A student showed me how joinery from a woodworking class in 1962 started out. Later he showed me the writing desk he made. He went to grammar school and was channelled away from something he loved to do something more acceptable. Manual labour for him was frowned on because “academic abilities” trumped manual labour meant for the less intelligent. “It wouldn’t be good to waste such an intellect doing manual work.”

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Here in my class he revisited that first love picking up the hand tools again and the embers glowed without fanning flames. Impassioned throughout the course he sensed the same feelings from 50 years ago. By the course end he was planning retiring into a fresh and new occupation revolving around woodworking.

Of course this happens to people feeling this way. At the workshop door people harken back to school woodworking with great affection and a fondness starts the conversation of how they once loved woodworking. Such things are rarely expressed the same way of other subjects. Maths has no smell and neither does geography. Woodworking for hundreds and thousands is now mostly a postponed experience. People come here to unlock their past and the years and decades of neglect disappear as they rediscover realms of creativity. Something that never came to the fulness it was supposed to unfolds and just as maths and English language once layed down the basics as building blocks so it is with woodworking, metalworking, art and other three-dimensional training in school long ago. I think that we generally use maths and English language (If English is our first or necessary language) throughout our lives at different levels, but most people put woodworking, metalworking, art and craft work aside.DSC_0056

It’s a sad thing that once school is done it’s difficult to progress a craft at an age when development potential is best maximised. Now of course I am not at all talking about wood machining here. I have to emphasize this because wood machining is a totally different dimension than hand woodworking. You can learn enough about wood machining in a few hours to competent and safe levels using machines to cut wood. An hour for a bandsaw, a tablesaw, a planer and jointer. Two hours for a router, two to three hours for a spindle moulder. Mostly this is nuts-and-bolts assembly of components, adjusting mechanisms, blade and cutter changing and alignment, depths of cuts and so on. Beyond that it’s building jigs to give guaranteed results as risk-free as possible. That is the jigs simply prevent the machine, hand held or static, from shifting direction and gouging the wood and the skin. DSC_0058Safety of course becomes the pivotal issue for most training. High torque equipment can twist the machine, the material and the user rapidly out of synch and when one of these shifts out of synchrony things go rapidly wrong and the machine the material and the user are all on the whole or in part in danger. Of course it’s not always flawed use of equipment causing the danger, in fact it is most often the material that causes issues. Wood splits when you least expect it to, and shifts when stresses are released under the whirling tips of cutters. Unfortunately these stress releases almost always take place at the tip of circular saw teeth or at a spinning cutterhead revolving at thousands of RPMs. Of course hand tools also have their own safety issues and with both machine and hand tool methods we must develop procedures that minimise the risk factors to enjoy safer woodworking. I suppose for me it’s herein that the two worlds of machine and hand tool woodworking generally part, that’s if they were ever together that is, but not in the way some might think. It’s not that machines are the enemy or anything close to that but that they can be exclusively prohibitive for the majority of those who want to become real woodworkers using hand methods. If you grow up in today’s machine-dominant work you soon start assessing woodworking from the very wrong perspectives. DSC_0059If that is the case then you realise that you must spend many thousands on buying machines and support equipment as well as additional safety stuff too. The footprint is major massive and never ending and so is the protective space you must have to enclose and protect it from the weather. Even though my workshop space is 25’ by 50’ I actually work in a space less than a single-car garage. My workspace measures 8’ by 10’. Whereas you might get machines into that space, it’s not really practical and safety becomes even more problematic. If you have hand tools and benches in there too, manipulating the space for a working environment becomes impossible. Of course people do such things to make things work and also to prove others wrong, but it’s far from easy even with everything on wheels.P1090534

I think these joints above this one look like mine 50 years ago too and were important steps for a thirteen year old in school. This one here is mine today and they took me about five or six minutes to make. Without those first ones I would never have got to these. I am so glad i never once used a machine to cut dovetails. A friend of mine did once because some jerk told him to. He regretted it all his life because he felt cheated.

I loved seeing what he made as a craftsman working alongside him for two decades and lamented with him for the boss that told him he had to use that router.

I also loved seeing the excitement in the voice of the man who recalled the days with his other mates in class fifty years ago. Imagine the stimulation that took place and him keeping the joints for 50 years in a box and feeling such affection for the making of them, the school woodwork teacher, the tools used and the memories. Woodworking is more important to us than we think and of course I am not talking about any type of machine or CNC woodworking here. I am talking about what makes woodworking totally inclusive to everyone anywhere as a self sufficient craft.

