An unfolding lifestyle
Soon to start yet another video training series so this week I’ve been looking into and prototyping to that end—one of my favourite things to do. I like what’s coming from the chisel edge and the saw teeth. It feels good. Angled hanging pegs, clean lines ti the shoulder lines and repeat sliding dovetails makes it great for practicing but even greater for discovering new options for a little used joint, So head down I buried myself in my work, made new drawings, cut and planed angles and pared down slopes to fit. It was a good week for me. Opposite, on the other side of the workshop I listen in to conversations going back and forth between someone writing text and another editing video. It’s a different world to the background I came from. Someone strikes up a conversation about VAT (value added tax) and someone else answers. I hear of technical glitch that has nothing to do with tools or wood and someone suggests this or that will answer the issue. They try it and a thumbs-up signals a successful move. Mostly I’m not really involved most of the time but then my name comes up, I twist my head to the caller and there’s a question I need to answer. I depart from my work to engage elsewhere. It’s a new day, a new dawn and a new and ever changing world. I’m getting used to it now, but it is still has a newness to it.
A clear vision
In many ways my role as what would at one time be described as a studio-designerr/maker of furniture has very much though quite gradually changed. My responsibilities have changed and the way I generate elements of my work have changed. People have adopted the term ‘reinventing myself’ but mostly they are not doing any such thing. I understand the term, and I know people who have indeed developed an alternative lifestyle, but I have yet to meet someone who has truly achieved a successful change to the level of reinventiveness. So, have I, Paul Sellers, reinvented myself? Nope! I’m just the same Paul I’ve always been, but my mission has been made ever clearer as I progressed the unfolding work I’ve been engaged in for three decades.
A generation that never saw such common things
When I’m working in my shop, picking up tools, flipping wood and twisting a plane to a more effective cut, the response to my working with my hands has been something I mostly took for granted. But I became gradually aware of others watching me. I mean sometimes you just catch someone innocently watching somewhere, perhaps in a cafe or something. You glance up and catch them and they, embarrassed, look away. I became ever more conscious that people watched me working with a sort of silent fascination you to me my work was just ordinary work that I did all the time. Suddenly I realised that, ah! they’ve never seen such as this before. I saw then that people in the past three decades would be most unlikely to see such things. Even carpenters may never see or have seem a man like me recess hinges or plane the edge of a door, let alone dovetail a box corner or shape a mould to the edge of a mantle shelf with a block of wood holding a blade. Whereas it is till hard for me to imagine such a thing, it’s become a reality that 99.9% of people living in the world have never in their life seen a man like me working with his hands and working with hand tools instead of machines. To them such a thing has become as if they were watching something, well, magic. A shaving rises from the throat of a plane as if from some secretive place and by some special device and it twists away as a ribbon might flutter in a gentle breeze. It’s a spell plucked from a sorcerer’s hand book causing ribbons of pine to rise skyward before their very eyes. I might take such things for granted because I do see hundreds if not thousands of these things happen in a given day or week. They on the other hand never saw such as this before. If you’ve watched an experienced chef dice up onions with a knife live you’ll know what I mean. So it is with a chisel cut and a smoothing plane, a plough plane and a router plane.
The birth of new-genre woodworkers
When I first began my work training others, my own apprentices, young students and such, children too, it wasn’t at all that I needed more staff but that I couldn’t help myself. It’s always been the same. I never taught to make income because I always earned my income and then taught from my abilities as a producing craftsman. That’s the truth. Because I responded to the yearning of others to become crafting artisans, the outcome led to a new life. Of course they were always adult men who approached me. They wanted me to help them become one kind of woodworker or another. They would stay working with or alongside me for a year or two until they gained a level of proficiency they needed to function well and then they’d move on. Mostly there was some reciprocal gain, mostly it was always tipped in their favour not mine. In fact I would always lose money on the deal because money and making personal gain was never the reason I did it. But it was when I began teaching smaller children through to teenagers that I began seeing the deeper issues. Remember, I wasn’t a teacher being paid for the many evenings I invested in holding classes year in year out. Hundreds of children came to my classes several nights a week for two decades. I never charged a penny and let them use my own tools and supplied the wood until they acquired their own. It was a lot of work but it was such fun too. Dads and lads stood at benches from 7 till 9.30 each night and it was here that I began to see more deeply into the future possibilities of the yet unborn woodworkers be that the kids or their parents. This was an unexpected trip up. A sort of punctuation mark in my history if you will.
