More on BEING an Artisan

DSC_0364This week I think ten people asked how much my oak clocks cost. I think that eight would have bought one for £120 each. Four people asked how much the chairs cost and I think two people would have bought one, two or a set of six. People ask these questions all the time but we actually stopped selling because of time constraints. The important element people fail to connect with is that I have always allowed people to come visit my creative workspace, to ask questions and to see for the very first times in all their lives someone working with their hands to make what they make. This makes such a difference that in all our situations through the last three decades of entertaining and educating we have had about an 80% sale rate on small goods ranging from walking canes to hand carved spoons, inlaid pieces and such and then an unquantifiable amount of customers buying custom-made hand built furniture when people discovered for the first time that we were furniture making craftsmen.DSC_0750

I think in the space of a week or two two men purporting to be or have been full-time craftsmen told me that you can’t make it making furniture by hand,which to them meant machines. Of course you do have to get real. Combining hand and machine methods for me makes a huge difference in terms of speed, efficient use of time and so on, but I do have it down now. Relying on machine-only woodworking is not necessarily always as fast as people think but not many people, especially professional woodworkers, realise that being good with a hand plane and scraper cuts sanding down by 80%. I doubt that from here on in my life, having never been drawn into using a router to cut dovetails or dadoes, that I would resort to such a thing. I find them highly invasive and overly demanding for what is so very much a simple hand work task IF you have disciplined yourself to master skill.

P1080987The fact is you must set up to make your workshop a place of interest that’s accessible without allowing people to invade the actual workspace because this can be highly distracting and prevent you from working. In your workspace you have the opportunity to help visitors to better understand what lifestyle craftwork is all about. It’s not something qualified by an arts degree or an opting out of something you reject from the industrial and now technological world but walking out a decision  to take total responsibility for a life as a living craftsman or craftswoman. Politicians and economists work and walk hand in hand in controlling different worlds according to their political agenda. They work through the control of educationalists who set the curriculum for schools to guarantee that they have the ability to prepare a future workforce. Of course it’s mostly unpredictable but they try to predict how life is going to play out for the masses and the workforce are the ones paying them and paying the price for poor decisions. Most politicians in our country are professional politicians who distance themselves from the populace and rely on on staff to feed them statistics throughout the day to make their arguments with. As a lifestyle woodworker I withdraw from this as much as its possible and of course that is limited, but for the past decider three I feel I have had some control. Of course too, there is the control of people who are not politicians and that’s why I wrote the blog a few days ago to reduce the risk of being controlled by people with money and who care only to have something welded and hand made that they can’t get from usual sources. You, if you hand make, do not have competition. Looking around me here in North Wales there are no furniture makers doing what I do and I never meet them if they are out there in the hills somewhere. I have no competition except low prices offered by big box stores and dealers of furniture, which is no competition at all. I make my stuff and people would like buying it if I would start selling it and taking orders for custom pieces. In my life, my workshop, my studio, I can pass out information and talk to people about a chosen lifestyle. People, albeit a smaller segment of community, listen to me. P1080990When I am finished they understand and want to support me. I mean they want, and I do mean WANT, to support creative lifestyle artisans if they can find them and if they understand what’s being made. This needs to be in your psyche. All you do is show and tell. That’s enough for them to slide your business info into their pocket and save it for when they decide on what they want. The tool chest we made a couple of years ago on woodworkingmasterclasses was meant for woodworking tools. A lady came in and asked me to sell a second one I was building. I told her it was £2,500 and she said she wanted one for her craft supplies and calligraphy. She was a professional hand calligrapher. She needed no educating because she saw my work and where i worked and how I worked.

To be perfectly frank, I don’t know people like me any more and so I wondered at one time if I was a dying breed. I teach mostly for that reason. When I arrived in the USA in 1987 people asked me to teach them. I said no, that I was maker not a teacher. One day after much persistence from Americans I said OK. What I experienced there was a unique situation I had never realised existed. Americans LOVE crafts and they love had work like mine and they are prepared to invest in it with their time and effort. DSC_0427They didn’t want rinky-dink stuff nor really machine only stuff, they wanted the real deal. Now, because we have shown an alternative reality online and in real life and in classes for over 5,500 individuals, people are able to master the same skills I have all around the world. I never thought that we would reach one million every month of the year. I am so encouraged by you and your inspiring correspondence expressing hope to one day become lifestyle woodworkers. I say it again and again. Naysayers are mostly those who never took risks and never would. Naysayers have established a lifestyle surrounding income alone and have created a an acceptable comfort zone to provide for their families and you know something, that’s what we do for seasons in order to provide for our families. I know that. But at one point the scales began to tip because I was determined. Yes, I worked jobs outside of woodworking on and off in different years, not usually because there was no work as a woodworker but because of temporary circumstances.

