Skills Lost Regaining Future

Before you read this in its entirety, if indeed you do, let me preface it by saying I am not saying there is no skill in anyone. Of course there is and there are skilled workers in many fields everywhere. But my adventures in woodworking have shown that hand skills re used less and less and robots and such will replace manufacture, reduce costs and produce dumbed down products quickly and more cheaply than humans can or will. Because of things like this, my belief is that the skills humans have proven themselves to by highly capable of in all spheres of hand working are becoming more and more dormant. Left unused, as they definitely are, there may well be a dearth of skilled lifestyles in all spheres of life be that farming and animal husbandry or any realm you care to name in woodworking, metal working and creative art. Educationalists, governments and politicians and economists have all swayed the outcome of craft education through decades of being unchallenged. Now for the article:

There are often setbacks to life—many of them. When others  sail on through eventualities, we can find ourselves struggling even with the smallest things. At least it can seem that way when we’re in the thick of it. I remember days when men at workbenches  surrounding me slipped a chisel through a cut and as the excess peeled upwards the surface beneath was silk-smooth, cut pristinely to lines on three faces with a final slicing stroke, and dead on they split the gauge lines. Seeing but one line they somehow entered unmeasured coordinates and there was nothing more to be said. I admire this level of skilled work, it’s a marvel to see such spectacular orderliness in people who subjected themselves to self discipline over a long term. I have always enjoyed such things, but I think the skill I speak of is seldom witnessed in our world today. Most of us go months without seeing it in the day to day yet such was common up to the 1960s early 70s.

 

I think that perhaps some of this is the reason why people are so glued to watching even ordinary, unskilled stuff being done by human hands. What was once common to me in my young apprenticeship days I’ve seen gradually disappearing and guess what? Surprisingly, it might well be more likely that the present unskilled will be the ones that replace these craftsmen of old. What’s exciting to me is that it’s for anyone and everyone who wants to invest themselves in it.

So I’m not at all speaking about people taking a day to cut two or three dovetails to perfection, nope! I’m talking about a new and emerging generation of woodworkers I see replacing the ones I once knew-true artisans in amateur realms with a few professionals who seek such methods and standards. The days when the saying ‘In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.’ are changed. I’m not saying these things to wave a red rag offensively at a maddening bull of opposition so much as to ask myself just where did all of those skilled workmen disappear to? You see skilled work is not merely a perfect outcome but one that combines working efficiency in progressing the work. Given enough time we can all get the exam questions right, that’s why exam periods have a set a time limit. Prior to the exam we were allowed time to establish the skill and knowledge first. That gets ramped up before the exam to prepare us. When the exam comes is when the test of whether we worked sincerely or not.

I recall one of my practical exams was to cut hidden dovetails at the corner of a three-directional frame (think fish tank with rebates) with mitres to the three directional pieces forming the corner, and it had to be completed in four hours. The joint had complexities to it and it was indeed complex by virtue of the fact that I had never attempted anything like it before. We were each given drawings, tolerances to work to too, so, thinking caps on and scale rules at the ready, off we went. Mathematics, geometry and even algebra were included in this construction of joinery. You see time adds the dimension of reality because ultimately that’s what the test that you must face in your work amounts too whether that’s for pay in work or to be expeditious with your ever valuable time—reality! The outcome was that over the years, with practice, a drawer dovetail takes about half an hour and completed drawer about two hours total to make. That’s within my time frame for making a living and make a living with my hands I did. Of course we should always be sympathetic to skills that take time to develop and also and especially if learning difficulties are there. That goes without saying. Efficiency is something we should all work for because accepting reality is part of it. No one gives us a blank cheque and none of us have time to waste I am sure.

I think that the decline of being in a skilled world where good workmanship in most cultures thrived in villages, towns and cities is at the closing end of the visible and possibly an irreversible decline in industry proper. Much skilled work is not so much in the realms of three-dimensional craft work as we might once have known it but high demand adaptation of human work transferred from physical labour to a digital world. Does or can that mean we will ultimately not know what skilled craft work actually was or is, even in the near future? By that what I mean is, will we no longer know it from the doing of it or seeing or knowing someone else that did it or knows how much skill it took to achieve it? That is, they understand the precedents set by former generations in previous centuries who tell us such work existed and was indeed skilled? Many of us today take credit for being skilled in the lost arts because we in our generation actually no longer know what we are looking at when we see someone working with their hands.

Not all hand work is skilled. I very seldom see skilled work, so if in my own life I no longer see truly skilled work being executed by skilled artisans, and I confess I look for it wherever I go in the everyday of life, then what’s to be done? This guitar above was made by Joseph  when he was 16. It was a combination of mostly hand work with some machine use but very little. His skills came in a variety of ways working materials with hand tools of every kind since a very young age. I would consider him a skilled woodworker who has learned to work effectively and without fanciful ideals

The moulding plane above comes from an era when men made not only the moulds with the planes but the plane to work with too. In the 1700s it was a common craft to do such things and it wasn’t considered specialist either at the time. It’s hard for us to imagine, but the moulds these planes made were so smooth and crisp they needed no further work, especially not sanding work. Moulds made with power routers on the other hand do need added remedial work to remove the rotary cuts left on the surface. One method requires skill, the other labour. In most workplaces now the labour is replaced by digital reference via computers to replace skills This then, on the one hand, becomes unskilled work and, on the other, we cannot deny the cleverly engineered process.

