More Meaning Beyond Machining and Hand Work

Some of you expressed surprise in my using machines for long and extended days for manufacturing. That was a past life for me. One day I rebelled and said never again. I will never go back there.

In the same way some lament lost family, lost countrymen and lost comrades, I lament the sense of wellbeing many may never know without my working to share what I have been so blessed with. I know I am not the only one, and that there are many ways to reach a goal and not just mine.

Perhaps this song will help amplify my concerns as you read.

The thoughts I express in my blog are not from the standpoint of someone working wood part time and standing at a machine for an hour or two a week or a month but those of a man feeling a sense of lostness and searching for a door of escape when day after day and week after week and even year after years he stood feeding a machine with wood.IMG_9029 2

You see I’m not really an amateur in the sense of part time, nor a hobbyist in the sense of not having to earn my living and support a family. I am and always was a man who worked hard, diligently, full-time, most time to support and provide in a single wage. It was a joint choice between me and my wife. We both chose that. It wasn’t that my wife didn’t work it was that we were indeed hard working partners facing a lifetime conjoined together in this thing called life and we wanted to spend as much time in our lives jointly together without selling ourselves to a company. Guess what??? It worked. We’ve spent our lives working together and living together and travelling together, raising our five children together and guess another what??? We neither of us went to to higher education, neither of us had a career and we both feel a sense of wonder and fulfilment, contentment and happiness.IMG_9016 2 - Version 2

When I worked the industrial world it was a small step toward working on a machine, but it was a gigantic machine none the less. The condition of wanting to be seen as a man is a powerful force. I then went and bought my own small bandsaw I liked. Then I bought a DeWalt radial arm saw and several times almost lost a hand. What a dangerous machine that is. As I gathered more machines I became industrial, respected, admired. I mass made things and step by step I started losing my love for work and for my craft. I suppose this is a true thing here, I never felt more lost and alone than when I was standing at a router table shoving wood into it. Eyes covered with protective lenses, ears isolating me from life, the dust mask and the noise separated me from life itself. Spindle moulders hummed all the more with a monstrous power compared to routers and the air moved rapidly surrounding the machine air I was breathing despite my mask. I ached to take it all off. I recall days when my lungs coughed up black stuff, when I was a younger man because the bosses only gave us a surgical mask. Idris Owen was a wretched man, a conservative MP and a massive snob of a man who was a disgrace of a man and to his father’s hard-earned name. He drove in in a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud and would not buy masks or any extractors for the men at work. IMG_9050There were days when the shop was so thick with dust; oak, mahogany, even asbestos, we could scarcely see one another. One day I rebelled and said I would never work for another man again and apart from an odd time of shortage I have stayed within an engineered lifestyle I put together piece by piece just like the pieces of furniture I build; solid, dovetailed, tenoned and pegged. I bought oak from small mills and shared conversations with the millers on purpose so I would know his family, his wife and his children. I saw them born and I made many a casket for their parents and even their babies stillborn. I dovetailed the corners and created a place of peace and rest at the close of their lives. I’ve made these things alongside the fine pieces where I sometimes see President Obama leaning on them or standing by them in the Cabinet Room of the White House. I don’t like to think that some people are on a conveyor belt that they can’t get off that has nothing to do with woodworking at all but has the same soul-destroying effect. But indeed I know they are and they are searching for the same way out I was once searching for and found. Many are following the blog these days that search for their own way out. The keyboard lost its spark after just a few months in the “real world” the nerve endings were sending signals but they ignored them at first. The aching wrists and the fingers and then the fabric became scratchier on their wrists, soon painful. Before long they had something called carpal tunnel syndrome. A syndrome??? An abnormal coincidence of events occurring at one time. You know what? Going off the amount of emails and messages and texts and such that I get, there are thousands upon thousands of people who know something’s very wrong and they cannot, they cannot make the change. But that’s why we say what we say and do what we do in anticipation that one day change will come and we are paving the way in thought and deed and it will mean much to many and they will step by step have found changes that made the difference to their wellbeing and they will be building skills that are outside the remit of mass-manufacturing and mass-media and mass-education and mass-sterility. They will be creating a life they can live in and live with and share with and create an alternative reality.PICT0031

A man said to me last week when I had a nine-day class that he could no longer work because he became ill from computerised living. Imagine that. He could not work. He found that he had tight breath the whole day long for fears and realities of industrial pressures inside him. How would he survive? Earn a living? He kept going until something snapped. The day came when he could no longer function and he felt he had failed on many fronts. He had to face family and friends, colleagues and associates, bosses and so on. He was highly gifted, highly skilled yet this day brought him to his knees. I know people that feel this way but they have children and wives and family and friends and they must keep face. There is no alternative for them you see because politicians and educationalists and global industrialists don’t understand what makes a man and a woman tick. The carrot-danglers leading the world rarely understand, can never understand, but they have the stick and the string of a different kind of compulsion and enticement and some never see it until it’s too late. They don’t understand that there is a ticking clock in every person and that something inside them says I must be worth something more than this, surely!PICT0380_2

