff but people offer more and more fantasy from a fantasy-driven world. If people are looking purely for entertainment, what’s currently offered will not satisfy them long term. I hope there are those looking for deeper things like real woodworking and craftsmanship.

32 Comments

  1. Robert Sanders on 28 June 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Paul, you mirror my feelings exactly, it’s becoming the same with the Westonbirt Woodfest



  2. Gary Blair on 28 June 2014 at 8:04 pm

    You ARE turning the tide, my friend! Just look at the number of readers of your blog, viewers of your YouTube videos, and members of Masterclasses. Keep up the good work!



  3. Jonas Jensen on 28 June 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I am glad you did write this blog entry.

    I suppose that one of the reasons craft fairs are becoming like this is because a lot of the people who display stuff at the fair want to make a days wages while being at the show.
    Making toadstools on the spot is likely something that will attract the interest of children and some of the visitors – and you can feel all rural and authentic when you walk away with your own craftsman made mushroom. The price of a mushroom is probably not so high that it scare the majority from buying it. So in short selling cheap goods that the people want is guaranteed to get the exhibitor some cash out of a day at the fair.

    If you choose to exhibit something that takes a long time to fabricate, the price will off course reflect this. Many people sadly lack the understanding why a handmade chair that will last for centuries is expensive. They can go to a furniture outlet and get something to sit on that will cost them next to nothing. So the chair maker will most likely not be able to sell one single unit on such an event.

    I don’t know what it will take to change things back so craft fairs are where you come to find new inspiration instead of shopping in open air. I am afraid that events like this are going to be more and more consumer driven.

    Brgds
    Jonas



    • Kerry on 3 July 2014 at 1:47 am

      Your statement mirrors Paul’s description of his time on the Texas craft fair circuit, when the quality furniture is much harder to sell than the screwed together on demand variety. Many of the craft fairs cater to the least common denominator-what will sell and make a profit. But there are gems to be found too, and hopefully there will always be quality craftsmen. And these fairs can be a venue to expose children and some adults to real woodworking, also. Our local woodworkers guild tries at some of these type of events to give kids an opportunity to use a plane, to make something with their hands-it turns on a light in their eyes to know they can do this, and some of them will find their way back to this, or some other real craft.



  4. David Nixon on 28 June 2014 at 8:52 pm

    If there is a sure path to misery it is to take our expectations seriously. The world and the people in it seem to delight in demonstrating to me how independent they are of my expectations, especially my ‘legitimate’ expectations.

    Your experience at the Woodfest will, I hope, demonstrate to you yet again the importance of your craft and the rightness of your decision to spend your only life in bringing that craft directly into the lives of others, as your legacy to them and the rest of us who follow your work from afar.



  5. Terry Blose on 28 June 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Paul,
    Paul,
    My observations have been quite similar here in Texas. You’ve not written a negative blog, but you have written an accurate assesment.
    God bless,
    Terry



    • Paul Sellers on 28 June 2014 at 11:28 pm

      Always in my heart and mind you and Bonnie. Hope you are keeping well.



  6. David on 28 June 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Dear Paul,

    I understand this frustrating draught that is taking place and it has me often questioning the best path for myself in the wood working industry. I recently returned from Asahikawa Japan, where there are several furniture makers and have a long history of traditional wood working, but found poorly thought and executed work. I expected to see beautiful Japanese joinery, and fine skills that I have often read about, but I found nothing of that scoop and in fact felt disappointed seeing such beautiful wood be used so poorly. Now being back in America I can’t say I have seen anything better once again a fine polished roughed edge table top slapped together with poorly executed metal legs with a boastful sign adorned to it that read “made in-house by our skilled team.”

    However, things are always darkest before the dawn as the cliche goes!

    And what I wanted to share is there is great hope for future furniture makers and our industry. I can say this because while I was in Asahikawa I took a tour of one furniture factory called Time and Style, while I did not see them using traditional Japanese hand tools they still practice the traditional apprenticeship program. I believe this exchange from a master craftsman to an apprentice is the key. And so because of people like you and the and others who continue to raise wood workers up I believe that there is great hope for our trade and I believe there will come a time people will become bored of the slapped together furniture and look for real quality. So Paul don’t be dishearten by what you have seen I believe in this time honored tradition and know that people who have a deep love for this industry will continue to produce masterpieces for future generations.

