Boys and Woodworking

From around three years old my boys were in the woodshop every day with me for while. They indeed cut their teeth on Stanley spokeshaves and sharpened their skills by honing chisels and planes as I watched them. By the time they were all sixteen they were highly competent and the skills they learned are with them for a lifetime. They never question whether tools work or don’t and if a tool doesn’t exist they make it. They also learned other craft skills but woodworking was obvious because they liked being with me and they liked being in the workshop.

I am careful to say that not having woodworking in schools is wrong because generally speaking it’s actually a good thing for the main part. The last thing you want is someone who knows little about woodworking teaching it and that is how it has ended up. The worst thing will be a university graduate with a teacher’s degree for general subjects being told they need to learn woodworking so that they can teach to a curriculum put together by an educationalist. That’s no good, generally speaking.

I’ve tutored university graduates doing furniture degree courses that said they learned more in two weeks with me than they did in the whole of their three year degree course. I think that’s more than likely true. What was wrong was that educationalists took over woodworking (and metalworking too) and ousted the truly qualified teachers who came to teach with a woodworking background and replaced them with their own sorts and we who knew better but had our hands tied watched as it entered decline through five decades. Woodworking got dumbed down, kids did very little hands-on and the art of woodworking absolutely disappeared.

Fair’s fair, you cannot expect politicians, economists, educationalists and industrialists to understand the art of craft work. Whereas they are to blame because they thought they knew what they did not because they were born without thumbs. They could never grasp what we artisans feel and understand.

Give me ten kids of any age between 7 and sixteen for three hours, ten smart phones and ten sets of six woodworking tools and I guarantee that the ten smart phones will remain untouched for three hours and that all the wood and the tools will all have been worked with for a full three hours.

29 comments on “Boys and Woodworking

  1. I’ve been making small saws from bits of steel leftover after reshaping other saws and whatnot and only now do I miss having kids around the house because it would be great seeing them grab a little saw that fits their little hand and their eyes light up “it’s me-sized!”

  2. Nowadays it’s so easy to say to our children: do not bother me, watch TV, or go to the computer. Take some money and go for a walk!
    When they reach adolescence, we say to them: You are useless, you can not do anything. You look like your …
    It would be easier if we taught them to develop motor and mental capacities, respect for work, art of communication with other beings, I do not know what else! In short, help them grow.

    • I’m afraid there is a tendency to blame teachers who are really diligent in their efforts to teach. Educationalist leaders put far too much on teachers that parents should be doing but sadly neglect with a wide range of excuses. parenting is a responsible thing and that includes spending hours and hours a week with the children.

      • I spent seven years like a scout educator, and I strongly believe in your last sentence (of the post). It’s easy to engage and educate children, but it needs a lot of energy and a continuously action.
        I agree with you, parents are the first responsable of children education.

        Cheers to woodworking like a way to educate children!

  3. I took all the Woodworking classes in school I could take and the only thing it did for me was let me escape the drudgery of all my other classes. My teachers knew very little, a little more than I knew which wasn’t much. Sometimes I made things that surprised my teachers!
    My brother was a “ industrial arts” teacher in my school system, he told me later that he went to college “to learn how to teach kids”. It had nothing to do with the skills needed to make furniture let’s say or even make dovetails.
    So I was basically self taught, I learned by reading magazines like Fine Woodworking, anytime I saw any information on Woodworking I read it.
    This was all before computers so information wasn’t readily available, I had to go to the library which wasn’t within walking distance.
    The schools closed all the shops, at that time it was metalwork, electronics and woodworking. My brother ended up teaching keyboarding otherwise known as typing and fixing cars ( power mechanics) They sold off all the equipment and changed the classrooms to something else.
    I have taught young boys in scouting, this would be Cub Scouts with kids under 11. I made kits for bird feeders, bat houses and finally bluebird houses ( that would be Eastern Bluebirds). We made these on camping trips with the dads helping. Every boy went home with a completed project and you could tell they were quite pleased with what they had made.
    There is no one left to teach, and no place to teach the skills needed anymore. The only place I know of is our Big Box Store where they build a toolbox every once in awhile.
    I’ve resigned myself for now to teach what I know to my sons.

