Amateurism thrives as the real power behind woodworking

We should never really rely on the professionals for keeping woodworking alive or passing on the skills because most of them do use dumbed down methods to make their work work. There is more to it than that. personally, I am an amateur because i have never done it just for money but for the passion and love for it. Ask my wife and my children.

DSC_0013You want to become a woodworker. Your thoughts at work cushion you from the hard harshness of your two-dimensional work as you mentally enter the three-dimensional world of the wood you will work with your hands for an hour this evening or over the weekend. In your mind you remember looking back at the project as you close the door and darkness closes over the shed, the garage or the basement shop. The shadows outline the shapes of the legs you fashioned with your spokeshave and you catch the last scent of the wood as the door wafts the essence of wood and oils, paste waxes, resin and all manner of other such smells that make wood work for you. This is the validation of your life and status as an amateur woodworker—never despise it. This is the essence of being a real woodworker.

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Guard against losing such things.

Commerce has a way of invading many of the things that started with the love of it. Guard when others plant the seed and say you could make your living from this. They usually see dollar signs and not the fact that you love the other world you’ve created for your personal sanity and wellbeing. Most of them can never see or understand what you are doing nor the why of it. Be careful that you don’t sell yourself and the very thing you love in pursuit of something that might cause disaffection down the road because of pressures you might not realise you’ve allowed to creep in.

The innocence and purity of amateurism

Amateurism is a quality seldom measured or understood by friends and family, work colleagues and business associates. Whether you can make more money than you already are has supplanted any sense of wellbeing you might get from mere manual work. This is especially true of most educators at the higher echelon of academia from what I have seen. Yet to live and work with your hands, following the unknown aspirations yet to unfold, translates a person into a truly unique world with unquantifiable values. Working through these past decades, dismantling the ever-invasive industrialism that has become so very pervasive, has very much been my goal. Mass-making equipment had its way for a season, about half a century or more, and it rampantly displaced real woodworking for the majority. Every attemptI made to balance out the invasion was met with resistance over the three decades. It was a great challenge at first getting serious woodworkers to understand what we were doing, but gradually we have succeeded. DSC_0017Now, on the other side so to speak, I look back and think just how well worth it it was. Today there are more hand tool woodworkers than ever in the last 50 years. Mostly this is because so many people made the paradigm shift from unquestioningly accepting the status quo and the asking questioning the whole evolutionary process from true hand work to machines. I mean, apart from the interest some people have in technology and making a robot mechanism make something with precision, most of the woodworkers I meet started to pursue woodworking and discovered that the professionals in woodworking stores led them only to machines and related equipment they could sell to them. Remember the router rarely ends with the machine. From there you must buy expensive route bits, special bearings, router tables and fences, appropriate guides, safety equipment and such like that. It was here that I realised something was dying. The things I took for granted in recessing hinges and chopping mortises by hand were deemed dead and past, yet I knew that I could cut dovetails and mortise and tenons with much greater levels of fulfilment and confidence to say nothing of safety using hand tools and methods than I ever could with machines. I also knew that I could do many things much faster if you took into account set up time, clean up time and additional sanding and correction time to correct the flawed surfaces and even damage machines left.

Over these past few years, a decade or so, I have especially seen how my work is now radically changing the lives of those who love woodworking and how I have influenced the changes in attitudes too. The health benefits from workouts at the bench planing boards of course have been immeasurable. What about the wellbeing mentally of mechanical math, geometry and other engineering problem solving. Listen everyone, woodworking is changing. It’s no longer just the stage of entertainers selling machine methods but people’s lives investing in becoming. I see some of the more really refined wood and craftwork these days that sets the amateur way above the professionals because not only does their work exemplify high standards of workmanship but they actually use real skill to do it.DSC_0016 As long as we lead people along this path, craftsmanship thrives on into future generations. These dovetails are Sam’s third ever box. Each corner is the same. His mortise and tenons for the doors and the back frame above are as perfect too. He’s making one of my Joiner’s traveling toolboxes (below). Currently he’s an amateur. An apprentice. I hope he never becomes a professional. I’m an amateur and always have been. I just get pad for it. What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional. An amateur does it whether he or she gets paid for it or not. A professional only does it for money. That said, I know many “professionals” that are amateurs. Anyway, the toolbox is one I have used all of my life. I redesigned it with additional features that far surpass the ones made in the last century. DSC_0022I have about seven or eight of them now, including the one I made when I was 16 years old in the back of the wood stacks. Yes, I felt ashamed because it was dishonest gain, but I have changed and would not do what I was encouraged to do back then. But it was the foreman, Jack, that gave me the four pieces of wood for the box and he showed me how to lay out the dovetails too. Then he said, “Theres a bench at the back of the wood stack, go there for half an hour in the mornings when you get in and make yer box.” So that’s what I did. Back then we glued and nailed the dovetails. It was a common practice to allow the glue to go off and the reason was it needed no clamps. I was very much the amateur in the truest sense of the word. I loved it then as I do today.DSC_0046

Making money is not a bad thing to work for, don’t get me wrong and don’t think I am judging anyone. Yes, there are those who do what they do only for money. That’s their choice. I never thought money could buy what I strove for to make life enriching and ever-fulfilling because my work was a large part of what made life so rewarding. My work enabled me to be working from home, be with my family as they grew and see everyone of my children through the formative years of their lives…all the more fulfilment. Then it allowed me to train them and teach them woodworking. Through all of this you start to see the knock on effect. And, what reward. Anyway, you don’t have to do it all day as I have unless you truly feel led in that direction; evenings, weekends, days off all work. In the brief periods when I had to do something else, I still worked with wood for four hours a day and all through the weekends. We built two homes from the ground up and then built the furniture, restored at least four or five houses and much more too.DSC_0086

Keep amateurism pure and alive.

