I Think We’re Progressing

Thirty years ago I knew or heard of only a handful of handtoolists. That’s not to say that they weren’t there in the woodwork, more that they had little if any real voice. Books written that came out inevitably touted the routed. By that I mean they heavily promoted the new and emerging age of the router that routed out any use or need of hand tools almost totally and any hand tool in the magazines of old, the ones now mainly gone and lost, and those on their way out now, were more window dressing, a mere veneer of what some of us knew to be the real efficiency of skilled work. Of course, we just got on with the job. We worked with our hand tools and enjoyed it. We didn’t rise to the critics calling us names. We knew what we had and stood by it to go from strength to strength. Today, it is my belief that hand tool woodworking is still gaining ground and it is mostly down to you following a vision of restoration — a cultural revolution developing its own conservation where the culture of real woodworking can be nurtured by any and all who want an alternative way to work the wood. We didn’t have a fancy name and we were never challenged by the opposition because we knew the opposition was firstly insecure and secondly always trying to prove something they didn’t quite get.

A rocking chair class where students made fine rocking chairs after only a six-day course in foundational woodworking.

One thing that has kept our form of woodworking a living and vibrant entity is that many of us could and would and should never dedicate 20 square meters of valuable real estate floorspace to half a dozen static machines used once a week or less. With a nudge from Paul Sellers saying ten hand tools, three joints perhaps a bandsaw and a hand tool woodworking workbench you can indeed make anything you want or need from wood. Because we believed it, we did it.

Progressing a six-day foundational course.

Thousands of my students made my projects even prior to any videoing endeavor I ever got involved with. 6,500 men and women went through my Foundational courses over two and half decades and now, through the internet, we have almost reached 400,000 followers on YouTube alone — men and women searching for much greater depth to give meaning to their craft skill. We became an individual breed that believed that skilled use of hand tools produced high levels of skilled individualistic workmanship. In the classes and workshops, I listened and found answers to questions never asked or rarely asked. My saws cut through wood like hot knives through butter and then they balked at tough stuff. Theirs might not have cut square and planes did the same. I learned to teach systems and methods to those 6,500 over the three decades and that gave me skills to teach online, yes, but it gave me so much more. It gave me the burden to make sure my craft did not bleed out and die at the expense of future generations. Guess what? We have won so much. If three decades ago my craft was almost dead, and in professional realms, it has indeed moved in that direction, in amateur realms it continues to defy death.

If we were losing, why do secondhand hand routers sell for 8-10 times more than just six years ago and why can’t the new makers keep them stocked? Why do bench planes like the #4 Stanley and Record sell for even 20 times more than when ten years ago I bought them for £1 each? Why do people, new woodworkers, who once called the #80 cabinet scraper a spokeshave because they thought that it looked like one, now pull it out knowingly, sharpen it by turning the burr and scrape their panel faces to glass-like surfaces? I read through comments in all manner of woodworking spheres and I hear people quoting me saying “I think PS said this or that, so try it and see if it works.” You see people are taking the reality of what I teach on board because they have come to know me through the decades and they see for themselves that the methodology comes from a lived life and that it can indeed be trusted. You have been my progress over the years. And I am glad that you guys have seen new suppliers coming out of the woodwork too. Look at DieterSchmidt Fine Tools in Germany who have gone from strength to strength to engage with toolmakers and suppliers to bring the best of the best to the rest of the world. Classic Hand Tools here in the UK did the same. We even have some bijou saw makers eeking out a good living with high-priced copies of vintage models and then too innovative designers reconfiguring the whole appearance and configuration of hand tools.

This is my success, folks. I measure my success by the lack of invitations I now get to the woodworking shows I used to go to and then also to write for now declining magazines. Time was, not that long ago when every single article I submitted to magazines was accepted 100 percent and that was because it was new wallpaper for the otherwise boring machine content they regurgitated year on year. I never had a single rejection. Woodworking shows loved my being there to draw the crowds. I now gauge my success by my not being invited. The less I am invited the more successful my work becomes.

21 thoughts on “I Think We’re Progressing”

  1. Dear Paul,

    Your work is well known and appreciated worldwide. I can see how often your name (and only yours) comes up in hand tool reviews on amazon.

    We are all greatful to you and your team!

    Sincere thanks from Tirana, Albania.