  4. A fantastic and unique business model for experienced woodworkers to pursue! Looking at our current and quite pathetic after school care (USA) and such, this has so much potential. How many spirits and esteems could be lifted? Just one child to see an alternative not provided to them by sitting in front of a tv or video game or ill serving peers.
    Not only by the skills of woodworking being instilled, however by the master who takes the time to teach them and genuinely seeks and shares their success in accomplishment.
    Sadly, in this day, an accidental cut on the little one’s finger may bring down the house by their hypersensitive, helicopter parents.

  5. Not the sort of woodworking you teach, but one thing that also taught me quite a bit in my early teens was building (and flying – but the repairing afterwards took much more time than the flying) model aircraft. And this didn’t consist of buying a kit and glueing it together – those kits were much, much too expensive – but borrowing a drawing from a friend, neighbour or acquantance and then building from that drawing.

    Building from plans, as opposed to assembling a ready-made kit, meant having to make every part from scratch by hand, mostly out of balsawood and some parts from Finnish birch plywood. It also taught you how to read technical drawings.

    The balsawood was bought as 10×100 cm planks (cheapest to buy as planks) and then cut-down to ribs, spars, etc. by means of a simple knife with a guide. The old kitchen knife had to be sharpened by hand. Building model aircraft was where I first really learned about grain and the importance of cutting ‘with’ the grain, if you didn’t want your balsawood to split. Also learned a little metalworking that way, cutting aluminium to size, drill and tap holes, etc.

    I recall that back in the mid-’80s it wasn’t an unusual pastime for a father and son to build a model airplane together. Several of my classmates and friends did so too.

  6. My problem is time. Bareley enough to make a living from this craft. Teaching my kids is difficult when your focus is keeping bills paid.

    One day I will regret not spending enough time teaching them but that’s how the cat is,…. in the cradle with the silver spoon.

    • It is unfortunate that today it takes two heads of households to make enough to pay even the most basic bills. I was fortunate that most of my workshops were adjacent to the house so IO was always somewhere near to hand for child raising responsibilities. Not so today with both parents in full-time work and career paths.

  7. Paul, that little fella will be cutting dovetails in no time! Grandpa should make a stool for him to work at the vice with that spokeshave. I hope he isn’t getting ready to “cut his teeth” with that spokeshave.

  8. Paul,
    Interesting point about not having woodworking in schools due to lack of quality teachers. What’s the solution? Maybe implementing basic woodworking or educational sloyd into teacher training programs?

    I have always felt that it was easier to teach a gifted teacher a subject to pass on than to have an experienced craftsmen (athlete/woodworker/musician/writer etc.) teach their craft, at least to young children.

    I think we need to restore the sense of value that comes along with handwork. I’m sure we can all agree on the benefits of music and athletics, but the ability to create with your hands is equally important. My students come out of my classes believing they can make anything, and they should because they can!

    • Here again what we would see is the”gifted teacher” having all the more dumped on to them when they are already overloaded. Plus, I disagree that a gifted teacher would be better than an experienced craftsman/woman. All children need is to see it done in front of them. That is what I had and it was more than enough to learn from. It needed no explaining. I would never have an academic teacher teach craftwork until they had five yers and more in full time practical work under their belt.

  9. I guess its kind of similar to learning a language. You could take 3 years of a language in a University and learn a very basic level. But if you instead went to a country where that language is the primary or only language, you will learn more in a week or 2 staying with a host family and being forced to speak. As children we learn our native language by doing, and same with woodworking. I am helping my teenage daughter build a ukelele kit, she is doing all the work. I did make your cam clamps for this, and getting the right tools out. But she is learning how to measure, drill, cut, file, about grain direction etc etc. And i have a scrap of mahogany that we are testing out several finishes so she can learn the properties and trade offs of various finishing techniques. I can tell she is like me in that going to the garage to work on this is a very calming, peaceful way to relax and clear your mind of all else, especially when its raining lightly and we have the garage door open, you feel much more grounded and connected to the real world rather than typing on a “smart” phone mindlessly.

  10. I am not in any way doubting your ability to teach woodworking to anyone, but stating that smartphones would not be touched by a teenager is a real stretch. I believe current teenagers are just addicted to their smartphone as are heroin addicts to their drug of choice. Maybe things are different on the other side of the pond (Europe) but here in the USA they frequently walk out in traffic without even a glance to see if a vehicle is coming. Thanks for what you do.

