Some Thoughts on Real Woodworking Issues

I’ve been struggling with something that’s troubled me for a few years now and that is the contrast between professional or what was once just full-time woodworkers and then perhaps amateurs. I see a similar comparison in other areas affecting woodworkers in the realms of teachers of woodwork craft, lecturer types too, if you will, and students; things like this. In my day it was man and boy thing, craftsman and apprentice, trainer and trainee. I still like the word journeyman because it suggests the journey distancing an apprentice into the world of an adult craftsman that starts say five to seven years after working full time in the given trade.P1210612

The word bespoke has emerged over the past half century or so to describe what was once ordinary as something or someones as perhaps not ordinary but extra-ordinary. I think the term bespoke began to emerge when the demise of woodworking became more an irreversible condition here in the west, which came when educational colleges became some kind of qualifying agency rather than the locally earned reputation of a craftsman. Of course jobs were gradually sold out to global producer/suppliers too, which meant fewer and fewer makers to take on additional craftsmen. Anyway, I do remember bespoke being used mostly by tailors and dressmakers on high streets throughout the UK making made-to-measure handmade suits.PICT0177

Last week and again this week already I’ve had a lot going on. In the midst of concluding two new training project series and currently developing the next major project for filming, I found myself delving into pockets of reflection concerning the future of woodworking! What does that look like? What will woodworking be to future generations? Is it possible that woodworking in the realms of furniture making will become a locally based craft again and who will be responsible if that is indeed a goal and a possibility for the generations of people graduating from training?PICT0016_14

In my youth I could have apprenticed with a dozen companies in the town where I lived. That’s all changed. Most professional businesses of a size capable of taking on new staff are fighting to exist here in the UK. It was the same in the US too when I lived and worked there. So, multiple choice for an employer trainer company is not the case today of course. I’d be lucky if I could find one company in ten similar sized towns today. If I did I would be feeding the machines and not making by hand too. Such is the cultural shift in woodworking no matter the craft. Despite all of this I do so hope for the future. If we could of course disabuse new woodworkers to accept the craft is special as an ordinary craft rather than trying to change it by titles alone. Woodworking for me has always been very special and the best pieces I ever made were made by someone of little significant name for people who had no significant name.P1040042

Over recent years I have had ever-fewer inspirational conversations with what we might see as successful craftsmen working wood. For me, that’s concerning. If I try pinning down any conversation surrounding incoming work, details of say annual income or identifying a style of design that might emanate from such encounters it would be impossible to find a developed line or style originating with them. That being the case, it’s unlikely that I depart with any clear picture as to who they are at all in terms of ambition or hope for their future. It’s as if vagueness has become the identifying feature of a class of woodworker who no longer wants to be, well, just an ordinary workman. It seems that many want or indeed like to project themselves into something more non-identifying and non ordinary. Something perhaps more, well, artistic, admirable, less pinned down, more nebulous. Some use terms to describe who they are that defy definition such as bespoke. Whereas we do know bespoke simply means custom made or sometimes even a one-of-a-kind design, that’s not always evidenced in the name itself. Bespoke is often used to describe the woodworker rather than the work he or she produces. That is that they themselves are sort of set apart from the rest, better than the ordinary. In reality they simply perform ordinary tasks for a woodworker and produce ordinary looking stuff. Look through a UK magazine surrounding design here in Britain and you will see ‘bespoke’ and ‘designer-maker’, artist-maker woven into someone’s title somewhere, yet what exactly that means no one really knows? Mostly it means I am a bespoke designer maker rather than I am a maker making bespoke pieces.DSC_0009

