There have been times in my life when work was there but pay was lower than perhaps it should have been. Fighting my corner was hard work but I did it. The worse scenario is when you start out and there is no work I think. In over 50 years of working with my hands I have never had a day when I didn’t have work. On the other hand though, I have been disadvantaged by naivety, lack of self assuredness and then perhaps my own overly ambitious aspirations, so in those days the way it worked for me was to work a longer day for less per hour and, as they say in Texas, “Don’t pay ’em no never mind.” To do otherwise in this unknown world of being self employed, if there really is such a thing as true self-employment, would have meant failure and I would have priced myself out of work. The simple strategy lower rates and longer days always worked and gradually I was able to raise my prices and I raised my family on my working. In some ways being self employed for someone like me, that’s my trade at least, is almost as much an illusion as retirement is in that you really don’t want to retire and you come to a point when you really don’t want to have another boss. Just becoming self employed is a driving force in and of itself and it has a dynamic that drives you like nothing else. In my case I wanted to prove to myself, no one else mind, that I could design, create and build whatever I turned my mind and my hand to and this I did. No, I didn’t have a degree and I didn’t graduate from school with any qualification as others seem so set to do these days. I stayed under the radar until I needed more advanced levels to enhance the life I chose. What happened for me was an unfolding life working within an existing culture yet not complying to its excesses. From that what I could do was work with enjoyment no matter where I went to and I could help others along the way to find fulfilment from working with their hands if they too so desired. That’s who I have been.
My life in the USA was as much about establishing a viable business as anything and if you can’t do it there you can’t do it anywhere. What I loved about the USA, even though I had indeed been an indentured apprentice, was that people always seemed to love craft work and they had great respect for artisans no matter who. They would support you and buy from someone whether they needed the item being sold or not if someone had the grit to give it a go, you would always find someone in the background cheering you on. Personally, I loved what the US offered me and meant to me and that especially so in my early days in Texas. I think the other states too of course. There I was always offered an open hand of friendship; one that pulled you up when you needed a hand and never left you on the side of the road with a flat or a breakdown. In some ways the need to earn a living is a powerful driving force for someone like me and of course I approach work differently because I never had the luxury of working with wood as a hobby. I never looked at it through those eyes until I saw that my craft would eventually be demolished if I left it to the counterculture establishing itself as a supplanter. Hand work and machine work can never be one and the same even though one can develop similar or even the same end results. For me they can never be the same, primarily because it is not what you make but how you make. That does not mean machines are not incredible inventions, nor that they don’t offer truly valuable support in the day to day of daily life in the woodworking industry, just that they should be seen as different alternatives without one trying to take over the other. Machines have yet to take over skilled work and offer the same sense of achievement. What makes the difference? For me it is the sense of accomplishment knowing that with the important aspects of my work my hands created it well enough to surprise me day after day.
I didn’t read any books until more recent years. Some stand out for creative wording and others for creative thinking. Others I respect because of the photography while others pure simplicity. Aldren Watson’s book Hand Tools, Their Ways and Their Workings is one I keep close by even though there is no longer a surprise in it for me, having read through it so many times. I will always be grateful to the true revolutionaries that paved the way to keep hand work alive by writing articles and even the odd book or two.
Jim Krenov is one of course and then there are others you will and will not have heard of. These were men who saw the need, wrote, made, drew and lived the dream the USA is famed for and others are often jealous of. It is all too easy to fob unusual makers off with titles like “old hippy” or “non-conformist rebel“when they deserve much more than that. Drew Langsner and his wife Louise who run country workshops from their home in North Carolina typify many aspects of lifestyle woodworking that you cannot help but admire. I have watched them from a distance for 25 years now and they have my utmost respect. One day I plan a two-month tour through the USA with no agenda to meet people like these. I think these people are national treasures, really. If a man and a woman chooses life away from the madding crowd no matter where or at what stage I don’t blame them. If we can carve out a piece of creative work with our hands then why can’t we carve out a lifestyle to match it without being treated as some kind of reclusive or subversive? I did the same and for me it was quite the profound risk and a much needed period of recovery where I was better able to gather myself together into a sane being not trying to fit into what existed but redefine how I felt I would like to live. Such periodic interventions are arrest the soul. I might say to myself or others, “Yes, in some ways I do wish it hadn’t been so hard.”, but then, you know, dropping a two foot diameter tree eight feet long onto the flat bed of a 1952 one ton Dodge truck in the middle of a million acres of mesquite trees and dessert with a come-along, some chains, wedges, a sledge and long pole bars surrounded by longhorns staring on is a memory I hope I will have for the rest of my life. I took my dad along once. This Englishman (my dad) never faltered as we drove through gravel river bottoms and along creek beds for two hours into the wildness of Texas to get to “the good stuff”. He never forgot these odd days in his life.
Getting started in woodworking is in here somewhere my friends, so hang in there. Getting started in woodworking is in some ways easier now because most people trying it have no intention of working wood to earn their living from and raise a family on. Mostly they’ll do it because they simply want to make things from wood. On the other hand I was compelled to make it work because I had no choice but to support my family and this I did because I wanted my family. Working 22 years in England and then 22 years in the USA before my return to the UK 7 years back was all part of my ‘developmental growth’. I never rejected the USA and the life it gave me by my leaving. Both places were places where I grew into my craft and in friendships along the way. My being self employed was never an easy path but it was a choice and because it was a free choice I will always be grateful for living in cultures that allowed it. In so many ways I am glad I never made much more money than I needed. I also like the thought that I never had a computer, I heard very remotely about the world wide web as a possibility yet to unfold and that I never was involved in a virtual world of “Hey, let’s pretend.” instead of let’s live real.
So yesterday I was with my friend Ryan Cowan taking photographs in beech stands at Blenheim Palace and then a museum for the work of workers past who supported the working for the rich. I stared at the points where roots disappeared below the ground and found myself musing on the reality that what stands above the ground cannot stand without the unseen roots. My rootedness in my craft, the skills and knowledge I have and possess fully, have been inextricably formed in the unseen years others know nothing of. This week has been a week of reflection for me as I continue to prepare more on the question, “What Do I Need To Get Started In Woodworking?”