So I write my blog not to compare a machine to a hand tool but to question why choose a mass manufacturing method if you really love woodworking? I write it to say you will find greater levels of fulfilment if you do it yourself whether you use a machine or your hand skills. Do I care if some prefer machines to hand tools. No, I just never liked my life as a machinist and saw that about 80% of woodworkers felt the same way, felt intimidated and even felt like they should push themselves to accept the machine as some sort of badge of merit if they could just conquer the anxieties and intimidation. You see they just couldn’t find the mentor to show them the alternative and that’s why I do it. It’s because I think it brings healing to many a weary soul somewhere, anywhere, that just spends every day bored to death feeling they are mindlessly punching keys on a keyboard, or stacking shelves or pushing stop and start buttons on an assembly line and I do it in the hope that it does have deeper meaning to some who can see that it’s nothing to do with speed and efficiency but quality of life and love and care. I post to inspire and write to encourage and know you think about these things yourselves.

27 comments on “More Meaning Beyond Machining and Hand Work

  1. Your blog has the qualities of The Village Carpenter by Walter Rose. I heard you mention it on one of your videos and went and bought a copy. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think you have a story to tell that is very interesting. I am fascinated by your chosen journey through life and think an autobiography could change the way people think. Your videos reintroduce simplicity in a world filled with man made complexity. It’s brilliant.

  2. Paul, thank you for writing about craft and life the way you do. I really appreciate it and wish I could meet you someday.

    What you write is applicable not only to those whose working (and non-working) lives are dominated by post-Industrial Revolution mechanization, but also to those who have either been dropped through the cracks or who have chosen their own (albeit unsuccessful) means of escape from the damage of that mechanization on their family lives. I am talking about the chronically homeless population — a large one in America and particularly in Austin, TX. Chronic homelessness is always caused by a profound, catastrophic loss of family, and I submit that the profound, catastrophic loss of family is exacerbated by the inhumane demands on parental figures that are placed on them by the modern working world — demands leading to escape through alcoholism, isolation, emotional fracturing and abuse. Which leads a teenager to run away and repeat the cycle of escape, eventually leading to homelessness.

    I am in a position at the age of 27 to lead chronically homeless individuals into a life of craftsmanship at a workshop that is being built as part of a 27-acre village that will house around 250 folks currently living on the streets. They will pay a very affordable rent, but many of them are unemployable for various reasons. So we’re building micro-enterprises for them and the workshop is a large part of that. I’ve been doing this as a pilot program for 2 years and over the last few months have transitioned the shop from a “handyman” type workshop dominated by power tools and relying mostly on construction-style woodworking techniques, to a workshop that aspires to be a premiere resource for handcrafts. Our blacksmithing program is really taking off and hand tool woodworking is next.

    We are also going to be focusing on education rather than pure production from here on out. I’m going to train resident woodworkers to cut dovetails and carve spoons as well as anybody, and they will be able to earn their living hosting small classes and conveying that skill to interested members of the “housed” public, who will walk away not only with new confidence, skills and a beautiful dovetailed box or spoon, but also with a new story and relationship.

    For me the transition toward a journey of true craftsmanship has been life-changing and your writings and encouragement are a massive part of my transition. But just imagine what that transition will feel like for someone who was homeless and is now an educator and craftsman, earning their living honestly and with pride.

    We will house our first residents in just a few months. Can’t wait to learn more from you and pass it on.

    • Even, what you are building, is much to be admired, my thoughts are if you follow Paul’s means of building the wood working master class, perhaps in would get to and inspire many dis-advataged communitys world wide. Best of luck Peter

      • Thank you! I’m super privileged to be along for the ride. The project is part of Mobile Loaves & Fishes (mlf.org).

        If you’re ever in Texas again, Paul, we’d love to invite you to our village and shop!

    • Evan that’s amazing – I wish you all the best. My wife is a psychotherapist, I’m a graphic designer and I’ve actually spent a good bit of time in therapy. I can’t place a monetary value on what the experience has been worth to me as it’s priceless really. Mental health and well being in Ireland are generally are not valued. It’s fantastic to hear of someone on the other side of the world working to help people out – and what a great vehicle to do it through!

    • I can say that I have heard of you Paul, through Youtube woodworkers and spent a portion of my weekend watching a bunch of your videos and now reading the blog you write. I am so thankful that I came to your materials as it does resonate with a feeling I have had screaming inside me to “CREATE!” I find it intriguing that you paired a song with your thoughts as in a previous segment of my life I did some public speaking and set my words using music as a guide. Thank you for sharing and showing me that my shop need not be stuffed with machines to make me for-filled in my woodworking.

  3. thank for posting,I’ve been a cabinet maker for over 30 yrs and can relate to your blog.
    I think GOD made us to work with our hands in a passive way,not robots of production that can be replaced by a new computerized cnc machine at any moment. and then what do you do, there will always be a place for a skilled craftsman in this world, and the things they make.
    its a great feeling when a customer is happy and compliments on a job well done.

  4. Since slowing switching to handtools, it is no longer about the end product, but the process. Working with machines gives me an image of feeding a metal monster, sort of a slave-master relationship, trying to accommodate the nuances and limitations. With handtools, it is about learning a skill or craft, the tools becoming an extension of your hand. I guess that’s why the accomplished are called MASTER craftsmen.

