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Looking back 25 Years and beyond

I held my first class 25 years ago this month in Kerrville, Texas for the Texas Arts and Crafts Council at Steiner University. Five years later I had developed a program that subsequently trained over 5,500 individuals from around the world. Seeing what was missing in our modern world, it became a life quest to establish a viable working program for today’s woodworker, taking into consideration that cultural shifts have redefined what woodworking craft training is. I stepped outside of the mainstream and defied everyone who back then said it wouldn’t work and that it couldn’t work. DSC_0657I wrote articles for half a dozen magazines totally about hand tool woodworking back then and before I knew it we were teaching thousands of woodworkers online and face to face. It’s hard to measure success, and not put a pound or a dollar sign on it, because people often can’t step outside of the paradigm of using money as the only means of gauging a successful venture, but I measure it by how satisfied I feel in my knowing that thousands of people have developed skills they once never thought possible and only dreamed of at best. I gauge whatever success I have gained from the emails we get, emails that say how much we’ve changed the lives of those who write.

Through the classes at New Legacy, people who often picked up a woodworking tool for the first time in their lives end up making this Craftsman-style rocking chair from scratch. DSC_0650These photographs are of of the chair are of students work not mine. This one above is of a man who had only that.

They cut over 40 hand cut mortises and fit each of the tenons by hand. They hand plane every surface and shape the curved surfaces with spokeshaves and scrapers and then they upholster the seat in leather. They do it, not me. This is one of our follow up courses after completing the nine-day Foundational Woodworking Course. Imagine if you will that you never saw a saw or plane in your life and you sit in a chair like this after only 18 days of working wood; that you made it yourself using only your hands and and a handful of hand tools. Then imagine facing you is a dovetailed box, and a wall shelf and an oak table, all of which trained you to make the chair.

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I am often asked why I do what I do.

That is why do I write, teach, make furniture, film all of these things that now surround me that mean so much to me, but also to others too. Some years ago I began to see what life was like growing your own food and raising chickens for eggs and meat and using this to teach and train my children the responsibilities of life. My first vegetable patch in 1991 was 3 feet by 10 feet long and soon doubled in size after we harvested our first tomatoes, onions and potatoes. We added squash and salad foods and before long, within a couple of years, we harvested from 80 tomato plants and three 80-foot rows of potatoes. Squash and string beans, cucumbers and peas where just a few of the fruits of our labours. With fresh eggs from 30 chickens and the meat from chickens we raised too, we edged ever closer to a simpler life and a transforming attitude toward the food we ate. PICT0205The baby steps we took in the beginning were critical to better understand the seasons and cycles of gardening. Miss some things by one day and a crop could be lost, too late, too dry and too much work to lose. Working within the seasons and the times that don’t belong to us became ever important even though a supermarket was but a few miles away. Yes, we could of course buy the food a failed crop might not yield, but the sense of defeat would be ever-present at the check out register. Doing such things yourself,  DIY, if you take more to the reliance on growing the essentials of life rather than just the hobby level, declares a deeper quest for more the reality than a mere pastime. I came to a realisation then that this attitude of dependency could also be applied to other areas of life not the least of which was the life I was already living as a craftsman in wood. OT101My work was a lifestyle of woodworking upon which my whole family depended on what I made to sell. And even though it was indeed a business, I knew that I saw my work differently than most anyone I knew and also of the men I ever worked with. I knew though that some of them, no more than two or three, did feel the same way I did. Like me they stopped now and then to look at the chisel slicing inside the wood, allowing the colours and the smells and the sights and the textures time to register in some channel of the brain and then to lock it there for some measure of deeper comfort. P1020221On the  other hand there were the men I worked with who somehow managed to bruise life itself. Coarseness coursed through their veins and all that they did seemed to come from the face of a hammer with each hammer blow registered in every face of the wood they touched. The miscuts they made with saws and chisels were too many to number and the atmosphere  surrounding them seemed always charged with anxiety and stress. Another small group of misfits were the non carers. These were the ones that were good at the work they did but they could take it or leave it. Living only for the weekends, television in the evenings and so on, by the time they were 50 they were already semiretired and had lost interest in any future work that to me grabbed my attention and my vision.