    With that being said I often envy you Brits! I haven’t found any used hand wood working tools worth purchasing in NY except the time I went to MapleWood and learned how to restore a hand plane. 5$ clamps thats crazy! Hahaha. Anyways, thank you Paul for all your videos and insight it has been very helpful.



  7. Matt on 28 June 2014 at 11:42 pm

    In defense of fantasy

    Your mention of green wood working intrigued me, because using a knife to carve a real useable object from thing that was obviously once part of a tree, doesn’t seem fanciful at all. As a learning tool, spoon carving is great. It reconnects the carver with the wood, rather than using purchased planed and square stock. The difference is like that of buying frozen packaged vegetables or growing your own, it’s much easier and probably cheaper some times to buy the frozen packaged ones. so growing your own is just fantasy right?

    In a world of cheap flat packed furniture, buying the wood alone is more expensive. Furniture making is not really a viable occupation most in the west. So it becomes a hobby and so the skills survive until they are needed again, and a lot of people spend their spare time in the shed, not in front of a play station. I’d class that as a win for the human race.



    • David on 29 June 2014 at 5:40 am

      Matt I agree with you, however I think Paul wasn’t saying green wood working is bad, just that they tried to do a lot more in thier construction of those green products. That’s how I saw it anyways. I have that problem to want to over complicate things myself and then I tell myself there is beauty in simplicity too! But I think we are all guilty of over thinking projects sometimes!



  8. Bill Schenher on 29 June 2014 at 1:31 am

    Sounds like a carnival to me. Seems like the vendors have sold out for small profits and easy production. Usually events like that die off because they get old so fast. Unless they add amusement rides and jousting, then business might pick up.



  9. Andrew on 29 June 2014 at 3:09 am

    You should see the shows here in Australia. Pathetic and I’ve seen it get worse over the past 20 years. At least you had some wooden spoons at your show. Ours should be renamed the Chinese Machine Show. The prices they charge for a stand are now so high that many just can’t afford to go anymore.



  10. Deb on 29 June 2014 at 3:54 am

    My Husband and I agree 100% with what you posted in your Blog regarding people don’t seem to really appreciate any type of hand crafted item. Yes there are some people who are talented enough to carve with any type of power tool. Not to mention due to physical health reasons some power tools are necessary.

    I have personally done a few presentations at my school titled “Crafting is it a Hobby or a lost Art”, my audience seems torn, but were engaged. People take classes to learn what was once taught in the home. Unfortunately some people will never realize this and a small few will always appreciate and cherish hand crafted items of any kind.

    Don’t give up, we may be few but we ALL appreciate what you do. Thank you Paul.



  11. Brian on 29 June 2014 at 5:49 am

    Paul I’ve been thinking a lot lately on a concern I have regarding ‘losing the tangibles’ in this world. I still love a paper-hard to fold map, a friend of mine just bought a book printed in the early 1900’s because he loves the ‘feel’ of a book ( i feel a bit hypocritical utilizing this iPad to type on which has no ‘keyboard’.) that is why I am putting more effort and importance into creating hand crafted gifts for people this year. That is thanks in large part to you sir, and your way of teaching, your way of communicating, showing us that you can support a family while making an honest living creating hand made goods. So i for one say thank you for opening up your world to us.



  12. Martin King on 29 June 2014 at 11:19 am

    Yes we can win, if the five thousand woodworkers you’ve trained personally and the thousands more that you’ve inspired online have anything to do with it!



  13. Bob Tinsley on 29 June 2014 at 12:39 pm

    I truly enjoy your blog, but feel compelled to take you to task. Is making beautiful, useful objects like wooden spoons not “real” woodworking, no matter how long it takes? What about Wille Sundquist, Magnus Sundelin, Barn Carder, the youngster, JoJo Wood, Jarrod Stone Dahl, Peter Follansbee and others too numerous to mention. Is a handmade spoon less useful and less beautiful than a handmade chair? Is there a ghettoization within woodworking where some makers are less equal than others? Or less admirable? Was Monet less skillful, less admirable than Rembrant because he used dots of color instead of contiguous brush strokes? I know a wonderful carver who produces wonderful pieces whose surfaces are sanded smooth, whose curves blend perfectly into one another who looked down on Swedish Flat Plane carving because it was “unfinished.” We, as artists, as humans often come to believe that our way is the best way, if not the only way. That is an attitude that we cannot afford if we really want to expand our horizons and draw others into our way of life.



