As Boring Things Go…

…It’s Slow

Or is it? Or perhaps I should ask more, was it in its day?

Imagine going back to an early 1980s computer compared to a smart phone and trying to draw a real comparison. Along with the smart phone and the computers we no use the old models are considered dinosaurs and yet in their day they sped things up momentously. I bought my first pocket calculator around 1970. I added, subtracted and multiplied and it did it quite rapidly.

In it’s day this pillar drill would have been more than adequate but comparing the early calculator with a standard computer would be as unfair as trying to match the drill presses of today with my vintage version of a century past. I don’t really agree with terms modernists use to describe any of my work as fun. You will know what I mean: “taking shavings for an hour just for the fun of it is fun, that sort of thing. But I understand why people say such things. For me shavings have always resulted from working. They are who I am. Comparing my working to blowing bubbles for my children when they were young seems an unimaginable thing so whereas I do find work to be a good thing to do, often enjoyable I have always strongly disliked the describing of machines as “big-boy toys” in the same way my craft of hand work neanderthal woodworking. I do know though that it does indeed aptly describe these spheres of woodworking for many woodworkers. Me? Hand tools, wood, workbenches and such like that, they all mean work to me, but they mean good work and good working. I live in a different world of realness.

The priveleged-by-birth-and-good-luck upper classes of the then so-called Great British Empire advantaged themselves by what was at that time known as the working classes. Working class people of the era worked to create very wonderful works of skill to enhance the lives of the rich and affluent. It was an era that produced exemplary works of art in three-dimensional form. Of course it wasn’t the men and women that were ever acknowledged but those who designed them. Where am I going with this? Well, the landed gentry had things built called follies. A folly consisted of a structure that could be anything from a bridge rising in the middle of a field that went nowhere or a cottage built from shells as a fantasy picnic home for human fairies pretending life. In fact most of it was fantasy; whims were momentarily satisfied in the gentry by the skilled carvings of stone masons and the pristinely sculpted hedges of gardeners. Follies were created and grown from the raw by men and women who were used as cheap fodder to ingratiate the whims of the aristocrats of the era. My craft is of course enjoyable but fun seems the wrong word for it to me because this is not blowing bubbles in the local park for my grandkids or riding a bike downhill with the wind behind me. To describe my efforts as fun seems mostly somehow trite at best. Like those ever so dumb tee shirts with slogans showing a series of progressions from an ape to a man with a saw in his hand or the one that says he who dies with the most tools wins.

But I do enjoy joking with my friends at work and we do find minutes to lighten the load with laughter that’s not about trivialising the work itself. Some days I am doubled up at the bench because ~i remember the day we used a tuning fork in an April video to show how Paul Sellers fine tunes his bench planes according to task depending on the note set according to the tuning fork ping and then the time we told people we had develop an Eau de Paul pine essence perfume from pine we distilled down from our waste wood.

This week Jack’s been in working on his clock and he seems to be enjoying it even when the shoulderline didn’t match the distance between the side pieces and he had to do it over. I joked with him about crawling inside the shoulders to put the glue on. The reason I could? Because his work is so very good and he certainly laughs with me. Usually I will say I never did anything like that but he knows of course that I did. Jack’s a quiet lad. He arrives for work, sets out his tools and his wood and just keeps after it until his task for the time is done. I like his sense of humour.

This week Hannah and I spent some time teaching the teachers who work with autists. the work is going well and again the work was serious and so enjoyable and then hard work too. What we have achieved in a few short months seems even to me remarkable. Support workers have gone from absolute zero woodworking to making and guiding and supporting autist students in ways they never dreamed possible. Truth was I had every confidence that they were no different than the 7,000 students I have personally taught one on one over the decades and now the hundreds of thousands of you online. Hannah has proven to be an exemplary teacher of woodworking as well as a gifted maker. Tell you what too! We always have time to enjoy the seriousness we find ourselves in. Imagine autist woodworking with hand tools taking its root through the seeds we are currently sowing.

