Not everyone understands

making a cello (620)
2006 marked the occasion when Joseph and I carved our first voice and a cello came from tools we had and then those we made that didn’t exist for us.

Yesterday the work was hard, filled with awkwardness, and I wrestled with the complexities time and again. That’s how beautiful things come to life.
I made a plane years ago to create beauty with. I shaped its body of wood and then took steel for the blade and formed it to shape with a hacksaw and file. I’ve used a many a file for this; one from 1967. The first plane i ever made from sycamore and a square file. I recall the thrill clearly now , 50 years later, as the shaving twisted up from the easement in a full length spiral like a spinning firework on bonfire night.

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Another cello came a year later but this one came without my helping.


The inspiration of my work perpetually compels me.

making a cello 2 (53)
A scroll begins and progresses with a shallow gouge, rotary cuts into a spiral.
Making a Cello 2 (70)
Joseph takes over and develops his first scroll.


Whether a file shapes my steel to give me my cutting edges or the chips and shavings rise to greet my eye I look beyond these things that give my life meaning and wellbeing to what lived creativity gives me. The tools I made and make soon cause the wood to yield beauty in its inmost parts.
I made seats and benches, cupboards and things like these over the years but it was never the money I would make or the speed I sought but the dextrous work my hands give me. I still challenge myself with the awkward things and the complexities but now my work is crafting others to achieve their ambitions to become truly gifted.

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A violin begins with drawings and thoughts and careful consideration.
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Another cello emerges .

People constantly tell me you can’t make a living working with your hands. Everything must be done by machines. That’s always seemed silly to me. I smile and tell them pointedly, “That’s not true. Machines have a place to take the big pieces down to the smaller sizing, but they can never substitute for developed skill.” They shrug it off and walk away shaking their heads. I carry on at my bench and make something very beautiful and work twice as long there. Some say it’s because I can’t make it working less hours. Some say these things. I say it’s because my work excites me so much I don’t want to stop even for lunch. I usually work all day without a break. Ask those I work with. I do take three walks into the woods and fields for half an hour each, but that’s to think and consider the things I see as important.

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There is much more to making beauty than mere income, and income is important, but Joseph sold a violin in London a few weeks ago. To Joseph the most important thing is that the violin is played.


I see now how a beautiful cello emerged from steel cutting edges made with my son, Joseph, and then shared hours and days and years filled moment by moment with pockets of pure joy using the tools we made to work with our hands. When voices we carved with our hands and a few tools came from strings stretched taut and the imagination of those who played a cello and a violin made through awkwardness and complexity by a man and his son I found levels of satisfaction I never achieved by any machine.

14 comments on “Not everyone understands

  1. Paul- I was wanting to write you earlier this week and this post reminds me why. I was in my shop making Christmas stars (using the Paul Sellers method) which was a gift in itself. But then the bonus…first while sharpening and then when using my shooting board, I noticed the sound indicating that everything was aligned properly. Both times, I had a sense of delight when my ears kicked in to support my eyes and hands, plane blade and wood/ diamond stone in perfect harmony. thank you for the gift of encouragement to be present.

  2. This is art in the highest form , In my opinion.
    I’ve been dying to see your sons work, and now I finally get to see some.
    I’m completely speechless. For a Father you must be very proud of your Sons Achievements. Eventually I was going to start making Wood instruments but I wanted to become as fluent as possible with hand tools before I started. Although I would never abandon my furniture building these Pictures have without doubt regenerated my passion and my long term goals that we so easily forget in our everyday lives of surviving.
    Thank you for the Post.
    Chris/ aka Thomas lol

  3. Strange how that Cello looks naked without the strings. I like the inspiration poster in the background too.

    Happy Christmas Paul, to you and your family.

  4. Paul I have been trying for a few years to become proficient (big word don’t know if it spelled right) at woodworking hand tools. I have become a bit disheartened in my progress and thought I should just give it up. But, this has inspired me once again as you very often do. I always when I was in the work day world had dreams of being an instrument (guitar) builder all by hand. I now am retired and am not much closer to that dream but I am still inspired by your life, work, and attitude. Thanks for that
    David

  5. I will admit it, I use machines in my shop. But when it comes to dovetail joints, for example, give me my hand tools. My hands are much more skilled than my machines.

    • Well, Darrel, I don’t think machine is a dirty word or that life is better without them; contrary to how people often misconstrue what my message is. Hand tool woodworking took a hammering in the US by power tools dominating the arena at woodworking shows, on TV and in woodworking stores. This was at one time my goal to try to get woodworkers to reevaluate how they worked wood. My ambitions were realised and I see what we and others have achieved without the usual gimmickry often associated with today’s woodworking. The skills needed for operating machines are minimal of course, as most effort revolves around self protection and the protection of others and then the protection of materials being worked into the machine. It’s always been about finding the balance for me.

  6. I know what you mean, I don’t bother telling most people about my aspirations to do this because I just get the usual harrumphing and eye-rolling.

    On the other hand, On Christnas morning my wife will get a wooden bowl, hand carved, sanded, oiled and finished. Not perfect but unique.

  7. It’s amazing how much I am picked on for enjoying working with my hands and really becoming part of my work. One of my dads friends is into wood working but with an arsenal of machines. I have the same opinion as you Paul, I don’t at all think hand tool work is better than machines or any of those things. People will say how it is so slow to use hand tools, and so much work, but they are just missing the point and the feelings that arise when you work a piece of wood. My dads friend had an old hand plane, and I was going to try to show him the sounds and beautiful surface that arose when you used it, But all he did was take another piece of wood and run it through the planner and make fun of me for how slow the hand tool work was. Even though his hand plane wasn’t properly sharpened or anything, It still quickly occurred to me that not everyone understood wood working. There is just an explainable feeling when you use hand tools and really become a part of what you are making, unmasking the secret beauty that mother nature has hidden in these giant living things outside. It almost hurts me to tell people that I am a wood worker who prefers to use mostly hand tools, because I know that most people will make the assumption that I am “against machines” and “progression”, and that they won’t understand how I feel about my work even if I did try to explain it.

    Thank you for everything you do Paul and team, you have changed my life.
    – Fred Heinssen III

    • I did get that when I moved to the US in 1987 and for a few years after I arrived, but then one day woodworkers invited me as speaker at Woodcraft stores and the seats were packed. I was able to evangelise without hindrance and people started listening. The stores I would be teaching at invited me back even though the staff didn’t really get it. The same started happening at Rockler stores too, even though Rockler then seemed less inclined toward hand tool use and more pro toward the substitutes for developed skill using machines, gadgets and gizmo accessories.
      I may make strong statements separating skilled workmanship from machine only assemblers but machines have their place in industry and even in the home shop too. But it takes only an hour or two to be able to work any machine and that is always surrounding health and safety telling you about things that might happen that is somewhat useless because the teacher can’t put you in a situation where it actually happens until it happens. That’s usually when you are on your own and when you have become “expert” at woodworking, which of course you are not.
      I think most machinists just gave up when they saw what it was going to take to sharpen up and set up tools (not machines) ready for fine workmanship. I have joiners and carpenters in my classes all the time because they feel the lack in skill levels. Once they see what we give, their whole lives change for the better. Just be patient. One day a neighbour will knock on your door and take an interest. Then another and another and soon you will find new friends who are not so challenged by your deeper understandings of wood. Neighbour kids will hear you chopping too and she and he will be right alongside you asking if they can try.

  8. Thank you for lifting my spirits some Paul. I really respect and look up to you. thank you so much for everything you have done. You have made big changes to my life that you don’t even know about.

    Fred Heinssen III

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