Sometimes some people just think things are always black and white and then comes colour to colour our lives. Let’s take a stab at this and see where we end up. Woodworking is for everyone that wants it at any time they choose to take it up. With that out of the way let’s look into the future.
I felt quite upbeat about the blog on Hannah’s progress yesterday; all the responses you made were so encouraging and I loved reading them. Over night, reflecting on what everyone said, I became all the more conscious that the impact we were having with our work was really much bigger than even I imagined. Then again, in some ways the occasional contribution left me feeling perhaps just a little sad. Why? Well, it wasn’t that the blog said anything negative, nor that there wasn’t good support for our work in training others, be that one-on-one with Hannah and previous apprentices, our online training endeavour or of course the multiple thousands we’ve taught through classes I have held over the decades. No, it’s not any of that at all, it’s that so many would have if they could have believed there could have been an alternative to the path they took but then found it was a tad too late for them to pursue it as a full-time vocational occupation. My work for three decades to date has been to help others reconsider how they perceive craft work like mine. They listened to the voices, real and perceived, that it makes no sense. It just cannot be done and worse still, there is something better for you than that! You see some are now doing it for the pure reason of being independent and engaging the difficulties that build character. I have been the most fortunate of men, but constantly I come across others who tell me that they would have loved to pursue woodworking as a career had they known it was even possible. I do question the word ‘career’ some times—on the one hand it means, “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.” implying a path directly linked by choices in work toward progress. But then on the other hand we have, ” move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way.” In my mind a kind of ‘career-ing off the cliff’. Now here I recognise that some people have chosen their vocation and entered with a view to becoming professionals in their field, but I also recognise that some professionals also follow a path of bolt-on components to fit component parts together for assembly similar or the same as giant flat packers are to the assembly-line-made goods. I’m not talking to or about them so much, I’m talking about people just like me who would take an idea, sandwich it between the grown and felled tree and the piece of furniture it becomes and look at it at the end of weeks or months in the making of it and say in their hearts, I so enjoyed that path I took and I am almost sorry it stopped. Then they gave their made-thing to its new owner, walked away smiling and looked purposefully for the next design to spring into their mind, searched for the right wood and started over yet again.
Whereas I am guarded to say selling your work qualifies you somehow, people do see and say that if can sell your work that that is validation enough. In my view it’s not selling your work that validates who you but that you see the work you do as a validating power belonging to anyone who can convert the raw into an item by mastery of common hand tools and common materials in masterful ways, and, and, that the whole process, struggles and battles and all were so valuable to you that they brought enjoyment you could not otherwise achieve. To execute your work with that in mind, living in the confidence you now own, is inexplicably rewarding. Then when selling something to someone else, even those you never met or came to know, the one who walks in and says this is something I want to enjoy looking at and using for the remainder of my life becomes that unique icing on the cake. When you find customers who do not just want to buy the individual piece but feel they are receiving something of a gift of the crafting artisan’s love and care in the making of it, now this is truly a reward that defies any other kind of payment.
The sadness I speak of above is for those who couldn’t quite slice it. You know, juggle the finances and the family to make the change because of existing commitments and decisions made and decisions not made. Often this can be by themselves but then also by others of influencing ability, perhaps even over their lives; teachers, lecturers, parents, grandparents to name but a few. Some if not much of this can simply come by fears; the use of doubts too. Especially is this so when we have perceived rather than actual fears where the fear freezes action, or that we have doubt in ourselves and others seem to confirm our inability to make good choices because they themselves would never take such risks as pursuing a craft career as a future consideration. These are the ones that suggest you, ‘get a good job’, and, ‘security is very important’, ‘work with your brains not your hands’. The ones who say, ‘you’ll never achieve anything if you do this’ or that, ‘art and creativity doesn’t pay the bills’. How about, ‘you need a degree’. ‘Go to uni first’. ‘Get your masters’. While for many it is self evident that many degrees are never actually used or indeed needed. Of course such qualifications have become qualifiers and are commonly accepted as a clearing house for lazy and indifferent employers. Beyond that might I suggest it’s wrong to expect a young person saddled with debt to prosper and make the right decisions before you even begin earning-work. I think it is important to help and guide young people to discover their calling proper even if currently they may have missed that unique window of opportunity. Who knows if another door won’t open just because you doubted your doubts and took a course leading along a path much, much less traveled?
To those of you who feel you missed the opportunity, who grew older not realising where your investment would lead too, I might say that it’s not too late and that would be what everyone says, but I am not going to say that because it is often not true. What’s not too late is discovering a calling that stands in the stead of what might have been to give you a rich reward differently. If you are in your fifties and sixties you might be able to reset your coordinates. If your older maybe that would be harder. For me, the challenge I enjoyed was making a living for my family as they grew in a nurturing home and making sure that the bills were paid on a single-income family. That challenge was always met full on and it made the journey like white-water rafting in that you, I, never knew what was around the bend. Rapids, waterfalls, craggy rocks and all, I steered my course and now I look back and say of this or that, had I known I don’t think I would have chosen this or that. Now, I love to look back and think of my crossing the oceans and arriving stateside to remove new-to-me timbers like mesquite and live oak from a desert land in Texas. I mean hauling it through low-river, gravel-bottom crossings on dirt roads with a 40 year old flat-bed Dodge truck alone with no protections to get my prized wood out of what to me was an unknown wilderness. Cutting then across 30,000 acres to my workshop took three hours too. Not saying that was right, not condoning it or suggesting at all, just what I needed to do to make it. I would not change a single bit of it.
In so many ways it may not be too late for others to jump in; you just might not spend your whole life IN your vocational calling, but you may well have a year or two or ten doing something you really will fall in love doing. Doing woodworking as a professional is not necessarily or indeed all it’s cracked up to be nor the only answer really because then you might end up doing it only for money are doing it as a so-called stupid business model with so called robust features built in to protect you from making the mistakes that make your work filled with character and guts. If you are frightened of failure, step back and ask yourself if you’re friends are the reason you don’t want to take a risk? They may have your best interests at heart but ultimately you must make your own decisions and taker responsibility for them.
You know I never thought I’d be a writer, write magazine articles, write books and blogs and make films and teach hundreds of thousands of people woodworking. I’m a furniture maker, not a writer. Don’t give up no matter your circumstances. Enjoy the blast!