So, the contrast? The rich gentry of the past (and the present in some places), those who barely employed us working men and women to fulfil their fantasies, would likely know very little of what I speak. Not all of them, just the majority of them. When I looked at what was achieved with such gifted and caring individuals it made me so happy inside. Hannah and I drove home after an enriched afternoon of working with our charges and yes it was a tad draining, but we smiled and chatted most of the way, contented that we had done our best and that our best produced success because it met head on with people who really cared.

I count myself amongst the most fortunate of people being able to do what I do with people I have grown so very fond of who are much more than mere fun to be with. I just love them all to bits!


  1. In fairness to the Folly builders of old, I’ve often heard stories that such structures gave men a wage during the ebb of the planting cycle.
    McCaig’s Tower above the town of Oban, Scotland is said to have been built by the Scottish banker John Stuart mcCaig – Employing local Stone Mason’s during the winter months.

    1. Do you know that he paid a fair wage? What about the Welsh quarrymen under the then Lord of the manor who had his pseudo neo Norman castle Penrhyn built on the pittances paid and then furnished it with slate beds and a thousand other things made to furnish it. Let’s not be sentimental about the wealthy of that day. The offspring still live off the inheritance fats of slavery, sugar plantations and slate quarried in the Welsh mines. On the one side they say without the Pennants who owned and still do own as far as the eye can see that they gave work to the locals and on the other that the workers were so disadvantaged that they lived in the quarries away from their families all week and had only Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings to be with wives and children. The castle the local workers built for him took 15 years of continuous work and in the early years of the 1900s one of the descendants told me that he asked his grandmother how many staff worked at the castle. She said a skeleton staff at that time, to take care of a family of four, was 68 people. They were indeed employed. My friends researching the history and background of the family told me of the wages and it was indeed a pittance. Imagine shipping slate to the USA and if it was broken on arrival it was deducted from the man’s wages. It’s all a question of digging as little deeper sometimes.

      1. We should never be sentimental about the wealthy. Of any age. Thank you, Paul for the kind reminder – tho it seems biting it is less biting than recalling the Jeff Bezos’ of the era who dominated and paid little for their luxury.

      2. Paul…

        Your ranting about the rich is tiresome. You should stick to woodworking instruction.

        1. There things to be learned here, in his writings as well as in wood working, knowledge of a era that many have not experienced. History gives clues into the functioning of other societies that we can learn from and improve upon. So Paul thanks for the insight! Being a learner in all areas opens such richness and depth to life.

        2. You’re an idiot, David…

          And an insult to your name..

          You may well believe that the rich and privileged non-working class who gained their wealth through theft, slavery, graft and invading other countries are special and have certain God-given rights. Or not..

          You should keep those servile and supplicant thoughts to yourself, though, as you only embarrass yourself by spouting such nonsense…

  2. BTW, it’s a good thing you don’t see the slide-rule sitting on my desk, side to side with a modern RPN calculator (well, ’twas modern in 1996). That little slide-rule is far from slow in the wrong hands. (and I am of a generation that wasn’t taught how to use slide-rules anymore in school, to the regret of more than a few of our teachers. They complained often about the dumbing down that electronic calculators caused compared to slide-rules). I see an analogy here with the use of handtools vs. machines in woodworking.

    Also a good thing you don’t see that ancient HP pen plotter sitting on my desk, from 1984, that was originally connected to an Apple-II computer. That plotter sees regular service with me. It’s still perfectly serviceable and supported by my CAD software (which, admittedly, is also ancient by modern standards, at 20 years of age, but still does everything I require and is what I am intimately familiar with).

    Even better still you don’t see the Nokia 3310 phone sitting in my pocket. Did you know adult people sometimes stare at you when you use it? But it still works and does everything I require of a telephone.

