Woodworking Alternatives

I have generally found alternative realities fascinating. A group of young people built their homes for one another in eastern Europe using alternative building methods from natural materials like straw bale, clay, timber framing and so on. They learned the techniques on courses over a number of years and then taught one another on the builds. One member came to me for training in hand tools over two sessions in two years. I think my quest to train people in the use of hand tools over the past three decades is an extension of my enjoyment working with hand tools. At a time when all others travelled the well trod path in the embracement of machinist woodworking. I took a different track. Eschewing hand tools and high demand work though left a huge hole in the world of skill-based output. I chose a radically different path to better understand the complexities of hand work and this indeed led to the work I do in training those looking for alternative ways today.

It took great self demand with regards to discipline, but it was a self discipline that would then be the prerequisite my future life would follow. I liken this to any artist or musician, performance dancer and then perhaps sports people and some academics. Mostly it’s been more than just a passing interest because there are so many looking for an alternative lifestyle to continue in a form of lifelong learning. But for some it can mean much more even than that. For some it’s a door opening into independence. For some it means a path of self discovery and a reach from unpredictability into something they can depend on. My interest in autism has grown massively through the years and so I have hoped that my work with hand tools can indeed enhance the lives of autists wherever possible. This in no way contradicts the current work I am doing with building a house full of furniture. Not at all. If anything, the work will ultimately embrace all people as a totally inclusive occupation for those that love to work wood with their hands. I wanted something for those who live and work as autists in a world where they might find it more of a struggle to fit elsewhere.

Today, for me at least, it seems a good time to take more steps, strides even, into helping autists interested in woodworking to better interpret how the traditions of hand tool woodworking can lead to a new genre of woodworker. One that might become the furniture maker, yes, but one also that might branch off as the musical instrument maker or the kayak and canoe designer too. You see, having made many different things in my lifetime as a woodworker, more as sidelines, you might say, I have learned that the same techniques used in one woodcraft often cross-pollinate with other wood-related areas. In reality, carving a violin belly uses basic carving skills at least initially but then relies on the maker to identify resonance and tone. Apply that to bowl carving and spoons and you get my drift. On a larger scale shaping a kayak with a spokeshave is the same as shaping many other areas of wooden items so what we do is look at the foundational work and here is where the rubber hits the road. The being the true reality I see my way to helping woodworkers who would embrace hand tools as not just a viable alternative but one that would totally enhance their life. For any autists this seems critical to me.

Over recent years my work with teaching online and through the courses I developed over the last three decades gave me ever greater insight into the future of woodworking and that means for both neuro-typicals as well as autists. Applying the precepts you have all been reading and following here with me and other areas we’ve developed online I have been able to teach teachers, carers and support workers working with their autists how to apply hand tool woodworking to the students and young adults they work with in the very day of life. The spectrum autists live in means that no two autists respond the same way to issues we might face in the day to day of life. This means often that what we do must be more customised to a particular autist rather than expect a curriculum as a one size fits all (as can be and often is the case in general realms of standardised education). The support workers I have been working with to date are the most amazing link for me to strategise with and through. Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means any kind of expert beyond woodworking, but the thing I can offer is how this or that tool or technique or method of work can be suited or adapted to work in this or that situation. Working with the autists I have, I have been better able to see how woodworking offers multi-dimensional stimulus that counters what otherwise might be dormant chemistry in very direct ways.

In developing an apprenticing structure for high-functioning autists, I have been better abled to consider other levels of autism too. In many cases my work has led me to see that most of those working with autists end up relying on the same general methods modern day woodworkers use to become more the machine operative. My challenge was can I present an alternative using spokeshaves, saws, brace and bits, planes and so on. Answer? Yes!

I try to think whether work can go beyond just assembly work but work that actually creates the multidimensional parts needed. Of course there’s nothing at all wrong with assembling parts only. Don’t get me wrong. But what I have been able to help others better understand is that even just using a spokeshave means shaped pieces and shavings can come from simply using your hands. It is always important to see that some people are able to shape wood whereas others find their fulfilment in just making the shavings. That might well be the conclusion for the time and seeing the faces of autists as the shavings spin from the spokeshave is very rewarding for everyone.

