I have made some rough-and-ready pieces in my time. That’s not a confession, it’s what we do in life to make life work. I suppose my rough-and-ready might be the equivalent to something from a big-box store not unlike IKEA, Dunelm and many more, but without the pressed fibreboard hollow-core egg-crate cardboard veneered with the now dreaded plastic veneer. The time we needed a dining table but had no time to make one or the money to buy one, I made a quickie from some 3/4″ plywood I had, laminated two-by-four legs for it and then tiled it with ceramic wall tiles. It worked fine for a decade. Other times have been much more rugged. When I built my first Texas home in Reagan Wells, Texas, two trestles and a four by eight sheet of 3/4″ plywood came about for an emergency dinner at Christmas. Trouble is, with things like that, it becomes perfectly functional, useful, so it continues in use and the embarrassment to the maker much longer than it should. Phrases from people long gone are fine enough. I mean things like, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” fly to the wind in the face of desperate need, even though it is, yes, useful and then something to perhaps aspire to. In the midst of urgency, corners do get cut, relatives and friends arrive, and the cooked and browned turkey is duly placed centrepiece to the event and your embarrassing production lies hidden beneath a tablecloth and good food. The moment passes with the festivities and, well, the table is handy. But I think we have all cobbled embarrassing moments together now and then, something to cater to the immediacy of the need.

Earning my own living and providing for my family by working with my hands has meant real living for me. My apprenticeship days marked the close of an era only I didn’t actually know it. The men I worked with would soon be leaving their workbenches and their trade with few men following in their shoes to carry the torch. Back then we enjoyed a period after the war when little seemed to change because there wasn’t really time for the new. I for one never thought that when they put down their chisels and saws one day that they would never likely be picked up again to be used to make their living from using them. No practicing artisan would follow on. It was a new era of skilsaws and power routers, jigsaws, battery-driven, and hand-held was well on its way. Wars came and went as did something called progress. These events were the stepping stones to what would be demoralisation for some on the one hand and the Technological Industrial Revolution on the other. More than likely their children and grandchildren would wonder what they were used for and then find them selling them to a dealer to sell on or even use eBay. I have never felt demoralised in my quest to teach and train any all who came my way. Where the trades shunned the handwork alongside the skills needed to use them, I continued to just love everything about them. I never really found them tedious and I found fulfillment in continuing to design, make and sell my work. I also found hundreds of thousands of like-minded amateurs who feel pretty much the same way.

As far as I know, all of the apprentices I ever knew and worked with had left their trade by 21 and went on to finer things but not handwork of any kind. In my world of woodworking, there were very few who saw any future in it and that might have included me had I not remembered my dad’s words throughout my work life, “If you have skill, you can make and if you have mastered your craft working with your hands you will always have work.” That has proven to be so true, and I believe that that it is even truer in professional realms of skilled woodworking today. I have a friend who hand-paints kitchens for a small but nation-wide supplier of hand made kitchens. They arrive primed only. Made from real wood, his crew then goes in and brush paints the stiles, panels and rails, muntins and transoms, beams or whatever. Their work is skilled yet almost obsolete. You see it’s not heavy brush marks that are wanted, but the faint trace of a master painter. Something the robots have yet to get down. Skilled workers do have plenty of good work to do. You just have to know where to find it. In some ways, I am glad I am of retirement age. Not that I plan or need to retire, more that I am able to pursue the delivery of a ‘way out‘ for others. It doesn’t need to be fast at all, just carefully planned, deliberate and sure-footed. This is how I view progress

“What ‘way out‘, Paul?” Oh, a ‘way-out’ way to live. A ‘way out’ to make some sense of the mixed-up world we might unwittingly find ourselves in; that sense-of-purpose we all strive to find. As it was 50 years or so ago, we often fail to see the water is coming to the boil when the heat is turned up so gently, so very gradually. Within so rapidly a changing world of working, woodworking takes many forms, from the rough and ready make-do-and-mend to the truly finest and anywhere in between, yet with handwork, nothing has really changed in millennia. And that is what I love about my crafting. It’s this built-in stability that makes my life so rich and diversely fascinating. Encouraging others to pursue skilled woodworking began as a natural proclivity from my own lived experience that in turn became for me a way-out, way out dream come true.

26 Comments

  1. Thomas on 12 February 2020 at 1:38 pm

    Hi Paul,,

    Are there any plans to have any apprentices featuring in future videos? In my opinion t’d be an interesting dynamic to show master/apprentice working through a project.



    • Paul Sellers on 12 February 2020 at 3:03 pm

      Not from me. It’s so very complicated to do such a thing and of little, if any value at all to my apprentices. Filming itself changes the whole dynamic of working and all the more I am sure to apprenticing itself in the same way an experiment always influences the outcome, making the experiment itself intrusive and influential to the whole.



