When I’m working at my workbench, whether at work or at home, I find myself. It’s a place where, in all things, no matter what, I seem best able to makes sense of what’s misunderstood in a highly confusing world and my personal saneness seems best able to thrive and survive in the entangled web of ever-increasing complexities. It’s always been that way if I think about it. One minute insanity, the next peace and wholeness.
A workbench, some metal files I may never have even used before at that time, the smells of oils and other things that, when seen away from a workbench, make no sense, suddenly are all sensible things. My teachers in school never seemed at all able to understand what tools meant to a child like me. Though that was really inconsequential, I did notice it so perhaps it was more influential in the negative than I thought. When I removed myself from maths and English language classes, history and geography, I was no longer the problem in the classroom. Of course the teachers were no longer the problem either. I didn’t need them to teach me those subjects as my parents taught me to read and write, grammar and maths facts before I went there. In school, it seemed to me at least, that I learned about prejudices and that I had to tolerate all things I should not be tolerant of. Bullying for instance was one. In woodworking and art, craft and metalworking these things left me alone as I could indeed shut the door and leave them outside.
In the workshops and craft rooms there were no bullies there to taunt me and poke at me because for some reason bullies seemed not to like creative realms. In the essence of my learning to appreciate craft and work and the art of working itself I truly thrived in there. This was where, when I was drilling steel and melting alluminium, I could fully see purpose and use my imagination enough to feel myself for the first time being fed and nurtured. I not only survived but I just thrived there more than anywhere I had ever been since school began. I think this is what adults feel when they are deprived of access to crafting in younger years and find it when more mature years come.
When I offered even the lowly and poorly sharpened chisels to wood, and spokeshaved shaped square sections into round and oval profiles, maths became of little matter. I just spaced out from all other things, yes, but it was here that I mastered the reading of rulers. I learned about imperial measurements and understood the sensible way the rulers graduated in eighths, sixteenths and thirty-seconds and even sixty-fourths of an inch. This, I’ve learned since, was something incomprehensible in Europe where they could make no sense of it yet it all made great sense to this 13 year old boy who according to his teachers was “ineducable.” Imperial measuring made absolute sense to me and I will always love it. I can work in inches divided into eighths and tenths and then divide those proportions into sixty-fourths or hundredths, twentieths and so on. This fineness level is more than acceptable because wood can expand or contract much more than that if the weather changes during a day. I also work comfortably with metric as I have to and I love metric too. Anyone that wants accuracy can simply work in whichever system they want. I like individual choice and I will fight any corner for it.
I am often asked what’s meant when I say I am a lifestyle woodworker. When I am asked I realise I own something others certainly don’t have, might not always understand or actually even like. I think mostly that’s because people can’t actually fathom it. No college or university degree ever qualified me for it. It doesn’t exist. Most often they do understand that I am saying something different, but they then want to challenge me. As a boy of 14, some of you know, I wanted to work with my hands. It wasn’t that I was shunning all else, just that I liked being outdoors, in sheds, gardening, on farms, things like that. I didn’t know anything about higher education, college or consider things such as university. I didn’t know what academia was at all, I still don’t. What I knew, even at that young age, was that I could pour that molten metal into sand moulds I had formed and make a bust from something I’d carved in polystyrene foam in an art room. That I could make knives from commercial hacksaw blades to cut the styrofoam and carve it. I knew life was more multi-dimensional without my sitting bored in a classroom full of kids and then lectures too and that I wanted to fuse with another three-dimensional world I fit well with and fit into whenever and wherever I could. The things I found in a classroom could not be found there. In reality I began taking control of my own life when I was around 13 years of age. I might not have been able to describe that then but that is what was happening. One or two teachers in craft areas saw this and encouraged me. I stepped off the educational conveyor belt and it was the start of styling life for me. I was moving from being a child and becoming an adult. Therefore it was for me something best described as lifestyle.
I became a woodworker by my own will. No one else’s. No one steered me or really inspired me. Or if they did I was in no way conscious of it. My one woodwork teacher told me not to become a woodworker. But I couldn’t deny that whenever I saw a workshop, workbenches and tools, I felt a sort of reverential respect for the people that used them. Few others seemed to feel this or understand it.
All of my teachers and trainers and subsequently masters too were male. In my world there were no women working as crafting artisans. In many ways that was an imbalance that was a societal wrong. It was something abnormal that was normalised by educationalists through the centuries. Such was the time.