P1030687When I first began to teach and train others it came a long time before offering classes on a more structured level. I took in the waifs and strays along the way and worked with them to teach them an alternative reality. Mostly they stayed for a couple of years and built up their skills. Once skilled enough they left to set up their own shops with my encouragement and the craft I passed on to them was a passport to a new and self sustaining life of their own. They left and began selling their work. They built their own shops and sold similar pieces to mine, used my designs until they could design their own and became independent in their own right. For some though it became more the pursuit of wealth and prosperity rather than the simpler lifestyle I preferred. What they learned to do with their hands and became good at they adapted to the machine and became the slave to. It wasn’t that they couldn’t make a decent living from hand work but that somewhere along the way the quest for money became all the more important. It’s a funny thing though because it seemed to me they were never satisfied; they never quite  made enough. 

You see, seeing the different associations and relationships that people partner with, what inevitably happens is the money becomes central, even takes over, and we leave the lifestyle bit, the real bit, the important bit behind. Soon that translates into dust masks and dust extractors, ear protection and supply and demand. Competitiveness becomes the driving force and before long we find our love for working wood diminished. Though sometimes I failed, I have always avoided this because when you can’t stop, when your breath becomes shallow, when your heart loses its rhythm, when you can’t think for yourself, well, you soon lose the very reason you began woodworking for in the beginning.

PICT0380_2There are those who do everything for money, right from the get go. They think of nothing else and measure their success by how much they make in a year and not the lifestyle they live. Mostly they’re people who sell things all the time. What they make is nothing more than what they sell. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s different than the way of life I chose. The reason I do what I do is to help people to add a dynamic to their lives they otherwise might not find. It’s lifestyle part- or full-time and it’s working.

P1010831I think it’s true that not everyone can make a living from woodworking, but you know, they can gain the skills that far surpass those of many calling themselves masters and time served. Most of those who follow my blog and my videos, those who write me every day, tell me that their love for woodworking transformed their lives when they began working with hand tools. I knew it would. Those that come to the woodworking school from all around the world are told in the first hour that my goal, my ambition, is to change their lives. I think that 90% plus of them let me know during or after the class that their lives have been changed. Now that I am the age that I am, I measure my success differently. Pulling people off the conveyor belt called life even for a small amount of time has become all the more important. Even this blog has totally changed thousands of people’s lives. People I have never met and never will.P1030784

So this morning, in a few short hours, when I wake up I will be thinking of you all. I will meet Sam and Lea and they will make yet another new project to stretch them and expand them. This will be Sam’s sixth in four days and Lea’s, well I have lost track. She has made a tool chest and a coffee table and a rocking chair already. Their lives are being transformed by renewing the way they think. I think this is close to stupendous. I love watching them grow, listening to their questions just as I did my children through their early life in the shop with me every day for two decades. It never stops when you have a burden.

25 Comments

  1. Bill Morris on 9 March 2015 at 2:35 am

    Ironically, living here in Kerrville the last 9 years, i’m one of the ones you have changed this last four years. While not fully retired quite yet, my non-working hours are filled with my wife and family (my daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren live here) and practicing the skills you have demonstrated on your DVD’s and Masterclass/youtube videos. So grateful you have provided means for all of us to share in your world, whether we are able to attend a class or, like me, just watch dvd’s, read your book and blog posts and travel to meet you at a show in Fort Worth in early 2013. Your are a living treasure and legend, our selfless friend. BTW, it’s Schreiner University and what a gift it is to live here in the Hill Country.



    • Paul Sellers on 9 March 2015 at 2:47 am

      My memories of my first visit driving into Kerrville are indelibly impressed in my mind. Swimming in the Guadalupe river. And my memories of Texas, invites to chili suppers and home made cornbread, and those who live there will always be fond.



      • Evan Wilson on 9 March 2015 at 2:54 am

        The home made cornbread is still hot and the rivers are still cold! And there’s mesquite for the taking. Come back to Texas for a visit! 🙂



        • Paul Sellers on 9 March 2015 at 3:01 am

          I soooo love Texas and the Hill Country especially. I remember doing the Pecan Street Festival shows and selling my wares there and also the Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg where we lived. Such a time I had there with some wonderful people. We may be back there for a visit later this year, time allowing.



          • Bill morris on 9 March 2015 at 3:10 am

            We do the willow city loop for bluebonnets every year inspite of how crowded it can get



          • Paul Sellers on 9 March 2015 at 7:35 am

            Living on the loop was wonderful, The smell of mountain laurel, my second mountain lion, my first ever vegetable garden.



