Have We Got It?

I met some kids a short time back, two or three weeks ago now, open-faced, funny, healthy, happy children, the way we all think for the main part that kids should be. These children were 9 years of age but the unique thing was that they were in their third year of woodworking in school. Their teachers sent me a video of the class a year ago after a previous visit to my workshop and I saw the children working on their projects with spokeshaves and rasps. It was a delight and reminded me of my early workshops with children when opened up the workshops after my daily work making my furniture for local children and my own to come to for a few hours woodworking. I had upwards of 40 children a week coming back then.

Anyway, I used my bench plane in front of my visitors from who had come all the way from Moscow in Russia and they asked their teacher why they didn’t use one of those and only the spokeshave. The teacher referred them to me for an answer and I said that they had yet to develop their upper shoulder mass and also the muscle to go with it. I told them that my own children started using spokeshaves aged three because it was the most ideal plane for preschoolers to learn to shape wood with. Shaping skills can be established at quite a young age whereas more precise control for planing wood comes little on.

Having seen video of my visitors working with spokeshaves it was a truly rewarding and exciting experience for me. It was nice for me to see their teachers with such willingness and foresight and though not experienced as crafting artisans per se, earning their living from it, they do their research to find out what the age-appropriate tools and skills should be. Once they then learn how to use the tools they begin to teach the children in their charge and that to me is just wonderfull.

I tried to imagine how such a thing could be added to a national non specialist school curriculum in Europe and the USA and concluded that it would never be allowed. Schools are governed by educationalists, politicians and economists. Hand crafts of any kind don’t enter into their psyche. Craft and working with your hands to develop dexterity and take a further backseat to the arts so that’s not likely to change. The three said institutions work in union according to their perceptions derived from their own education, political bent and economic evaluation of society. I have yet to hear of any one of them understand the meaning and functionality of craft in any way. Of course children are seen mainly as the future workforce by them. They must develop the general education for the masses accordingly. To these giants of industry control, though never having worked creatively in their lives, general education is designed specifically to minimise the need and dependency on skilled hand work. There is no demand for skilled working (the result of the Industrial Revolution) and therefore no need for any kind of hand work training. Such a sad demise.

There is indeed unquestionable acceptance of the core subjects to ensure literacy, numeracy and so on and that’s the way it should be. For me though, the only reward was the craft work I so enjoyed in school. The agenda factors into its economy the reality that education to the higher levels is indeed good economic strategy even though no goods are ultimately produced for sale. Creating debt whereby the young generations over many decades owe millions or even billions of pounds, euros and dollars every year to the respective governments has nothing to do with a desire to educate people but more provide additional income for the economists, educationalists and politicians. Such questionable leadership and dare I say ignorance in my view could never draw parallels with craft education as a system of learning relational knowledge rather than abstract and all too often fractured knowledge. For me though, fractions of measurements and weights suddenly take on real dimension and proportions are allocated to tangible effort. This way too, decimals and such all become coherent in the measuring and dividing of distances, weight and so much more. Suddenly all makes sense when a shelf position correlates directly to the divided extent. How interesting when the millimeter is split like the atom and an explosion of understanding takes place in a young , emerging mind.

24 Comments

  1. Tom on 1 August 2019 at 11:23 am

    There’s nothing like figuring out what went wrong with a dovetail joint to get your mind thinking about geometry in three dimensions. Three dimensions of positioning and three axes of rotation all to get right!

  2. Ronald R Kowalewski on 1 August 2019 at 1:43 pm

    I am preparing to teach three classes this fall. Exploratory Building Trades, Environmental Facilitates Management ( Building maintenance), and Career and Financial Management. My students will learn and practice hand-tool use upwards of 70% of their time with me. Thank you for teaching me many of these skills, and providing the many great resources of your 2 books, multiple websites, and daily writings.

    I began my career as a plasterer, under the instruction of my father. In high school I studied carpentry. My studies involved hand tools with poorly maintained tools, and no instruction in their use. I will not let that happen under my charge.

    20yrs later I found woodwork as a hobby. Tired of fixing houses, I used my time acquiring hand tool skills and found them rewarding and valuable ( even in today’s cell phone world).

    Your teaching and skill inspires me daily in my personal and professional career. While I may be a professional educationalist, I vow to always be an amateur.

  3. Matthew Newman on 1 August 2019 at 1:52 pm

    My wife and I decided to homeschool in part to be able to take our kids education above and beyond what the school system does. My wife has recently tasked me with coming up with a curriculum for a wood shop class.

    You’ve often mentioned starting kids with a spokeshave, what kind of projects do you normally start with? I’ve acquired a spokeshave with the intent of learning how to use it myself but am not sure where to start.