Mostly it was dads who came with their boys and it was here that I began to see a latent penchant in dads as they helped their sons to sharpen up chisels or reset a bumped plane. Somehow it was the need of their sons that pulled something out of the dads. You know what it’s like: something goes wrong with your child and you just can’t help yourself but pull out all of the stops to make it right. I would see the dads struggle to find an answer knowing that they might not have the answer at all, but try they might! I had to find the solution and find it I did. I started holding classes for adults so that they could reach the children that I couldn’t. People came to classes from all over the US and then they started flying in from other countries too. On the one hand it was ideal to have face to face contact this way, but on the other I knew the audience was much wider but that I could never reach them without some exponential changes being made.
So anyway, in my own small way I became something of a solution. By the end of two decades I had personally trained 5,000 woodworkers from 5 year olds to ancients through hands-on classes in beginning woodworking. It was and always has been hand tool woodworking and no one else had done such a thing on so wide a scale at that time. I knew I could steer dads to guide their sons and be a bridge for them to continue growing closer through the work in hand. Something that in my view had become increasingly lacking and today is getting far worse. Ultimately, my teaching the children meant also that the dads were gaining the same insights the kids were. Their maturer years combined with experience and strength meant that they could stay ahead of their children to help them. The outcome is more evident today than ever.
New beginnings—A chosen future
Well it’s not so new any more, but choose it I do. Today I feel I’m much more than a studio maker, more than someone working alone in his own in his own small studio workshop and now that I am way past retirement years I choose to add something into my lifestyle that is indeed truly chosen. I’ve become a writer though I have never had training for it. I’ve written many articles for many magazines through the decades, written books, become a presenter and guest speaker, made hundreds of films, become a YouTuber, a blogger, a teacher, a trainer, an apprenticer and all this over and above my artisanry as a furniture designer and maker, which I still do every day. In the coming months we will be showing you new plans we have to progress this work.
A full day’s work
My day starts at 6.45 now that I am older. I make toast, drink fruit juice and leave the house by 7.15 six days a week. I’m diabetic and so I must have breakfast before I leave and I’m fastidious about keeping my blood sugars within the right regions as much as it depends on me. I’m always in a cafe at 7.30 every morning where I drink a single cup of black coffee and meet up with some friends. By 8am I have always begun working. Often before that. There is always something to write, load into my car, blanket wrap or prep for making. Even sitting with a blank look means I am working. My thoughts are distilled, written down in a stenographer’s note pad or my journal and soon a drawing drops from the sky to the tip of my pen or pencil. I can write an article for a magazine in an hour and do the photography soon after. I’m glad I no longer need to. Magazine articles were for the days before blogging. It supplemented my income but paid badly. Now I no longer have to sponsor the big machine companies with new wallpaper each month which has given me the freedom to pursue my dream of providing class work for the future generations be they old, young and every age in between. I felt writing articles was selling myself short but then blogging opened the door for something I love to do as much as woodworking and that is writing about it.
