Why did you start working with wood?

It’s obvious from your responses to different posts which ones appeal to a larger percentage and one of the highest is working with your hands and earning all or some percentage of your living from being a woodworker. I know the goal is to make your living which of course is important, but dismantling the goal of making money alone has been the most difficult aspect of my work.

Through the decades of working as a furniture maker  I have always made a living, so just what does that mean. I think I have worked for myself and to my own schedule most of my life. That has never once meant nine to five. It’s never been a five day week and it’s never been a guaranteed weekly wage. How about going two months with no pay? How bout 6 1/2 days a week and how about 14 hours in any given day. Disappointed? Well, I don’t know I would have traded it for an hour or two traveling to work during rush hour to start and end my day. I know I enjoyed walking from the house through to the workshop at 7am and not wasting time anxiously trying to get to work on time. I was already there.

I have only used a computer for a short time really, compared to others, I had to learn, but nothing I have ever done on one compares to working from 7am until 9 or 10 pm making something from wood. Is that silly? I know, “Paul, Get a life!” Well, there isn’t a day of it I would change, really. Can you believe that? I’m not really talking about odd days like that in a given month or so. More a pretty normal day. I’m grateful to my wife. She was with me the whole time and never asked me to “get a real job.” Funny thing really. She never saw her life as separate from mine. We were always together and united in our vision for family life, family business and being together in the day to day of life. I liked it when she brought tea and biscuits out mid morning and we sat in the garden and talked about work, the children, the customers, shipping out projects and then the things surrounding us in the garden, in the house and simple things like that. We did that a couple of time s a day and then always had lunch together too. We didn’t ever talk about having our own space or private time out, stuff like that. She was never interested in woodworking and never really worked with me that way, but we understood this was the life we wanted for our family life. Family being together kind of counters some of the effects the Industrial Revolution has in our today’s-world as best we can. It’s reversing some of the negatives, keeping the best of the past, uniting it with the present and living it with the loves of your life. In my case my wife, my children, my grandchildren and my friends. And of course woodworking, metal working, leather working, painting and drawing, writing photography and watching life around me in nests and trees and fields and woods.

I designed a pair of these Mesquite credenzas for the Permanent Collection of the White House in 2008/9 and delivered them too. I met President G.W. Bush and his wife in the process.

The ambitions we have are often different and so they should be. My goal was to be self employed being a woodworker and making my designs. Some of my designs were  worth more than a mere day’s pay and I charged for both my labour rate plus the design according to its worth. But I engineered a path leading away from making things purely on the basis of money because I realised there had to be something more rewarding and that meant getting back to why I became a woodworker you see. I was fifteen when I started this and it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t start working to make an income but to work with wood. I didn’t need money, didn’t do it for money and yet the fascination of working wood motivated me more than anything else. And guess what? When I wake up every morning, that’s after 50 years of daily woodworking, it still fascinates me. When and if I did it for money and when I did make money in larger amounts than normal I felt something died. I even lost interest sometimes. I became aware that my love for woodworking was my first and foremost motivation and it was rewarding and fulfilling to return to the place where woodworking could hold the content of something I really cared for. Of course there is something honest about earning income and paying your way. I could make money from my work and still enjoy woodworking. Even when I worked twice as long and twice as hard as others might expect of themselves, my work gave me great reward. The saying, “Don’t work hard work smart.” means nothing to me. I don’t agree with it. I love hard work that includes critical thinking ending in results. Stepping outside the dream others have for you or even try to impose on any vision you have can sometimes take a tough stance but starting to live to establish new ideals can lead to looking back and say it’s been real is well worth it.

14 comments on “Why did you start working with wood?

  1. Hello Paul I would say that the phrase ” work smarter not harder” is more of a statement for doing things in a more efficent and correct manner. Like taking the time to sharpen your chisel so it continues to glide through the wood or your plane so your not bull dogging them. Taking the piece in and out of the vise to keep your orientation in a comfortable fluid position. Putting the time in to sketch and figure out and pre plan. Setting up all the clamps, dry fitting and cleaning your bench before glue up. All these things I’ve watched you do all tell me that you do work “smarter not harder” that doesn’t mean that you won’t rip the board length wise with a panel saw or take a rough sawn board of oak and plane it to dimension. To me it means that you have learned how to be in harmony with the tools and the wood and yes it requires effort, but when your in harmony it’s not hard it’s delightful.

  2. Thanks Paul, for sharing your thoughts on this. I think these kind of posts are popular because they really strike a chord with so many of us.