    Incidentally, that programmable RPN calculator was bought to assist me in making astro-navigation calculations. Learning to determine your position with a sextant within a few 100 metres using nothing but a fancy protractor and a few tables and a simple equation. True, GPS is faster and more accurate…. But I’ve never seen someone using a GPS taking pride in making an accurate fix.

    1. I don’t really get where all this came from, Nemo. Why on earth is it “a good thing” that I “don’t see” those nice possessions cited that you own?

      1. It was my attempt at humour, a tongue in cheek reply I was typing as I looked to my left and right on the desk. There wasn’t anything in your post I disagreed with, on the contrary. Old (electronics) gear is still very useful, to me at least. Just because everyone wants the latest (electronic) gadgets doesn’t mean one has to go along with that. Old gear (sliderule, 1999 cellphone, sextant, 1974 spectrum analyzer, etc.) is still just as serviceable now as it was back then, just as that pillar drill in your first picture. I also have a very soft spot for pump-action screwdrivers. Far from outdated, in my view (but I’m in a minority there, judging from the goods for sale in DIY stores). I’ll try to refrain from comedy in the future.

  3. Absolutely Paul. Your first comment I go with completely. It is not so very different today. Zero-hours contracts etc.

  4. Hi Paul Your handraulic “drill press”. I did post a comment the first time you showed it to us about STAVROS GAKOS using one on utube. In fact one of your followers said ” he would love to see one in action” But I have not seen any follow up comments….shame.
    STAVROS uses one when making beautiful beech planes with a Forstner bit.
    Thanks John

  5. Paul, I started my journey into hand tool woodworking about a year ago and have learned an incredible amount from your videos and your blogs. You have such a clear and direct manner that inspires confidence and makes any topic approachable and easy to understand by even a novice like myself.

    But this blog post confuses me. Not your expressions of fairness (or lack thereof) about how history has portrayed the efforts of the craftsmen and laborers who created the follies of the past, but rather your rejection of the concept that a labor of love can also be fun. I understand the distinction between craft and frivolity, but for me craft can be and is fun. I get the greatest joy from completing a task with care, precision, and craftsmanship. This applies weather I am writing computer code, negotiating a contract, or squaring the edge of a board with 100 year old hand plane.

    My father taught me to take pride in whatever it is that I am doing at that moment and do it the absolute best of my ability, even if the task is as simple as sweeping the floor. For me, that ethic has translated into finding the fun in everything I do. I don’t always succeed, but I am happiest when I do.

    I only know you from your videos, but I get the sense from them that you treat life in much the same way. I am guessing that this a matter of semantics, or maybe I am completely missing your point, but I find incredible joy at the pile of shavings on my basement floor when I can look at the resulting product and know that what created represents my best (even if it isn’t “perfect”). To me, that is fun.

    1. Al, I think Paul is saying that humans have a basic need for respect and to feel valued by others. If we take a persons work as just a moment of amusement and then cast it aside, we can leave the person with a sense of a purposeless life. In a society with a class system that already puts one person’s value higher than that of another and in which the worker might have little power in practice to choose where to work, it is easy to imagine a person (the craftsman) with a profound sense of a pointless life. Yes, there are ways around this by force of character, but it is certainly a terrible risk and, I suspect, a common suffering.

      With that in mind, I think Paul is saying that many of the works of that time, or modern pieces in certain styles, while splendid in craftsmanship, cannot be seen by him without sympathy or empathy for the people who did the work. This spoils the experience of the work. For me, I cannot hear the works of certain composers without thinking of hateful things done by those composers, so I will not listen to them regardless of their high art.

      I come from a different culture and different background, so I can experience these furniture forms without experiencing the things just described. I just see the forms and often think of them in terms of their architectural origins or, like the cabriole leg, think about their ties to Chinese forms.

      Paul is showing respect for past craftsman. His heart and experience, I believe, makes it difficult for him to build in these styles, which I respect. I am aware of this history, respect those who suffered by making sure I don’t do it to others, but am comfortable working with these forms.

