There’s a Book You Should Read

I’ve written so much on how I feel about my work, how I chose what I chose as a way of life, why I work the way I do and do what I do. The way I do it is not mainstream any more that’s true, and I rarely meet others like myself any more, but then, hovering in the background of many people’s minds is a penchant, a yearning if you will to fill the void with challenging tasks using latent skills. I don’t understood all the reasons, but this alone stirs up agitation in a positive way and such a thin exists in a large percentage of people. Whereas racing down a zip wire stretches the imagination as does jumping from a plane in a parachute drop, at the end of it you really have nothing to show for all the effort and expense. The challenge to develop skill on the other hand leaves you with something worth having. Tools, product, self esteem, purpose. I write about these things because they challenge me to reach an audience looking for answers. I film them for the same reason. I have never really liked facing the cameras and doubling and tripling my workload. It’s hard and challenging for me. I do it because it matters that others discover themselves.

I never quite understood why academics, writers and journalists feel compelled to write about we crafting artisans and what we do either, why they writ about apprenticeships and the return of dying arts when they generally have no idea at all what they are talking about nor can they fathom in any way what we aspire to do and be except to the most shallow levels. This is well proven by articles in British newspapers.

I read an article about skilled artisans producing designs and selling their wares to mainstream in a recent weekend issue of the Observer written by Emma Love. In two minutes I thought to myself this surely has to be a joke. It wasn’t! She, Emma Love, was unfortunately deadly serious. It was filled with journalistic drivel where she used stock phrases of the day like “Traditional skills”, “Tapping into the wider trend for natural materials,”. What she didn’t see was that most of the goods were highly over priced and none of them used traditional skills anywhere. So the blind lead the blind with ear tickling stories that raise people’s faith but are far from the truth.

I wish that this journalist read a little more. I wish she had read this book beforehand, perhaps she might have at least understood she didn’t understand; that she couldn’t understand. Richard Sennett’s book is a well researched masterpiece, unpretentious in every sphere and should be mandatory reading for any and all craft students and mentored apprentices true to their craft. Sennett carefully crafts his sentences with depth and meaning of an artisan, and whereas I might not agree with every single word, I do see that he worked extremely diligently to open the world  Pandora left to get a point of view in place first and then blasted through the myths and mysteries of why we do what we do, why penchants exist as yearnings beyond our understandings and why, when we are young, we should indeed listen to our hearts.





  1. Looking forward to this read. Thank you for changing my life’s course. The skills, thoughts and attitudes you live and breathe are now mine. I practice and share them with my students daily.

  2. I just ordered my copy. I’d love to see more of Mr Seller’s recommended books and authors. Also any current or past woodworkers he thinks highly of.

  3. I love these daily blogs I sit and relax and read them before going into the shop. It’s a quick dose of adrenaline for me. You have changed the way I work in the past couple years I’ve been buying hand tools to hone my work at first now I find myself reaching for nothing but a hand tool in replacement of some of my power tools. Also the way I look at life the great way to be at peace with myself and my work. And this is just scratching the surface and I Thank You for this. There isn’t enough room here to describe it.
    Thank You,

  4. Look for a copy of “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles. While it does say “Artmaking” in the title, one can generally substitute “Craftsmanship” or “Craftmaking” anywhere in the text.

  5. thanks Paul,
    will add this book to my reading list. Also, ‘carefully crafts his sentences w depth and meaning’ applies to all your work as well. In fact, that is the first thing I noticed when I watched your youtube video on the m&t joint. You make every step of it logically unfold like the reasoning in a geometry proof.

  6. One does not have to imagine what drivel journalists bring to the reporting of science. One must approach all grand revelations of new scientific finds with a healthy dose of skepticism as well.

    Then again, this is true for any person speaking concerning things they neither fully appreciate nor understand; e.g., actors speaking politics; scientists speaking theology, and so forth.

    This is why we are truly blessed when the genuine craftsmen care enough about imparting their gift to others that they take time to disseminate the truth effectively. This you have done well, Mr. Sellers!

  7. I wish there were a “like” button as I often want to say, ‘that’s a good blog post,’ or as to day, ‘as soon as I scraper up enough disposable income to purchase your books, which I so desire to read, I will work on getting this one you recommend today.’ So, thank you, and I liked this post.