    Would you say it also makes a big difference who you are making something for? If you have a connection with the person who will be enjoying that piece for many years to come, I’d think it must be more satisfying than selling to an anonymous customer who you’ll never know.

    • I think it is surprising how soon you get to know your customers too, Martin. You are right. If they walk in off the street to buy something pre made in a pharmacy or a supermarket or a furniture store selling standard items that’s one thing, but when you interview them as to what they want made a relationship develops. You learn about their existing home, the room and surrounding pieces. They show you photos of what they have and what they want and you are building a picture from parts of their life. Often you visit their home and they see you, your drawings, trust starts to be built as you explain your ideas and thoughts and they make a commitment to support you by their trust in you. A customer from 20 years ago caught uo with me last year and reminded me of my making their dining table when their children were little and today they have their grandchildren around the same table there in their Texas Hill country ranch.
      This is just to encourage you. I look back on my designs and the pieces I made for people and I recall the incidents surrounding each one of them. It’s been quite wonderful. Also, the greatest joys has been making and giving the things I have made to my children and my grandchildren, friends and relatives and so on.

  3. Paul – my guiding phrase has always “we’re going to work hard as a matter of principle – let’s make sure we also work as smart as we can”

  4. “I didn’t need money, didn’t do it for money . . . ” You are fortunate. For those of us who do need the money, working with God’s gift of material and even the most meager talent is still the most wonderful privilege.

    • Don’t miss my point there. I was no different than every other 215 year old back then. Boys weren’t caught up in smartphones and technology, fashion hair styles, clothes and even the kind of peer pressure with toys. Don’t want anyone running off with false ideas. I didn’t need money because as a kid I didn’t need money in the same way perhaps any 15 year old in my era didn’t need money. It was a different world than today.What I said there was not that I had rich parents. I lived in social housing, mostly on the streets. I wasn’t lucky, I just made a decision that that was what I felt to do in the same way kids today could.

  5. Paul, As always your life experience, success, teaching are really interesting; your down to earth and logical YouTube entries are what I most value, because it builds on what I learnt at school in my early teens, before being diverted to University and a career in telecoms and computing management. I now have very limited time, despite retiring recently, due to Caring commitments but enjoy making the spoons etc as brief diversions. Even if I had more time, I would still approach wood working in this manner, as I know I still have a lot to contribute in other fields once the Caring stage ( this last four years) ends; but woodworking and some metalwork (the latter remembered from school) will continue to be a relaxing activity. I suspect that to many who watch your YouTube films and follow your blog may have the same approach as myself, rather than have ambitions to become fulltime makers or artisans – as such, because you contribute to the quality of life for so many people, this to me is your greatest contribution to society.
    Best Wishes, Peter

  6. I’ve been lurking on this site and youtube for a long while now……and this is by far by favorite post thus far.

    Thanks Paul!

  7. I am a computer scientist by trade, it feeds me and my family.
    Yet becoming even slightly skilled in woodworking would be the fullfilment of a childhood dream to me. I first worked with wood when I was around 10 and always wanted to become a woodworker. The first project I remember trying to do was a stool. The plans I found in a childrens book, I tried to build it using a scrap piece of flake board. Needless to say I never finished this project.

    Well, last year my wife and I bought this house, so for the first time in my life I own enough space to set up a woodshop. Funds are tight right now, but given enough time I am going to try to learn enough about woodworking to build a stool, this time using decent material.

    My goal is not to earn a living as a woodworker, but to use my hands for something other than a keyboard. And to me, working with wood has always been special: The smell, the texture, etc.

    Thank you, Paul, for all your knowledge present on the Net. It helps a lot to have a real Woodworker explain how he’s working the wood. Even if I cannot replicate most of it due to lack of tools.

  8. Thanks, Paul, for sharing this very personal account of your woodworking life. It teaches a lot. As for rejecting the idea, “don’t work hard, work smart,” perhaps you mean to emphasize that there is no substitute for hard work, however smart it may be. And that is a great truth.

    Beautiful and fittingly designed credenza!

  9. That’s exactly what I was thinking and then I read you comment and I thought great – now I don’t feel the need to type that out on my phone!

  10. thank you Paul for that. I have a friend who is a pastor and early in one of his teachings, he was emphasizing the need to have something in your life, which, as he put it “really turns your crank handle”and makes you just want to get out of bed each day and get back into it. And after a lifetime of working with wood, mainly stair casing and hand railing, my urge and passion are still as strong as it was when I was fifteen, and no matter the reaction of people to what you have made for them, there is simply nothing like standing back and knowing that that staircase design came out of my own head, and inspite of everything that took place, I created it, and I can go to my bed at night with real peace in my soul.

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