People Working Wood

Wednesday 21st June 2017

So, there I was in Israel. It’s cool and rain fell. That never happens in June, every one said at once in English. A full class of people smiling and welcoming one another and me. There was as usual that heightened sense of enthusiasm that permeates the whole atmosphere before classes and lectures on subjects everyone is there to know more about. This, the first day, we spent time trying all the more to understand how planes and saws worked, how they differed, what they could and could not do and, above all, how to sharpen and refine the setting of them. At first it seemed simple, but progress inevitably sends you into zones of complexity. You explain the complex issues and suddenly simplicity reigns because everything as if by magic becomes so understandable. It was a good class and everyone was content. Surprisingly it was cooler in the middle east than the UK. In the evening I met with fellow woodworkers who also taught woodworking to those who also loved woodworking.

Over cheese and wine we discovered things about each other that wove itself like a hidden thread between us. You could feel a pulse beating that always happens on my visits to wherever I go to share about my perspectives on where woodworking has taken its twists and turns. The end result these days is that fewer woodworkers starting out survive as woodworkers and makers who make for a living. They always have the passion but rarely, even with the best will in the world, viable support. As with many young designers, they want more per hour than makers of old were content with. Makers past worked for minimum wage that barely covered the way of life paying rent and mostly being in arrears and being usually in debt by the rent paying alone. This meant work was never leisurely but more likely high pressure, high self demand and fast paced too trying to keep the wold of economy and consumerism at bay. It meant long days, low light levels and cold and damp conditions. These modern makers want a decent hourly rate plus more for the design concept but don’t start put realising the name as a maker designer is rarely if ever earned overnight. The end result then becomes to teach. It’s a more modern concept of course and even the many teachers I meet rarely have a great deal of experience so they indeed teach more for money than because they like teaching. It works mostly because people are looking to learn a hobby from someone who is in the ‘know’. I see more companies who can’t make it making, teaching. It’s easier, more regular and income levels are better and more steady than making. Mostly this ends up funding your habit for making fine things. Here in Britain there are few makers making a reasonable living without the added support from elsewhere.

Shorter hours and less stress makes sense to most. Without real-world making the emphasis shifts because they become sponsored by student attendees. Even the many college teachers, book writers and magazine contributors, though considered self employed, boast of being previously employed as maker woodworkers in one woodworking field or another, but worked mostly or only until they couldn’t make it any longer. Very few ever made a living from life as a full-time maker using terms  like studio maker to set themselves apart. Few take on the fullest challenge of becoming lifestyle woodworkers. Something you do at any cost.

So, my teaching in Israel recently made me realise that various problems on a local level are actually not local or just regional but international. The woodworking of today knows distinct categories. You have of course the so-called professionals, a term I never adopted, which generally forms the machinist class of competent machine workers mildly involved with hand work but only on occasions. The ones I see are either over confident or have no confidence at all. Because they do it so little they are seen as experienced woodworkers and your expectations might be high but generally they are not particularly experienced or skilled in it. Then you have machine only workers who work machines in a soulless way with little involvement regarding design. This group mostly works out designs according to what the machine can do by feeding wood into the machines. Because of this they want and know nothing else— it’s mostly to do with industrial working—working only for income with no or little interest in design.

You have your amateur woodworker—this group has gradually evolved over a century or so, more as a result of freer leisure time than anything. This is now the longest living of all the woodworking categories and though almost rendered extinct through the work of US TV personality woodworkers has now emerged as the only serious category of woodworker pursuing the pursuit of skilled artisanry. These are the ones that love hand cut joints and shun air nailers. Mostly it’s evolved into a more unpretentious group if you will; the buyer of all books, all magazines and all hand tools. This emergence has produced the most intense and passionate body  of all woodworking categories. They out-give freely of their time and knowledge to share the life with others hands-down. Following the onslaught of the 80’s and 90’s, the new millennia woodworker has gained what most professionals never discovered or did discover but lost, a love for woodworking that shunned titles and recognition. Quietly they disappear for a few hours in the evening or over a weekend in their home workshop be that modest or grand. They have become the new-genre group of unknown woodworkers. They leave the madness of workdays, workweeks and pull out a handful tools and some pieces of wood they’ve waited all week to work on and they make!

 

7 comments on “People Working Wood

  1. Great article, as usual. The only oversight, I’d say, is that class of woodworker, like my father, who can handle a power jointer as well as a jointer plane. A man who inlays beautiful scrollwork and creates perfect dovetails. On the other hand, he uses whatever tool suits his purposes to achieve his goals. He is perfectly comfortable in both worlds: mechanized and handcrafted. This would be my goal, too.

  2. Great article Paul. Where I work, a large company, I know a lot of people whose passions won’t pay the bills. They in their leisure time are musicians, artists, or in my case woodworkers.

  3. Nice to hear the truth after some careful observation Paul.
    With no training except in grade school and watching my father build things I tried my hand making kitchen cabinets in the 80’s. I was doing well but had to stop with an economic downturn in 1984. I didn’t have enough skills in reality and with a young family had to earn a living. So I made it my hobby and built up my skills somewhat over the years. Now I’m ready to retire and I will start to really build my skills where I am weakest in them. I’ll have the free time and finally be able to use all those hand tools I’ve been fine tuning. I really need to have something constructive and satisfying to do after working for 40 plus years.

    • Paul, I find the article is one of hope. I see it the lime-light of taking a few good men and especially a young girl with teaching as the milieu. Backslide into a shop for a non demand pleasure. You are to be commended for this gift of composure, Strong leadership

  4. I’m ‘learning’ myself woodworking. Can’t call it ‘teaching’ myself, as I have no formal training or past experience to draw from save the most simplest of tasks performed around my home that I call that ‘fixing.’ I like the quiet, unplugged approach to making things from wood with hand tools, it just fits right with me. So far, I’ve learned a lot by reading this blog, viewing the instructional videos and putting into practice what I have learned. A real adventure. Thanks Paul.

  5. I agree with Mr Stolarski, in that it is a real adventure to spend your days working with wood and using your brain and thoughts to take an inanimate object, in this case, a lump or piece of timber in its raw state and turn it into an object of usefull desire and purpose, and yes it can be extremely hard to make a modern return on your labour that everyone seems to expect.. BUT that is the joy of it all for me, and looking back over the many years of toil, I can readily admit that financialy I am way behind my friends who have followed the machine only approach. I am still working while they have all retired, but they all love to come to my workshop and smell and the sawdust, and ,as I have remarked to many of them, they would have willingly given up what they have done, just to have been able to do what I am doing, even to the point of being jealous of me in my endeavors. And yes I have had to confront the fact that over the years, I have had to decide between making a good profit financialy or doing what I do that has brought such peace to my soul and as I watch their bored existence and place it against the joy that I have received, my soul and my mind are at peace and I thank God for it all.

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