  14. Vodkovski on 30 June 2014 at 2:43 am

    “The scene of what is now called green woodworking seems mostly about making something called gypsy flowers, dozens upon dozens of knife-carved wooden spoons and spatulas that seem to take a very long time to make”

    I’m a little confused. A year ago you wrote one entry after another on spoon making, and green wood spoon making. And then wrote extensively on getting started and how an aspiring wood worker could make and sell similar things – how you yourself did much the same in the beginning. And now it seems you find this dispiriting? I have to say, inspired by your own teaching and example, I had a lot of fun last year making spatulas and spoons and kitchen things to raise money for my kids’ school. Reading the above entry I found it a bit discouraging, and confusing, to hear that you now find it tiresome. I’m sure that’s not your intent. Maybe you could clarify this.



    • Paul Sellers on 30 June 2014 at 6:17 am

      I thought that the show was declining quite rapidly and that it is self evident that such shows need to see a kind of juried entry to maintain standards of quality and of content. It surprised me that the rate of decline came so quickly to a show two or three years ago I enjoyed going to and being a part of. There is much more to working wood than what I saw and it saddened me to see what was offered. It was indeed “dispiriting” that only half the crafts there this year over last year and to find so few demonstrators that showed any real level of crafting skill.
      What I felt to express was my concerns about the context and content of the show and the venue and that woodworking shows celebrating woodworking will continue a decline if the standards drop and everyone attending thinks that woodworking is limited to green methods that can seem always to be the same thing rather than filled with the richness and diverseness it really has. I suppose I have seen the better shows are not so much individually or commercially owned but more a co-operatives of people wanting a show that promotes more the crafts and therefor perhaps less centralised around commercial vendors selling stuff. I mean in previous years there were many crafts such as hurdle making and canoe building or making guitars, spoon carving, making furniture and fine box making and so much more. None of these were represented this time. There was no wood and timber for sale and no veneers, no basket weaving, no steam bending demoes and things of that nature. I found one tool vendor instead of the three that were there previously.
      I see nothing wrong with what you are doing. My goal has and always will be to encourage people to get off the commercial path of woodworking rather than become a machinist only cranking stuff out that has no soul. If I see something wrong as I did here I feel obliged to say something about it. Keep making spoons and expand your horizons. Make a difference with what you make. This was just one glitch and a very small part.



  15. Andrew on 1 July 2014 at 4:00 am

    Why can’t I see comments made here and why can’t I find this latest blog entry on Paul Sellers.com The last entry showing for me is marking gauges on June16.
    Thanks



    • Paul Sellers on 1 July 2014 at 5:45 am

      We are not sure why this is happening for some and not others.



      • Andrew on 1 July 2014 at 6:21 am

        Thanks for the fast reply. I wasn’t sure if it was just me. No problem really as I can still click through from my email notifications. It will probably sort itself out eventually. I really look forward to reading/watching your content. Thanks for donating so much of your time. I’m currently saving to buy all your dvds and books because I crave to learn more and feel that I owe you after all the time saving tips I’ve learned.



      • Jean-Luc on 2 July 2014 at 4:38 pm

        I had it also. The quick fix was to force the server (your side) to refresh the queries et present the right latest page instead of a cached one. Adding something like /?xxx (xxx being some random characters) does the job.

        Today, it is fine from the menu.

        There is an other problem: when goint to http://woodworkingschool.com/book-a-class/ and cliock any class to book (but the chair one), I get the following error (also on the server side):

        Error 525 Ray ID: 143beae5f51e024b
        SSL handshake failed

        If I remember, this is also a cacheing problem…



  16. Mike Wodkowski on 1 July 2014 at 9:12 pm

    Can’t read comments anymore. Is there a fix for this?



    • Paul Sellers on 2 July 2014 at 10:53 am

      Sorry Mike, we have worked through a glitch we had but I am not sure of some things can be retrieved.



  17. Andy in Germany on 2 July 2014 at 7:21 pm

    Having been told I’m “Living in a pretend world” for learning to use hand tools by none other than the person supposedly training me, I do sometimes wonder myself if I’m aiming down a dead end of ‘novelty’ gifts.

    Mind you, the day after I was told this, we had a power cut in the workshop and everything ground to a standstill. The highly trained, experienced people I work with can do nothing without their complicated machines. Without the elecrical supply the machines were dead weight, sculptures.

    I could have carried on working with my saws and chisels, and the seventy year old Stanley #4 plane I’ve restored but after the reactions of those I work with I don’t take them into work anymore.

