The Meandering Path of Woodworking

I recall someone telling me that I had to teach to make a living from my craft because I couldn’t and no one else could actually make a living from working with their hands. He didn’t know that that was the case and nor could he. He simply assumed that because he couldn’t, no one else could. I had made my living from making woodworking and furniture for four decades already at that time. I had sold everything I ever made and raised a family of four children on a single-income wage. Thinking I was just like him, he made the same mistake that many do, but I was not like him. He was a locally famed ‘green woodworker cum woodturner’ using primitive methods for lathe turning with no electricity to turn found limbs and such into “live edge” bowls. He even tried to prove that his methods with a treadle and pole lathe equalled that of the power lathes most woodturners use. What he actually proved was that he could do but one limited task as fast or faster. There were a thousand other tasks that he could not nor ever would be able to do. Whereas I can indeed cut a two-dovetail dovetail joint faster than anyone can set up a router and jig to do, what I cannot do is replicate the work a thousand times in quick succession at the same rate as a pre-jigged power router can. Machines were only ever made to displace the need for skilled workmanship. Do that and you control your future profitability. The more manpower you can reduce and replace, the more profit and less need you have for human interaction and human resources. The less human interaction you have, the more smoothly life will run.

Some of my own hand carved spoons, part of an order for 30

This man also carved spoons with a bent, curve-bladed knife. If he wanted to make a living from this, he’d chosen a hard row to hoe. That said, one or two have done that. Finding enough buyers in an idyllic country village made it impossible to generate a living from walk-in footfall. His skills and abilities were in reality quite limited for a long-term career path; some can make it this way, but the majority cannot. Buying a spoon in beech for under a pound makes it hard to compete when the hand-carved spoon does no more for the user in a bowl dough mix than the one you might pay £30 and up for This is where reality hots. And therein was the problem. Was it enough to take a two-day course in an English coppiced woodland to then launch yourself into generating income from whittling spoons from windfallen limbs and so-called “free wood?”

As it is with many things, actually earning your living from what you love to do is rarely that easy when working solely with your hands. Those who can work creatively this way are often asked if they will teach someone as they watch them making. The maker then convinces a following that they, you, can indeed do such a thing. In reality, they might well be able to after many months of establishing the skills needed, but it seems to me that most never give up their day job or they rely on support from a partner or spouse working in something called “the real world!” I have yet to meet more than the odd one or two that could actually make a living wage from their craft. But one thing they can do is persuade others that they did and were selling the wares they made for princely sums of money; that they were selling all that they made and that it was a good life. In actuality, selling classes was easier than spoons. Given half the chance, most people would like the challenge of making a spoon from a split limb of green wood. All they needed was an instructor. It doesn’t take long to see that ten students paying £300 for a three-day green woodworking brought in some good supplementary income. It doesn’t take too long to see that nigh on everyone who learns an element of any craft often becomes a teacher within their woodland sphere. Thirty years ago there was no such thing as a green woodworking course, today they are everywhere. It’s is an interesting thing to chip carve a wooden spoon or a spurtle. Ask any dog where a good stick is and they will find you a dozen. Free wood is everywhere.

The truth is that there is something very appealing about making anything from nothing for free. The creative assembly of branches interwoven into a frame and tenoned with a piece of kit called a tenoner produces that quirky conversation piece in a quiet corner of a room. It’s cute in the cutest use of the term. How comfortable and indeed practical such pieces are is questionable, but, well, it’s more an art form after all!

Evening draws in and the woods are silent.

In truth, there is nothing wrong with spending a few days outdoors in a group or alone shaping some raw and rough materials into anything you can make to enhance life. The reality of this lies not so much in the thing made but the vehicle by which you got there. There is something almost primevally earthy about gathering with others to spend a day or two axing and chopping and chipping beneath leaf and branch in a woodland glade. It’s an inspired setting where sights and sounds, smells, touch and taste can touch the palate and heal the soul. It would likely do every woman and man good to split some limbs, light a fire with the chips and then make a footstool to sit on and work from as they took what might otherwise be raw and perhaps even useless and made comfort from their efforts. But always remember, no matter where you move beneath that canopy of filtered sunlight, the smoke will seem relentlessly ready to follow and chase you somewhere.

Me carving spoon with a knife. Much less efficient than with a gouge but an enjoyable hour outdoors non the less

Green woodworking is not a way of life for more than a handful, but it is an enjoyable foray into creativity. You’ve got your drawknife and spokeshave, a selection of sharp knives, and your van is kitted out as a minimalist cave to work from and sleep in. Pre-covid you could slip away to a space in the woods and retrieve some dropped limbs to work into carved utensils. The drumming of a woodpecker with corvids watching your every move, the dashing of squirrels and rustling in the undergrowth is peaceful music to your ears and a sight for sore computer eyes.