    • Steve P on 1 August 2019 at 5:14 pm

      Hello Matthew,
      I HIGHLY recommend joining Paul’s Common Woodworking site, look at the “Websites” link at the top.
      Here there are guides on buying, sharpening, setting up and using spokeshaves. Then there are “courses” such as the spatula and wooden spoon that will build your spokeshave skills. When more confident, can then “graduate” to Woodworking Masterclasses
      I built the drink tray there and its a really good project to hone your spokeshave and rasp skills. The great thing about all these projects is they make GREAT gifts! Good luck!

  4. sla on 1 August 2019 at 1:55 pm

    In Brussels school my daughter had technology for 2 years in secondary school. This was basically woodworking, metalworking, plastic, etc. they have a nice workshop. She loved a lot. They also have a couple of extra scholar optional courses (sewing), they could go in their big pause. It really depends on the school.

    Also it’s not true about debt creation for learning in continental Europe, it’s something specific to UK and USA. Continental Europe is different from this point of view, I’m not saying it’s better or not, but I could say it’s affordable and there is no debt, we pay all this from taxes.

    About, decimals and metric system …, well we are used to metric, I understand also imperial, but it’s something exotic for me …

    In my opinion should be a balance, hand work, industrial, intellectual. Balance in education, balance in our lives, instead of going to a pub after a day behind a computer we could make something.

  5. Ronald Moravec on 1 August 2019 at 2:30 pm

    All the schools are for getting kids ready for college.
    My wife has been a teacher for 35 years and the kids know less and less, they can not even make change for store customers. Colleges need to start with remedial classes.

    I managed to get 8th grade and first year high school woodwork class. No more time to take the fun class.

    DuPage County does have a vocational school for kids in high school where they go part time. Woodwork? Guess we do not even need carpenters to build homes let alone fine woodwork.

    I am teaching one church member and his son starting very soon. Rockler and Woodcraft have classes, but youngsters do not know about them.
    In view of getting more customers, perhaps they should offer free classes yo those under 18.

  6. Richard on 1 August 2019 at 3:18 pm

    Do you have suggestions for good projects that children that age would be interested in building using spokeshaves and rasps?

  7. Joe on 1 August 2019 at 4:08 pm

    I have a couple of thoughts for the USA and how it could be done.

    In grammar and high school in the USA, I doubt you could get it into the general curriculum as you pointed out. However, if there was a willing teacher at the school, I could see a club or after school class being created.

    One night a week, I teach college chemistry for fun (I am a bit odd that way). When I eventually “retire” (i.e. quit the day job and do more woodworking at home and teaching more college chemistry), I could see making a pitch to the University I am at to offer a one or two unit woodworking class. If I were to do the hard work (not really that hard) such as procure the equipment and benches, they would likely be open to offering it as a physical ed type class similar to their ballroom dancing class, weight lifting class, etc. This would be quite fun and I think we could get quite far meeting two hours a week.

  8. Michael Ballinger on 1 August 2019 at 8:20 pm

    There’s a great little propeller project using a spokeshave. It’s nice because the kids can achieve something that fly’s in a relatively short space of time

  9. Tom Angle on 1 August 2019 at 8:51 pm

    @Matthew Newman, One of Paul’s beginner projects is a spatula (also tenon and dovetail joints and dovetail guide). The tools used are a saw, bit and brace, hammer, chisel and spokeshave. It is easy to do and there is almost no way to really mess it up. If a mistake is made, it become smaller or a toothpick. It could also lead to spoon carving (just add a gouge) which I find very relaxing.

    Paul has all kinds of videos on small projects that can be done. It all depends on your children’s age and physical coordination.

  10. Evan on 1 August 2019 at 10:18 pm

    It’s funny in a way this view that crafts don’t belong in the modern world. Every good IT sysadmin, network engineer, or programmer I have ever worked with has been trained like an old fashion craftsman apprenticing under the hand of a master or the more strict hand of the craft itself. The fundamental skills to use the tools of the trade are not and can not be taught in a classroom. Why?
    Because the by it’s nature is to predictable to set to ensure the possibility of success. The edge case, the unusual application, the things that make you truly understand your tools and skills can not happen there.

  11. Sandy ONeal on 2 August 2019 at 11:42 pm

    100 years ago when I was in school we had a wood shop. It wasn’t for hand tools and the teacher wasn’t much of a shop teacher other than to teach a few safety tips around power tools. That class was my inspiration to start wood working. To make a long story short I started using hand tools about 10 years ago and then found your website. My sister works for a very large southern university and it is a very old school. Architecture, agriculture and life skills along with bible teachings were the foundation for the school and years later the arts were added. The school was designed for poor people and the pay for going to school there was and still is at a limited level, working for the school to pay your way. To further make a long story short, woodworking is taught there. Classes from carpentry to furniture making are available. One of the shop teachers was in the office one day when I just happened by with a small gift, a jewelry box, I had made for my sister and he was astounded by the hand crafted box and all the features it entailed. I passed him the information about your website and he said he was going to incorporate hand tools more into the teaching in the next quarter. I said that to say this, there is a lot of discussion concerning bringing life skills back into the schools and even colleges. The focus as you say has been on higher education for many years and that left a lot of people who were not prone to higher education, without any education at all. So I am proud to say that the importance of working with your hands and even apprenticeships are being considered in the US again as an educational path in universities and not just in tech schools.