  8. Thanks for the warning on the press articles!. I always read these searching for inspiration by people who make a living out of their craft, but often end up thinking: Where am I going with my 3 hours a week in a shed when there are guys as good as these already?. Luckily my neighbors won’t probably want a 2k design piece under their coffee mugs, but they may enjoy one for the costs of timber and my working hours.

  9. Hi Paul. I’d be interested to hear more about what so offended you about the newspaper article. I couldn’t help but feel a little nettled on behalf of the people it featured. I read it, too, and I shared some of your thoughts about it – the writer didn’t sound like she was very well versed in her subject, the goods were pretentiously presented and terribly overpriced. But I still found it very interesting as someone who is in the throes of setting up a little online enterprise where I make modest items from wood and sell them to make a bit of money while my kids are young. I’m largely self-taught and hope to build from there to more ambitious kinds of furniture-making. The things I make at the moment don’t involve too many ‘traditional skills’ (as the article would have it). I rough my chopping boards out with a bandsaw, drill holes with a pillar drill, and only shape, sand and finish them by hand – but I’m learning all the while. If I could persuade John Lewis and the Conran Shop to sell them to urban trendsetters at ridiculous prices, I doubt I’d pass up on the opportunity. It puts shoes on the kids’ feet and encourages me to keep going. Isn’t that what these people are doing too? And as for the journalist, she’s following a brief and using an idiom that communicates an unfamiliar subject with her target audience. I’ve been a journalist, too, and written in journalese on similar subjects. It’s part of the job. It doesn’t denote ignorance. The Richard Sennett book is one of my favourites, but when I was writing, say, a puff piece about the Mouseman Visitor Centre, I couldn’t afford to wax lyrical about Hannah Arendt and the perils of alienated labour. I had a boss to please, so I wrote in the conventional style. Calling it drivel is unkind.

    1. I think you answered your own question really, Mark. There were no traditional skills anywhere in any of the products made, in fact the methods used were all mass-making methods. I don’t believe I was in the least bit offended, hopefully all skilled people and those in the know on their way would feel similarly. I was just being forthright, not something seen much in journalism and as a point of fact, especially this type of tickle-your-ears frou-frou that’s so common. Might I suggest that, as a matter of good journalism at least, she could and should have just probed a little deeper, found out more. Hanging a few planes on the wall or shelf in the background doesn’t match traditional in any way, nor is selling to entities like the Conrad shop or John Lewis really any measure of success? Personally, I think probably it’s not, but that’s me. There was so little actual skilled workmanship in the products displayed and put forward as exemplary of such it caused me concern. £45 for two wooden egg cups? Really? Five minutes apiece to turn even by hand is just a tad high for something that’s replicated and not individual.
      If I did feel irked it was as much using consumerism and mass manufacturing to satisfy the demand as some way of measuring successes. In my view it’s no different than measuring success by how much money you made or make, what kind of car you drive and how big and where your house is. All a bit shallow when you look at what traditional skills really wrought through a hard-earned and well deserved history. Surely she could have stood her ground and done much, much better. This kind of journalism does more damage than good. It’s shallow and of little value.

      1. I agree Paul…

        I see mediocrity in so many fields now, it’s better if we hear an opinion that is qualified and honest because I think our younger generation is in danger of taking mediocrity of talent as actual talent.

  10. Hi Paul, I read that article on Sunday my first thoughts where it all looks pretentious and boring. It did nothing to excite or enthuse.
    I thought you hit the nail on the head with your take on it. Thanks for recommending a better read I will certainly give it a go.
    Regards Larry.

  11. In a not unrelated vein I can recommend reading the Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi and Bernard Leach. Not so much about the doing but how we appreciate what has been done and the nature of beauty in crafts.

  12. If I may add a good read …..the “village carpenter” by Walter Rose
    ” No gaslight ever lit his shop;
    He had no wheels to start and stop;
    No hot, metallic engines there;
    Disturbed the shaving-scented air;
    His hand were engines, and his eye;
    His gauge to measure beauty by…..
    How gently time went for him;
    Up in that workshop! which grew dim”……………a lovely romantic and informative read, set in circa 1870 in uk

    1. Romantic is the right word, read the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists for a more realistic picture of Britain’s working class people.