  2. Hey Paul I wouldn’t discount ALL events. Just yesterday I went to a Lie Nielsen event and got to see all of their fine tools. They let you try out literally every one of their hand tools and give you tips and answer any questions etc. I even asked about my issue with sawing right handed with a dominant left eye, and they gave me some things to try. A couple other tool makers were there as well like Glen-Drake, and chairmaker Russ Filbeck. So it was a fantastic event completely hand tool related.

    Now I often mention your name and link to Common Woodworking, tour youtube channel, and Woodworking Masterclasses on various forums to answer questions and help new people out. I don’t want new people to fall into the trap of thinking they needed thousands of dollars of machines like I did. While others give advice where the dust collection alone costs more than your list of 10 hand tools!

    I like the connection with the wood, less noise and dust, and the feeling of not contributing to all of the global waste. At first I was skeptical of Chris Schwarz’s book The Anarchist’s Toolchest, but i finally ordered it, read what he means with an open mind and I really like the message. You are in a sense rebelling against a system that is trying to persuade you into thinking you need to buy all these crazy machines and disposable things. Since reading I have been focused on buying either old good tools, or new tools from small hand tool companies. I am trying to become part of the solution to all thats going on in the world, instead of becoming average consumer #658930582.

    I thank you, your team, Chris Schwarz, and Richard Maguire for my complete 180 degree shift in mindset.

    1. Steve: your story reads like a section of my biography. Gone are the jointer and surface planer. Along with a band saw I still have a cabinet saw (doesn’t get used much except as a second flat surface). So much more satisfying to use hand tools! PaulSellers’ videos taught me how to use several specialty joinery planes and practice practice practice developed proficiency with bench. For anyone who is interested: tryPaul’s sharpening method; it’s fast, easy and very effective.

  3. Thanks to you, Paul, I am a convert. I have been selling my machines and buying hand tools. I did splurge on 2 Veritas low angle planes and 3 Wenzloff hand saws to compliment my collection of Stanleys and Disstons. I now engage my senses rather than endure the noise. The use of a hand saw, chisel, plane, and other hand tools is pleasant and comforting. It is quality time well spent and at the end you have something made with your own 2 hands. My work so far has more flaws than I care for but I am improving. It is true. It just takes time, concentration, and effort. In all, hand tool working is very satisfying.

  4. I’m always surprised by how much reward there is reading your work carefully. So often, I’m struggling only to realize you have a bit of instruction or a step I missed.

    I struggled sharpening and then saw in your book, advice to start with a honing guide. Only then did I realize I didn’t know how to recognize the development of the bevel and what sharp really is. Now I think I’m ready to learn to freehand.

    In your workbench video a chisel rolled off the bench onto the concrete floor (your reaction is an all-time Sellers highlight). But somebody called it a dumb mistake in the comments. Your correction – “not dumb, careless.” That’s my new motto, and not just for woodworking.

    Your decision that your new shop is a garage is so thoughtful.

    Anyway, love the woodworking, the mastery, the teaching. But you’re quite a bit more.

    Respectfully, Jon Sjostrom

  5. “the opposition was firstly insecure […]”

    Very true.

    It’s a bit like when people tell me to “don’t bother repairing that [insert thing I’m repairing], it’s not economically viable, too expensive, takes too much time, just not worth it”, to which my usual reply is that it may not be economically viable but that it gives me pleasure to do it anyway. Ironically, people with that mindset are also invariably the ones who are incapable of the repair itself, using the ‘not economical!’-argument to ease their own mind. I suspect it’s very similar with machine woodworkers – arguing with every kind of rational argument under the sun – but deep down realizing that they just don’t have the actual skills to do it any other way than with a machine. Machines, meant to improve efficiency in a for-profit-shop seem to have actually become a crutch for people with an inability to saw straight, drill square, etc.

    My first experience with your knowledge was when I needed to sharpen a pair of scissors. Wasn’t into woodworking at all. Saw your video on YouTube, copied what you did and presto, sharp scissors. Problem solved, forgot about you entirely. About half a year later I needed to sharpen a saw. Same thing, this time watching the video with ‘haven’t I seen this gentleman before somewhere?’ in my mind. A few hours later I had a sharp saw. Again, a few months later, bought a #4 plane for the sole reason that it was in exceptional condition and cheap. Who knows, might come in handy occasionally sometime for a stuck door or window, so bought it. But how to use one? Again, a quick search on YouTube… and again that same gentleman came to the rescue. That was when I finally started to view your other videos, got interested in the topic and a few years later, we’re here.