Anyway, reading between the lines and listening to different conversations over the past year or so I found myself trying to listen all the more for aspirational content and even excitement with young designer-makers, only to find the spark was near sparkless. I listened to discern something that told me that they knew that they they had not arrived but hoped for a future developed ability that they could somehow possess down the road if they put the hours in and gained the experience they truly needed. I didn’t really find it though. It was as if leaving college had somehow fully qualified them to give them the sense of having arrived rather than they had just learned some basics; tools if you will to get them started. The reality was that they thought they could just make their designs, find the right buyer, and then sell millions and make money by which they could measure their success. That this would somehow validate them. I had hoped that they would be excited about a design they had developed but that wasn’t really the case at all. In different cases, projects made by various artisans were, well, very ordinary, copied, uninspired works. Technically they were correctly made but totally machine made and with no creativity to the designs and certainly no creative hand work. DSC_0021 (1)That can, not always, lead to the work outcome being very dull and uninteresting, boring if you will, and that’s usually because the process itself is boring. Artist designer’, ‘Designer-maker’ and ‘bespoke’ may be aspirational but the titles had nothing to do with the actual work produced. Here, the evidence was missed opportunity to step out and make change. Sparklessness fulfilled. Though I had hoped for more and I did value the different conversations I’d had with the aspiring generations, I became concerned that they no longer saw being known as workmen and working men as something of true value in and of itself. I’ve spent most of my life as just a workman and found great contentment in it, even though I was actually designing pieces that to me defied gravity. I was always able to earn a living as a single income family. Is it possible that most newish craftsmen start out assuming titles ahead of themselves before earning the reputation it takes to be what they aspire to be? By this I mean earning the title first rather than simply assuming it? Earning a personal recognition actually goes beyond the accomplishment of gaining say a degree or, more rarely and perhaps more demanding, serving a longterm apprenticeship. As a mere workman, a working man, a man contented to be a furniture maker, I still have aspirations I have yet to achieve at 66 years of age. It has nothing to do with whether I earn income from my work or not. If it were only possible for me to make furniture for a hobby, I would work on my craft in the evenings and weekends, sell or not sell my work, and still be a happily contented workman. Nothing has ever stopped me because it didn’t matter if I had a title, earned or not, or whether I had a degree. What mattered was if I made. I never did get a degree of any kind that had anything to do with my craft. I am not sure when having a degree replaced good quality workmanship producing on a daily basis over an extended period or indeed how that happened.DSC_0397

Seeing descriptive titles here in England that are actually statements unsupported by output is concerning. The work must be generated if we are to see things change. That means realism in lived lives rather than titles. It means hard work and vision. Few people see themselves as, well, ordinary working people in a virtual world any more any more. Today there are hundreds of thousands of websites depicting images of things that don’t actually exist showing workshops, hand tools and pieces of work. It’s all too easy for people to consider themselves entrepreneurs, designers, artists of an unordinary stature and projecting yourself as what you might want to impress people with rather than what you actually are. That’s a new phenomenon in our western culture.

Obviously there are fewer and fewer real jobs for furniture makers wanting to create bespoke work. Because the jobs don’t actually exist. That’s an issue created by politicians and economists who only see the future through blinkered eyes of “global strategies”, “imports, exports” the manipulations of statistics and so on. Because of this young designers and makers must become self employed as soon as they leave college or university because they have no choice and yet finding gainful employment for at least five years would be the very answer to their future in becoming bespoke makers in their own right. I see this as the very solution we need to help them become the new genre woodworker that replaces my generation. As they then begin creating their own designs from their experience in the real world of woodworking and furniture making instead of being forced into a very, very narrow band of industrious creators struggling too early in unsupported realms they had nothing to do with.

