So vast a topic, does the term ‘woodworking‘ state much of anything definitive when you say the word? Talk to woodland workers weaving hazel stems and weavers into a panel of fencing and you have one kind of worker of wood but in the raw as it were. Another bends a springy sapling attached to the root and via a rope wrapped around a spindle lodged between two fixed points a chair bodger emerges on the mental scene.
From coopers to carriage builders, wagon wheels to timber frames for massive buildings, furniture too, all can come under the common and generic term woodworker. When people introduce me to their friends they say, “Paul’s a carpenter.” or, “Paul’s a woodworker.” Their friends, immediately seeking common ground, make comments like, “Oh, my uncle turns wooden pens on a lathe.” or, “My friend went on a green woodworking course and now she makes wooden spoons from firewood and sells them on the street and at craft shows.”
Truth is carpenter and woodworker are really generic terms. Woodworkers hardly pegs it these days. In times past and with 40 different woodworking trades all were related to by their title; wheelwright, cooper, carriage maker, cabinet maker, carpenter, joiner and so on. We’ve lost 90% of these woodworking trades Ask a roof carpenter if he makes chair spindles, wooden spoons or turns wooden pens and he might be offended or he might be completely unperturbed. On the one hand it takes a short time to learn to turn wooden pens surrounding a brass barrel insert and assemble the pen parts into a writing pen but it might take months or years to learn the building elements of carpentry construction sufficient to be competent on a building site.
In the USA of course carpentry means to be able to build a whole house from foundation to roof because indeed the majority of the construction is made from wood. It’s more expansive than in the UK where most carpentry is trusses and prehungs. Just as turning pens on a lathe is a very small part of woodturning as a whole craft, so too is the whole craft of woodturning to furniture making. In the above you have four woodworkers using completely different tools, machines, techniques, equipment and methods. The only thing they really have in common, the hub to everything, is of course the wood itself. Beyond that there is nothing that connects them and yet they could all be called, simply, unpretentiously, woodworkers. So woodworker can mean a wide variety of things to different people.
To my neighbours, many of whom are scientists, it means some kind of manual labourer if you actually do it to earn your living from. To a hobbyist woodworker who’s a technician or engineer in their daily work life it’s more a cleverly skilful thing they derive great interest from. I don’t know too many skilled crafting artisans who earn or have earned their living solely from skilled woodworking. And not many if any who earn part of their living from their woodworking either. I know some who have achieved admiring status for making even the simplest of things like turned pens and wooden spoons but it is not so much what they make that they are admired for but that they can actually make something of saleable quality and sell what they make from wood to actually sell for, well, interestingly, money itself! I often wonder if the marvellousness is that as consumers, buying everything we consume to live we can actually make something that sells or could be sold. Our culture today is that we know so few who can actually make much of anything at all let alone make a living selling what they make with their hands.
One of the things I actually enjoyed seeing in the USA was woodworkers selling their weekend’s work at craft shows. Though they wanted their pitch money back, maybe their hotel expenses and travel too, they were actually content to just sell what they made without actually turning a profit as such. Craft shows were fun and a good place to go if you had young children too.
Of course there are many times more amateur woodworkers than there are professionals, and specialisation has led to the demise of the all-rounders of the past. I was raised with woodworkers who could turn their hand to anything wood and, indeed, I write about my formative years with such men. In actuality I never worked with a carpenter until I worked in the USA. Mostly this was because the same or similar trade in the UK would be Joiner. Now joiner can be divided off and I might be more accurate calling all who work on construction sites here in the UK carpenters because their work more matches carpentry work than joinery work. Joiners create a wide range of products and in my day the cross between joiner and cabinet maker would be synonymous with pieces relying on true joints. In the USA on the other hand a cabinet shop and a cabinet maker generally refers to someone who makes plywood boxes for kitchens and bathrooms rather than anything to do with making fine furniture.