    As I’ve stated before, I never came in via the machine-woodworking route. Woodworking simply wasn’t on the agenda for me until I came across a few of your videos and saw how simple it often is if you just use the proper technique. The knifewall (which I’ve also seen in an old Dutch woodworking book) was the thing that was probably the single most important technique that made for repeatable, accurate results. So simple yet so effective.

  6. I work in private sector technology and have a brother in academia working on the bleeding edge of artificial intelligence. We talk a lot about what the world will look like as we simultaneously become more addicted to technologies while we also resent them.

    I’m of the opinion that as we get closer to an age of automation, what we value most is anything made by hand. Look at the emergence and huge success of Etsy after 3 generations of cheap but decently made factory goods. Dial that up to 11 (intelligent AI), and have little doubt that as we come closer to perfection and ease in all things technology oriented, we’ll see a pedestalization in the imperfection that comes with human skill and effort.

    1. I know that there is something in this as we are on the verge of making a whole house full of hand made furniture that will inevitably be made by whole families working to that end.

  7. Thanks for all that you do, Paul! I have been woodworking a few years longer than you have but not as steadily as you. I have learned a few things from you that I couldn’t learn on my own. About fifteen years back I learned how to cut dovetails by watching Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s Shop but I more or less improved on it by watching you. I still haven’t perfected it but I’m improving. I have tried to show others your technique but only one had the confidence to learn it. Most people treat it like it’s some dark art. Again, thanks for teaching us how to work the wood! –Jim

  8. Hi Paul,
    I’m completely new to woodworking and I want to say thank you for your videos and blog posts. They gave me the inspiration to start woodworking as a hobby and helped reduce the anxiety about setting up those tools, sharpening and general woodworking techniques. Taking up this hobby has also helped massively with anxiety in general. It’s given me a clearer head, something that I don’t think I’ve had for a while.

    Right now all I have is a little cleaned up no. 4 plane and a cheap set of chisels. Other tools such as a router and rebate plane as well as a little dovetail (frame) saw will come later, thanks to your poor man’s tool builds 😉

  9. Paul, I never told you this, but deciding to attend the month long intensive wasn’t easy. Deciding to invest a month off work plus tuition plus room and board far from home was a significant decision and, at that time, around late 2012 or early 2013, I couldn’t find much information about you. I was worried whether you really had built furniture and if you taught techniques that were worth learning. Most worrying was that I couldn’t find a portfolio. I found your Working Wood book and found a few references from a woodworking school in Texas and decided to put my trust in you. I’m so very glad I did. That was only seven years ago. Now, you have a huge presence on the net, lots of information from your blog, and many students with experiences to share. Someone deciding now will have no trouble at all. That’s a huge achievement in such a short time.

  10. Hi Paul,

    I have become obsessed with watching all your fabulous videos! Your attention to detail and considerate instruction are so helpful. I am a retired teacher and have way too many hobbies. Sewing and woodworking are at the top of the list. I have been sewing for almost 60 (yikes) years and find that working wood and fabric have a lot in common. Preparing and cutting the material (wood and fabric) is of the utmost importance. Paying attention to the grain of the fabric is also of paramount importance. Without doing the precise prep work in sewing your product will not look or feel right. You have helped me transfer this prep work into the realm of woodworking. You have helped me understand how to do the proper prep work on wood to make something that I hope someday will be worthy. I bought a bench plane before I discovered your videos but didn’t understand how to use it and adjust it. Thanks to you, I now appreciate these hand tools and want to become adept in their use! I have a long way to go but I appreciate all of your genius, time, and effort to pass along your knowledge and talent.
    Thank you so much!

  11. I only took up woodworking, apart from diy, when I retired at 70 and laid a solid oak floor through the living area of my home. I’d bought a router with table and a mitre saw to assist and used them a lot. But since they have rather languished little used. But I do have a collection of hand tools, old and new. I have also started turning. Although I am not much of a “joiner” of clubs etc I have been going to local wood turning clubs. Some of which memberships make me look quite young! But the reason for my post was that the picture of you Paul with your gaggle of students surprised me that they all looked young and not the “greybeards” I was expecting. But maybe technology has actually rescued hand crafted woodworking through the internet and particularly YouTube and the specialist website.