  12. Mark Lewis on 3 August 2019 at 11:53 am

    Hi Paul,

    I’d be really interested to hear your ideas about some simply woodworking projects to try with kids. I have six-year-old twins, one of whom in particular is very keen on making things, but doesn’t get the chance to go beyond glue and paper and wool and ribbons at school. There’s nothing wrong with that, and he spends happy hours at home making whole towns out of cardboard. But I think he’s keen for something a bit more challenging, and I’d love to help him with a woodworking project, passing on my own limited skills (once he’s surpassed me, which won’t take long, he can teach me in return).

    Any thoughts? P.s. His overriding passion in life, since he was about 18 months, is clocks. The older and more wooden and mechanical the better.

  13. William Balmont on 5 August 2019 at 11:26 am

    Hi Paul,

    Thank you for this insightful article. I wholeheartedly agree. I do of course believe that hand crafting for a living should be a viable and encouraged option by education. However, it’s also such a wonderful gift to be able to be to make without constraints of time or hourly rates or filling up the pockets of those at the top. I think so many people are absorbed in trying to live and ‘succeed’ in our society that they forget we are standing on a small sphere of rock spinning in the middle of nowhere, and we exist as humans for a relative fraction of a second. We need to give ourselves all the gifts we can, and especially make sure children can absorb the best of life from as early on as possible. It’s wonderful that children have this opportunity with woodwork in Russia.

  14. Gordon Dayton on 5 August 2019 at 2:16 pm

    Paul,

    On the surface much of your philosophy seems similar to and old program called Sloyd.

    From what I can tell, Sloyd training, which targeted development of hand skills in young people, started in Finland in 1865 and from spread into various countries including America where it was active until the early 1900’s. A strong center of the training was the North Bennet Street school in Boston which, while still active in woodworking, may not offer Sloyd-specific curriculum. Sloyd is still compulsory (apparently) in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway and is broken down between soft materials (i.e. textiles and paper) and hard materials (wood and metal).

    All that said, in most places today the word Sloyd seems restricted to an appellation for a type of carving knife that was apparently used early in the curriculum. Other than that, it is relatively unknown outside of Scandinavia.

    I wonder if Sloyd was a conscious part of your training in England, and if you consider any of it a part of the training you offer. It seems on the surface that the philosophy of Sloyd dovetails nicely with some of your own. Do you think that Sloyd still offers value and if so how it might best be used today?

    • Paul Sellers on 5 August 2019 at 6:18 pm

      Not at all. I engineered my own life as best I could and actually I lived and worked for half of my adult life in the USA. But mine’s not a philosophy, its a way of life i chose at 15 years old, over half a century ago.

  15. Jeff McGarrah on 5 August 2019 at 3:05 pm

    Recently I built a solid woodworking work bench for my 3 year old grandson who is amazingly interested in all things mechanical. The workbench was made from 2×6 lumber, sized to his current height (e.g., bench height is 22”) and is designed to be easily modified as he grows taller. Last week I repaired a non working egg-beater style hand drill and showed him how to use it to drill through scrap 3/4” scrap lumber. I talked to his mother yesterday and she mentioned that all he wants to do is work on his bench and drill wood. No TV, no video games, just hands-on experience that will lead to other interests and skills. Of course he has to be supervised while using tools of any kind, and not just plopped down in front of the TV or video monitor, but it is time well spent on the education of our youth. Who knows where he will end up but it certainly will be fun watching him grow!

  16. Robert W Mielke on 5 August 2019 at 10:30 pm

    I am carrying on in my father’s profession by continuing with my woodworking. He and my mother were both from a little town in Germany where my father was an apprentice in carpentry. His skills were amazing considering the work he did. He built houses from the ground up by himself with the help of my mother and brother & me.

  17. Ken on 6 August 2019 at 8:23 am

    It is great to hear that at least some young people are enjoying an education where they are taught some practical skills. It is also refreshing that their are still teaches with the vision to realise the value of a more rounded education as well as the passion to make it happen.

    There is a price to pay for not teaching at least some practical skills to the vast majority. I have encountered an adult so bereft of any skills that he was literally unable to change a light bulb!

