Being a Woodworker – Is It a Thing Of The Past?

DSC_0107A man stands in the door and closes his eyes as he smells the workshop he seems reluctant to invade. He hesitates all the more when he opens his eyes and sees everything in a single sweep from one end to the other. He laments to his wife in audible tones of melancholy the waste of time , “thirty years”, when he should have been working with his hands. He turns, walks away, and continues his undoing. This for me seems a destiny unfulfilled through self pity. That’s not always the case but this one was. This is the man who chose the wrong path. He chose the will of his parents, money, social standing. His hand stitched coat and clipped Englishness spoke more of his choices than perhaps he knew.

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Another thing that saddens me is that sometimes people give up woodworking because their pride kept on telling them that they were too much the perfectionist. People tell me often enough that they are a perfectionist as though that falseness places them at some higher level than others who perhaps accept standards lesser than theirs. Working to perfect your standards and skills is a very different dimension than the illusional perfectionism. Parents who tell their children they are too much a perfectionist rarely tell their children the truth because they live their own falsehood through their children and put undue pressure on them to live up to something that does’t actually exist. Instead of disabusing there children of such lofty self opinions they should look at them and be truthful. It doesn’t have to be hurtful or abusive in any way. Just real.

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Another person stands at the door but walks in with confidence smelling the air as though in a rose garden. A sparkled eye reminds me of the magpie that picks up the jewelled ring in its long beak and hops back through the window to escape enclosure. I like being captured by my work. Being anchored to my bench for 8 hours a day six days a week has worked for me for 50 years and I still find freedom in it. How can anyone understand that? Each hour someone comes into my workshop and the smell united with sight and sound captivate who I am and what I do and people tell those with them that this is the workshops where they repair things and make things for the castle even though they don’t actually know what I do. If they ask questions I answer and they feel rewarded for discovering something uniquely diverse. The wood gives off its musky smell and the buzz of busy workmen about their work are rare sounds and sights and smells now. The women say they remember their granddad’s shed and the men say they remember woodworking in school. It’s as if what once existed died to them and yet they don’t realise it’s still with us if we want it. We don’t conjure up illusions of the past but live life in the real of the present. Sometimes I want to take down the barrier and say come over here and cut this piece of wood just for a minute. I know you have never done anything like this in your life before and it may feel a bit awkward but just feel it and smell it and see it as you do it. Sometimes I do that with a child and the parents say it’s OK, but if they liked it and wanted to be a woodworker and not a a doctor or a lawyer or someone of standing, would it still be OK? How would they feel saying my daughter or my son is a woodworker I wonder?

Don’t lament lost years not doing. Do It Yourself starts with the Do.

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16 Comments

  1. Wm. D. Elliott on 6 August 2014 at 11:35 am

    Paul,
    I have been one of your apprentices for now a couple of years and am a member of your online class. Thank you for that.

    Earlier today, I took a look at some of the traditional online woodworking sites that I originally followed, nice guys, great woodworkers, and so on, but they are power tool users, with their extensive array of Powermatics, Festools, Deltas, etc.

    They do not hold my attention any longer. You do. The reasons are captured in your blog passage. Hand woodworking is satisfying.

    Thank you.



  2. Ed on 6 August 2014 at 1:10 pm

    You misunderstand perfectionism, at least as I know it. Perfectionism is less a sense of pride and arrogance and more a relentless voice of self-criticism that only knows how to say, “not good enough.” While some experience their work as sights, sounds, smells, and a spectrum of emotions, the perfectionist is likely to have only the experience of frustation and self critique which is rarely positive and which is an active voice almost every second throughout the work. Perfectionism in beginners is a moment-by-moment voice of “it will never be good enough, why try” and in masters is a voice of “why don’t others see the fraud?” On the one hand, perfectionism is a compulsion that drives one to create things that otherwise would not have been created, but on the other hand it leaves even more undone or unstarted. As you can guess, I suffer from this (and benefit from it in a sick sort of way), so I thought I would contribute these thoughts. I have mastered other fields, so I can say that “getting better” and even achieving mastery level does not make the self criticism go away nor does any amount of feedback from peers. What I like about woodworking with traditional methods is the total focus that it requires.That focus and the repetitive nature of some of the work draws me away from the critical voice.

    I am not really disagreeing with the main point of your article, which is about finding that which satisfies and fulfills us. There is something to be admired rather than pitied, though, in the person that seeks to be reconciled with early choices, need, or duty, and seeks to find satisfaction in their circumstances. I absolutely agree, it is sad when years pass by with one needlessly or foolishly pursuing the wrong thing.