    As a side note, does anyone know what size Warrington Paul uses? I need an “adjuster” for my rebate (a la Paul Sellers) planes. I’ve seen sizes from 3 to 16 oz.

  5. Beautiful song. I have been thinking about making a string interments as I love the guitar. Thank you for inspiring me to believe that I can make anything that my minds eye can picture. I was on that conveyor belt working for the State of California’s Prison system as an Officer. While I was good at it I longed to live a life of creating beautiful things with my hands.Your teachings have saved me and I am now a very happy man. I am now sharing my knowledge with my grandson who loves to make things with his hands. So I for one am proud to say through you and your team I was saved. I will forever be grateful.

  6. Fabulous words once again, Paul. Still feeling inspired even though the brass-bottomed block plane I just bought for £4.50, cleaned up, sharpened and worked with this afternoon just fell on my foot from a three foot bench. My youngest son told me to “man up” as I limped away…

  7. Paul
    Thank you for a great post.
    You stirred up a few memories, not all good ones.
    I started my apprenticeship in 1960 and there were plenty of Idris Owens around some who had worked their way up from the shop floor and should have known better.
    I can remember standing at a morticer for days on end soul destroying work.
    Like you I had a narrow escape with a Wadkin cross cut, as you know a larger version of the De Walt.
    Also like you I remember using a circular saw to cut sheets of Asbestolux no masks no extraction you could not see more than 2 mtrs for the dust.
    My way of escape was to study, 5 nights a week at night school and at the age of 23 got my break as a building surveyor.
    I exchanged one form of hell for another and for the next 40 years worked for major PLCs
    I am nearly 70 now and free, I have a nice workshop and spend many happy hours there !
    As a journeyman I spent a few unhappy weeks working on a site in Wilmslow for a firm called Owen-Pickford, was that your Owen.?
    Keep up the good work.
    Best Wishes.
    Fred Sutton

  8. My wife and I also made the decision for her to stay home with our kids, rather than have someone else raise them. I worked 2 jobs, sometimes three to keep our heads above water but we think that it was worth it. I worked in construction, a floor installer, and time was money and craftsmanship did not much matter as long as the job came in on time. I hated those days.

  9. Paul,

    What an appropriate blog to read today. Yesterday I completed a corner cupboard as a wedding present for my son and his wife, entirely made with hand-tools, and with a fielded panel in the door using techniques learnt from one of your videos. I celebrated by finally removing from the end of my work-bench the small band-saw and drill press that had been there for years (the router has long languished unused in a cupboard). I then installed some extra shelves and am now able to house the half-set of moulding plane hollows and rounds which enabled my to cut by hand the cornice mouldings for the cupboard.

    There are no clouds of dust any more in the workshop; no machines screaming like banshees; no pieces of work ruined by a tiny slip; just quiet contentment whenever I can get time in there.

    And we have got some pretty impressive precedents to rely on, after all, hand carpentry was a good enough trade for St Joseph to teach his Son.

  10. What a beautiful piece of music. Reminds me of some of our Louisiana Cajun ballads . Paul you are not only a wonderful woodworker but are a very fine writer also. I still use some machines sometimes but find myself doing more and more things by hand and love it.

  11. Wow! I’m not one to reply online and stay pretty isolated in general but I just discovered your blog and videos today and felt compelled to respond. I have been struggling with this very thing most of my adult life and especially here lately (I.m 40). I’ve found my outlet in restoring old tube amplifiers for guitar and started building my own which led me to woodworking for the cabinets which I have always loved. I never really knew what the problem was and always just assumed I needed to man up but deep down knew better. I still have to work in industry and have what I once considered my dream job as a maintenance technician but yet there is still something wrong and you have put it into words much better than I ever could. I have my family and my shop is coming along so maybe I will make it without “losing it”, but I long for the day I can walk away and work with my hands in my own way doing what I love and make a living at it. And you should write a book, the world needs to hear from enlightened men such as yourself and may be our only hope as society keeps crumbling under the crushing weight put on us by the “carrot-danglers” (which is exactly right). Thank You sharing your insight as well as your craft.

    • Go for it David. Carve out your niche otherwise you’ll always be slaving for nothing much at all. So what if you have to play the industry games of “let’s pretend” being successful is earning “lots and lots of money” and “getting a good education is very important” “so we can get a really, really good job.” And “you want to be something don’t you?”
      Then there was that government past that crammed everyone through uni and saddled them with false hopes, lotsa debt and now they’re promising a third off tuition fees. Next it’ll be buy one get one free. Consumerist carrot danglers mostly, some posh boys here and there and then a few union lackeys on the other side. How on earth does anyone pick a party these days? Oh well, nothing changes unless we change it and change it we do!

  12. when a mans or woman’s hands are connected with the heart great things come of it.
    you see it in their face as they work

  13. Dear Paul,
    Just thank you. bless you Paul.

    30 years working the infernal mills down here in London, but never gave up the hand tools, or the correct ways of doing. starting to teach, to lead others towards a better life.

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