Whereas assembling parts works well for some, I wondered if machines like drill presses and drill-drivers were the most useful way to connect autists to actual woodworking. The websites I looked at projected students and trainers to a shop filled with an array of machines. This alone triggered red flags for me. But it wasn’t just the danger of machines. I wanted the flex and twist of fingers and wrists. Resistance, vibration, sight, sound intonation and resonance are only possible through the use of hand tools. This for me and for hundreds of thousands of us is the mechanism we have steadily grown to embrace and rely on. Will hand tools work more efficiently for this or that task and can the skills be developed to a reliable level? I knew I could improve markedly on what was being offered simply because often the teachers were not too far ahead of the students. The quest for me was could I make the teachers and support workers skilful? Absolutely!

Over the years what was once referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been quietly requalified, shifting its acronym towards ASC, autism spectrum condition, a much more accurate acknowledgement altogether. The condition of those with ASC embraces one expansive reality and that is that the spectrum is indeed vast in diversity and so too complexity. My fascination for woodworking has never waned in 55 years and adding autism into the spectrum I work in only complements what I have established and already do. Though a complete novice regarding reality in the expanse of autism, I saw from my beginning interest in 2009 that understanding ASC is to understand that we are all still very much on a complex and unfolding journey. Whereas we may understand the people in our immediate family or those we work alongside at work or as teachers and support workers, understanding autists means that we also understand that no two autists are typical. Rather than standing on top of the mountain we are still looking up and in search for answers yet to be revealed. In my world of woodworking I am seeing all the more that woodworking can be customised to suit each individual autist. That means that we can develop a variable in a curriculum that will tailor fit the student. I have started the journey toward that end. I will need your help.


  1. Paul,

    The one flaw in our educational system is that students are tought to colour witin the lines drawn by someone else, and to recurgitate a predefined set of facts. There is no room for creativity or personal growth.

    Being the father of an autistic and intelligent son and an extremely intelligent daughter, we ran into many many walls like these. High intelligence sounds nice but if you’re forced through a mould that doesnt fit you it feels like a great burden. Likewise my son, he is capable of so much, but needs an environment where he can flourish. School is not that environment for him, as we found out the hard way, and in the end we fought for the right to educate him ourselves at home. How he changed from suicidal to a florishing teenager!

    It warms my heart to see you making an effort for these lads and lasses. Most of all, just the fact that you take them serious and treat them as individuals gives you an enoumous head start. With the risk of generalising, these kids need someone they can trust and bond with in their way, and what you’re doing provides just that condition. Plus, you know your things, which will make you a prdictable and constant factor. And learning that they can buid things with their hands is a confidence booster as it is for everyone.

    In short, it’s awesome what you’re doing. How can I help?


  2. Paul not only are you a master craftsmen but what defines you most for me is your just a genuine and decent human being which is a rapidly depleting number as far as I can see.

    1. I can not believe that the number of decent people is decreasing, or perhaps I can’t give myself permission to agree?. I’ll give you that our current world doesn’t always provide an environment which encourages developing decent people, but Paul consistently points out it is possible to put yourself into a positive environment, or at the very least “micro-adjust” you current one.

      1. Jay – I agree with you, there are lots of decent people everywhere – or at least there are lots of people who can be very decent when given a chance.

        At least, that has been my experience in several states across the US – where I have lived on both coasts, in small towns and large cities. What I’ve noticed is that everywhere I go people are decent, helpful and wonderful when they get a chance to know you. They will give of their time and experience and usually are a real pleasure to be around.

        As you say, an environment encouraging decency needs to be provided – people in a rush or under stress are inherently selfish – but this is natural. That same person can be wonderful to be around at a different time and they will usually have skills and life experiences that they are eager to share and pass on.

  3. Paul, I agree with everything that you said above in regards to the hand tool versus machinist situation. I have a family member who is soon to graduate from 12th grade high school. He is a high functioning autistic 17 year old but in some ways he is more like a 12 year old. (He does have amazing drawing skills). He has helped to make some of your projects such as a 3 legged stool and a spatula for example. He has used a hand saw and a spokeshave for the most part. I am thinking that a bow saw would also be a great tool for him- much safer than a band saw. But he can become distracted quite easily. I won’t let him near any power tools because I fear that he will hurt himself, not to mention the harmful dust and noise factors. In the future, It is my thought to give him some repeatable hand tool woodworking projects that he could do to give him some self confidence and self respecting work and a way to earn a little as he matures.

    I look forward to the direction that you are going with this important, and what I believe will be a life changing idea. I would help in anyway that I can.