    However, this power cut reminded me that the current system of mass production relies on over-complex and extended supply systems. These rely on sources of capital, and more importantly energy, to keep working for ever, which we know is impossible: you can’t have unlimited wealth or energy in a finite world.

    Surely to claim otherwise is the pretend or fantasy world?

    I think we forget how short the industrial age is/was, and that the way you teach is actually ‘normal’, it is just that we’ve accepted the situation of the last few generations as being the way things are now, and that gradually we will return to a more sustainable way of life, which will require us to make things with our hands again, and not just wooden mushrooms, either.



    • Paul Sellers on 2 July 2014 at 7:57 pm

      I am always sad to hear of the conflicts machinists cause in the hearts and minds of those who strive for excellence in other ways than commerce and who sow seeds of doubt. The truth is they can’t stand the fact that they are compromised. they have zero skills and they are programmed in the same way a machine is programmed. I just made a beautiful Shaker Deacons bench by hand. The wood was milled to size by the donkeys; machines and that work well for this. The remainder relied on my skill and my strength, my hands and my brain. It was a wonderful few days. I am looking at my next project now. I am looking for ways to make it that need my skills. You have children Andy. Do you want them to have to go through what you are going through or are you going to teach them what you are learning so you can lead them out to? Be nice to the machine men, Smile with them, be respectful to them. In a year or two they will respect your stand and some of them may even say will you teach me?



      • Jean-Luc on 2 July 2014 at 8:43 pm

        Maybe it is something like those who like to learn and those who like to know…
        Some like woodworking, others like things made of wood.
        There are also the ones who like tools (but make nothing with them) and those who like sharpening. Or those who like shavings… but don’t have no interest in the piece where the shavings come from.

        J-L



        • Paul Sellers on 2 July 2014 at 9:44 pm

          Yes, there’s a place for all of those, but I love flying and soaring in my work as I work using my own wings and under my own power and using my own judgements to micro-adjust every minute detail of my work. I like the tools I use, high-dollar and low-dollar, I like the shavings on the bench and at my feet, and I like sitting for a while and just looking at what I just made with my own hands.



          • Jean-Luc on 2 July 2014 at 10:15 pm

            Probably there is a part of philosophy in all that…

            Few months ago, I was looking for some informations on the net (woodworking and more specifically organ making). I’ve “found” your Youtube channel… It was a kind of a revelation; your explanations were so clear, and everything seems so easy… I’ve then bought your book and some of the DVD. I bought a Record #4 on oldtools.co.uk (it is not so easy to find hand tools in France, fortunately there is the Internet). I bought a so called carcass saw from Veritas (for tenons and dovetails), a knife (same as yours), a mallet (Thor 712r), a square square (which is not so easy!). The crazy thing is that I bought most of the things on amazon.co.uk: it is 30% cheaper than on amazon.fr… but everything came directly from… France!

            Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge (maybe more than just the knowledge if fact: your “Lifestyle” 🙂 )

            Jean-Luc



  18. David Devereux on 3 July 2014 at 9:50 am

    Like you Paul, I went to Woodfest and was disappointed by the amount devoted to hand woodworking. There were the boxes full of rusty tools and one supplier of old tols, but he is based in Essex. The previous day I went to a huge antique and craft fair in Chester where one stall holder had one wooden plane. Since attending your course I have bought some items on ebay but would much prefer to see what I am buying. My appeal to you and anyone else looking at this blog is where to go to see old tools in the north-west- anywhere from Manchester through to North Wales?



  19. brad on 4 July 2014 at 5:27 am

    Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. – Oscar Wilde



  20. Bartosz Pielak on 12 August 2015 at 8:46 pm

    Dear Paul, i know this is an old post, but unfortunatelly it’s still true.
    But i wanted to tell you, that i’m almost 30 years old, i don’t really have time for my amateur woodworking after work, but i’m still trying to use hand tools only (even when using machines would me much faster), to feel the wood, to really create something instead of just producing it.
    I haven’t got any experience with woodworking in the past, not to mention my lack of knowledge of so many different tools, but i want to think i’ll bring some hope for you when i’ll tell you i’m fascinated with every single piece of new incormation. I’m looking for techniques used now and in the past. I’m simply enchanted when i’ll find out what that old tool i found is used for.
    And there are many like me, older, younger. And even when woodworking will become even more ‘ancient’ than it is now, remember that there will be still many fascinated by it and it will be even more magical than it already is.