      In short, Paul is reminding us to care for each other. I think that’s what this is about.

      1. Such a nice and gentle response, Ed. Thank you. And what you said is exactly what I meant.

    2. I understand fun. And there is nothing wrong with the now generic use of the word as people tend to use it to describe anything and everything. There are cultural differences/preferences to its use though. I noticed before I went to live in the USA how people tended to have a broader vocabulary in some countries and that arriving in the USA everything was, well, ultimately described by the catchall term ‘fun‘. For me it was the same as “Cool“. when someone assented to an agreement with someone else’s point of view, “I’m cool with that.” Meaning I have no problem with that or “I have to leave soon!” “Cool!” came back the response. If you want to use the term fun for enjoyment then I am fine with that, but if I adopt your term, “Fun.”, as often as you might then I would lose my identity and become a you rather than a me. The term fun, the etymology of it, means foolish. Hence folly was a foolish whim of wealthy people looking for something interesting poor to spice up their lives and to be made by seriously skilled underlings only they could pay to make such things in the form of structures and sculptures etc. It was a mere ‘change of wallpaper’ if you will. I, on the other hand, am employed at the whim of the wealthy and paid a very lowly wage to do something they actually could not do or would not do because it would be below both their dignity and their standing.
      I would rather people revert to the broader use of the English (or French, German, Spanish and so on) language and enjoy thinking about the words they might actually choose for a much fuller expression rather than ultimately lose them to shallowness. How about enjoyment, fulfilling, rewarding, satisfying and many, many more? If I run along the beach with my grandchildren skipping and jumping or kicking a ball then that can be just fun, or having a blast, something simple like that. When I sharpen my plane and plane a surface level and it comes together for me in a pristine surface level, then that for me becomes the reward of skilful work and results ultimately in satisfaction, enjoyment and even sometimes in pride. This for me becomes a level way above mere fun and that’s all. But of course you can and must choose for yourself. Your choice of words will not affect me, hurt me or cause me to be defensive. I answer here only for clarity and to answer your questioning. I hope that that’s acceptable.

      1. Paul, Thank you for investing the time in such a detailed reply. It is clear that our respective world-views have much in common even if our semantics have some unique nuances. One of the great things about the Information Age we are privileged to be living in is how frictionless it is to share knowledge and world-views. As a self proclaimed life long learner, I find the opportunities this brings to expand my mind and my world-view to be both exhilarating and empowering. But in the effort to reach the broadest communities, our languages can often be reduced to their lowest common denominators, diluting our ability to express ourselves with distinctiveness. On the whole, I consider this a fair trade, but efforts such as your to preserve this nuance and distinctiveness while still reaching the broadest audience must also be embraced. The only thing I cannot tolerate are those who choose to retreat into their own echo chambers and block out any world-view that does not fit their own model. So, thank you again for sharing your knowledge and allowing me this forum to express my own thoughts too!

  6. I was looking at the minicurls coming from my iwasakis and on a lark rubbed some around in my palms when I realized it could make a remarkably nice grit in a hand scrub.

    I also keep some especially fragrant curls I cut off some pine chunks in a mason jar just so I can open it up and get a whiff of that wonderful smell now and then.

    You may have been joking about eau de pine, but I think it isn’t as absurd as it seems.

    1. I think the gearing/torque would prevent you from being able to turn the handle on all but the smaller diameter augers.

      1. No. You can drill holes around an inch in diameter using a sharp Forstner bit just fine.

    2. It will work with spade bits, brad point bits and Forstner bits. With the auger bits, because a depth of entry is governed by the incline of the screw at the point of the bit, the snail, each revolution causes entry depth at a fixed rate, ie. 1/16″ per revolution on most, it is unlikely to be in synchrony with the feed rate of the pillar drill itself, although it could be too. If you filed off the thread it would work fine but that seems a bit drastic unless it’s just a bit that is chucked in a drill-driver.