My sons often worked from green wood to maker parts of their Windsor chairs and garden tools like wooden rakes

Bit by bit and chip by chip your skills improve and the piece you are carving becomes something quite beautiful. But then you begin to see what I said a little earlier, that it less important to sell what you make and earn your living by your hands than it is to allow yourself to be ambushed for a short season and be snatched from the mundane works of life to enter a new and unknown world of making. Most courses can be had online these days for free. Hands-on courses can be expensive and sometimes unnecessary because ven one-on-one cannot give you the skill you get from rote repetition and taking the steps to make and learn from. Most woodworking is about learning about the tools you use, how to use them and then the wood you will come to know. I recall making my first cello from scratch with my son Joseph. We had a book and no one to tell us or teach us what to do. I was amazed at how unfalteringly we worked to make that instrument. How the woodworking tools I had used throughout my life I could readily adapt and adopt for the work in the cello. Apart from one or two specialist tools, we did the whole with ordinary tools that we had. We decided that the purfling tool seemed less controllable and we designed one that far surpassed the one we thought we needed. So too that special knife for carving the blocking. and such. Again, we designed one and made one. It created a superb finish inside where no one could ever see the work of our hands.

Joseph’s first cello at 16 years of age.

Starting out in one craft of woodworking often leads us into other spheres of craftwork. From kayaks to guitars and cellos to houses, woodworking is an amazing crafty to follow.

18 thoughts on “The Meandering Path of Woodworking”

  1. Great insight Paul. I am retired and two of my interests are photography and woodworking. I hold photography workshops and tell people making a living from photography is very hard, unless you get a job with National Geographic oo some other print medium that hasn’t gone out of business due to the internet. I never teach people ways to make money but more how to get out and enjoy nature and feel what is around them. When I am not using my camera I am in my wood shop taking expensive lumber and making sawdust out of it. I have a bird feeder outside and even when I put my workbench outside the noise of the plane does not bother them, in fact I have had birds sit on the end of a board I was making sawdust out of. Great Post Paul

  2. There was a time when every village had a village carpenter and blacksmith. Between them they made many of the goods needed by the local (agricultural) community. The village I grew up in still had both, although the carpenter was largely retired. The blacksmith did offer me an apprenticeship. I took an academic route instead. I have often wondered if I had taken that path, if I would have succeeded. Some do, but usually for artistic work.
    I think seeing both of their shops inspired my retirement garage workshop. There was a time when I thought that I needed machines to do what I wanted. At some stage the penny dropped that I needed to develop my skill with hand tools. Indeed after I bought a (cheap) router, I realised that it was slower for the jobs that I wanted to do after factoring in the setup and clean up time. It now rarely gets used.
    I do have a lot of admiration for those making a living from “craft” skills, possibly because I opted not to, but still wonder if?
    I was looking at my 2 Yankee Ratchet screwdrivers the other day and wondering if I should go back to using them to drive screws rather than reaching for my cordless. Might consider it when it needs replacing.
    I remember being impressed with the push ratchet screw driver when I bought it and pozi screws in my youth. Tend to prefer torx ones now, but I saw that I could buy an adapter for hex bits to fit the screw driver. Might invest.

    1. Dave, and one of my all-time favorite tools is a chrome ratchet set. There’s something so precise about being able to select a fitted chrome head to a nut and crank the ratchet handle to apply leverage. I’d add that any tool, like a sheave block or snatch block, lever or pulley that multiplies or more cleverly delivers your strength is a wonderful invention.

      1. Hi Paul it was really good to see your chipped and work worn bench again…’s just like mine…..worn …screw holes used for holding work against my Rise and fall bench stop ( made using piece screwed Rod)
        I do use a sticking board to form rebates ( using your superb rebate plane tutorial) and mouldings
        Thank you Paul….as always a good read……best John2V

  3. “and cellos to houses”. Interestingly, even traditional house building has different wood working paths. Notably timber framed va log house building. Traditional Timber framing is closer to woodworking (you can make precise saw cuts and a mortise and tenon joint with drawbore? You’re ready!) And you can start small – shed or greenhouse. Learn to timber frame by Will Beemer, if you want a taste of this world. But the best training for any of these other wood working worlds is what Paul is doing. Forays or longer into these other worlds will be much easier when you have developed solid skills. Much better to mess up cutting a 2×4 than a 6×6 piece of lumber. Thanks

  4. Thanks Paul. I have taken a few “courses” over the years and had similar experiences. When people come to my home and ask about the pieces I’ve built I smile. Invariably, someone will ask if I will sell a piece are make one for them. Again, I smile but politely decline. I will not buy machines and mass produce. I will continue to enjoy the time I have in my shop and with my family. Thank you for your teaching.