21 comments on “More on BEING an Artisan

  1. Paul, I’m making one of your footstools. I started with a 1 1/2″ thick ash plank. I’ve read that ash trees may become extinct because of insects. My plank’s live edge had a grey patina and a few worm holes so I think it may have died before harvesting. Although I have a jointer, planer, table saw, and band saw, I cut all the pieces with hand tools. I have a dime-sized blister to prove it. You learn a lot by experiencing what an Artisan sees and does by doing the same things for yourself. This gives you an appreciation for the Artisan process over and above the end product itself: the process gives value to the product. So, I’d say the journey is as valuable as the destination. But at age 75, I’m not out to earn a living at this!

  2. I have found where i live in Florida that there is a true lack of craftsman ship. Though we have many cabinet shops none that i have found know how to do true wood work. Just this week while building a table which is of my own design for my sister in my carport which is highly visible from the street had several people stop by to look at my work, to the point that i was spending as much time talking as i did working and I received 3 new commissions to build different pieces. Just as Mr. Sellers states, there are people who gladly pay in order to support true artistry while also receiving a quality piece.

  3. Paul,

    A fellow Minnesota Woodworkers Guild member Mark Laub was teaching a furniture designing class. Mark left the business world at the top of his game to make furniture and he is a survivor from our recession. He builds unique “Art Furniture” with function.

    I learned more about the process of woodwork from Mark as a business than design, as I already had acquired education in that area.

    Mark involves the customer in his build, as you have said, people who buy his work can feel a part of it. He has a great shop and invites them for brunch to see and talk about the progress of the build. Of course he has a niche, and this is how he involves the people in the craft.

    I like your attitude and story telling as it involves the crafter and the purchaser of the craft.

    Your story grows with every passing day!

    Thanks for sharing it, and inspiring people in your passion.

  4. Paul have a look on Instagram, hundreds of artisan woodworkers and toolmakers in UK, CAN, USA, OZ and many other countries, making a living from their craft or just embarking out on the path you promote. Very heartening to witness and many of these people are as generous with their know-how and time as you are.

    I find instagram easier as an interface than Facebook, might be worth your while too.

  5. Hi, Paul,
    I like your chair a lot and have wanted to build something like that for a long time. Since I absolutely hate drum sanders, I have been thinking about buying a compass plane. However, since they can be very pricy, I wanted to know what your opinion on them was. Are they worth the price tag, how efficient are they, and can you get by just using spokeshaves? Also, if you had to buy a compass plane, would you choose No. 113 or No. 20. Thanks in advance for your help.
    Kind regards,
    Mick

    • I own two of them and I have used them when I needed a perfect radius on three occasions in 50 years. I cannot ever recommend anyone buying one unless they have something requiring exacting tolerances. I can do even exacting work with a £10 second hand spokeshave.

  6. Paul,

    I’m a public school teacher in Allentown, Pa. I joined the master classes a few month ago. With summers off, I have a lot of time to woodwork. The classes have taught me how to correctly sharpen chisels and plane blades. I can square the ends of boards because of the shooting board video. I understand the importance of a knife wall and love creating them for the dovetails boxes I’ve made. I use to feel completely lost when I tried to flatten boards but now look forward to it. The cambers I’ve put on the plane blades have really helped. No more blade gouges from sharp corners. With this being said, I’m starting to feel more and more like a craftsman. I can picture myself when I retire from teaching (I’m 41) still woodworking, still enjoying it, and eventually making replicas of old furniture that I buy from antique stores. I like the idea of buying a old chest or an old cupboard, taking it apart, figuring out how it was made, and rebuilding it. Thank you.