To some it seems the thing is to turn your interest into a business and a business is not so much a cohesive lifestyle that includes working wood but something that converts effort in hard cash. I have always questioned whether for me it was ever enough just to make money from in a good quantity or whether it is indeed something I can live as an alternative lifestyle as a way of living wholly. In a world where sportsmen, economists, artists, engineers and especially business men and women make the news with prefaces like millionaire or billionaire this or that, it seems ever more prevalent to measure successes by how much wealth you amass over a given period of living. Wealth seems to be some kind of qualifier. You know, “Billionaire Richard Branson…”. If you can make money, lots of it, your success becomes somehow quantifiable in the kind tangible terms some might relate to even though they have never known wealth themselves. It becomes measurable in something the whole world seems ever more able to relate to. In my world it has always been about following my desire for skilled work. I don’t really think the word ‘passion‘ describes the way I feel at all about my work because it’s not enough. It seems too much a haphazard effort to make something happen no matter what gets in the way and, really, something that happens to the exclusion of all else when in reality my work and my working is all about maximising the inclusion of all other things as much as is practicable from the world I live in.
Yet the way I have seen and experienced it is that the original intent on the part of the ‘woodworker‘ is mostly to step away from a mundane tedium into a realm where they might establish a degree of controlled creativity over their life. A place that they could even step off a conveyor-belt existence into a world where they can indeed make wood work for them and in the process be immersed in a lifestyle relationship that is not unlike marriage; that what you started out doing was done because you discovered an alternative way of working that enabled you to live more freely and interestingly doing something you felt not merely passionate about but, well, joyfully engaged in. When I chose woodworking as a choice towards becoming a working artisan and a craftsman, I actually married my craft. In essence it was for me an irrevocable vow. A covenant!
Woodworking is not frenetic or frenzied work so much as a pure intent to become something you started out not being. Woodworking to skilled people began as a passage of engagement; a knowing that a self disciplined development of skill would need to take place over a period of years. Without that intent it is unlikely to reach the high standard you hope to aspire to. Woodworking is a vision of future that may not yet exist for you but it is something you aspire to be. Often it begins with a spark of interest in something seen.
In my day it was first seeing a sharp chisel slice out a recess to receive a hinge flap in a few seconds. It was so skilfully executed I could scarcely breath as George did something I had never seen before. He did it with such dextrous speed I could scarcely record it in my mind. The brass hinge slid in place and held there by its perfect friction fit alone. It was at this critical point that I realised how very little I knew.
As a vocational craftsman, I love not only my own craft but the crafts of others. My work in recent years has shifted markedly. Thankfully it still revolves around my making but what I make in the workshop has really almost become more the byproduct. When I teach I make. It has always been that way. Whatever the students were making I made it alongside them. What I made served as the teaching vehicle for them to follow me with and this was indeed inspiring to them as an example of both the product, the technique, the method and the work ethic too. When I make I craft. The output is crafting craftsmanship in men, women and young people. It is a highly creative work and it is always high-demand. I am past retirement age by almost five years now. I no longer need to earn my living in the same way I did with a young family, mortgage and other payments. Why do I not stop? Well, I can’t. I have too much to do. I have so much I want to yet accomplish in my restructuring the way people view becoming skilled in woodworking. My work is crafting a new way of apprenticing in woodworking. It is unlikely that we will need cooperage for making wooden barrels or clog making because shoes are needed for workers going to work. What we do need is to recraft woodworking attitudes. To rethink why we want to work wood with our hands. It’s as much about dismantling the conveyor belts of mass manufacturing in our minds as it is in the reality of how we work at what we do. So many crafts are valid not because of what we make but that the craft somehow frees us to think and work three dimensionally doing what we feel the most about. From pens to clogs to timber-framed homes, it’s all woodworking and it’s what sets us free that matters the most. In doing all of this we regain our saneness. Let’s call it finding our vocational calling no matter our age!