8 Comments

  1. NZ Pete on 13 August 2015 at 12:19 am

    Paul, In my many years of woodworking I have made hundreds of dovetails for drawer sides, but I have yet to cut a dovetail by hand. It’s an experience I’m looking forward to with excitement and some trepidation. In a way I’m back in the manual training shop, learning the basics again.Even my trade tools need refreshing I feel to complete the task to a proper level.
    I am confident that with my skill & experience my first hand cut dovetail will look better than that of a 13 year old and with practice maybe even approach your standard of workmanship. But this whole new world of hand woodwork has me as an apprentice again. Thanks for your inspiration and guidance.
    Most of the joints made by many young lads now days go up in green smoke…….Sorry I could resist that one:-)



  2. AlanP on 13 August 2015 at 6:58 am

    The grammar school boy being steered away from woodwork brings back such echoes from my own past. Hell, judging by the dates, we’re pretty well the same age.

    To be fair on the teachers etc. it was a time when working class kids first really had a shot at a good academic education and even a chance of getting to university so many were pushing it for all it was worth.



  3. Brian Lowery on 13 August 2015 at 1:55 pm

    I was a wood shop teacher from 1967-72, back when “shop classes” were part of high school. I also remember one of my students that quit in the 12 grade and got a job at the steel mill and made more money than me! Times have changed. The steel mill is being torn down for scrap metal and “shop” classes are no more. Also, the kids are graduating with less skills than they had 50 yrs. ago. Many can hardly read and write! To make things worse, even the kids who go to college and graduate are having trouble finding a job.
    Bottom line is this. Today it is hard to find a job, so if you are lucky and can find work, there is a good chance it won’t be what you are “passionate” about. Not saying it can’t happen, but for many they are just looking for a job, any job.



  4. Mike Ballinger on 14 August 2015 at 5:08 pm

    It’s interesting the idea of needing an education to get a job. I’ve personally worked with two senior designers that produce amazing work and didn’t do a course in design. Admittedly one has a chip on his shoulder about it but really it’s not as important as society makes it out to be. Two days ago people in work were joking about a young man who did his final year exams in high school and came out with ‘average results’. Apparently all he’s set up for is jam making. I know they were joking but it shows how much we’ve lost by assuming that if you don’t get better than average grades in school you’re good for nothing. I was in the second lowest class in high school and I thought I wasn’t intelligent. So I left early and studied art then design to discover that I just have a different kind of intelligence. Perspective is everything!



  5. Keith on 18 September 2015 at 4:45 pm

    As someone who has recently retired from teaching, it does concern me that too many seem to be being pushed to go to university.

    I remember talking to the wife of a teacher ( also a teacher) whoose husband had left to take up market gardening. She said people keep saying that they are sorry for us now we are so poor. She went on – I do not tell them that in reality, the first year he made 3 times as much as teaching! Snobbery?



  6. Will on 29 October 2015 at 11:41 am

    The saddest part of this is that so many schools no longer have woodworking, machine shop, auto shop, etc… As schools drop these programs more and more people (like myself) will look for ways to gain experience in these areas. There is a need for after school vocational classes to helps our current middle/high school students learn skills beyond the textbook.

    Thanks for the content on your site Paul. Your website has ruined Fine Woodworking magazine for me – as it should. I can no longer tolerate reading articles showing people working so hard just to avoid actually cutting a mortise and tenon joint.



    • Paul Sellers on 29 October 2015 at 6:29 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement. I actually might lament the shop classes of 5 decades ago but not today. Most of the teachers were just trained to curriculum and that’s what has resulted in most craft work being dumbed down to the teacher level. Sorry D&T teachers UK. But you all know what I mean I think. There is much more to craft work that programming a computer and getting a technician to make cuts for you when all the hand tools are stuck stacked up in a cupboard because the risk factor is too high for children in school today. Time after time I get teachers telling me they could not possibly let the kids access sharp-edged tools because they would kill one another or themselves but that’s because the teachers have no authority. If a kid does not obey the first time they should tell the parents to keep the child home until they do.



  7. David Lindsay Stairbuilder Australia on 24 June 2017 at 7:43 am

    as a professional stair builder, specializing in curved staircases and handrails, I am forced to use my machines, BUT, the most important work, especially with handrails, hand tools are the only way to complete the job.



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