  12. Thank you, Paul. You helped me reignite a spark of interest my grandfather has started very long time ago. He’s now 92 years old, enjoying his great grandchildren, although lacking some of his memories. When we talk about woodworking, I see passion in his eyes and some sort of gladness that his only grandson has picked up his life’s work, even though as an amateur woodworker.

    Thank you for that, it’s very dear to me.

  13. Paul you are so correct. A bailey 4 1/2 sold on eBay for 385.00 last week! Can you believe it. Glad I got all planes I wanted before this started.

  14. I used machine tools for years, and never felt confident in my abilities or skill. A few months turned into a year watching Paul and now my confidence and results are so much better. Occasionally I turn to machine tools to do initial sizing, but almost always the increased control of hand tools wins the day. There is definitely something natural in shaping wood with a few tools by hand, and not only are the results better, but my spirit as well. Thank you Paul for teaching me this.

  15. terrence OBrien

    I have a new game I play when making things with hand tools. It has to pass the 100 year test. I ask myself if it will last 100 years of normal use. I suspect some will go past 100, and wonder exactly who might be sitting on my bench stool in 100 years wondering who made it and when.

  16. here in my country it is difficult to get quality tool but I am happy to buy a saw from which I refer Mr. Paul comes from Amazon England I hope I arrive soon mr Paul for sharing his knowledge with everyone greetings from Mexico

  17. Frank M. Taylor

    I’m a software developer/web developer. Most of my day is writing code, building apps and sites for large companies. In programming, particularly web development, we have many “tools” that suggest a particular way to write code. The preference in the community, then, is to learn the language first, then learn the various tools.

    I started woodworking as a hobby/ home necessity about five years ago. My hobby involved primarily power tools. But as I’ve progressed, I’ve grown more comfortable with hand tools.

    In the past few years, I’ve equated hand tools to “learning the language first” in my programming career. If I know how to do something by hand, I have much greater appreciation for what the power tool has to offer. The hand tool also teaches me to be much more cautious with my measurements and my tool handling.

    Most recently, I made two table legs for a coffee table. They had the same length and dimensions, but I decided with one, I would use a technique you outline in “Working Wood”. With the other, I would use a band saw. The first technique took about 2 hours with a tenon saw and chisels. The bandsaw approach took me about 10 minutes.

    Even though the band saw technique was faster, I was more pleased with the final shape from the saw+chisel technique (even though they were the same shape!) Cutting many small lines, and chiseling from one to the next allowed me to work with the shape a little more to make sure it was exactly what I wanted.

    I feel like hand tools are a necessary prerequisite before going to power tools. It gives me more appreciation of why the power tools exist, and a choice between speed and precision. Thank you for teaching it.


    You think we’re progressing? We are more than progressing.

    Last month I bought an old wooden Nooitgedagt plane for almost nothing. I like wooden planes for guitar making.
    When I went to pick up the plane, the owner’s workshop looked like Paul Sellers himself had worked there. The bench, planes, chisels, knife, hammer, combination square and clamps we all know so well were there. The blade of the plane was sharpened with a round bevel… on diamond stones. Three of them. And a strop. His Aldi chisels neatly stored in his probably first project: a dovetailed box. Gone are the pegboards…
    I only know of one other man that had such a profound effect on people that every piece of their gear was exactly like his… and that was Jimi Hendrix. As a fan, I have always thought that was a little over the top, but now I understand it much better.
    We (your students) are a network that is spread all over the world. I can find a Sellers student in Hong Kong, Argentina, or Azerbaijan. In India or Mali. I know they’re there. The #4 on our bench is like the family portrait on our desk. It reminds us of you all the time. Having you watching over our shoulders makes us work more accurately. I speak for myself, but I know I speak for many of us as well. Your impact on us is much bigger than you can imagine.

    The progress is that numerous ordinary people now are confident to make something (of their lives). Without the expensive machinery or exorbitantly priced hand tools. (Who needs a Bridge City plane? )
    You show us something and then, in your words, it’s ours for life.
    The Sellers community is HUGE.
    And every single one of us is proud to be a part of it.
    Dear Paul, you have no idea…

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