      • Thomas on 12 February 2020 at 3:42 pm

        I suppose I didn’t think of that aspect. That being said, how much of your output is filmed these days versus ‘solitary’ woodworking. Basically, how much time do you get to yourself?



      • Gierach James E. on 13 February 2020 at 5:51 pm

        Insightful, the unhelpful effect of a camera and filming on the apprentice learning. Like camera in a courtroom.



  2. Steve P on 12 February 2020 at 3:22 pm

    Its funny you mention the plywood tops. I was recently at a very fancy wedding at a very fancy old historic location. It was very formal. Beautiful flowers everywhere and decorations. We went to sit for dinner at these great big tables with beautiful tablecloths with fancy centerpieces and flowers, fine china and silverware, little gifts for all of the guests etc. I was curious what the tables looked like, expecting some majestic antiques in this historic building, and my wife was about to hit my arm to stop me making a scene and I said “look”, and showed her underneath. It was 2 of those folding plastic tables from the discount store with a large sheet of plywood on top. We both kind of laughed and I put the tablecloth back down. Looks can be deceiving.



  3. Joe on 12 February 2020 at 4:04 pm

    Hi Paul,
    This quote struck a chord with me “Skilled workers do have plenty of good work to do. You just have to know where to find it.”

    One of my favorite woodworkers is Chris Becksvoort. He had a book that came out last year called “Shaker Inspired.” It has a lot of great info on the business side of woodworking. One thing that stood out to me in his book was that his career was mostly based on about 200 customers. So, you are correct in that finding your customers is indeed the key.

    I remember reading a back in 1986 about telemarketing. For one summer between US high school and college I worked as a telemarketer for a tutoring company. The owner wanted me to read this book before I started cold calling. In that book, I distinctly recall that repeat customers for just about any business were the main source of revenue.



    • Mike on 14 February 2020 at 6:25 pm

      Throughout all my business school studies, owning businesses, and doing some business consulting for a wide variety of ventures; the 80-20 rule (sometimes even 85-15) applies. 80% of your customers cost you money (returns, handling complaints, question after question, change requests, etc..) and 20% make your profit. Finding just that 15% to 20% is the key to a successful business.



      • Paul Sellers on 14 February 2020 at 6:31 pm

        But then there is the profit that knows no budgets. That has been my life. Every bill paid and enough time to share with my family and friends.



        • Mike on 14 February 2020 at 9:38 pm

          With this I do agree. A profit of personal fulfillment cannot be measured in either time or money.



  4. Hank Edwards on 12 February 2020 at 5:47 pm

    Proportions make all the difference with the short time mock ups. Plywood tables, etc.
    1 x 1, 1 x 2, 1 x 3, 4 x 5, 5 x 8.
    The table never grew old, and I wish we’d kept it.



  5. Al on 12 February 2020 at 11:32 pm

    I dragged home a 4′ x 8′ sheet of 3/4 baltic birch plywood on the top of my car back in the early 90’s when we were hosting Thanksgiving dinner. I lopped the corners off at a 45 deg angle, made a support frame out of some old 1x3s and dropped it on top of an old cafeteria style folding table, put a tablecloth on it and used it as our dining room table for the next 20 years.



    • Mark D. Baker on 13 February 2020 at 6:35 pm

      worked in a pinch, even if the ‘pinch’ lasted so long.



  6. Trevor on 13 February 2020 at 2:50 am

    Of course its all plywood, MDF, chipboard, laminates, and foreign egg-box rubbish. Have you seen what someone wants to charge for a ‘real wood’ dining table today? Nevermind “earning a living”, “feeding my family”… Today they’ll want £3,000 for a basic dining table. Want chairs? That’ll be extra! Assuming they spend £1,000 on materials and take two weeks to make the table, how could any Furniture Maker manage on just £50k a year?
    Thicknessers, jointers, table-saws all improved productivity and reduced costs, but prices still went up and up.
    Woodworkers killed woodworking. Not machines.



    • Roo on 13 February 2020 at 3:57 am

      @trevor
      You get what you pay for…woodworking never died…



    • Derek Janzen on 13 February 2020 at 12:01 pm

      We’ll if I could build a table for $5000 dollars (roughly equivalent) every two weeks, that’d would be amazing!! I wouldn’t have to charge so much, however, those jobs aren’t every week. Some weeks it’s only a small shelving piece, or nothing at all.. I’m only beginning my career in woodworking.. so maybe once I have more interest I can afford to charge less. On another note, the people who I charge $5000 for a table, never seem to mind paying that.