It’s truly a heart issue everyone. Professionals don’t really read my blog I am sure. Reaching out to amateurs has been my greatest reward, let me tell you.

14 thoughts on “Amateurism thrives as the real power behind woodworking”

  1. Ruben Sanchez

    Paul,
    I am also an amateur. The BIG difference is the experience, I have done woodworking on/off for several years and at this time, I have the chance to take again my favorite hobby. Although I haven’t build up any house (wow!!) I have constructed 3-4 tables, 4-5 boxes, etc. but I’m really proud of my work. I think this is a big difference with a professional, as they have to finish a particular work with some minimal specifications the client will accept and not return it.
    As an amateur, you put in your work a lot of time, patience and mostly love, and is because of that love, you are proud of your “son/daughter”
    Keep amateur!!

  2. George Glover

    Hello Mr Sellers, I’m a 18 year old guy from london and I was hoping if you could do a explanation on how to tell quarter sawn timber without looking at the end grain because I can’t get head around. Cheers for your work, you helping the little guys will preserve our craft from the big guys pushing there overpowered cnc machines on us. Total respect from north London.

  3. Bill Schenher

    When the topic of being an Amateur is brought up I always think of Bobby Jones. For those that don’t know he was/is one of the best golfers to ever play the game, and he was an amateur. He could of made buckets of money playing golf back in the day as a pro, but decided to stay an amateur. He played for the love of the game. I think of woodworking in the same way and agree 100% with you on this Paul.
    As someone who does some woodworking as a sign maker it changes things. When I’m at work I take pride in what I do, but I’m also on the clock. I have to meet demands put on me, sometimes shortcuts and compromises have to be made. But when I go home I’m on my own time, in my own shop, and back to amateur status. The rules change and with that the love and enjoyment come back 100%.
    Being an amateur is a wonderful thing.

  4. Love these posts. I work out of town every other week. I look forward to getting home and smelling my 10’x12′ basement room/shop

  5. herve delord

    Don’t be that sure Mr Sellers. I’m a professional, I read your blog and enjoy every line of it.

  6. Gerald Norris

    Mr. Sellers, I have grown to enjoy the videos and reading your blogs. This was a very fine piece about the value of amateurism; the passion for a process that drives one to better their skill-set for the sake of it.

    I play music as an amateur, I work wood as an amateur, and I cook as an amateur. These are all things I enjoy and I strive to improve in all of them. I don’t pursue it for the commerce, but for the fulfillment, so of course, your blog spoke to me on that level.

    Thank you.

  7. Oxford Dictionary quote:
    The competence or skill expected of a professional: the key to quality and efficiency is professionalism. Says it all really!
    A current day definition should be
    moderate quality with high volume efficiency.
    We are forgetting the long term value of Artisan, Craftsman and Master (Trade or Skill)
    Consumerism demands instant gratification and upgrading, new model every 6 months

  8. I’m the same as herve I earn my living working wood and read each of your blog posts

  9. Bravo! I agree. I restore stained glass, moslty churches. Naturally not well paid… But the satisfaction is hard to beat. Woodwork is an extension of my trade, the continuity of the Spirit of the craftsman . Cheers

  10. I would hate to have to woodwork as a professional, under the gun with clients or bosses breathing down my back… I have huge respect though for those that can make a living at it.

  11. Excellent written, no doubt he has written with the heart. There are few who love what they do. Now in these times we live in such a hurry, just think about how I can make lots of money quickly, regardless of who has deception, betray, trampling, or any other trick you can use.
    Thanks for your advice and instruction must.

  12. Paul,

    When asked if I work professionally as a woodworker, I proudly proclaim that I am a hobbyist. I chose not to use the work amateur because I think many people in the US misunderstand the term and assume a lower level of quality and skill which is downright false. I think both the amateur and professional can both be true to their craft, but oftentimes profitably and productivity leads the professional to adopt methods that take much of the fun and challenge out of woodworking. I know that you say you regard yourself as an amateur for some of these reasons, but my definition of a professional (like my definition of amateur) doesn’t depend of skill level, but on whether you make your living from what you do. I would like someday to be able to make part of my living through my woodworking and am buoyed by knowing you have done more than that for over half a century. Regardless of how someone classifies themselves or how others regard them, I feel honored to follow your teachings and like so many am grateful that you have shown me the true art and immense joy of woodworking. Thank you for your example of a life led meaningfully and fulfilled in the honorable pursuit of making beautiful objects from one of natures most wonderful gifts.

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