  4. Hi Paul,
    Like many people I got into woodworking as a means of ‘unwinding’ from a stressful job in the IT industry, and re-connecting with a love of making things.
    At the same time, my wife helped me realise that I am on the autistic spectrum, (always knew i was different and the signs were all there, just no one had ever put them together until she did)
    Like so many others, i started of down the machine route, (it was hard not to watching New Yankee workshop etc), but what saved me was taking a few courses with David Charlesworth, who introduced me to the wonders of woodworking by hand, and critically for me, was able to put across what he was teaching in a way that I ‘got’.
    those on the autistic spectrum as as diverse and amazing a group of individuals as you will ever meet, but you are correct in the view that ‘how’ you teach them will need to vary, as i know from personal what works for me is often very different to works for non autistic people.

    If i can help, please ask.

  5. Everybody needs help and we flourish when someone takes a personal interest in us from a genuine heart — and maintains that concern. And it needs a structure to be effective for the recipient and doable for the giver.
    I’m starting to think more and more that having a physical skill to work away at is critical to restore balance in life — it is an analogue representation of your brain learning and adapting and gives you back control and purpose.
    If I could learn myself… I would love to help others.
    I try and share my observations of birds and wildlife or reasoning on why one idea is a better choice than another with my brothers children — and looking thru others eyes helps yourself to see.

  6. Dear Paul,

    Wow lovely to read about your interest and (respectful)care for autistic people! I, autistic myself, just started woodworking with hand tools. Practicing dovetail joints and mortise and tenon, sharpening chisels, plane knives. Preparing stock, planing wood foursquare. And making the three-legged stool.

    I must say there is nothing else like working wood like this. Loved the spokeshave, it was the loveliest sensation I had since a long time while making something! It gives a true feeling of freedom and control over your work.
    Used to machining wood, working with hand tools I am ‘forced’ to calm down, to take a step back, to relax which feels very nurturing and healthy. Also the tactile sensations scents and sounds are easing. I truly believe working like this is healthy for almost everybody especially for autistic people living in this hastened world.

      1. Hello Paul,
        Yes I am following the common woodworking website. YouTube And planning to take the paid courses on ‘woodworking masterclasses’ when I am done with the common woodworking courses (at least the things I want to make) and I also am reading/learning from your book on tools. The next project will be a workbench and/or the small wall shelves. Kind regards, Pjotr

  7. my school experience taught me i was stupid and incapable. it was only years later after quickly rising up the ranks in business that i realised maybe i was more capable than i thought and then went onto uni where i excelled. turns out i wasn’t stupid after all lol

    1. I think perhaps schools have learned from decades of failures categorising pupils by such definitions and I don’t know that any teacher would use such terms any more, nor would they allow harmful discourse between students if the witnessed it. Of course bullying and exclusion is widely practiced by some students with free access to online. I know several teachers who are extremely aware of the special needs focussed support awareness can help with these days — all the better for our autists and especially at the high functioning end that can go undetected. Labelling is far more corrosive than we really think and yet it’s important to identify how each youngster can best receive the essential support needed to achieve the very best educational stimulation and to do that it MUST be customised to them as specifically as possible simply because we are not working with neurotypicals. Actually, I think too that as far as craft work goes ALL children should have extra help, but that’s hard to do because teachers are always teachers first and very rarely are they true crafting artisans or artists even and they are unlikely these days to really see the value in craft.

  8. Like many others who’s replied I’m also on the spectrum, while not diagnosed myself my son is (Asbergers) and when I started to investigate what that means many pieces fell into place, explaining my difficulties with social activeties and reading to just name a few.
    I’ve learned to work around most of my problems and some if not disapeared at least weakend by age and I am highly functioning, though I still put my foot in my mouth socially now and then.
    A co-worker clearly has autism and while quite skilled with hand tools, he prefers machine work. He’s not at all bothered with sounds while I can’t stand background noice (machine sounds is not too bad).
    Just goes to show that it’s a very wide … spectrum. 🙂

    If you think I can help you, I’d be happy to try.

    1. It is surprising just how many people are working with and handling their own autism with many being undiagnosed because they were indeed able to adapt and adopt certain awarenesses be that by learning, copying or other emulatory practices which of course we all do to some degree be that by peer pressure or whatever else. My opening work is firstly to understand how a charity will work out for my specific training work on a customised basis. I plan to set up six additional work stations first, replete with tools and equipment and special equipment for noise suppression and light adjustment etc. That’s really the easy bit. The trust itself will take some very special attention because as I have already experienced looking into other charities, many of those working within them might not altogether really understand what craft work is or means to someone who whats a life as a functioning artisan within the context of society. I say this because it has become ever more my belief that society has changed so much the majority of people no longer know an artisan who makes her or his living from selling what they make.That being a fact they will find it difficult to understand what that then means to an artisan and then an artisan as an autist too. For me it is important early on for those I teach to discover for themselves whether they actually want to be an artisan first off. Without that spark I am unsure whether it could actually develop in the fulness I have known and experienced for them in their own lives. That is, are they actually seeing this as their time to enter into a vocational calling? Not a term used any more yet still very apt for any apprentice. This will not be some kind of college course preparing students to enter industry but an actual craft course.