    • Ed on 6 August 2014 at 1:17 pm

      Maybe I should add, “thank you.” Your teaching allows me to pursue this work with ever widening challenges and interest and this work greatly enriches my life, even when it is nothing more than flattening a board just to be at my bench and then returning the board to the scrap box or cutting a joint for the joy of doing so and then discarding it.



  3. Greg Brophey on 6 August 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Paul,

    All life and things in life come and go in cycles. I call it three steps forward and two back. Or three steps backward and two forward. We are now in the cycle of coming back to this skill. I see it in fairs here in USA where people show off their unique handmade skills. The Columbus, Ohio, USA home fair coming this fall is packed with these master craftsman and the demand for their products is overwhelmingly delightful. I see it as a coming back. The younger generation are demanding this, and this is the driving force, or the demand that has to be there.

    Could it be that websites such as yours has influenced this younger generation that they want a unique item, not one made off an assembly line built of manmade material and flimsy joints that last maybe 15 years??? Keep up the skill to pass on, as I have come back after many years of being a carpenter to actually learn how to work with my hands and develop the skills it took you over 45 years to acquire. And yes, I too am a carpenter of 45 years but have yet to learn how to work with my hands.

    I do believe the cycle has come back in and here to stay for a while. It will go away again, but as always, this cycle will repeat itself. It will never die unless masters decide not to pass their skills along to others.



  4. Ken Luxford on 6 August 2014 at 1:21 pm

    I doubt that woodwork ( or Real Woodworking as you call it )is a thing of the past
    but there are clearly quite limited opportunities these days for young people
    to choose it as a career. After all there is practically no exposure to it these days
    in schools at all and even in my own case, and I’m about your age,it was
    limited to two 45 minute lessons per week in High School.

    I conclude from reading through your blogs after I discovered them a few months ago
    that you are one of a small number of people who actually had a clue about what you wanted to do with your life at a quite early age. Many of us do not. I wandered around after leaving school doing various jobs until I found my way into the electronics world which had fascinated me as hobby since I was about 12 and making crystal sets. I was fortunate;I was keen and found good mentors who encouraged and taught me.More importantly being keen and getting joy from whatever you’re working at seems to me to be a prerequisite for success in any field. The joy you derive from your craft is well expressed in your writings.

    I’m also fairly certain that many of us are moulded to some extent by parental expectations. Just ask my 87 year old mother who’d rather I’d gone to university and “made something of myself”. Now it’s not something that worries me at all as I know how tough things were at times for my parents and it seems to me that wanting “something better” for your kids is the way we parents are.

    My Dad worked factory jobs to put a roof over our heads, food on the table and to educate us. It was hard work. Menial work. The stuff the Oxford Dictionary describes as “not requiring much skill and lacking prestige”. Well I can tell you that standing at a power hammer in an earthen
    floored factory turning red hot bars of steel into harrow tines is a pretty damned skilled job but in our society it certainly is low prestige. It took me until a few years after he passed away to realise that he was happy doing his 40 hours hard work providing for his family and spending his weekends doing his bit of woodwork in the shed. There is dignity in honest work and it is a man’s right to find it and provide for his family. When did we lose sight of this vital fact ?

    Sorry for for the long winded response but if anything has taken the shine off the electronics and software world that I’m part of it’s that it has been responsible for the disenfranchisement of vast numbers of men and women who longer have the opportunuty to do what used to be called an honest days work. In the mean time I’ll make spatulas and spoons with my grandkids
    while they are keen and not regret it if they decide to do other things later on, since trying out stuff seems to be the only way left to them to work out what they might want to do. They will certainly not find out going through the current education system.



    • Paul Sellers on 6 August 2014 at 6:19 pm

      I love this letter. Thanks for sharing your dad with me. Yeah, ask yourself who wrote the Oxford dictionary I suppose. And you are right. i never met a parent yet that didn’t want the best for their kids.



      • Ken Luxford on 6 August 2014 at 11:17 pm

        Paul, I have no problem sharing my Dad. What I did have was lack of understanding of what he was about.He wasn’t the world’s most communicative guy !. Fortunately for me I now some of have his hand tools refurbished and they are in use by me and a couple of his great grand kids. Using them is a kind of “connecting” exercise that gives me great pleasure. And thanks for your teaching. My 7 year old grand daughter loves the spatula and spoon video’s. Of course you realise that it’s denting the hip pocket some since she now insists that we need a “proper spoon making thing” .i.e a decent gouge . Making things with her is also a much more profound connection that I thank you for. You are making a difference in places that’s for sure.