      • Paul Sellers on 13 February 2020 at 12:31 pm

        To be frank, if/when you are new in the trade, it will be most unlikely that you have established yourself. By that I mean ten years in the saddle and by that I mean working 12 to 14 hours on many a day but never less than 12. You will indeed find yourself wearing diversely different hats ranging from company secretary, telephonist, designer, developer, web site set up and maintenance and then designer-maker establishing a portfolio of the work you have accomplished. Factor into that bookkeeper and logger, perhaps blogger and vlogger and that’s the beginning of being an artisan maker. My rocking chairs sold for $6,500 and I did design dining tables that sold for $14,000 and up. Dining chairs sold for $1,200 in sets of six to eight. But back in 1975 it was nothing like that. Nip and tuck and no wasteful spending anywhere. In 1985 the work did start to take on its own momentum and in 1990 we had two years’ work ahead of us and people were prepared to wait.
        So what am I saying. Just this. Nothing would have persuaded me to change direction. My life was engineered just as much as my working wood was. It was my decision mainly but I did have a wife that backed me 100%. She worked to help me manage many business things as well as raising the boys and that was full time for her too.



        • Oliver on 13 February 2020 at 4:42 pm

          For you Paul, it worked, but the majority of your fellow ‘artisans’ quite-rightly lost their customers to this mass-produced tat.
          Your fellow ‘artisans’ and other woodworkers of your generation priced themselves out. Taking ‘commissions’ for their ‘art’. Calling them ‘Statement pieces’. Six-month waiting list. What?
          People just needed furniture, doors, staircases… at affordable prices.

          So customers moved away, and China stepped in to fill that market. Tools went unused, and skills were all but lost. That’s why we’re all here. A small renaissance movement trying to revive those skills.

          Demand for wood has fallen so low, it’s now virtually unobtainable. Even new build homes buy-in composite doors with woodgrain-effect plastic laminate, imported from China.

          You can’t blame IKEA, or consumers.



          • Paul Sellers on 13 February 2020 at 6:07 pm

            And just who was it that blamed IKEA for anything except perhaps creating some, not all, but quite a lot of, shoddy products? Oh, and nothing was handed to us “artisans’ on a silver plate. I doubt that many “artisans’ have/do work 12-16 hour days six days a week for fifty years because they engineered it that way. It wasn’t that it worked for me but more that I made it work for me by diligence, need and hard work. I doubt that anyone lost their customers to buying “mass-produced tat”, more that they thought that they needed to compete by making their product prices too low and having no confidence that their work was indeed worth so much more. I recall someone saying to me that I could not compete with Walmart. I said you’ve got this so very wrong. Walmart cannot compete with me. Walmart could never make what I could make and it could never sell a rocking chair for $6,500. Walmart could never do such a thing and much more.

            Also, and I think that it is important, I have been in situations over the past 15 or so years where I encountered many if not most artisans who worked self-employed as something called freelancers who would often turn in to work at 10 am, take an hour-long lunch break with a break before and after breaks and finish around 4 pm. In between these times, they would also spend long periods scrolling on their devices. Perhaps that was necessary to their work but somehow it doesn’t quite fit. That’s not to say that many hardworking artisans are not producing full time, just that we do have a generation that can have difficulty prioritising their work.
            And…well..wood is not in any way unobtainable either. We just live in a different era where we must pay for sustainable sources that’s all and that does raise the price some. Anyone can go even on eBay right now and buy ten thousand board feet at well under £36 per cubic foot. Demand for wood is still there and there are small wood suppliers who are thriving because they have a hard and smart work ethic.



          • Mike on 18 February 2020 at 5:50 pm

            One of the biggest business misconceptions is that a company like Ikea takes away customers from a specialized business or exceptional artisan.

            That is like saying a Ford takes customers away from Lamborghini, Bugatti, Aston Martin or McLaren. Each of these companies still manufacture at least one, if not all their product line, handmade vehicle valued at $1 million dollars or more.

            There are thousands of Artisans around the World who manufacture items by hand that easily sell into the thousands or more, to include woodworkers. This may not be the norm but it isn’t an anomaly either.

            Artisans should never compete on price point and mass production. An Artisan’s competitive advantage should be creative design, exceptional quality, and outstanding customer service. There is and will always be a market for these types of goods and services.

            Without a doubt there is at least one person on this planet with the means and desire who would pay $1 million for a chair. Question is, has that $1 million chair been designed and do they know it exists?

            If Paul can make a go of it so can anyone else who chooses to put in the effort.



        • Mark D. Baker on 13 February 2020 at 6:52 pm

          Aloha Paul.
          I guess I was selling myself ‘short’. Our solid Koa rockers were sold for $ 3500-5000 in 1996. The other Koa pieces range as well into the $1,000’s as well. I focused on the ‘history of the pieces’ and who they were crafted for, by whom, and how they were a result of the craftsman of the day[usually a prisoner, ship’s right that had ‘jumped ship’ and was caught and imprisoned for not having a means of support]. In just 5 years ‘running shop’ I had 200 some piece laid out and being made by 9 students[unemployed men] in the shop. If not for the nature of the owner of the shop, I would have been content to continue to work there[walking distance from home, about 2 miles]. Since ‘honesty’ was not anything more than ‘skin-deep’ in that ‘boss’, when confronted with his crimes, he laughed it off as ‘no big thing’. I had to restart in my own shop. to better care for the needs of my dying father. Woodworking was both needed and rewarding. It kept my children fed, my wife satisfied, and the ‘wolf’ away from the door.