  7. Hi Paul,
    Love your blog and your fantastic posts, I have learned so much from your approach and
    the tips you give out.
    But I’m not sure you can particularly say ‘naysayers are mostly those who never took risks’.
    Surely, you are sidelining anyone else who has made a living outside of woodwork but who has an opinion on what might be involved in becoming a craftsman?
    I don’t think it’s possible to make a (good) living, i.e., enough to raise a family and own your
    own house, (purely) by hand tool woodworking.
    If you can point me to someone who does this, (without) also making dvd’s, running teaching courses, selling their own line of tools, renting bench space, or supplementing their income via some other route, I’d be very happy to hear about them. Making enough to support yourself
    when you are younger is easy, it’s trickier when you get older and have all the responsibilities above, and I think this is why you get a lot of people suggesting the idea is fair enough, but the use of machines etc makes it a much more viable idea.

    best
    David

    • I have never said you can’t use both but that hand tools make you more effective and infinitely more skilled, more diverse and more capable of making what cannot be made by using machines alone without hooking up CNC operated equipment such as carvers and so on. I’ve said that my life has been a good life and one that others can have if they want it. That I have spent 10 hours a day six days a week for fifty years within 2 feet of a vise, which means hand work has supported me and my family on a single income household throughout those years. This for me is a good life. I’d do it again tomorrow with little change. I chose to teach when I could not do both because people were demanding something of me and I wanted to help. I reached a point where I couldn’t do both. It was a life choice for me that’s all.

      • And I am glad you have chosen the path to pass on your knowledge. You are the only craftsman and teacher that I have come across that speaks openly without the fear of being ostracised by tool making companies. Not being in their back pockets is the path you have chosen and because of that you have opened our eyes to real woodworking.

        I don’t use a tablesaw as I don’t have a need for it or any other type of machinery as I also can work comfortably with my hands but for resawing purposes I will resort to a bandsaw and occasionally if the need is arises a thicknesser but that is it and I’m no faster or slower than any machine shop out there. I work minimum 12 hours a day 7 days a week between two jobs. It’s still hard financially for me as there are 7 of us in a household but we survive and I can’t imagine myself ever resorting to a machine based shop to make an income if I did I would hang up my apron.

        • Loved your ” being in the back pocket of tool makers” comment. All the woodworkers on the web with the exception of Paul Sellers and Roy Underhill are all pushing new tools even with hand tools. Just yesterday i was reading a blog from woodworking magazine (i think) and the writer said that he cant recommend using older hand saws because the newer ones from lie-nelson and other manufacturers are so much better. What a crock!! My pre 47 disstons will hold there own with any of them. Sure Lie – Nielson supplys him.

          • These sort of tool promoters who are telling fibs to the public are only hurting themselves in the long run. People are not stupid no matter how little educated one is he soon distinguishes between a turd and a polished one. If a tool is worth promoting then promote it by all means but to make statements like that he is only alienating himself from the woodworking arena and in no time people will soon disregard anything he has to say or promote in the future and believe me these tool companies will not have his back when it happens. It’s a jungle out there but we don’t have to act like animals to live in it.

          • I would like to think that, but there is a reason why more money is put into advertising research then there is into all medical and scientific research combined. This is why people by $3000.00 tvs when they o.ly need a $300.00 one, or a 4000.00 bicycle when they need a 400.00. People can be very blind and have a tendancy to listen to the so called experts who are getting paid to promote a certain product.

  8. My Grandfather was a carpenter and Seabee during WW2. I have woodworkers all through my family on both sides. The natural gene skipped me and I have had a fear for years to even attempt a simple box. Mr. Sellers you have dispelled those fears and I am in the process of teaching myself through your generosity of knowledge. I thank you for that. My goal is to need an item and then build it myself, whether it be a box or chair. You are a master woodworker Mr. Sellers and a master teacher.

  9. Yep, fair enough Paul. I do see your point. What I like very much about this discussion is that it raises the question in my own mind as to whether this is possible. I think it is. For me it would require a big adjustment in my own lifestyle, but perhaps that’s the whole point really.

    Look forward to more posts, as ever

    best
    David.

    • Thanks David. I love the interaction and tackling such issues because I know people like you really do care. My hope is that we can indeed do some repair work to find a politician or two that really does care enough to at least listen to someone who could make a difference. Someone who believes enough to invest in bringing back local craftsmanship again and stop talking the way they do as if they are the ones who own the future of all employees by some damned assumed right.

  10. As someone transitioning into craft/artisan work, I am incredibly grateful for this ongoing conversation. Thanks to Paul and everyone else for continuing the dialogue.

  11. Just a thought, maybe all who are following this blog, should build a small piece like a clock, spice box, jewlery box, etc and post it for sale on craigslist so we can discuss our results? Please feel free to add any ideas.

  12. It’s like trying to compare a Rolls Royce finely built to a daewoo that’s just slapped together and offered at a pittance of the price, this isn’t a comparison at all. I just had a customer come through my doors and saw first hand at what I do, he was so impressed that he just placed an order. I have the same item up online and not a single sale and that’s happened every time. Why I don’t have much luck selling online I can’t say for sure but I don’t have any problems when people see it for themselves.

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