Speed is not necessarily what I am looking for but more the efficiency I am so used to in my working with hand tools. You see people often compare their efficiency levels with machines but fail to realise just how efficient men were with hand tools after they had established their skills. Efficiency then as now came in the rote practice of repeat performances of tasks. Over and over they repeated tasks, hundreds of times, spending 8 to 10 hours just making dovetails, chopping mortises and fitting tenons. Personally, I took myself off the conveyor belt purposely. The work bored me, it was injuring my health and my sense of self worth and wellbeing was severely diminished. Visit any factory in the 1960s before the export of production and you’ll understand what I mean. This was the outcome of people leaving craft work to become part of the factorial systems of mass manufacture. It was the continuation of demoralisation as the art of craft began disappearing. You see, often, people can no longer discern just what skilled work is. You can’t really talk of modern laser cut recesses filled with epoxy tinted with powdered turquoise as inlay when it’s just epoxy filler belt sanded down to level. The maker can call it ‘an inlay of turquoise‘ but that’s not what it is at all. Somehow novel ideas, novelty, has all too often replaced skilled work. What would happen if indeed we lost the ability to determine just what skilled work really is. I hope it never becomes just a thing of the past.

So whereas I might accept that in this culture we rarely if ever actually stand and watch skill being performed in front of us by crafting artisans making their living from it as in times past, there is a possibility that we are turning the tide in amateur realms and we can come to a new place where we actually witness things being made skilfully in home shops and garages. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Skill that leads to sold work is simple enough. I envision a new world for woodworking enthusiasts around the world: boat builders and guitar makers, furniture makers and many crafts we may have even lost. It’s this that encouraged me in the work I do with amateur woodworkers back in the late 80s. Living in the USA for the first time, I realised that my craft would not only be kept alive in amateur realms but, actually, utterly thrive there. So now my craft (and others too) IS thriving and it appears on a worldwide scale!

I watched Hannah making her dovetails  a short time back and the effort she went to reminded me of myself when I first understood that sharpness and accuracy were synonymous, that they could be used interchangeably in the same way that keen and keenness can mean sharp as well as extremely riveting.  Such words in my world interplay remarkably with sensitivity, carefulness and paying absolute attention. I have seen in my own life how when I work with the intensity I’m speaking of here I enter realms few might ever know of. It’s here that I lose myself in thoughtlessness towards all other things. Time disappears from me in my disconnect. Interruptive invasions quickly pale away: people, concerns, the work of others. I’m isolated, arrested if you will, in pockets of safety, as if inside a huge bubble and all of my attention becomes focussed in a perfect ecoclimate as a permaculture of industriousness that shields my effort and energy from all commerce and industrialism and my industrious world thrives.

Though this type of mental and physical isolationism ensures safety for creativity, even so, mistakes can and do happen but  always I feel a sense of being in control and by this comfort I feel apt to climb over any and all failed issues and any image of perfection I may have of myself . By this I do feel able recover, recovering any lost work restores me and I learn from what I did wrong. I say ‘did‘ wrong rather than ‘went‘ wrong because in my view I feel that what’s important to my recovery is my taking responsibility for my work.

I was working at my workbench drawing up my next project and weighing up the differences and changes I might make as I did. Hannah chimed in gently and sympathetically with, “Technical question.” and we checked over the issue to find that there was none really. But then she asked me to help her look for a hinderance to a non closing gap on her dovetail joint. We talked about what we couldn’t see and I suggested she consider relying on touch alone. My fingers traced their way along the surface until an almost imperceptible rise became apparent. But the apparency wasn’t so  much visual so not by sight at all. The reality often is that when you see a big gap you look more for a large problem and not a minute one. I detected the slight rise near to the inside side of the shoulder line. Pressing the dovetail together meant that the slight rise elevated the outer meeting line many times more so that the gap looked five time more than it actually was. Some very minor paring, barely discernible as I said, seated the joint line.

I say all of this because when I first discovered the diminishing levels of skilled work in workmanship, and then the new reliance on machine work to replace or displace the need for skill, I also saw that it was more a question of imbalances caused by the diminished opportunity to see what skilled work truly was. Once I saw that the enemy wasn’t the machine I knew that the answer would be for people to see skilled hands working the tools and working the wood. If people saw a dovetail being cut skilfully they would believe that they too could do it too. All I needed then to do was use the modern technology to show others all over the world that, whereas machines do have their place in the execution of some work, they should never be allowed to rob us of skilled workmanship and our ability to pursue skill in accomplishing our own work. Especially is this so in amateur realms where self high demand brings extraordinary results. As I hope we see from this, often it’s the smallest of things that elevates itself into a seemingly large issue. Seeing it for what it is becomes imperative.

The way I see it today, in light of developments in industry, even in spite of it, you my friends are the future of craft skill. You are the ones your children and grandchildren will look to and say my parents, my grandparents, were highly skilled people and they cared about skill and the arts enough to preserve it in our family.

48 comments on “Skills Lost Regaining Future

  1. I don’t know if I’m on time of being a skilled craftsman in woodworking, since I am 49 years old, I have a lot to learn yet and I’m not sure of having enough time of life to learn it as I should like, but I’m on it. Although I’ve always thought that it is important to know how to do things by oneself, that thought is very much clear and intense since I know your work. I was thinking about that just a few days ago, while I was sharpening one of my saws. A saw in the vise, a file, silence at home, patience and concentration. When I tried my saw it did cut smooth and straight. Just a year and a half ago probably I would have not even thought that I would be able to do it without leaving an unusable saw behind me.