Business cards never say working man or ordinary craftsman these days and, I know, they never did, but at least at one time business cards said it the way it was. Paul Sellers, Cabinet Making and Joinery, said all I needed to say early on. My earned reputation on the other hand was of real value. Designs that worked, held up my name as a maker and eventually a designer too and my business name became Paul Sellers furniture and design. That was in 1985 and it’s stayed the same. There was no doubt in times past workmen laboured in their craft until they felt that they had had enough work under their belt to be held accountable by their customers. It wasn’t age or a degree but more than that, it was a rite of passage to gain the experience first and then let the lived life as a craftsman speak for itself. Yes, it came from and through years of rote repetitive practice in workmanship. That’s why I say it’s not important to make furniture for prestigious people or even selling a piece as such to a paying customer, but establishing yourself as a person people feel confident to entrust their work to. IMG_6386

I say all of this to suggest adding a few extra years to a career plan is well worth the investment and that things will need to change if that is to happen. You CANNOT rely on governmental programs put together by politicians to make this happen. If you do you will end up with endless intrusions into your business life with no end of form filling. This is something that defies political interventions designed for political and economic gain. This is a heart issue on a local level.DSC_0156

My thought is better to be a workman making to respectable standards rather than using self-endorsing titles. There is a true rest in this, I have found. When you need to add descriptive titles it can become mere nondescript additional baggage rather than a clear and unalloyed statement of a lived life. I would still make pieces whether I sold them or not and if I had to take one of those “real jobs” people told me to take in my early years I personally would still be making eight hours a day 6 days a week in my own time and in my own creative space. I did this on and off for many years in my early days and it worked just fine because I loved work, there was less pressure to prove anything and I have never liked substitutes for living life like TV that much anyway.

Word of mouth takes time. Be true to yourself doesn’t mean sidestepping the necessary period of truly earning respect by being faithful to each new customer that comes to your door. The best advertisement for an crafting artisan will always be through word of mouth. Clean, precise, honest work is always the very best endorsement.

26 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Real Woodworking Issues”

  1. james johnsen

    Excellent blog. ” If your goal is making money you will probably fail. If your goal if gaining clients you will probably succeed.”

    1. I agree with 99% of what Psul says, however to be successful, one must also have a business plan. You can’t just “wing it” and expect to be able to stay in business.

      My approach would be one of never sacrificing quality while getting my goods in front of the right clientele. For example, its nearly impossible to make any money at flea markets, but it is much more realistic that you would achieve success in a high end furniture store. This is part of business strategy/planning that includes making money.

  2. Great stuff Paul. Your website has 100% started my journey. I hone my skills daily through the Masterclasses. These skills that you have taught me via technology I would say is how the craft of woodworking will grow and spread. It’s how it happened for me in the US. I never even knew about apprenticing before reading it in your older blogs. The skills I’m learning from your website I can now locally pass to my son if he’s interested or maybe others who see the progression of my work in pics I post on Facebook. Someone at some point will tell me they want to do it or want to learn how. That will be a crossroad for me for another time. Do I teach them? Right now, no. I will refer them to your website and videos. So, I continue to make.

  3. I have been self employed in a variety of capacities since I was a teenager. It has never been an issue gaining enough employment to make my way. I have had assistance initially from family by way of support in a variety of ways. Now, the support is from the customers whom refer me to others and also give me repeat business. In terms of representation there are many businesses bandying about labels with designer or bespoke incorporated in them. I have a degree in Industrial Design and it is applicable and useful to what I do, the majority being construction/carpentry/joinery work on domestic housing. It is not until recently that I have felt comfortable with this aspect of my education even though duly earned and this has come in hand with knowing full well there is so much more to learn and improve upon.

    I am of the mind that if you are a student of what you do and continue to be then the skill sets that people associate with craftsmanship and thus value will continue to develop somewhat organically. Conscious thought is obviously required and hands on work is essential. Long hours and physical exertion do not have to be a burden unless ill conceived and ineffective. Time passing is a necessity as much as a fact but it can muddy the waters if our history is not heeded and preserved not for the sake of it but because of the value inherently within. There is a lot of comment passed on how as a society we have improved on so many aspects of our lives and we have in many regards. Efficient working and speed of working are not one in the same though, neither are methodology and process. The spark you spoke of Paul? I daresay many would be in agreement that people like yourself fulfill that requirement. I find slow burn more appropriate for myself , there is a longevity to it I find comfort in.