My transforming from boy to man was conscious and progressive. As my entry into an apprenticeship unfolded I felt conscious that something was shaping me but that it was less my choice than that of my bosses and my fellow workers. It was man-shaped for men. In college too it was the same, although my attendance rate there was about the same as in grade school (grade being regular school USA). The education was mildly helpful thinking back, but the teachers there were somehow unreal, not craftsmen, not crafting artisans at all. Again, it was man-shaped education, devoid of balance, designed for industry not art and craft. By the time I was in my early 20’s I had gained ever-more control. I shaped aspirations like a revolutionary might work under ground for a season until the launch in opposition to the status quo. I began to shape my my future to include my personal hopes and desires. I stepped off the conveyor belt for the first time in my adult life. I wanted something I had not seen elsewhere because there was nothing existing that I could admire or use as my model. That was good and very positive, not negative at all. You see each life is as much a life of individuality as an ear lobe or a fingerprint and therefore each life should be as individual as the life of the individual. I knew I had to earn a living. I had a wife and daughter, a mortgage and a car to run–at age 22! Imagine such a thing these days but that was who I had become. I was 21 when I put down a mortgage deposit. I held my planned daughter in my arms as a married man at 22.
At this time in my life I knew working in the woodworking industry would always mean bosses owning my work and thereby they would also own me. These men were not craftsmen in any way, they just owned money. They were unsympathetic to any form of art or craftsmanship and saw all worth only in something that they could buy. All they had they bought. They never made anything. For them it would always mean I was earning their money and speed meant more product from the minimum they would pay me. I wanted that to end. I knew for me to thrive I would need to have more than they had and in my own dominion. If I had that then in some measure at least I would be better able to control what, when, how and where I made what I created. I wanted to get off the conveyor belts of commerce as best I could, forever!
I wanted to establish a quality of workmanship reminiscent of 17th – 18th century craftsmanship and to design my pieces based on truly proven technology. This did not in any way mean some quest for a nostalgic past, or indeed a quest to shun machinery and use only hand tools, as many accuse me of. Not at all. I enjoy my machines. I felt that if it was important for me, then people working with me, that trained with me, no matter their work type, be it anything from woodworking to office skills, filming, editing and so on, I wanted them to carefully craft their work by ever progressing their skill and knowledge too. To do that everything done must be carefully considered and thought through so that whatever becomes automatic is established because of its quality and not because it became just status quo. It must be well thought through to become established so. You know, think about it, build it like an artist makes well crafted work as part of their lifestyle. So, coming to that conclusion, I started mapping out what was important to me. First was to honour others with the quality of workmanship I could provide. Out of that came the provision for my family with it. Now I’m not saying everything was perfect, but it was a vision. I didn’t want any 9-5 mentality to fracture off worklife from other areas such as leisure and family. For me one should better flow from one area into the other as more a continuum of required rest and recreation, be that through family, gardening, being with your dog and taking a canoe trip. Whereas 9-5 does make sense in business and so many prefer that, it need not automatically be so for everyone.
Especially might this be so for individuals. I wanted to go from my house to my workshop. Two hours driving in traffic seemed wasteful to me if indeed what I worked at could be done from or not too far from my home. It was more a matter of good economics providing for my physical and emotional wellbeing. Rather than cramming family life and or friends in at weekends and after work, when I was emotionally and physically drained, I could include my family with me. So for much of my adult life I have worked that way. It’s a lifestyle for me whereas for others, lifestyle starts outside work. Lifestyle for many is where the word was hijacked to describe something mostly superficial, such as a fashion brand selling an aspirational image in the form say of a ‘lifestyle collection’, as if you can just buy a lifestyle that is simply the decoration for your living. If you buy enough of the right things the ‘lifestyle’ part will happen on its own! Of course this has happened with the sale of equipment used in woodworking too. Once I knew thisI didn’t want it to continue. Thankfully I did change it. Of course this is not just for familied people but for anyone in a small group with friends and associates. It is in no way exclusive but totally inclusive according to the individual pursuit.
The people I have been with throughout my work life, 50 plus years of it now, have all in some measure great or small enriched my life. You may not necessarily be able to take that to the bank, but who cares. I put all this together to try to reason with those who don’t altogether understand or agree, that’s all. My hope is that it empowers others to strive towards a lifestyle they might better engineer for themselves. Working toward independence is usually about dovetailing your life with an existing industry of some kind and not rejecting a reality of earning a living. You’ll find your way, as I have mine through five decades now.