  2. John Crosby on 9 March 2015 at 5:46 am

    I used to spend a lot of time, more time than I wanted to, making jigs and fixtures for my power tools to accomplish a certain task. I was working a machine and not the wood and I was not happy with the quality of my work. Trying to cut and fit joinery with a machine and making it look great, to say the least, was VERY difficult and chore. I came across your blog over a year and half ago and it has opened up a whole new world for me and how I work wood. Thank you Paul and company for the gift of knowledge.
    John Crosby



  3. Randall on 9 March 2015 at 6:25 am

    You’ve explained, in a very articulate manner, how I’ve been feeling about life lately. Been following your blog for over a year now, perhaps that explains it.



  4. Dominik G-S on 9 March 2015 at 8:50 am

    Hi Paul, yes you changed my life too.
    Working wood gives me that satisfaction back that has been almost lost in my job of an
    high educated and creative electronics engineer.

    A half year ago I found you in the internet and I was fascinated of doing all those things with your own hands and a handful of highly affordable tools. NO pricey machines that disturbs the silence and the peace in your workshop. And nearly no safety issues which allows you to have children in your workshop.
    Since that I mastered the skill to sharpen my chisels, planes and saws. Yesterday I completed one of my projects. I restored an old “Atkins” panel saw build in 1900. From oak I made a nice new handle that fits my hand like a glove and I cut new teeth (9tpi). Now the panel saw cuts like a dream.

    Besides that I build a shoe rack and a fold-out dining table. Especially the dining table helped me to learn a lot. I bought saw rough pine boards 58mm x 58mm x 2000mm and made everything from scratch with handtools only.
    I learned:

    -Planing the boards to the correct dimensions straight and square
    -Laminating boards
    -Cuttins mortise and tenon joints
    -Cutting housing dados

    The result of my work was great. But the table is only the visible result of my work.
    The development of my skills is the greater achievement. And I feel very fulfilled and satisfied.

    Thank you for all your lessons which can be a starting point or a springboard to higher levels
    of wood working skills.



  5. George Crawford on 9 March 2015 at 11:00 am

    Well said. Thanks for contributing to the sanity. Money is really a huge problem for so many people. I think they even forget why they need to make it. Having lost track of the real necessities and joys of life, it’s hard for people to escape. You offer a solution. Thanks



  6. Mika on 9 March 2015 at 11:32 am

    Hi Paul,

    I’d also like to thank you for your great work on teaching hand tool woodworking. It’s just so important that someone passes on the tradition. I really like your no-nonsense style and that you show the methods that work, instead of trying to push expensive tools.

    It may be intresting to figure out the physical phenomenon that makes a particular tool work, but as you’ve pointed out, just because the craftsmen of the past didn’t know any of that, doesn’t mean that they didn’t know what they were doing. Judging by the quality of work made using handtools, it’s pretty hard to argue that machines produce superior results!

    To me using hand tools has been liberating. No ear protection, no fear of lost fingers, and I can just pop in for half an hour of relaxing hand work after the kids have gone to sleep. I’ve always hated sanding, and doing anything wearing a dust mask is no fun at all. In fact, for 20 years I thought I didn’t like woodworking, until I learned the secret of planes and scrapers. Because it’s a hobby, why would I care about speed and efficiency. My friends often ask me wouldn’t it be easier to do this or that with a power tool. I always reply that sure, but when you go jogging, do you ever think that it would be so much faster and easier to take the car instead?

    In short, thank you and keep up the good work. When time and money permits, I really want to attend one of your courses



  7. Derek Long on 9 March 2015 at 11:55 am

    Thanks so much for what you do, Paul. Working with machines was always a chore, not quite enjoyable in a way I know now. Every time I manage to grab a few hours of a weekend out of my busy life I fully appreciate the sentiments of being a “lifestyle woodworker.” It’s easy to find myself lost in the wood for five hours in the garage, measured by how many times my wife comes to see what I’m up to (and whether I’m done yet with what I’m building for her.) 🙂

    I lived in Houston for six years. I do love Texas (outside Harris County, at least). The hill country is wonderful, as are the endless flats of West Texas, which have their own stark beauty. I hope you had the chance to visit the caverns outside San Antonio when you lived in Texas. Marvelous.



  8. David DeLuca on 9 March 2015 at 11:58 am

    Hi Paul,

    I really enjoy your blogs, videos, etc and you love of teaching and life. I am in my upper 50s however, I still want to learn and develop my wood working skills. Last night, I told my wife one of my gaols in life is to attend your 9 day class. I hope my dream comes true and I wish everyone can realize their dreams.

    Have a great day, as always.



  9. Anthony on 9 March 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Even though I’m new to woodworking, the craft has already begun to change my pace of life. I have found myself wanting to slow down in a lot of things I do which feels relieving. Thanks Paul.