  4. Mark Wisecarver

    Well done mate. Reading between the lines is indeed insight we can share, that we need to share for generations.
    Request. . .Can you show us more of that common wood Shave Horse that child is using? That design looks very handsome.

  5. There does very much seem to be a culture (in the UK at least) of title inflation; e.g. the joke of the “product replenishment technician” (shelf stacker). In my industry there’s much grumbling about everyone and his dog calling themselves an engineer, when it’s actually a professional title that requires meeting criteria of experience and skill.

    That said, I can see why people in the woodworking business are drawn to artisan titles; the reality is that someone could knock together a piece in a fraction of the time by using machinery, and although the quality and care will not match, that won’t be obvious to many buyers.

    The problem then is that you need to justify your time and price – selling an ideal of a “craftsman” or “bespoke” product to a market that’s willing to pay the extra. Whether or not the maker justifies the title is a different matter.

    As an aside, I understand the term “bespoke” derives from the fact the material (usually cloth) had “been spoken for”.

  6. Insightful and interesting mr sellers. I see much of these attitudes in my profession. As A 17 year old chef I am fortunate to of had many places to hone my skills. However I see increasing numbers of lads coming through wanting to run before they can not even crawl. I was fortunate early on to discover I knew nothing and could only ever hope to know some of the secrets of my trade. Now they come believing they know and leave running rather than embracing when they find their skills are wanting. I’ve always loved the fact I will never know it all but the harder you scratch the more you can find. Thanks everybody loving the wwmc as well

  7. “there are fewer real jobs for (bespoke) furniture makers…. that’s an issue created by politicians and economists”
    C’mon Paul it happened because bespoke furniture makers never figured a way of making it affordable for more than a small number. When Ikea and others learned how to mass produce an effective substitute there was a big grateful market waiting for them They’d been waiting for many generations.

    .

    1. Ikea furniture is about as “effective” a substitute as paper plates are for fine china. Since it is the paper plates you throw away since they were not designed to last for years, as was the fine china.

      1. There was another type of furniture – pre flat pack days – that I remember my parents house being filled with. Dark wardrobes and the like made from thin veneered ply pinned to lightweight frames. All sourced second hand no doubt and functional more than loved. In fact my parents hated it. It was a bit sturdier than Ikea stuff not least because it was very light and could withstand being carried about. It’s a bit hazy in truth but Paul may be able to tell us who made this stuff. I’d guess it was produced first half of the 20th c. Perhaps an early attempt at local volume production?

        1. Possibly “Utility” furniture from the 40’s/early 50’s? War time restrictions and a continuing shortage of materials after the war prompted a standard design and economical use of available materials (by government decree) to make cheap but functional furniture. Remember the thousands of families bombed out and who save but their lives had lost everything else. They all needed replacement furniture presumably to go in their “pre-fabs”.

  8. All you can do for the young is set an example. When you saw straight and plane level, they will discover by imitation and practice, that this craft takes time and contains it’s own rewards. Muscle memory is not taught in any school. Maybe the next Stradivarius violin will come from a 3-D printer – who can say.

  9. Thanks, Paul, for these insights. It encourages me to be patient and to not rush or try to shorten the days of learning the trade, even if it may take several years for lack of a local tradesman to learn from. Without the work you and your team does, it would be completely hopeless.

  10. While some words like bespoke are not as commonly used in the States as in England your thoughts do traverse the Pond effectively. Thanks.

  11. I always liked working with my hands to sitting in front of a keyboard. The more I sit in front of a keyboard is the more I hate it. There is something that manual labor does to the soul that keyboard typing can never do.

    1. Jacob Morrill

      As a day-time keyboard jockey i can attest to this, luckily I have my woodworking to produce something tangible. It is my therapy.