  5. John Z. Zhu on 6 August 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Perfection is unattainable by humans. As humans the best we can do is to out do what we did last time, it doesn’t matter the profession. A floor sweeper who sweeps better today than yesterday has accomplished something.

    A person who objectively tries to improve at his small and large tasks each time is going to be happy, regardless of profession. The challenge in internal.

    A person who regrets not being a woodworker because he despises his job is not going to be happy being a woodworker, the problem is internal, the grass is always greener across the pond.



  6. turningsawdustintogroceries on 6 August 2014 at 4:19 pm

    I am a woodworker. I have been a carpenter and stair builder for 30+ years, and started being a real woodworker about 10 years ago. The most difficult part of being a woodworker in the US is making enough money to live on. I make 75% of my living making architectural millwork items, and the rest from fine woodworking. With the current upswing in demand for hand made items, I can only hope that I can bring the woodworking up to the 75% level.

    I will be 48 this year, and I only know one person younger than I that has any hand tool skills. And he learned them from me.

    There aren’t really any apprentice programs on the west coast of the US, and young people just don’t seem inclined to do any actual work that involves sweating.

    I was lucky enough to share a bench with my best friend who taught me nearly all of my hand tool skills. When I’m working on a furniture project, I can’t wait to get out to the shop. Making nice things by hand is very satisfying. Hopefully, your blog and some of the others will inspire the younger generation.



  7. fredsutton2014 on 6 August 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Paul
    I became that man, and have lived to regret it!
    Long before I left school I was passionate about woodwork.
    In our street was a Cabinet Maker and his two sons, I spent every spare moment with them and by the time I was twelve could do a mean dovetail.
    As I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago, I started an apprenticeship in Macclesfield about 5 years before you in Stockport
    A couple of years in to my apprenticeship we were installing a kitchen bespoke Oak made in our shop, in a house in Prestbury (now footballer teritory)
    We were not allowed to use the toilet in the house, there was an outbuilding and we hired a chemical toilet to use in there.
    We had to eat our meals in the outhouse.
    A couple of days in to the job the man of the house said he did not want an apprentice on the job.
    The joiner I was working with said he is not a beginner I am happy with his work and with that attitude how is anyone going to learn.
    The next day we were both off the job, me for being an apprentice and the Joiner for speaking the truth.
    I was young easily infleuenced this had had a profound effect on me I thought how people who worked with their hands and wore overals were held in such low esteem we were of low prestige..
    I vowed to get out, went day release to Tech and 5 NIGHTS night school, City and Guilds ONC HNC and on and at twenty three started work as a Building Surveyor.
    For the next forty years I worked in the Estate Departments of major PLCs and was a corporate slave, all because I allowed two people with a lot of money no manners or social graces to influence me
    I am now retired still passionate about my woodwork and still have the skills that were instilled in me all those years ago.
    I often wonder If I would have been happier if I had stayed on the tools I think I would.
    see poem The land of lost content.



    • Ken Luxford on 7 August 2014 at 12:27 am

      Fred, thanks for the pointer to the poem. I love it. I suspect that you were turned from something you clearly loved by the same sort of people that wrote that Oxford definition of “menial;” I spoke of. I’m sorry to hear it.I guess it’s just unfortunate that we make many decisions early in life when we lack any real understanding of some of their consequences.



  8. Chris on 6 August 2014 at 7:58 pm

    Both my wife and I really enjoyed seeing your workshop and talking to you yesterday, it was a real inspiration (we had the unruly 3 and 5 year olds!). I really enjoyed this blog post too and we will be reading your blog and website lots now we know about it.



    • Paul Sellers on 6 August 2014 at 9:25 pm

      Good to meet you and the kids too. Every so often a spark gets lit and fanned into flame. We all need that.



  9. Bradley Bingham on 6 August 2014 at 9:03 pm

    Paul,

    I attended the university and found computers which I loved writing software and managing systems for 30yrs. Recently I have not been able to work at my chosen profession due to and illness which I have no control. Since I have been away from the computer world I have found that other aspects of my life have become enhanced, writing poetry, writing music, photography and woodworking.

    I find woodworking challenging and frustrating but very satisfying. The perfectionism that made me a good programmer also makes me a better woodworker. I have to admit I want to have your skills and abilities right not but I am aware enough to know it takes time and experience to even approach being a craftsman.

    As I watch your videos and work in my garage on my “work mate” I recall the days in Jr High school where we had wonderful tools available for our use but everyone chose the bandsaw or table saw to do simple tasks. I wonder how it would have been if our teachers would have given us the knowledge of real wood working and not the zzzzzzooooowwww sound of the electric planer. Feeling the wood and smelling the wood from a clean shaving you get from a well tuned and sharpened hand plane is something that can not be matched.