    • Paul Sellers on 9 March 2015 at 1:06 pm

      Good, that’s the first step. It’s a critical step to stop and question and ask why we do what we do when we do and how we do. I am still asking myself questions as I write my new book. I’m learning all the more and it’s very exciting to see into the depths of this thing called woodworking.



  10. Terry Pullen on 9 March 2015 at 12:43 pm

    machines are for factories, it’s just that simple.



  11. nathanbreidinger on 9 March 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Paul,

    I found your blog about 8 months ago after woodworking for about a year and a half. I’ve come a long way! I was introduced to woodworking through Norm Abram and found myself dismissing Roy Underhill. After filling my shop with cheaply made, loud power tools, It’s now the opposite! I find myself gravitating more and more toward handwork, thanks to you and a handful of others. Your blog and videos are fantastic. I also enjoy watching you progress in your photography skills, too! (The recent black and white photos are amazing.)

    I suffered a pretty severe table saw injury over the weekend and it’s really got me rattled. I might begin dismantling my power tool shop after this incident. Even though I only received 8 stitches (only!) to my thumb from my wife (she’s a trained professional) at the kitchen table, I wonder is the perceived time saved worth it? Is it only an illusion of time saving? I’m at the point where I really only use power tools for the roughest of work – jointing a surface, planing to thickness, and ripping to rough width. Routers have always frightened me and I have always hated using them. Soon I’ll begin building my moulding plane collection to eliminate the router. I can rip by hand and only add a few minutes to the process and eliminate my table saw. I have plans to build my own bow saw to eliminate the band saw. And there really is nothing like a freshly planed surface with a smoother… Thanks for all the work you do – for teaching us that it’s as much if not more about the process than the end result.



    • nathanbreidinger on 9 March 2015 at 3:21 pm

      Also, I meant to ask as a PS – did you infill your aluminum bar clamps with wood to stiffen them? I use similar ones in my shop and that’s a great idea! Perhaps a blog post or video is in order? 🙂



      • Paul Sellers on 9 March 2015 at 3:37 pm

        Too late, there is a blog post on it. Just search via the search box on the blog.



        • nathanbreidinger on 10 March 2015 at 12:19 pm

          Found it! Thanks! I own two large F-style Bessey clamps and the rest are all HF aluminum bar clamps and quick clamps. Thanks again!



    • Paul Sellers on 9 March 2015 at 3:29 pm

      I know that feeling when you walk into the house and say, “Honey, turn the radio off.” Clutching your hand to a bloody chest in front of your family is no fun at all.



    • John Crosby on 9 March 2015 at 4:54 pm

      Nathan I also grew up with Norm and could not wait to buy all the machinery that made him so good, lol. I used to think Roy was nuts doing all that work by hand. Now it’s the other way around for me also



  12. Michael on 10 March 2015 at 1:33 am

    I started 2 years ago and took joinery 1 on the 3 basic joints in a Texas school. Doing research before, i came see that Paul had taught there and had similar projects. I would love to take the other two in person to build the box, shelf, and table. For now masterclasses fills that void. I, now, have decided to start a little garden to grow some food for recipes i have. Comparing what i know to my beliefs, i feel led to live a more sustainable, simpler life, and little by little i am getting there. Hopefully one day i will be able to get off the conveyor belt.



  13. John on 10 March 2015 at 7:37 pm

    Paul, thank you for what you do. As you have passed on these skills to us, it is still going out further. My skills are just a small fraction of your ability but I’ve had the chance to help young men and boys that come by my shop. All are amazed by simple things like sawing to a line edged by a knife wall that you have taught. There is joy in a young man of 9 or 10 who crosscuts his first board by hand. That is what you have given to everyone as well.



  14. Xavi on 13 March 2015 at 11:46 am

    Yes, for two years, my first images in hand work with wood was a few videos of Paul on the internet. My curiosity was increasing and visited other websites on wood.My first reference: Woodworking masterclasses. I began to find online stores to buy many tools.
    *Paul advised me that half of them I could work
    Other bloggers forget the more human side of the woodwork. Your relationship with wood and why we do this.*Paul always encourages me to love the wood.
    Power tools, jigs, guides … everything to hinder our progress as craftsmen.
    *Paul advises us to train our abilities to do the same with very little: ourselves.
    *Paul. At the end always Paul. The master Paul. My teacher online.
    I hope I can visit you soon.
    From Catalonia (Girona).



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