      1. I have inherited an Envox(?) bench pillar hand cranked drill. It had an issue with run out. Originally I suspected the chuck was worn. On investigation, play in worn bore holes, but mostly most of the play was in the wind down mechanism, a brass eyelet thinned down with emery paper has taken up most of the play. I can now get perfectly perpendicular holes, my modern pillar drill stand for electric hand drill couldn’t – (side-side play). Hmm progress?
        Any way it keeps my arms in trim….

  7. The actual poor don’t read this blog extensively I think..
    And they couldn’t afford a tenon saw or the wood for a bench, unless will power well exceeded means. Rent,fuel, insurances and supporting children. I think housing costs have institutionalised power in employers/business — probably more that’s ever before.
    I’m so glad you’re enjoying your teaching and continue the joy of being a journeyman with your students. I know u don’t like the term fun but it is fun! With considered effort.
    I love musicians too. And it’s a lot of work to have that kind of fun..

    1. Ok. In light of fun being too empty an expression and commenting on a blog can be done without properly considering the outcome: there is more to woodwork than fun.
      I guess I’ll take any positive endorphins available.

  8. I would never call handtool woodworking “fun”, it can be very rewarding, satisfying and giving a sense of accomplishment. Handtool woodworking can also be very disappointing and frustrating. Rewarding when we see our skills grow, disappointing when we do our best but fail to achieve what we hoped for or just plain screwed up and ruined a lovely innocent piece of wood.
    Challenging, enjoyable and fulfilling are much greater than just fun.

  9. About compensation to slave-owners paid by the small/modest tax-payers in UK see the web-site “Legacies of British Slave-ownership”: about 20 million £ (value of 1834). About 5% of the then UK national revenue.
    There is a database you can search for known names.

    Looking for “Pennant” for instance shows:
    George Hay Dawkins Pennant received, for “his” 764 slaves, about 14 683 £ (to be converted in today’s money).
    Of course those liberated slaves had no other choice than to accept underpaid labour, if not forced labour (“master and servant Act”).

  10. When I read the blog post I didn’t expect such a deep set of replies. I wonder if the general election will come up next especially as it has major ramifications for our small isle

  11. I’m very glad to hear you speak of Jack’s sense of humour. Many people falsely believe that those with autism lack humour or imagination.

    1. Yes, that’s the perception of many and of course it can be so, but not my experience at all.

  12. It’s a puzzling world. The privileged rich are helpless without those they hire. The skilled craftsmen who are hired are helpless without being paid by the rich.

    It isn’t the fact of having or not having wealth, it is the condition of the soul in those that have or have not.

  13. Beyond fun people mention rewarding, satisfying, fulfilling, and the like. What I haven’t seen is calming. To me, woodworking is calming. I always thought woodworking would be something I would like to do but when I thought about table saws and all the other power tools I couldn’t get past the noise and danger that I would have to be keenly aware of. So I never started, until I found a website on how to tune a hand plane. And I did. And it’s wonderful to use. I’m still rather new at this craft and I will always have more to learn, but the best way I can think of woodworking is calming. It can be rewarding and usually is when I complete something, but the time it takes to flatten a board and get it to the correct thickness is slow, methodical, work. Hardly fun. Possibly rewarding. Certainly calming. It’s teaching me patience. I have to clear my mind of expectations. I have to open up to the possibility that things won’t go right. It’s also humbling in that perfection is impossible. However, the two facts that I need to provide all the power and the control, that I can’t just turn a dial and push a button, means that I need to both burn a lot of energy and focus at the same time. This is very calming to me. And for that I am grateful.