    I am lucky to recall watching my grandfather working with wood with hand tools, planes, saws, braces etc. I want to work as he did.

    Although I receive strange looks from my neighbors when they see me using a hand saw on creating stairs on my deck I find great satisfaction knowing I am not enslaved by the length of a cord or the life time of a battery. I may be odd in a world of fast past I live but I am content.

    Thank you for the interest you have in teaching and presenting real woodworking.



  10. Thomas Tieffenbacher/akadocSavage45 on 9 August 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Paul,I share my time between psychology and woodworking. I was trained in a great high school that was both college preparatory and technical training. My parents were bright folks who worked through the “Great Depression” and “WWII”. My dad a bright guy and mom were working class folks. My story about woodworking is unlocking my dad’s tool shed and making my own little bench ( a couple of 2×4’s and a plank of 3/4 pine. Then I started making simple boats a block on top of a board I cut a 45 degree ( maybe LOL!) for a nose. Planned on letting them go at the city park lagoon. My dad use to bring home the wood which were scraps from a furniture factory to burn in our basement wood-burning stoves in winter.

    He found me when he came home from work. What are you doing !” He angrily boomed. “Making boats!” I said. He walked away, calmed down and changed his clothes. Came back and said “Thomas if I give you your own tools and a bench, will you stay out of my tool-shed?” I said “Yes.”

    That weekend he cleaned the front of the basement and it revealed a bench! With a mechanics vise. He put a bare bulb extension over the bench for light, set me up with the basic hand tools. I still remember respect for the blade of the plane. “Lay it on its side to protect it.” I asked about the power tools? He said, “Learn to use these first, your mistakes will be smaller!” LOL! Later I had bought him a nice craftsman saber saw for his birthday. He said “I guess you need a saber saw. Thanks” I laughed and said, “Yep.”

    My other interest was electronics, building tube radios from books on a wooden board… Won a science fair ribbon or two. Watched old sci fi on TV and fantasized.

    Viet Nam era, and in Military ( spyguy electronics) I was the person in charge of my shift and ended up counseling/problem solving with people. I’m a fix it guy. My path after military included biomedical electronics and working with long hair and beard at IBM ( freeked out the three piece suiters) But I wanted to help children as I felt that is where I might do the most good. My journey went that direction. Now around 40 years later I am doing both.

    Had a fantasy about building furniture (strong power tool influence by New Yankee Workshop and Norm Abrams. I have built a few houses in my time and I can do most of the mechanicals. Wiring, framing and drywall, etc. But I’d not built a really nice piece of furniture. Read James Krenov and I was hooked. I left my position as clinical director to do both psych and woodworking.

    Hopefully I have helped a few children and others along the way. Rehabbing some Ebay hand planes, and still doing maintenance on my 140 year old country Victorian. Found you when rebuilding my mechanics workbench into a hybrid woodworker’s bench.

    15 years ago I looked for a local wood/cabinet shop or woodworker to use me as an apprentice to learn. Every inquiry was “No due to my insurance!” So I have been doing video learning. And I’m making a lot of mistakes. Small steps and patience is what I’ve learned from woodworking and applying it to life.

    Thanks for sharing!



  11. Robert W Reid on 17 August 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Woodwork has always been a passion of mine, from September 1961 when I walked into Mr Clarkes classroom I was captivated. In 1965 it was painfully obvious that yours truly, was no academic. I applied for a pre apprenticeship building course at a local college, and got in by the skin of my teeth, (poor maths skills). From the beginning, it was obvious that the practical side of bricklaying was not my forte, (I could draw you a hell of a stepped footing though).

    From the start, I loved the time that I spent in the woodwork shop. The plumbing side was always my second love, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. The time came at the end of the course for us to choose our career path, and I obviously chose carpentry, ( I could make you a hell of a sliding sash window). The lecturer for woodwork sat me down, and told me, ” son you would surely starve, because although your skill is undoubted, you are just too slow for any sort of site or production work”. He went on to tell me that my plumbing was up to scratch and he felt that was a better career choice.

    The upshot was, 43 years in the gas industry, earning good money in a career that I enjoyed.
    However, the longing to work with wood never left me. In 2009 health problems meant that I had to retire at 60, six months later. So I set to, and bought a few power and hand tools, and returned to my first love. I spend quite a bit of time in my little garage shop, so maybe I have had the best of both worlds……..