Past Projects Map Out Progress – Part I

Spatulas arrayed on the kitchen floor…

Spatulas seem utilitarian but they provide one of the best vehicles for developing shaping skills with spokeshaves, chisels, saws and rasps.

It starts with a spatula, or something like a whirligig, usually, woodworking with hand tools, I mean; for children. It’s how I started my children working with hand tools in woodworking. You know, you’re three or four years old and your dad’s a furniture maker. You want to be with him when he’s working in the shop. Future means nothing to you. You have no concept of future or what it means. Existence is minute by minute and you have no plan. On the other hand your dad might, even does, if he’s a planner and something of a visionary for you. At the beginning of the journey the path is yet an unwrapped and mostly unmapped passage, uncharted for most, but then, 25 years pass and you look back on things made and you see those diverse lines of progress each of your children took. This week it was spatulas for me, unpacked realities of things made by my sons, and then wooden boxes that quickly followed alongside them.

Boxes are remarkable for teaching dovetailing, fitting and refining procedures with hand tools.

These punctuations pinpoint singular events that add up to progress. Seeing the things made by my boys showed the steps they made, the shifts and changes in skill levels, refinements in dexterity, added complexities, more self high demands they worked towards and then outcomes in concrete (wooden really) terms. I’m glad we did what we did, but I say all this to say don’t miss it with your own children and grandchildren. It is, after all,  narrow window, and especially so in the digital world where so many lose their children a such an early age. Funny when you think about it, digital and digits, a digital world using the digits to touch buttons  instead of creatively shaping things. I think that there is room for both provided you don’t miss that illusive thing called the narrow window of opportunity.

Unpacking my boxes after living 23 years in the USA had unexpected surprises this past week. I hadn’t really scoped everything when I packed our goods into storage in 2009 and then, more recently, readied them for shipping here to the UK, but this week I found time to relish and cherish moments.

For some the only record of 23 years will be photographs, drawings from school, a toddler shoe cast in copper or bronze. Of course we had many of those too. No, for me, my eyes traced a more three-dimensional path from tool cupboards to gathered boxes, spatulas and spoons to key racks and a plethora of hand made things in steel, bronze, clay, oak splines and of course hand made home made tools like wooden rakes, space rockets and violin and cello moulds.

I am not sure who made what but for sure the spatulas spoke to me as much as anything because all of my boys at some point or other made spatulas and gave them mostly as gifts for Christmas, mother’s day or birthdays. This beginning is the reason I made the video on How to Make a Spatulas for YouTube. You can see videos to get you started here. The spatula is something I developed mostly as a teaching aid to get kids off the couch, out of the house and into the shop. I wanted something they could do using their first tools on something that would lead them into the art of shaping wood. Shaping wood is a first-level project not because it is easy but it requires basic understanding about the structure of wood grain. These formative steps automatically progresses an understanding of how you must work grain using its natural properties to your advantage.

A test tube rack for an emerging physicist and eventual aerospace design engineer.

Making a spatula following the instruction I give in the YT video uses a range of woodworking techniques we are in the process of losing. The reason I wanted to preserve them is because these very techniques are the same techniques and methods you use to carve and shape the neck of a guitar or a violin.; that’s if you want to make such things by hand. Stepping stones like this build and reinforce the intrinsic skills and knowledge you need to become competently skilled in woodworking with hand tools. It’s a relational approach schools have long since eschewed, primarily because schools generally train young people for the workforce and who is it that sees building hand built musical instruments or any such thing as part of the workforce anyway.

As you can see above, the spatulas have been well used

So, anyway, I unpacked a dozen or so boxes from their cardboard enclosures and skimmed the undersides for signatures and dates. Joseph was probably the most prolific maker because he had the longest span in the workshop with me I think. Nothing preferential, just opportunity. Certainly he started learning from around three years old until around 20 when he came in every day for many, many hours. Aber did too, but because he was younger things were just different for him. His career path as a design engineer at Rolls Royce now means that he’s positioned himself with RR in Berlin Yup! He’s the one that made the rocket ship and flew his first aeroplane at 14.



  1. Playing and winning at digital video games gives a sense of accomplishment, self-confidence and pride. Years late on occasionally they will recall those moments and get the warm and fuzzy feeling again.
    The same thing with making spatulas, spoons and other items. However, these they may use everyday and get that feeling almost daily. Plus they have other skills other than the speed of punching buttons fast.

    1. I wish I could get that across to my step son. I guess I’ll just keep making things and see if he ever decides he wants to make something too.