      1. Hello Paul …yes read that some years ago when I was painting lovely old Victorian buildings ….converted to flats. I would wonder at the mystery of a sash window construction and taught by another contractor of the proper sequenc for painting same.
        I Remember the ‘joy’ 4 floors up a ladder painting 24″ wide soffits on a windy day.
        The book ….yes a fantastic thought provoking read ( look on the front picture of a group of men ….white shirt, ties!
        and the young boy holding a rip saw with the little dimple.
        Tressel ( real name noonan?) talks of sly the Forman, taking your own candle to work in the early hours, of mother paying for there sons 7 year apprenticeship, being sacked for having a fag, being paid a few pence a day. Of the boss, so full of his own importance, being pulled up by one of his men who took the courage to remind him of all the fiddles he was up to with council work
        So much has changed …so much……..???????

        1. I use the term ‘working class’ with much greater respect and reverence these days. Unfortunately others, the BBC, news media generally, use it to qualify and maintain a class system that should have really died eons ago. But through this they can keep control of segregating people by class, hence working classes, middle class and so on. What on earth it really all means is confusing. Seeing themselves as part of some kind of elitist group in most cases, they become an extension of ignorance instead of using their literary skills to make change happen; somehow attached to academia which serves to promulgate an ancient and outdated system of snobbism I suppose. Add into that the term higher education and you see what I mean. Apprenticeship will always seem inferior to certain groups of parents and teachers and educationalists, politicians and such until adults see that all education at a continuing level is more to do with extending the learning period. Apprenticeship is simple enough, it’s as much and as difficult as university and maybe much harder in many cases. Both apprenticeship and degree level education are degrees of continuing education preparing either party to be useful and productive in the skills and knowledge they develop. Never too sure about the cap and gown stuff altogether but if one groups gets a day out to celebrate surely the other should get the same. I know this, and it becomes all the more evident and questionable, more people leave school with degrees they never use and debt they never pay back than apprentices. It’s as much to do with economics as education and university all the more is just the clearing house for lazy employers sloughing of their responsibility to find the right person and train them to their organisation.

          1. Wow Paul you really do have the ability to pen your inner thoughts. Don’t let “the system”
            get you down, just quietly give 2 fingers, you have forgotten more than ‘they’ know. It has been said of late that a plumber can earn more than an architect, try wanting to get an architect out for your leaking pipe.
            Reading the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist can stir your emotions and feelings of injustice. ……..As part of my engineering apprenticeship I was fortunate to go into the drawing office….later a contract draughtsman, moving around to the highest payer…seeing, as you say, in some, a silly snobbish attitude. I was actually told not to ” let it be known” that I came from an area office when sent to work in the head office of UK’s largest cement producer.
            Later to become 1 of the great unwashed self employed building maintenance persona.
            Worked hard…earned loads….really enjoyed my time, can’t whistle and sing in an office. Who cares don’t let “them” get to you….the bigger you are the harder you fall. There is good and bad in all, I had the absolute luxury, if I had an awkward customer of walking away. Now I am a “greedy” pensioner I haven’t a care in the world…….just one wish…..that you would teach moulding planes!!!!
            Best John 2v

  13. Thanks for the book recommendation.

    I recently read about a craftsman who came up with a simple—almost Scandinavian simple—design for a stool, bar height. He then contracted out the turning and used a CNC to carve the seats. His contribution was assembling them. For some reason, people were willing to spend $400-$500 for one of these. I can’t fault the guy for needing to earn a living—repetitive work is tedious, but I think people thought this was an example of hand-craftsmanship.

    1. Unfortunately people can no longer generally discern what’s hand made and mass-made and they see no need to as long as they think it’s hand made they care very little.

      1. I think “generally” can be divided into:
        Those that buy, have no idea how it’s made and might have to employ a “handy” man to assemble.
        Those that believe in sales splurge about solid this or that, not reading small print regarding veneer or know what a finger joint is.
        And those not wanting to pay for hand made.
        And the likes of me …working class…..”keeps a horse in the front room and coal in the bath”….buying on eBay

    1. I am more leery of researchers, authors and writers about craft because most of them espouse on it but rarely from a skilled background nor having mastered skills beyond writing. Most of them dabble, try ‘interesting things’. Just my thoughts really. I read their books and it looks always more to me that they are more on vacation from the ordinariness of their own world than aware of what craft truly means. I didn’t feel this to be the case with Richard Sennett though I am perhaps open to my being wrong.