You see those dads were how it all began, but of course it has become all the less gender specific as times have changed and we have become more inclusive. Inside those dads was a penchant to learn to work with their hands because they mostly never had chance. Their parents believed the dream that with a good university degree you could become anything you wanted to be. I on the other hand was helping them to find that hidden dream inside that never met with parental approval. Even manual workers, that’s what we were called, often disparagingly, didn’t want their sone to “be like them.” They wanted better for them. They want that ‘better job’—for them to get that good degree that would pave the way to a guaranteed success. Something they could boast in. So I began to see people released from something that had blocked their way as they took a rasp to a spoon blank and shaped their futures as they shaped their sons. This to me was very magical but without wizardry. This to me would become more and mor common to my work. Hand tool woodworking would ope doors to hundreds of thousands of people no matter who they were or what they were. My common craft of woodworking and furniture making became the platform for me to reach out to hundreds of thousands of people
So, no, I didn’t reinvent myself in any way, but I did reshape my thinking and then, as a result of that, reshape others to rethink their lives and develop a new lifestyle. It was always my ambition to help other people achieve their goals. Today there’s a hundred thousand with their first foot on the first rung of the ladder. There’s another hundred thousand on the fourth rung. Some are near the top and a few have gone all the way.
What am I saying???
What I am saying in my own way is Thank You for supporting my work and all those who work with me. Thank you for supporting one another. Your subscriptions to woodworkingmasterclasses have led to us being able to create jobs.
First we took on Phil who became our first paid member of staff in the early days of woodworkingmasterclasses. Phil apprenticed with me for two years before that time and has always helped with the classes we held at Penrhyn Castle. When we moved here to Oxford he and his wife Hannah relocated with us too. I say ‘us’ because you may not know this but Joseph was part way through his history degree when he told me he wanted to help me achieve my dream.
On my own I knew it would take me another decade and then it felt like I might just run out of time, but with Joseph, the only man I know who knows exactly what goes on inside my brain, I knew I could achieve my ambitions in a fraction of the time. Soon we’d started making videos with two inexpensive cam corders in our back yard. We launched our YouTube channel and started woodworkingmasterclasses.com. It was Joseph that pulled together my most important written work to date, Essential Woodworking Hand Tools. It’s sold well and we will be getting ready for a reprint soon. Amazingly, there is no need for corrections so when we do it will be just the same as the first run.
Soon we needed another to join us because our admin needs tripled and quadrupled and that’s when we had Mark come in for an interview, Mark has been a close friend to Phil since their university days and quickly settled in as our business administrator. Thankfully he’s masterfully crafted many of our business systems with Joseph and created the spread sheets that keep so many things on track.
Eloise (Ellie) is our videographer alongside Phil and there were 70 applicants for her job that we had to filter through when we told the agency of our needs. We made the right choice. I’ve lost track of how many videos we’ve now made together but between her, Phil and Joseph, what you see is online is my dream coming to pass as we reach an ever widening audience.
Karla is help to all. She works with many areas and has been known to man video and still cameras alongside her taking care of social media with everyone. She is the one that keeps me on track with all the Q&As, emails and other important elements of what has evolved. Isabel (Izzy) joined us quite recently and her role is education and research, so she and I work quite closely with Joseph to develop long term curriculum for developing foundational woodworking. Her work is very expansive and supports all the key areas of craft training for woodworkers be that checking on my blog, writing how to’s, researching, finding resources and more.
Though we all have different roles we also have a common goal and that is to present the very best of the past with the present and the ever unfolding future for the future of woodworking be that whatever woodworking craft can benefit from our efforts. Boat builders, violin makers and chair bodgers all need sharp tools, knife walls and know how. That’s what we offer to all. I spoke of the days when dads and boys came to workshop with me. Today that’s thankfully changed. Hannah works with me as have boys, girls, men and women from every quarter. Behold the new genre of crafting artisan with true lifestyle for those yet to be born.
Anyway, truth is, we’re all on a journey! The young guy with Phil, Sebastian with Joseph. Hannah’s been with me for a year now and she has grown exponentially. Clocks and tables, tool totes a workbench and now a tool chest. It has been a most wonderful thing to see people grow as I sow, weed, water, replant and wait for the harvest. Together we can all make change.