  14. I have pillar drill press, and a very good electric drill press. I use them both. For any general boring where the piece fits, I use the pillar preferentially: it works at a human pace and I never make mistakes with it. it leaves perfectly clean holes, and in pieces where the hole is object, I go to great lengths to use the pillar. If the hole will be seen as a hole, and it won’t fit in the pillar, I use a brace and a guide. perfection results.

    I still have my HP 12C calculator that I bought in 1981 for school. It sits on my desk even now, and gets used every day. I wear on my wrist my dad’s watch, which was given to him in 1947. It was made by Tissot sometime before that. I use a draw knife that my brother made for me way back in the early 70s. I have a leather vest that I wear almost every day, it was my Grandfathers which he acquired in 1932. It has had a good deal of maintenance done over the years, but it is still strong and good looking.

    Do I like them because they are old? No. I like them because they are utterly reliable, do an excellent job, are durable, and they are things of beauty.

    I work with my hands all the time, I’m a farmer, a photographer, and a musician. I enjoy the direct connection with the product of my labours. It’s more than enjoyment however. Working with my hands fills my soul. It makes me calm. And I make things that other people can enjoy and benefit from. I make a deck chair for a friend, from wood, using hand tools and careful joinery, and take my time to make it as best I can. It will last him the rest of his life, if he chooses. It will always be comfortable, and look good sitting on his deck at the front of his house. I know that when I’m making it, and that makes me happy.

    Power tools can do the same sort of job, and with careful attention to detail, they can make the same kind of joinery and produce the same kind of result: a chair that will look good and last if taken care of. But, in a one off scenario, power tools are not faster, nor safer, nor do they produce better joinery, nor does the wood last longer, nor does it look any better.

    So, I choose to build at a human pace, at a tempo that suits my temperament. To use tools that I can directly control, to produce results that directly reflect me. And that fills my heart with a deep sense of satisfaction.

    I don’t rue the past too much, though I recognize and understand that we are today where we are because of the past. Instead, I try to work on what I can work on, and I try to leave the world today, just a tiny bit better than it started.

    Thanks so much Paul for your musings, and for sharing them. It is also a gift that is appreciated.

  15. Paul,
    I was a power-tool woodworker for years. I can thank that, in part, for my hearing loss (yes, even with hearing protection. Two years ago, I found you and all that changed (well, most of it). I still use power tools where necessary for ‘rough’ milling, but have gone to unplugged woodworking almost exclusively. Am I any good at it? Well, I’d like to think so, but definitely not as practiced as most. The difference I find in modern vs. seasoned tools, taking the pillar drill as a example, is that the nuances of drilling a hole explode with my brace and bit that are totally missed with my powered drill press. Finessing a reference face and edge with my No.4 cannot be enjoyed or be ripe with personal satisfaction as with a power planer. Both have their places, but old does not translate into obsolete. If that were the case, I would not still enjoying the far-superior sound quality I get by using my Western Electric phones from the teens, 20’s, and 30’s.
    Thanks for all you do for us.

  16. Paul, I always enjoy reading your posts. Thank you for sharing what you think. All these responses show that, through this sharing, you encourage others to take a moment to consider the points you make and to express their own thoughts. That is a very valuable thing to accomplish. Even when we do not agree with each other, it is a good practice to listen – to consider the differing point of view.
    As to your point about fun – I think I object to having what I do described that way because it is often dismissive. It fails to give what I feel is due credit to the efforts I make to learn and to do.
    We in the States have a tendency to use a common word for something rather than to search for a less common but more descriptive one. To the extent we follow this practice, we diminish the quality of our communication.
    I also liked the points about the wealthy and the poor and the relationship between them in the creation of follies. I look at the follies and admire the craft and artisanship of the workers who made them. The lack of recognition of those workers is much like the description of the work of modern day woodworking teachers, hobbyists, makers, students, and artisans as ‘fun’. It is dismissive and judgemental. This is unfortunate for those who do not understand the efforts – but for those of us who continue to pursue our skills, it is only an annoyance. We know the value of what we do and of sharing it with others.

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