  12. I wonder Paul if you’re being a bit hard on modern designer makers. Style is sometimes hard to identify until it stops being made. And customers are different too. Maybe they just buy one or two things at a time.
    I thought many of the famous makers of times past had patrons who would commission them to fill 50 room stately homes with bespoke furniture. Presumably these patrons wanted it also to be the height of fashion if not trend setting and all of a piece. I guess those kind of people today might sooner spend their dosh on an executive jet or something. But the patron thing would certainly seem to make it easier to fund development of a style

  13. Well said Paul…. For many years I have been concerned by the way we take kids from school and make them teachers without ever giving them real world experiences in what they are teaching. For me the ideal way would be for teachers to trained from real world people. People that have gained experience in the field they are teaching. Governments are increasingly wanting people to work longer and this is a way of doing it. As you say education is about a qualification nowadays rather than learning anything. When I was at university I saw many students spending hours and hours studying subjects parrot fashion so they could pass exams rather than learning the subject. I rarely studied at all because I took the time to learn it in the first place. I think this is why we see the demise of quality trades people…those making the decisions about training have received their qualifications without ever learning the subject themselves.
    Anyway that’s my soapbox rant for the day…now to get into the workshop and make some sawdust.

  14. Paul you hit the nail on the head! Pun intended! As a shop teacher I teach precision machining, but I am a woodworker when I’m not working metal. I love to work with my hand and always have. I quit a very high paying job to become a teacher because I was bored of the regular grind and needed to inspire a younger generation. Machining is becoming just like modern woodworking. There is little talent used anymore to build anything. They rely completely on the computers creating it. I have visitors regularly in my class from industry asking me questions and looking for potential employees. They are blown away when they see me teaching kids to work with their hands and use hand tools and machines properly. I had a guy visit me recently who was getting ready to start up a handmade furniture company. He went on for an hour about all the new machines he was buying from the local Woodcraft and the huge building he was going to put it all in. While he was talking about his wonderful high dollar plan. I asked him if he ever used handplanes or chisels much? He gave me a strange look as if I was sick or something and said what do your mean, who uses those? I said, well if your making handmade furniture how are you doing it by hand? He went on to tell me about the thousands of dollars worth of machinery the salesman sold him so he can make all his furniture. I could see where the conversation was going and told him I needed to get back to work and good luck on your new venture. These guys are all looking for instant gratification, not years of hard work to create something amazing. I get students all the time telling me they want to be managers, they don’t want to do the hard work. I tell them, your first job in a shop will be doing clean up, if you can do that well for a while they might let you start working. If you don’t take cleanup seriously, you wont take your job seriously. You got to crawl before you can walk. Keep up the good work Paul!

  15. Thomas Robinson

    As a retired engineer, amateur machinist, and woodworker, one of the most disturbing things I encountered was when I began sub teaching at the local high school. In 1975, when the current school was opened, the wood shop would have been the envy of any woodworker. Powermatic equipment, Stanley hand tools, Swedish carving tools….you name it…..and the students actually built houses! Fast forward to 1992 when I began my sub teaching days. I thought. Great! I’ll get to use all that wonderful equipment. Imagine my surprise when I discovered not one operational piece of equipment! Wood shop was now nailing four boards into a crude bookshelf. I was totally disgusted ……. I soon learned how things had degraded…….. A new principal had decided that he would deal with “mainstreaming” by dumping all the troublemakers into vocational. The real shop teachers grew frustrated when they were expected to spend more time on discipline and less on teaching. When the principal retired, things turned around a little. It started when they hired a retired staff sergeant to run vocational. Now the classes are actually turning out furniture. Leadership matters.

  16. Hello Paul, you make many wide-ranging comments but much of it seems to reduce to the matter of making things by hand versus making things with a machine (” If I did I would be feeding the machines and not making by hand too. “). But what is the difference, for example, between cutting a dovetail by hand or by using a Leigh jig and a router? What makes one approach acceptable and the other not? Are such things as hand-saws, chisels, marking gauges not also machines of a kind? Where is the cut-off, so to speak?