  11. Have a look at Doug Stowe’s blog “Wisdom of the hands”.
    He is advocating handwork at school (via woodworking) and teaches in a school.

    What is important for a young child is to make things himself even if it seems really rough to our eyes or if we do not understand what it is supposed to be.
    As a child, you say “let’s pretend it is such or such” and you play with it. e.g. look at the picture on the post dated 2019/02/07 of the above site.

    I would say, for lower grades, he triggers/supports creativity; oldest kids made real rowing boats last year.
    Sylvain

    • I am afraid the USA is very different with regards to curriculum. Here and in the EU the countries set a national curriculum which is simply a standardised system. It will come to the USA ultimately and whereas isolated pockets may survive for a season they will eventually disappear. I will never be convinced that school is the best place even at an introductory level. Parents are the channel for their children and we are reaching parents all the more with what we are doing.

    • I enjoy Doug Stowe as well. I believe I read he was coming out with a children’s book?

      You may want to check out Greg Miller’s The Joy of Wood blog. He’s doing great things with kids in Australia.

      I agree with the idea of using woodworking to spark creativity. I try not to have set projects with my students and we wind up with way more inspiring ideas than another birdhouse.

  12. Paul, I have children and I’d love to see a small series of projects aimed at young people..bird boxes, wooden toys puzzles, that sort of thing.

    • Tim, checkout commonwoodworking.com . the site has mostly that. Adult or kid you start in the same place. 8 year old goddaughter is learning by making her own 3 legged stool right now. She loves the spokeshave.

  13. My dad was a self employed Joiner and always had the smell of softwood sawdust about him. I sorely desired to be like him and smell of wood. He always had his wooden tool box full of things i wanted to get my hands on, he would sit quite often resetting and sharpening his saws ready for the following days work. Teaching me and passing on his skills he didn’t do, if i was asked to pass a tool and got it wrong which was often, it was followed by a sharp clip over the head. I did not follow in my fathers footsteps but went to work in the Forests with a chainsaw and in that way i used to come home smelling of sap and sawdust!! My son went to a local tech college and learned Cabinet Making where he did in fact become very good at what he did. I learned my own woodworking skills from my son which i am thoroughly enjoying doing and at the moment i am also passing on what i know to my 2 grandsons, 5 and 3, who both love to be out helping, doing, making. Even if the Tv is on and i move to go out to do something there is always a shout of ” Can we come”. Children need to be involved, encouraged, taught and directed by the Family around them.

  14. A few month’s ago I took a number of unfinished pine birdboxes and a few basic tools into my daughter’s school (I’d “accidentally” forgotten to finish some of the parts).

    Pretty much every child from two different classes (all aged between 4 and 5) had a go on at least one part – including teams of three using a brace and bit to cut the bird holes, two helping to cut rebates with a No 78, and several quite competently tapping material out of a dado with a hammer and chisel (though I was guiding the chisel for safety).

    Full attention, a long queue to have a go, and all taking care with the tools. Quite impressive to see, and the kids seemed really happy with the end results. Hopefully the start of something for a few.

  15. Hi Paul, I think there is no need to be afraid of the future. Most of the many people following your classes will be happy to pass on the skills they learnt to the following generations. Where I see a bit of a problem is that the regional diversities in teaching woodworking and working wood seem to fade due to the easy accessibility and the very good quality of „programs“ offered in english language. I am a german (amateur) woodworker acting like an anglo-saxon woodworker. This doesn‘t mean that I enjoy it less – not at all – it‘s just that I am not doing it the way my great-grandfather who was a joiner and who I never met has done it.

  16. Ah, you have to master bow-saws and wooden planes.
    The cabinet I have seen here on continental Europe in my youth (before the MDF flat packs) were generally of the frame and panels type while US woodworkers would make carcasses with thick wood with shelves in dado and add a front frame to suspend the doors to. Maybe the lumber was cheaper in US.
    A wardrobe could be knocked down: two frame and panels sides bolted with bed-bolts to the base and the top; back panel in grooves in the sides, frame and panel doors held in place by pivots in the base and top of the cabinet. Thin panels makes it lighter. Where needed, ratchet in the corners allow adjustable shelves.

    Sylvain

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