    • You are not too old. I just turned 69 and am learning a lot with my 15 year old grandson. While I made my living in a machine shop I have always enjoyed working with wood. Never too old to learn, and enjoying helping the grandson along. My experience over the years sometimes helps me grab ideas and procedures a little faster than him, so it is a pleasure to coax him along.

    • JulioT … it is never too late! From my perspective, you are still quite young. 😉 You will be amazed at how quickly you will develop your skills if you keep at it. Age itself does not matter so much as an open mind and heart, patience and concentration (as you say), and perseverance.

      • Thank you James and Peter. I only said that because I trend to think that you need a lot of time to domine the skills and technics that are the “heart” of the woodworking with hand tools, but sure you are right: I can learn a lot with practique and perseverance. If I consider my skills a year ago and my skills now, they have increased reasonably, although they are still very far from being something that you could call “good craftsman skills”. By the way, Paul’s book and videos have been an important part on that improvement. It’s time to keep on it.

        Thanks again.

  2. First off, I generally agree with what you say and I too lament the loss of true craftsmanship.
    Having said that if you think that true craftsmanship has gone away, take a look at your multiple websites. It takes a great deal of expertise to do that and do it well. I am a retired mechanic and I understand how to adjust a magneto or a carburetor. Neither of which are used except in “vintage” equipment. Your craft will never go away completely. This period of time is in many ways similar to the 60’s and 70’s when the hippies were reinventing the family farms (communes). There has been a resurgence of the passion for good quality crafted items that will last forever or at least 100 years. Part of the problem now days is that these kids don’t have or appreciate what an apprenticeship actually consisted of and the necessity for it. They have so much tied up in their”passion” for woodworking that they have not noticed that in years before most apprentices were unmarried and lived at home for a good percentage of that unpaid or poorly paid work time. One of the things that is holding back the onslaught of paid customers , which they need, is the unfortunate price they are forced to charged for their work just to make a living. A conundrum no doubt, but none the less a problem for their target audience. Like myself and many others, I am a “johnny come lately” to hand-tool woodwork. I don’t like the noise or the whirring blades of death, or the sawdust. I do very much enjoy the process when my old joints allow for it. Take heart Mr. Sellers, all is not lost just merely going thru a period of necessary reformation. I am sure that all will be fine as time continues. Thanks for all your insight and valued instructions.

  3. Mr. Paul,
    In reference to your comment to use her fingers to feel for less than visible imperfection …
    I used to work in a research lab and had access to a complete industrial machine shop. About the early 90s, I read that one could actually feel .001″ with his/her fingers. To prove this, I had a machinist friend take a 2x2x4″ block of aluminum and mount it in his milling machine and true the top surface of the block as a reference face. He then set the machine to cut .001″ deeper, using all the needed care and attention required for such tolerance. He ran this cut 1/2 the length of the bar which created a shoulder exactly .001″ tall. While it was almost imperceptible to my naked eye, when I would run my fingertips over this shoulder, it was as plain as the nose on my face

    I thought you might be interested in this little experiment I witnessed years ago.

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to teach an old geezer hand tool woodworking (and the geezers in training coming up behind me). All, thank you for the passion you pour into your craft and your teaching.

    • Donal
      I happened to read a report of some research that was done in 2013 to determine exactly how small a difference human fingers can feel. the results are amazing.
      The report in Science daily is here
      https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130916110853.htm
      “In a ground-breaking study, Swedish scientists have shown that people can detect nano-scale wrinkles while running their fingers upon a seemingly smooth surface. The findings could lead such advances as touch screens for the visually impaired and other products, says one of the researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

      The study marks the first time that scientists have quantified how people feel, in terms of a physical property. One of the authors, Mark Rutland, Professor of Surface Chemistry, says that the human finger can discriminate between surfaces patterned with ridges as small as 13 nanometres in amplitude and non-patterned surfaces.
      “This means that, if your finger was the size of the Earth, you could feel the difference between houses from cars,” Rutland says. “That is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this research. We discovered that a human being can feel a bump corresponding to the size of a very large molecule.” ”

      Truly amazing

      • I know that we’ve known for at least the past 30 years that the human fingertips can detect a discrepancy in surfaces levels of two thousandths of an inch so it proves all the more that what we already have an inkling about is often later substantiated by science. It’s fascinating how posts like this bring out much more in people than just woodworking.

  4. developing hand skills should be part of every child’s education. It also takes the ‘mystery’ out of manufactured goods delivered at the door step. Makes our children better suited to be the engineers of the future, not just passive consumers. I learned basic woodworking working on simple projects with my dad ( a very skilled orthopedic surgeon descended from a family of successful dyers). He insisted that we keep ‘these hands of an artisan’ well trained. Seeing Paul in his youtube videos has inspired me to restart doing some projects, this time with my kids. There are a lot of engineering principles embodied in his working and explaining style. Thanks

  5. The nature of work is rapidly changing, things that once took a great amount of skill to perform efficiently are being replaced by technology because it’s too expensive for humans to perform the same task.
    When I first entered the work force I completed a 4 year apprenticeship in the metal working trade. All of those skills are now obsolete and the people who performed the work either have retired or moved on to other careers. I myself had five different jobs over my 45 years of working, my past skills were needed to perform well in each job but in the end my work skills were obsolete.
    I too left my job because of boredom and because it was damaging my well being.

    The other day I ran across this line that was credited to Emerson:

    “We have talents that lay dormant and we have to find the time to develop them otherwise we will not be able to make ourselves live up to our potential.”

    This is why I have taken up woodworking, even though I’m in my 60s. I plan to live several more years and I can’t think of a better pursuit with what ever time I have remaining.