      1. “Most of them dabble, try ‘interesting things’”

        That’s me to a tee! The most important part of the apprenticeship that you mention in an earlier comment – to me – is its timing. Get them while they’re young – before they embark on something else. I’m in a position that requires my 5-day-per-week employment and my whole life revolves around that. I simply couldn’t afford to do more than dabble (although, perversely, I can also buy the best tools). I, or more importantly: my wife and daughter, know a life that now relies on the wage that I receive and the things that we/they have bought. Through my own career choices I’ve built myself into a corner that’d be very difficult to roll back on. To reach a point in your work life where you say “I don’t actually enjoy what I do every day” is quite hard to cope with. If would be fine individually, but as part of a family it is difficult. Perhaps those writers you mention are “on a vacation from the ordinariness of their own world”, but then I expect so are the majority of your youtube viewers (me included) and maybe it’s nice for them to have that vacation. Instead of leeriness, perhaps understanding and even sympathy would be a better expression. Let people have their vacation.

        1. I see nothing wrong with us amateurs who wish to document our travels in a blog, representing ourselves as we are. But this is clearly different, as the author in question is presumably writing in a professional, journalistic capacity, and not just for kicks.

          I can’t comment on the content of the article or author in question, but I think this is a matter that the Sennett book addresses head-on, right in the first chapter. If one does not take pride in his or her work as a means of truthful expression, they will see no need to “dig deeper” or do more than what their employer asks. If a journalist writes about a field you care about and is content to represent things at face value without offering some perspective or insight, you might wish that they had taken their craft a little more seriously. I can relate to Paul’s feelings of frustration and also share the view that so much of the media that is designed for mass consumption is little more than advertising or thinly-veiled corporate press releases. Puff pieces and hatchet pieces. If your field and interests are represented well by monied interests, good for you. But if your chosen field receives so very little media coverage, and much of that is showcasing hacks and opportunists, you might have steam coming out of your ears too!

  14. This is a very interesting topic and gets to the heart of what I believe many people are seeking in their pursuit of working with wood and hand tools – how to live and work is a way that honors the values of the “Craftsman.” It is difficult to find anyone making a living using the tools and methods of the dying arts. I am sure I am like many of your readers in that I do woodworking at home with hand tools as a hobby; it is a mindful and restorative practice. But I do not make a living this way.

    The big gift to everyone is to find a way to take what the woodwork experiences bring, the senses of peace, satisfaction, and esteem, and apply it as an ethic in their everyday lives. I believe this longing drives articles and book sales on craftsmanship etc., many of which I find are wide of the mark.

    What are the fundamental values that are inherent in the application of the dying arts that are larger than the art itself? How can these values be transferred to our modern lives, whether we are a degreed professional, a master in the trades, a retail cashier, a stock broker or a mother home with children? That’s the nut, I think.

    1. I just could not resist coming in here Mark. If we take a leaf out of Paul’s book when in one of his blogs he talks of his time in America…..working all hours alongside his children as they learned to play and learn. Not having holidays, having one truck, his wife making soap?? All working together….now we may not all be able to live the same life style but could take a leaf out of his book……it’s NOT all about money but having enough to enjoy the life given to us.
      I am well aware of the difficulties of leaving a 5 day week job but a paid 5 day a week job could give a platform to start out on ones own. We have weekends plus evenings to put together skills enough to branch out….not easy at first but cut out that nice car and desire to buy “stuff” save a little to give a buffer then take that step to be independent. Be honest, positive, keen to learn work hard and you will not look back.
      I had an easy well paid 5day job……left, no money in the bank (spent too much) 2 young children and a mortgage, AT 11%!!!!!!
      Bit by scraping bit learned a lot from all trades I managed to employ…never afraid to ask questions.
      There is without a doubt work out there if you follow the same path………not totally the type Paul teaches but a combined trade.
      In my last few years at work I designed and fitted 40 kitchens….plumbed..tiled….and decorated…and sat down to invoice. All NOT in a 5 day week……I could walk away, with pride and say I DID THAT. now I am retired with a full happy life I really do miss the buzz.

  15. Paul,

    Upon reading this blog I purchased “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett. My book arrived from amazon and does not look at all like yours. Doesn’t have pictures or handwrittn notes. Glanced through it. Not a light read for an artist. LOL!


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