  2. I remember my childhood well, and prompted by your many posts there are always very fond memories of working in the garage with my dad with the plane, chisels, saw and spokeshave (cable cars, bow+arrows, sailing ship, pirate treasure chest, etc.). I still have a personal relationship with my tools, still kept from back then- especially my footprint #4 plane dad bought me for my 7th birthday (I’m now 39). It’s now “Sellers sharp”, used almost every week for something, and I would not trade it for any other.

    I don’t get into the workshop as often now, because I have a 10 month old, and a 2yr old (both boys) which require a lot of work. I can see a lot of myself in them (as do all parents), and I can’t wait to teach them what I know about wood. A great day for me was when my oldest came in from the shops with mum, saw me hanging a door, and came toddling straight over. He elbowed me out of the way authoritatively, grabbed my screwdriver and had great fun imitating me poking and turning it on the screws (ineffectually of course, and under supervision). He was 15 months old at the time.

    Thanks to the skills and values instilled in me by my dad, I can tackle almost everything in my home, and support my growing family in many ways by fixing, doing and making things. I want the best for my boys and will support them in anything they want to do in life- but will encourage and help them to learn as much of the manual, fulfilling hand skills as they can too, so they can do the same for themselves and their families when they are grown.

  3. Those past projects are as little snapshots that show the development of our skills, but also of our interests. And they also show, in hindsight, the direction of one’s future.

    I enjoy looking back at my old (electronics) projects, being sometimes positively impressed with my own work, but also (often in the same projects) being very critical of my work…. some things I’ve built in downright dangerous ways. But as an autodidact I had to teach myself. With some guidance, progress would have been much larger and quicker.

    And this guidance for woodworking is where mr. Sellers comes in the picture…

    (off-topic question: I very often use Stanley Yankee pump-screwdrivers, yet never notice you using one. Nor, after searching your blog, do I find any reference to them. I strongly doubt you’re unaware of their existence (as many people of my generation are), so my question: what is/are your reason(s) for not using them? )

    1. I used them daily until the later part of 1970 when my work took more of an upswing toward more refined work. I’m not saying you can’t use them in fine work, just that, for me at least, the risk of slippage almost always results in badly damaging the work and i couldn’t risk that. That said, in some production work they can be invaluable.

      1. Thanks. I’ve heard horror stories about slipping but never had problems myself (though I only use Pozidriv and Torx; not straight-slotted screws, where I expect the risk is bigger).

  4. When I was a boy, there was a woodworking workshop very near from my school. When I went out from the school before lunch time (in Spain classes finished at 12:30 pm in the morning by then, and began at 15:00 again), I used to go to that workshop instead of returning home, because I loved that place and, specially, I loved to watch Sebastian working. Sebastian was one of the woodworkers and was very old by then and a lot of time has passed by, but I can perfectly remember how cigarrettes smoke themselves in Sebastian’s mouth, so concentrated at work he was. If I close my eyes I still can see shavings coming out from his wooden planes , his very thick glasses and his cigarrette forgotten in his mouth, and almost smell the pine while it was planned.
    When I finally returned home for lunch, my mother was always very furious. “You must return home after school” -she said- “no to go to the woodworking shop; I worry when you don’t come back home”. And this, one day after another. But I returned that workshop almost everyday, and made Sebastian a question after another: why this, why that, what’s this, what’s that… and he always asked to me with infinite patience. I regret a little now for doing this, because now I understand that he was very busy and I made him to waste his working time. After all, Sebastian wasn’t the owner of the shop, he was only working there, and I was only a curious boy.

    I’m 49 years old now, and I miss that shop -that place became into a disco and was finally closed-, but above all, I would have liked, perhaps more than any other thing in the world, to have the opportunity of learning -autenthic learning- woodworking with -from- him. My father was a bricklayer and couldn’t teach me anything on woodworking (‘though I learned from him things from his job instead). At last I became a chemical engineer, not woodworker, and my job is at a petroleum refinery, not at a woodworking shop, and woodworking became only a serious hobby. Sometimes you have to choose.

    So Paul, when I see how your son has learned from you, I can only envy him (in a good sense, of course), because I see the woodworker I would have liked to learn from and in your son the apprentice I would have liked to be.

    So I try to learn from you now, reading your book, following your blog and watching your videos. It’s not the same, I know, but it’s a fantastic thing. And here I am, missing woodworking as a job and kicking the english languagge while I write this…

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