  6. Paul, it might be difficult for you to imagine how pleased I was to encounter your Youtube videos a few months ago. I was extremely fortunate to attend all the courses you taught while in Texas more than 20 years ago. Those hours with you helped me stay “centered” as completed my remaining working years as an executive in technology companies. Over the years since then, I have built a number of furniture pieces based on teachings I learned from you. At 74, I am now retired and spend a great deal of time continually refining my skills as a woodworker. To say I enjoy working with my hands building furniture (as opposed to sitting at a desk) goes without saying. I only wish I had encountered you and your teaching much earlier in my life!

    Your Masterclass Series is a true God Send to the world. Your dedicated efforts will (and are) providing more positive effects in the long term than any businessman or politician.

    My deepest thanks to you and all those associated with you.

  7. Paul….I do not have the ability to use words to describe how I feel, with passion, about my use of handrolic tools. I am indebted to you, over the last few years, for honing previous basic skills.

    I recently discovered a chat room set up by a well know tool supplier.
    Having posted several handrolic type threads, I am amazed and slightly depressed by replies quoting this or that machine being able to perform the same function……..clearly a lot of people are taken in by this thinking.

    I could say so much more….all based on your “skills lost” post, can I just say

    ………………………….THANK YOU……………………

    I HAVE THE SAME MOULDING PLANE AS SHOWN BEING USED BY YOU, GIVES A SUPERB FINISH……ESPECIALLY WITH A HAND FULL OF SHAVINGS.
    BEST JOHN 2V

  8. I think there are “skills” in every occupation – even the most “unskilled” ones. And what I’ve seen that desire and ability to discover that skill has disappeared. There’s no fire. Even when I’m performing the most mundane tasks I look for ways to make it more efficient, quicker… People just don’t do that anymore. There is little pride in your work. I was always taught to do the best job I could – whether it was cleaning toilets or being president. By and large that doesn’t seem to be taught or believed in anymore.
    For example I’m in information technology – computers. You can complete the task, check off the box that you’re done or you can learn all you can. Make it more efficient, easier to use, easier to maintain. That is my definition of skill.
    Paul, I see this in all the many things I’ve learned from you – and I haven’t learned near enough! You can saw a board or you can make a knifewall and cut a board. What an amazingly simple little thing but the skill imparted changes the entire complexion of the process. No matter what I do – whether working on computers (10 more years Lord, please) or wood working or cleaning the bathroom, I want it to always be skill-full.
    Thanks for sharing Paul. Please keep on doing what you’re doing.

  9. You are right on Paul. I volunteer teach at a local high school woodshop several days a month. I’ve found that there are two problems in school vocational training today:

    1) Schools treat vocational training like they do other subjects like math, science, etc. This leads to not nearly enough time for kids to be able to spend in the shop actually learning some skills. It’s all about speed in getting things done. Powertools enable that “speed” aspect to be realized.

    2) Kids, today, don’t have the patience to learn a skill. It’s all about what can be done with thumbs on a phone. Kids also don’t seem to have any desire to learn hand skills. For some reason, someone drilled into their heads that they have to go to college and get a degree to get anywhere in the world today. The world is severally lacking in skilled craftsman and pushing kids to go to college, instead of learning a vocational trade, is making this shortage of skilled craftsman worse every year.

    In many locations, all high school kids aren’t going to college. They either don’t have the means (financial) or the grades. These kids need to be given a leg up by providing vocational training so that when they graduate from high school, they at least have a chance out there in the world. I know in the United States, our public schools have really let down hundreds of thousands of kids by NOT preparing them for life after high school and it’s a huge statement to the ineffectiveness of public schools in teaching kids some skills.

    • Don, you are so right about not every kid is going to college.

      I recently retired from high school teaching. My discipline was biology. One year, teaching a basic biology course to non-academically oriented students (more about blinkered education policy later), the special education co-teacher and I decided to bring the class to a technology museum. Perhaps it was to convince them that they needed to buckle down to find a place in the complex world of computers and biological, chemical, and physical marvels that are projected to be coming along. One of my students, a nice kid but difficult to motivate to pay attention to RNA, DNA, transcription process in protein synthesis got on the bus with a mixed look of boredom and relief at being out of the classroom. I didn’t know what he would make of this excursion. Wandering through the galleries, I kept my eye on him to make sure he didn’t disappear outside. After a while, I lost sight of him. Panicking, I retraced our steps, thinking he gave us the slip. After a few minutes of searching, I found him in a small gallery sitting in front of a wall where 5 or 6 machines were whirring and sliding along. The gears, pullies, chains and other mechanical devices were accomplishing no real goal, just demonstrating the motion and interconnected activities of mechanical motion. He was enthralled. His eyes moved from device to device, looking to discover the operations and connections of all the parts. I stopped in my tracks. It was then that I learned a true lesson about education. The knowledge needed by learners is not something that is brought to them for them to gobble up. True learning is to provide a bridge between where the learner currently is and where the learner wishes to be. This young man has the ability and the skills to pursue learning. He should have been given a chance to develop them.

      Unfortunately, modern education is not designed for learning, but to (1) allow the brightest and the fortunate to progress to a satisfying career. Those not in this group are made to feel inferior and get locked out of a future they can control. Schools (2) take away the tools of whole child learning. My school did away with “shop” classes. The message was “all of you are going to college and if you don’t you don’t have a place here”. Yet, those with college degrees will need plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other skilled tradespeople as they build their homes. The last group of people needing a wake-up call is the parents who need to feel that they are successful if their daughter or son makes it into a high powered college or university. This does not allow for the development of the skills of craftsmanship the kids could show.