      1. You could try contacting the Swedish artist Lars Lerin via his press representative [email protected] (Obviously others involved in the project may have feedback as well.)
        He had a TV show a while ago called (translated) Lerin’s apprentices where he was working with young adults with autism, ADHD and other difficulties.

        1. Thanks, Mats, I’m taking this slowly as I have thus far one day at a time. I want the foundational work to be as useful and practical as possible and of course my work thus far shows me that most of it is exactly that.

  9. You would have to have an introduction that could bring success and some way to make an image of the life rewards taking of the craft could bring — so the person with autism could get beyond the trials and dedicate their energy and focus.
    I always admire parents and teachers who set boundaries that allow success and then it can self propel.
    I have to parent myself. It’s not the same.
    Very interesting topic.

    1. We already have that and are achieving more so we build success on previous successes.

  10. Thank you Paul. I am a woodworker and I teach woodworking to homeschoolers as a supplement to what their parents are able to provide. Here in California many families are turning to home schooling when their child doesn’t fit the mold of public school. In my more advanced class, the students must design their own project and it amazing what they will come up with. It is also a clever way of teaching design, drawing, math, botany, material science, safety, and hand-eye coordination. Their success is so empowering.

    We are with you, keep up the good work.

  11. I was diagnosed as well back in 2006. I worked harder than most, made it through the regular programs in school as undiagnosed. I have been in denial just plowing away trying to move forward. I have talked with people here and a lot say that sounds like you do have it. Others say, we already knew that about you. Knowing this, and never have taken accomodation for it, I am looking forward to seeing your work with autists and how teaching to accommodate this can help me. I love woodworking master classes, I have built a dovetail tray, a side table just from the three basic joints. Watching other videos and just practicing the techniques, I have built a dining table. My making has stopped the past couple years. My workbench is in a different location from where I live. I am looking for a spot to move the workbench so its protected and I can start making again, especially with the house of furniture coming up

    1. It can be complex but it seems maybe you are high-functioning? The work we do online is working for many as autists and also Aspergers too. If you ever have questions that I might help with just ask.

      1. Hi Paul,
        I am currently working on a venture where I will be teaching disadvantage people and children in rural South Africa the art of traditional wood work. My vision is to incorporated people with autism. This work will be on a voluntary basis as part of me giving back to society and creating work opportunities for these disadvantage persons.

        My question. How do a teach to somebody with autism? Where do I start.

        Regards, and thank you for the calm and unpretentious way that you present your masterclasses.

        1. I am no expert at all but and even in the world of experts the work with autists is an unfolding unknown as they are discovering. Unlike neurotypicals there is no one type of anything that fits/suits all as is more ty[ical in general societal norms. It’s a question of listening, feeling, watching and adjusting our understanding to absorb and learn from them. I know the patience of friends who worked with youngsters for years before they could do the most basic of tasks and then they added another task that took two or three years. Ultimately this led to more growth, happiness and fulfilment. It sounds as though you have much reading to do to start out to realise the diverse levels of autism to begin with. Read work by Temple Grandin.
          She is an autist and gives great insight to the diversity ad the way some autists might think, work and functionMary She is an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University and also consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour. As a high finctioning autist she is also an autism spokesperson. She is one of the first on the autism spectrum to document the insights she gained from her personal experience of autism.Another book I found useful, again written by a young autist but one who cannot express through verbalisation. His book, The Reason I Jump, is written by Naoki Higashida, he is a very capable, self-aware young man now. This is a one-of-a-kind memoir that demonstrates how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives, and responds in ways few of us can imagine.
          Your quest is very ambitious and it’s important to seek advice from those working in the field, preferably people like support workers, carers, teachers, parents and so on. Neurotypicals are easy. A-typicals takes a real burden, but if you have that that can help a great deal. In fact, it’s essential!

          1. Thank you Paul for guidelines.
            Will seek advice and read your suggested books to try and educate myself. Will hopefully give feedback on my journey in future.

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