    1. With hand tools you provide all of the energy and direction and you enter and engage the wood radically differently too. In most cases the machine uses masses of unused energy; a sledgehammer approach to crack a nut, if you will. Cutting by hand on the other hand takes developed skill but once you have it you have it for life and it is exceedingly rewarding. Using machines and guides detaches you from the work and actually negates the need for developed skill, which some people prefer for several reasons. The problem I find is that often people who have not developed skill and the benefits of speed hand methods often can provide make evaluations based only on their limited perspective that the machine is indeed best or, worse, that it is just another method, or worse still, that it is the more advanced evolutionary development. They often can’t understand that people like me and thousands of them there are, actually like working with hand methods because they feel in control. Believe it or not, they actually like the challenge at first too. Hand tools are absolutely not machines because the people providing the energy and direction are not machines. The cut off for me is that machines are good for donkey work, sometimes speed and especially good for mass manufacturing. Hand tools depend on the engagement of all five senses and give me the absolute pleasure of knowing that I actually made something raw change with a few hand tools and not a machine I simply pushed a button on and fed wood into. The main difference between machine methods and hand methods is that with almost all machines you are feeding wood into the machine. With hand tools the tool itself becomes the extension of your hand and your feeling.

      1. Hello Paul, I asked the question so as to trigger some kind of analysis from you. Maybe it was obvious from your original blog entry, but I feel that I now understand better what you are getting at (the acquisition and exercise of woodworking skills?, the appropriateness of the technology used to the task at hand?). Thanks very much for taking the time to respond. David

        1. That’s how I took it David, an innocent yet valued question deserving a clear answer. I have always felt that people start out woodworking looking for clear answers but end up confused by answers suggesting more over the top equipment and tools. If you go into any of the US franchised suppliers, chain stores and so on and ask what you need to cut dovetails it will always be a router and a dovetail jig with special cutters. Add into the equation dust respirator £15, ear defenders £5, eye protection £5 and dust extractors £150 and the bill gets ever bigger. Worst scenario: £700 for router and Leigh jig, £100 for Leigh router bit set. You could be looking between £800 and a £1,000 to simply cut dovetail. Alternatively £50 cuts dovetails for a lifetime, plus a saw file every few years to sharpen the saw. Usually, I would say over 95% of woodworkers are only interested in cutting dovetails occasionally and only cut one set at a time. They are not making hundreds of dovetails in succession but they are often persuaded that routers and dovetail jigs are essential when what is more practical is the development of skill, and that takes little more than learning to ride a bike and the result is riding for life.

  17. I like to think of myself as a newly minted craftsman, a maker of things, and accordingly refer to you as a master or expert craftsman when I mention things you do, and I think I get exactly what you’re talking about with the aspirational statements:

    I don’t want to catch up with you, you walked your path just fine, and mine is heading off in another direction, but I look forward to being as far along it as you are down yours.

    I dug your parlor trick of grabbing a piece of wood, a saw, and just dropping two dovetails worth of cuts into it without even glancing at a pencil or square, and I can do it decently most of the time now, which still feels like a surprise when I grab my square and sure enough managed to knock the cuts out as square as can be.

    You’ve got a lot more skill at making sure the cuts being transferred to the pin board are exact, but trying to replicate that demo is surprisingly good practice though I do need to find something to do with these practice joints I’m collecting.

    —–

    As for the machine vs hand made discussion, it’s all about the possibility of failure isn’t it? We’d all be shocked if you busted out a rookie mistake on the second of a set of four drawers you were making, but it is still more possible than it is for a jig and table saw to do the same sort of error… I assume.

    I don’t actually know how table saw jigs work, never had an interest in playing around with something which is so eager to eat my precious fingers and arms.

    I’m reaching the point where the clean correct cuts are shouldering the last few errors out of the way so I can offer a certain level of consistency for clients, and I don’t think I would feel the same satisfaction saying “I can use this horrifyingly loud saw and jig without losing a finger most of the time to make the exact same thing over and over again” to someone I was hoping to begin making things for.

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