      This has been a long post. I hope it makes sense. Thanks, Paul, for starting this thread and allowing us to comment on an important topic for self-development.

      • Steve, I totally love your comment: “True learning is to provide a bridge between where the learner currently is and where the learner wishes to be.” I, too, am an educator. I have also seen this goal go by the wayside as well. That is sad. I, personally, have 4 children. 3 have gone on to college. 2 of them are using their training. I am not sure that the college cost was money well spent on the 3rd. The 4th one is definitely a creative-thinking, problem-solving, working-with-his-hands individual. He would greatly benefit from an apprentice program over a classroom experience. If he does find that niche, he will be very happy in his career, which is far better than a portfolio full of virtual money. These days, those opportunities are limited. So, opportunities, like Paul Sellers’ courses, must be taken advantage of to bring out the inner art and craft that many people have inside. Thank you, Paul, and those of you that comment in this blog that motivate me and encourage me to “keep learning”.

  10. ‘You see, often, people can no longer discern just what skilled work is.’ …

    And that is the core of the issue. This and this alone is what concerns me most. Not just in hand skills, but in our society at large. I am a skilled musician. Years ago I remember audiences would actually pay attention to skilled musicians performing. When a musician executed something difficult, skillful, tasteful, – audiences would react with keen appreciation of the effort. Not so much lately. Not too long ago, I played a video of Buddy Rich, one of the greatest drummers of all time, for a younger friend of mine. He watched a bit, and then asked, amazingly, if this was considered ‘good drumming’. I was floored – To myself, and people of prior generations, this ‘good drumming’ would not only be self-evident, but was considered an amazingly high level of human skill. Then I did some experimenting, playing videos of highly skilled persons executing their craft for some of my younger family members. (these were various in subject, not just music). I was mostly met with blank stares, or at best, a half-hearted ‘that’s nice’, just to be polite. So is it no wonder that many (most?) persons who walk into a cathedral, or other well built structure, are literally blind to the amazing level of human skill on display in such places? What frightens me even more, is that even when the skill involved is pointed out, there is an almost predictable level of indifference. It saddens me because such an attitude only makes a persons life the less rich for it. Music, food, craft, – we have all been pushed to accept less and be happy for it, simply because it is convenient and cheap. What most are unaware of is just what the trade-off is for such an attitude. The loss of human skill is top of the list, followed closely by the ability to know good from not-so-good, value from convenience. I’ve noticed something else that does give me hope though – and I’ll bet most who read these comments have seen it as well. When someone sees a factory built object (chair, table, whatever) they might say it ‘looks nice’, and walk on… But when a person see’s something that is hand crafted, they all always do the same thing: they have to TOUCH it, feel it, come in contact with it. This doesn’t happen with cold, dead, factory made junk. It’s as if they are touching the hand of the crafts-person who made it, connecting human to human. I think many are unaware they even do this, or why. But it shows that there is still some connection there, deep down. I gave a wooden spoon I had carved (pine, nothing great, but it was my work) to one of my sister-in-laws as a present. At first she looked puzzled at receiving such a mundane pedestrian thing, until my wife told her that I had hand-carved it just for her. Then she actually almost wept, so overwhelmed that someone would take the time to actually make something for her. It made all my time and effort carving it completely worthwhile. She still refuses to use it – it’s on a kitchen shelf in a place of honor to this day. Such can be the power of simple but honest handwork. It gives me hope that maybe all is not lost after all…

    • I believe that all of these posts are right but this one from lee Arthur in particular .Indifference is the key wor dhe used .Speed is of the essence nowadays and to what end ?What do these people do with the time they save ? Nothing.The level of skills out there is so far ABOVE most peoples levels of thought that they are not even aware of what they are not aware of .Think about that one .

    • I gave my daughter a box for Christmas that I made for her from old pine reclaimed from her Great Grandmother’s farmhouse. She cried when she opened it. I have only seen her cry a few times during her life (she is very much a stoic) and so this touched me very much, too, knowing that she appreciated the love I put into the making. So, dear friend, not all hope is lost in our younger generation. 😉

  11. Here’s a thought – if I want to test my skills, or want to have some reference to work towards, where could I go? Making one of your designs is fine, but you’re showing me how to do it every step of the way.

    Is there an exam I can take? A design for me to implement on a satutday afternoon which contains certain elements I should master that shows I indeed achieved a certain skill level?

    Mic

    • Personally I think the true test is whether you feel satisfied with your efforts, Mic. I would hate to introduce examinations when millions of people jump through hoops to get degrees they never ever use or need. This craft this way is free from all of that so I think personal satisfaction is the very best gauge and beyond that family can be our greatest critic.

  12. I agree people don’t know how to recognize quality. About twenty years ago, I made a chest of drawers from red oak. It wasn’t great workmanship, but I thought it turned out ok. So, for twenty years, everyday, it has served me very well. But now we are downsizing and some things have to go.

    I figured I would put it out by the curb and let someone else carry on. I saw a woman pull up and she started examining it. Then she tried to get it in her SUV. She couldn’t. So I went out to help her.

    She ran her hands along the side and asked, “What’s it made of?”

    “Red oak. ”

    “You mean oak, like it’s real wood?”

    “Yeah. Oak is pretty strong, so it should last a while.”

    “Oh, my God. I’ve never had anything made of real wood.”

    We loaded the chest into the car, and off she went with her real wood.