  5. Question; the big tree you’re sitting in front of, would you like to have the lumber from it or let er be? Love your skills, teaching and life etiquette. By the way, I just finished a tavern table, 2 board genuine mahogany top and turned maple legs, all hand tools from A to Z even though I have a shop filled with industrial machinery. I blame you for this marvelous transformation of my life.
    Thanks, Bud Stillman, Drumore, Pa.

  6. Mike Towndrow

    I went on a green woodworking weekend in 2013 too and thoroughly enjoyed it to the extent that I decided I’d build my own pole lathe. However, before I got that far I discovered Woodworking Masterclasses which, with its emphasis on hand tool woodworking, took me back to the wonderful double periods of woodwork I had at Secondary school. The pole lathe then didn’t materialise, though never say never.

    It’s great that there are people passionate enough about their particular interest in traditional crafts and skills to see the importance of passing them on and prevent them dying out. Making a living out of teaching them I guess also allows the teacher to indulge in their passion for themselves when not teaching.

    I love working with wood and Paul’s on line tuition is second to none. I also love being out in the countryside. Fortunately I’m at an age when I have time to enjoy both; Woodwork for myself and, occasionally, for a charitable organisation that I volunteer for where I also have the opportunity to use countryside skills such as hedge laying and scything. A nice balance for me of the things I love to do, in the places I love to be.

  7. Very interested in what your purfling knife solution was, I had a similar sort of need when I was figuring out how to snug saw blades back into the spot where the kerf and spine meet. Wound up tweaking something kind of like one of what I later saw called a woodpecker tooth on a dozuki I think, used for starting a cut in the center of a piece of wood.

    Later on I saw purfling knives and realized they were almost exactly where I ended up heading, along a different route.

  8. My wife and I have a small insurance concern. Actually, I work for my wife so I should say my wife has a small insurance concern. We have company representatives come in all the time spouting how we could grow this way or become larger that way. Many people don’t realize you can become too large too fast. People want to be rich within the first month or at the most, year. The man telling you you can’t make a living doing what you do is such a person. There is a difference between hand-made and machine-made. If you must use machines to increase production, to be bigger, then you must pay a price. Everything has a cost. It’s what a man is willing to pay that makes a difference.

  9. Your initial comments on teaching remind me of all the advertisements on YouTube these days promising endless easy millions. If these instructors are so good at turning 4 hours into $10k, why are they bothering to teach? Could it be the $10k is coming from the students, not the ‘craft’ they are peddling?

    1. S. Goodwin, you are right on. There are schools for so many things, yet jobs so few. There are schools for beauticians and massage therapists, yet only a tiny percentage of graduates actually manage to make a living. People teaching how to “flip” houses, yet when people try, it is not so easy. Just sell this product, everyone will want to buy it! Reality – no one wants it.
      It seems to me a lot more woodworkers are making livings teaching classes than selling furniture.
      Most of us end up working jobs that may have a certain satisfaction, but are not really what we would love to do. I worked other jobs to earn the money to buy woodworking tools. I am somewhat self sufficient and have tools for other jobs than woodworking. People look and say “you have tools for everything”, as if a big truck pulled up and dropped them all off for free. They really seem to think I just “have” these things with no effort on my part, and of course that I should let them use them, when they made more money than me, but blew it on silly stuff.

  10. It’s like the commercials for ‘How to make a fortune in the stock market”. The person giving the presentation or writing the book is making more money from that than he ever made “beating” the stock market.

  11. Mr. Sellers
    I found you on You Tube quite by accident. After watching for several hours, I was hooked. I have wanted a workshop for years and had begun collecting and restoring older machines….but not now. At 62 I must admit I was a bit lost. My family has noticed a difference in behaviour…I smile now, laugh out loud and am actually pleasant to be around. I’ve restored a Stanley #4 type 4 ($25) and a Millers Falls #9 (free from dumpster). I just can’t thank you enough for making me feel worthwhile again. So does my family. It will take a while to get everything I think I need ,but I’m having the time of my life. God speed Mr.Sellers

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