    In the course of our lives there are countless jobs involving manual skills which we have to get done. We can either do them ourselves or engage someone to do them for us. Each decision will be based on our experience, our budget our confidence etc. However, if we opt to pay someone else to do a job for us, we suddenly encounter a different set of problems which are also not taught in schools. We have to specify the job, to select someone for the work and we have to assess the prices and oversee the work. We also have to check the quality, identify any substandard elements and persuade the worker to rectify the faults. The whole area is a minefield and my experience ranges from engaging excellent workers to absolute cowboys.

    I have opted for the ‘DIY’ approach on plenty of major and countless minor projects and the satisfaction from them has always been immense. Major projects involve preliminary research, plenty of calculation, planning and general management as well as the craft skills – if I haven’t learned anything in the course of a project then something is definitely wrong! (In fact, I always have).

    My working life was mainly on the more academic side (IT, management etc etc). Practical projects at home provided a break from that and added a valuable extra dimension to my life. People who reach adult their adult life having acquired no practical skills seem to me to be seriously impoverished.

  18. Gwyn Buckley on 6 August 2019 at 9:00 am

    I’m a retired Technology teacher. I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, if you teach a skills-based course, there is not enough room in the curriculum to teach about design or technology, microprocessors etc. Besides, when pupils leave school, they won’t buy expensive tools and equipment, they will not make their own furniture, they will buy it as a flat pack and put it together with a screwdriver. Also, a skills-based course is expensive – lathes and milling machines ain’t cheap. The counter-argument is that pupils will design things they don’t have the skills to make. Besides, stuff that is put together using knockdown fittings is not bespoke and nowhere near as sturdy and long-lasting as furniture that is properly jointed, nor as satisfying as something you have made yourself. Perhaps, in the future, if machines take over and we all have more leisure, teaching pupils skills so that they can make their own furniture will have more relevance than it does at present.

    • Paul Sellers on 6 August 2019 at 11:50 am

      Well, the demand is already there as is proved by support for our online presence and the 1.5 million who follow us to learn through the different platforms. This is a direct result of education failure in my view. We are no longer really equipping children to develop dexterity in any kind of hand work and nor do they work much if any with their hands to craft. Of course school is far from the best place to teach crafts anyway as the teachers in general may only be one step ahead of the students but it can at least touch the children’s palate.

  19. Jim on 6 August 2019 at 1:06 pm

    In reply to Gordon Dayton (as the Reply link didn’t work for me)

    The word sloyd is originally Swedish – slöjd – and is known in writing from the 14th century. Then it meant “diligence, handiness, skillful, cleverness” but was later more connected to “the non-professional creation of everyday objects for daily use”. This was someting everyone in the agrarian life we saw before the industrial revolution changed life for many people did.
    In the late 19th century there was an increased need for everyday objects to be sold to people who couldn’t make them themselves and new “industry” and important additional income for people grew – making things at home for a wider market, usually sold by travelling chapmans/peddlers. This was an extension of the practice of people making things at home for sale in village markets which was commin in medieval times.
    In 1878 slöjd became a mandatory school subject where boys did wood and metal “sloyd” and girls more sewing and knitting etc. In 1962 both types of slöjd was made mandatory for both girls and boys and still is up to grade 9.
    In todays curricullum the learing objectives includes training in dexterity/hand-eye-coordination but also creativity, problem solving and knowledge about materials and design and suitability of materials for specific uses.

    Regretfully, today we see fewer and fewer schools having suitable workshops and tools for wood and metal slöjd and more and more children are doing other projects with cardboard, yarn, glue etc or very simplified projects in wood with pre-fabricated parts where they glue/nail them together and paint them after a bit of sanding.

    • Paul Sellers on 6 August 2019 at 9:28 pm

      But woodworking was very much a part of British and USA school culture and curriculum without slöjd. Young males were making writing desks and coffee tables, bookshelves and many other useful pieces for the home up until the 1960s. Metalworking was wonderful.I was making spring loaded live mouse traps and casting busts from molten metal at age 13 -14. It was what was needed for life, to train young people in these skills. I cannot speak for Europe because `i didn’t live there but most continents had skills based curriculum until the last half of the last century

  20. Adriano J. M. Rosa on 11 August 2019 at 6:19 pm

    I completely agree with you.
    In my country the Commercial and Industrial Schools existed until the 1980s and last century, if I am not mistaken, until a political enlightenment extinguished them.
    Alongside this action, labor entities which could employ 12-year-olds are no longer able to do so, with the minimum age of employment rising to 14 and now only employing 18-year-old men.
    When the labor force wants to enter the world of labor, the labor entity asks for the experience man has and then does not give him a job because the candidate has no work experience! Surreal!
    Formerly there were three organizations that were very good at theoretical and practical teaching: the Navy, Casa Pia and the Commercial and Industrial Schools. I think only Casa Pia keeps the tradition.
    Thank you for your work and ideas.

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