  13. There does seem to be one area that is bucking this trend, which is cookery. Whilst it is true a lot of people buy ready-meals and takeways, in recent years there has been a steady rise of professional and more and more amateur chefs who are doing things by hand, whether this is traditional recipes or experimenting with new techniques. There are also many websites, blogs, forums where people are sharing recipes and techniques. There is certainly skill to be found here, as my wife and I can start with the same ingredients and the same recipe and the outcomes are not the same.
    As more and more of peoples’ “every day’ work will be taken over by robots and artificial intelligence, that could leave us with more time to learn / re-learn lost skills to fill that void in our/their lives.
    I am so pleased to be learning these techniques now, for my own pleasure and satisfaction – whether they will develop into skills – only time will tell.

  14. I agree ‘skills’ seem to be decreasing in comercial crafts, but what is ‘skill’?
    I believe skill is an attitude, an aproach to the job in hand.
    As a 15 year old glazier in the 70s we often worked in a local joinery shop that specialised in replacing sash windows with ‘modern’ replacements.
    There was a quiet old boy who worked there a few days a week, he cut glazing beads on a guilotine and screwed cockspurs onto fanlights, all day, every day.
    I wondered how he met the challenge of the mind numbing tedium.

    After a couple of years I was deemed worthy of acknowledgement and we got to talking about his immaculate Wolesley car.
    He showed me the inside and I was struck by the lustrous walnut door caps, arm rests and dashboard.
    “Must have been a special order when it was new” I said.

    “Oh no – I made all the wood in here” said he.

    I never knew he had such skill. I asked him why he ‘just’ fitted handles and cut beads?

    One; I need the money.
    Two; I try to fit every bead better than the last, every handle better than the last. That’s how I was tought to approach any job when I was your age.

    Yes, there is hand / eye coordination in all practical craft but the skill lies in the approach to the job, the planning, the “good coat of looking at” as the old boy said.

  15. I think a contributory factor to the loss of manual skills is the fact that most young people are not developing their manual dexterity the way they used to. They may be able to text 100 words per minute on a smart phone but most of them can’t screw a nut and bolt together. Part of my day job is teaching first year engineering students basic metalworking skills (sawing, filing, drilling, tapping etc). I am alarmed at the number of them who seem to have 10 thumbs! I’ve discovered that many of them never had the opportunities our generation had – simple things like being able to play with Grandad’s hand tools, maybe woodwork or metalwork classes in school or even something as simple as having Lego or Meccano to play with as children. If they don’t develop the manual dexterity required to become proficient in a craft or trade, they won’t choose that avenue as either a hobby or a livelihood. Many of my students also seem to lack the ability to plan ahead – what is the optimum approach to the job at hand? I’m a toolmaker by trade, a hobby woodworker and more recently I’ve taken up leatherworking. My nephew thinks I’m some sort of wizard, to me these are just skills that I have learned and developed, no wizardry at all. I had Lego and meccano and a toy woodwork set as a child, he had a playstation and a tablet….

  16. The difference between a real handmade woodwork and the machine made ones is like the difference between the grand mom cook and the junk food, both are eatable, but the first one taste remain in your mind forever, wile the second one’s taste disappear with the next meal. 🙂

  17. Skillfully said. Skillfully and lovingly lived. No substitutes for personal responsibility in any human endeavor. Some are met with better approaches to understanding than others. We are, all of us, privileged to meet with your lessons. Thank you!

  18. I see too much of this myself. I have long believed that schools only care about sending kids to college, and anybody else should flip burgers. I have worked with skilled trades… machinists, tool makers, pipe fitters, and electricians. Their training took as long as my engineering degrees, and they knew their business. They had earned respect.

    BTW, could you do a video of making those hidden dovetails?

  19. Paul, I am grateful for your views but I am learning a lot from the replies others make. I find it really interesting to read the opinions based on the age of the reviewer. There are times I have lamented the loss of young people’s interest in a craft or skill. I also have to remember at what different ages I “discovered” certain skills! Everything takes time and will reveal itself in time. At 70 years of age and semi retired I now have the “luxury ” to appreciate my marriage, my children, and especially my grandchildren. I will say that exposure to skills and crafts is seriously lacking in the U.S.. Anyway thanks.

  20. Hello Paul,
    Perhaps, the skills that risk being lost may well be captured, before they are finally gone. Though they had to be hard earned in apprenticeships like yours, they can be shared by the technology we are all enjoying here. Whenever I try to learn a new technique, I sit in my workshop and watch (with cup of tea in hand) and learn. Not sure how many viewers you have today but this is our apprenticeship. Unpaid, floor sweepers and tea makers, trying to learn as much as we can.
    Please don’t give up on us. We need your guidance and wisdom, and, when we make mistakes, we can pass them to the Turners to make more rolling pins!
    ….and a request? You have occasionally referred to bandsaws and other machines being the donkeys of woodwork. Would you kindly show us how you use these machines to do stock preparation? The internet is full of “stuff” but perhaps you could show us when and how we can use the donkeys, and what we do with the resulting stock.

    • Good point Mark, or even a steer in the right direction for a video on setting up a bandsaw and using it safely. We can all search but as you say the misinformation is rife and when is comes to machines it can become bad very fast. It takes a lot of time to plan and make a good video I’m sure, so maybe just recommending a sound source of information will take a fraction of the time with the same result?

  21. Hi Paul,
    Many years ago when I was teaching in an art school in the UK I visited a small manufacturing plant where blind artisans were making small textile items for domestic use. There was at least one worker there who had developed the ability to judge colour on a fabric by touch alone, a most astonishing thing to see. Sometimes compensatory skills are developed to replace lost ones and it is possible to reach very high levels of judgement in touch and sight simply by practice and the need for the skill. There is hope for us all!