  7. John Gresko on 13 February 2020 at 11:44 am

    Hi Paul

    Well thought and well said. you may include me in the list of folks who have made things of need when money or aesthetics were absent. Keep on thinking and keep working. Be well.



  8. Tom Bittner on 13 February 2020 at 12:43 pm

    I had to laugh at that IKEA component in the first picture.
    I recently was asked to shorten a shelf sold by them for a friend. I had no idea that was how they were made. Luckily I was able to reuse the plastic end cap and recover the cardboard core that was exposed.
    The IKEA stuff seems to be a fire hazard to me, if you ever had a fire you couldn’t stop the cardboard burning it once it got going. Add to that the poisons produced by burning plastic and you have a potential for a real fire hazard.

    You make do with what you have. I’ve made do with temporary makeshift furniture for years before I could get some better stuff.



  9. Thomas Goss on 13 February 2020 at 5:06 pm

    Thanx for these Blogs Paul. They make you think and a special thanx to those that leave comments.
    Many of us have the advantage of age when it comes to the craft of woodwork.

    For many, our careers have past and now we are very much in the autumn of our years and in the enviable position where we can drag out those hand tools that have been dormant for so many years. We now see the value in the woodwork skill and struggle to accomplish in the remaining years what we had no time for when we were busy helping support our families.

    I very much see the value in working with your hands and developing the skills of a “maker”. My biggest concern is to be able to pass along that value to my kids regardless of their chosen skill encouraging them to find time in their busy days to work towards perfecting their chosen craft.

    Many would say…. “Good Luck with that.” Please keep up your efforts Paul and than You.



  10. Vivian Parker on 13 February 2020 at 8:46 pm

    So very true…We were make-do people, but even those projects do teach us a thing or two in the doing–and necessity is the mother of invention. Your blog here really rang true. Now at age 67, I’m going to pursue my dream to learn as much real woodcraft as I can. I can’t tell you how many times in my life someone said to me, “You could do that so much faster with a…” (some power tool). But the noise and the sawdust, etc. positively destroys all tranquility and harmony! I used to make rustic furniture with the most minimum of tools. Now I am going to learn to do it right. So grateful! This is how we honor our ancestors, honor the trees, honor the tools…all of it is a circle that was almost broken. 3-D printers don’t honor anything at all, but simply turns us humans into just another machine cog.



  11. JC Pierre Bourbonnais on 17 February 2020 at 5:14 pm

    Bonjour, Paul. I am in the twilight of my life and have been a subscriber for a few years. There are times when my battle for survival draws me away from my computer. I delight at your pragmatic and simple approach to woodworking. I find it quite therapeutic and spiritually uplifting. My absences are not indicative of lack of interest, I assure you.



  12. JEFFREY J DUTTON on 17 February 2020 at 5:49 pm

    A well crafted piece of furniture (even one of simple design) is much more than something functional; it is a work of art. It is reflective of the craftsman’s skill, dedication, and vision…a record of his art. In some way, the consumer is of secondary importance. I think that’s why the names of people like Mozart, Michelangelo, da Vinci are “household words” to a much greater degree than the people who employed them. There will always be a place for affordable, functionally adequate products to meet the needs of the masses, but there will always be a demand for something better as long as there are people who can both appreciate and afford it.



  • D.J. Quigley on A Future PastMr. Joe Renta on 28 September 2020 at 7:01 pm got to it first. That is a damned fine rocking chair. Certainly a worthy project if it would be practical.
  • Terrence OBrien on A Future PastStaircases? My initial interest in hand woodworking came from a staircase in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Google "Loretto Stairs." It's easier than trying to explain the stairs. They are…
  • Steve P on A Few Years AgoI was planning on making the small dutch toolchest for travel but i really like this one. I 3rd the WWMC
  • Jeff D on A Future PastIt is nuts that some woods can last centuries in the open air without a synthetic preservative. I went to a state park the other day, maybe yesterday. I saw one of the oldest build…
  • Roger Browning on A Future PastPaul thanks for who you are and what you do. Now for the Texans and that splinter that gets bigger from one side of Texas to the other. Everything is bigger in Texas. When my Texas…
  • Jeff D on A Future PastThe boxwood rule comment slayed me!
  • John on Woodworking BudgetingHi Paul, I’ve been following your UTube videos for months. I’m starting to collect hardware to build your work bench. Recently came across a bench vise in an antique shop that must…