  22. I wish I could remember the name of my middle-school teacher who first put a bench plane in my hands. He introduced me using real hand tools. And I reckon he saw those many years ago what Paul is talking about. As it happened, I made a real hash of the first board I planed (it came out terribly tapered on one side).

    I regret that my initial encounter with hand tool woodworking ended that year. As I went to high school, our woodworking shop was equipped with machines of every description and no hand tools – more orientated to preparing me for work in the factories of our modern era than learning the craft of woodworking. Nowadays, even this isn’t offered in most public schools. It is a mixed blessing.

    To my mind, what Paul is giving to the world is invaluable. For me, he has picked up where my teacher in middle school left me these many years ago. While I do regret the long gap in between, I am immensely grateful that this line has finally been joined and I continue to experience the joy and satisfaction of mastering these tools while I gain expediency that only comes from continued practice.

  23. I think the old fellow mentioned by John Carruthers sums up the old ways, and how I was brought up into the trade [I’m 70 tomorrow 7th Jan] and only retired last October. Having been through the mill, in the trade, run my own joinery shop, site supervisor, clerk of works etc. both in this country and overseas, I do despair sometimes at what passes as tradesmen and their methods of work, can’t cut a bit of 2 x 1 without a power saw.

    I only wish I could pass on my own knowledge in the same way you do, keep up the good work I still enjoy.

  24. Paul
    I have been struggling with woodworking for over twenty years now. I started as a hand tools only man, then graduated to using a bandsaw, and recently invested a huge sum of money in a high quality router and dust extractor just before discovering your website. Now I’m well on my way back to hand tools again with a largely redundant router. I’m keeping the bandsaw as I have Parkinson’s which adds another dimension of slowness to the task of sawing but I’ll assess that again after I’ve made, and sharpened my frame saw.
    I’m a teacher of recently arrived refugees to Australia, and while the bulk of my work is in teaching mathematics, I have a once weekly gig in teaching woodworking. We make simple things and many of the students start with a very low skill level but I am the only teacher who uses almost exclusively hand tools and some of the students make very good work. All of them, just about, really enjoy the process. One thing that is better about things today is the craft is more open to women, and in my case people of many cultural backgrounds.
    I still find it frustrating when the things I see on your videos don’t work for me straight away ( still only getting dust out of my scraper) but I keep trying. What your videos have also convinced me is that we CAN work with the crappy old tools and benches we have at my school.

  25. I don’t know whether I qualify as young or old (44) and i’m only in year two of “teach yourself woodworking”. But I suppose i’m an outlier as I come from a family of artists and craftspeople. For example, my great grandfather apprenticed as a stairmaker; lost his sight at 32; and not only relearned carpentry (aong with rug weaving and plaster casting) but built two houses and innumerable cabinetry without sight. And he used a tablesaw. My grandmother taught herself to spin and weave in her mid eighties. There’s a professional sculptor for an uncle among others. Craft, whether professional or hobby, has surrounded me. I took up wood late and I mix hand and power tools. But what’s important is the time. It’s where I find myself, where each skill is the foundation for another and where each operation is better (hopefully) than the last iteration. Am I good at it? Hard to say when you compare your work to your blind forefathers! But as a hobbyist, the craft is the goal. I know a lot of people my age and younger who seem hollow. I also know that I never knew anyone in my family of artists and craftspeople who seemed hollow. That’s enough for me to act on.

  26. Dear Paul and all,

    Wow, a lot to take in on this post and the replies. Lately I have been studying with my wife about the ability of the brain to retrain itself and in one book there is mention of a study on hearing. While studying a boy with learning difficulties one doctor discovered that in order to learn to talk and be functional one has to have properly a functioning ear. He had treated one opera singer who had lost his ability to sing beautifully. Many opera singers had been treated on their vocal cords for this with crude medicins. The doctor had discovered that because opera singer sing very loud, louder than a jet engine, they can go deaf in certain frequencies from their own voice resonating in ones own head. Prior to the singer’s problems , the doctor discovered, certain missing frequencies allowed the singer to hear more harmonics in his own voi ce and as a result he sang more beautiful! When the doctor found a way to retrain the ear and the brain to hear the missing frequencies by listening therapy the singer’s beatiful voice was restored. Does this not sound the same as seeing or perceiving skilled work ? Also, fascinating we can feel such small things with our fingers… It makes me wonder what else we are capable of perceiving but never have been aware of.

    Another topic. I have two young boys and we have decided to take the oldest out of school as he appears not in the right place for his different learning styles. For instance some people learn better by doing and talking about it instead of reading and listening. He had lost a lot of self motivation when it comes to learning while in reception class and when we started to help him at home to find what he really wanted to learn he started to blossom again. Now we want his interests to lead his education instead of someone else dictating what he should be learning and when. This is proving to be great for the whole family as we are now all learning together as we work from home and all help support his education at home. While studying homeschooling and how how to support another to find their spark we found some people believe that schools prepare people for factory work. To do as you are told and to obey, and to respond to external rewards instead of following your internal direction and motivation.

    I find this all very fascinating to learn more about and I see there are more trends coming up alongside hand tool woodworking which I love. To me, making thing by hand connects you to God and nature and brings a soul to what you make. No machine made product can match that.

    Thank you Paul for bringing it to our attention.

    • Well you are joining quite a growing league of home schoolers. Back in the 80’s there were about 35,000 home schoolers in the USA. In 1999 it had gained a steady forward momentum and had expanded to an amazing 850,000 and today there are 1.8 million home educated children in the USA, so almost 3.5% of US children. In the USA the support networking for homeschoolers with home school support groups is very large and comprehensive with many providing regional home education book fairs. These are parent groups sponsoring most all areas of education through to prep for university entry level. At one time universities shunned homeschooled 18 year olds but then they started turning up at the book fairs and were seeking out homeschooled graduates because “they were self motivated, required minimal supervision and they were used to researching on their own.” In the UK the movement is no where near as popular as the USA yet but the movement has grown quite rapidly, gathering ever greater momentum as parents step out of mainstream to take ultimate responsibility for the child’s education. Although the percentage is only 0.5%, in the last six years the number of HS children has almost doubled, with the main reason cited as choosing an alternative lifestyle followed by customising the individual child with a more appropriate education.

  27. How timely. Today I plucked 18-2″x4″x16′ and 6-2″x10″x12′ pieces of lumber from the 70% off cart at a big box store. They have twist and bows, some are cracked and are not suitable For use it the building trade. But for me, they are perfect. They will be cut down to shorter lengths, planned and laminated into legs, streatchers, sides and tops. For I am building benches. I have to build 6 to start teaching woodworking at a Farm and Haritage Museum. And while I am nowhere near your level of craftsman, I love working with my hands, with wood, and passing what I have learned on to others. I will start teaching adults the basic joints using hand tools, I need to design some projects for a summer youth camp. Ideas are welcome.
    Cheers!

  28. I am a young person attending boatbuilding school in Seattle, Washington (U.S.A.) If there was ever a dying skill/trade, then being a shipwright or wooden boat builder would have to be it. Nevertheless, my end goal is to design and sell my own small craft.

    Mr. Sellers, what would you suggest? Shall I tell my employer to hold up an entire job while I mill and bevel a plank by hand? It already isn’t enough to make ends meet, but even this would get me fired. I also haven’t found a client yet satisfied with me using a Dozuki pull saw on job that they think better/faster achieved by a chop saw.

    I certainly don’t mean to sound condescending , but it’s something that concerns me. I really want to make a living from using my hands and one day become a master craftsman. But if it takes a month to build a really beautiful craft that only sells for a couple of grand, how can one possibly justify it being more than just hobby? And if it’s only a hobby, how likely is it to develop the craftsmanship you speak of and that we all seek?

    Either way, thank you. I am learning a ton from all of your content.

    • Being at boat building school is just the beginning. You will not be an expert boat builder at the end of your course no matter what anyone says or promises. I hear arguments from so-called ‘professional’ realms of woodworking all the time that this or that cannot be done efficiently by hand and sometimes what is said is true. As an instance, ripping down a length of a plank with a handsaw is far less efficient than using a tablesaw, skilsaw or bandsaw. But it is also true that many so-called professionals, a larger percentage than ever in woodworking history, are not particularly skilled at all and rarely skilled in hand work. I see an ever-growing percentage who think the only way to sharpen a chisel or plane iron is by holding a belt sander in one hand and the chisel in the other. You being at boat school must see that you are at the beginning not the end. You must strive for skilled workmanship and become not just competent but masterful. Professionals are always telling me this or that cant be done by hand but the truth of it is they actually don’t know and are unlikely to know. Even colleges here in the UK tell students handwork is not the way forward. Why? Because they as instructors have only minimal skills, often teaching because they never were skilled and therefor couldn’t make a living from their work themselves. Boat building is the same it’s just woodworking but uses a lot of other materials alongside. Mastering hand tools to a level of great proficiency does not mean you never use machines, just that they will do some of the donkey work for you. Develop skills to the point that they become economical and effective and you can make choices. learn only machine methods and you only have the one option. Most people can learn and master the use of ten machines in about a week, hand tools demand effort far beyond that. Forget your boss, he’s never going to see it. Probably all he sees is the bottom line. Not always is that the case, but mostly. You will find your own clients as you grow in your craft who want quality workmanship if you persevere. The danger is that you’ll give up and just do what everyone does to choose the easy path. One thing that I have learned; you are better finding passionate amateurs than non passionate professionals any day.
      Sad to say there was a boat builder in your region some time back coming up to retirement offering an apprenticeship leading to a free partnership and eventual takeover, but he could find no one to take him up

        • Dear John,
          I can advise you to do the rough milling by machines. There is so much hand tool work and individual fitting of each plank and each rib in a boat, so you will develop your hand skills anyway. And most of the work as a boat builder actually is repairing old boats, and there is little choice but hand tools for the final fit. (The thing about boats is that each piece is individually fitted, millimeter by millimeter and that there is not a single square angle at any place). You will also train your sight and judgement of 3D-angles over the years.

          Once you’ve started your own business you can test milling planks by hand. It is a tedious work to mill a 20 ft long 2″ plank into 3/8-1/2″ thickness, but sometimes a way of giving yourself time to meditate over a problem and a possibility to follow the fibers carefully. In some Swedish boats one pair of the planks are so strongly cupped that they simply must be hollowed out from a 5″ thick board, so there you have little choice but using hand tools (they’re called the weeping planks).

          Handmilling will also give you an intimate knowledge of the individual plank’s strenghts and weaknesses before you start fitting it to place – but honestly: you’ll spend so much time forming and fitting this plank anyway, so when it is finally in place, you’ll know every single millimeter of it.

          • Jonas,

            Thank you for your input. Sound advice for sure…
            Are you a boatbuilder in Sweden by any chance? I’d be very interested in seeing what you guys are doing over there.

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