Something more concrete


[This was to be the opening for a column in an online venture that never took off, back in 2003. Mostly posted here because it reminds me why this interested me in the first place. I have another I'll post eventually.]

"When one has made with his own hands any object of use or ornament there is a sense of personal pride and satisfaction in the result, that no expenditure of money can buy, and this very fact serves to dignify the task and stamp it with individuality." - Gustav Stickley, 1905
"I've never really believed that a really good craftsman is intended for a tremendous public... the craftsman lives in a condition where the size of his public is almost in inverse proportion to the quality of his work." - James Krenov, 1976

I'm writing in an open-framed cottage built in the 1920s, admiring the exposed beams, tongue and groove paneling, and stone fireplace. A fire in a cast-iron stove is keeping me nicely warm, and locally-made fishing equipment covers the walls.

Looking more closely, I'm writing on a laptop made in China. The fire is fueled with propane. The factories where the fishing equipment was made are long since closed. Finally, the house itself has survived (for now) thanks to its location and the fact that it's primarily used only in summer. It's beautiful, but filled with reminders that old ways of making things are rapidly disappearing.

I started working in wood because I wanted to do something more concrete than programming and writing. Woodworking combines the immediacy of programming with the feeling of holding a physical book at the end of the publishing process. As I've gone deeper into woodworking, I've found it offers much more than those familiar pleasures. Woodworking is a practice where people can combine craft, tradition, and sometimes innovation, while stepping at least partially outside of the usual mass production process.

Woodworking is in many ways an orphan of the industrial revolution, though it has benefited tremendously from the tools that industrialization has made available. The notion of an individual producing complete pieces has been in decline for centuries, and has survived primarily to serve the affluent, both in custom woodworking and as a hobby. The Arts and Crafts movements in Europe and the United States celebrated visions of people making furniture for themselves while that vision was becoming less and less tenable. Making things, especially for a living, seems to have become a strange and unusual notion over time.

Woodworking has many facets, and defining what precisely "woodworking" is probably isn't worthwhile. Some people consider framing houses, milling lumber, and building furniture in factories to be woodworking, while others draw the line at finish carpentry or furniture making. Some craftspeople specialize in one or a few aspects exclusively, like finishing, turning, scrolling, or carving. Some design their own projects, while others build exclusively from plans, and some spend their time restoring work that's long since built.

There are also constant tensions between woodworking serving function, woodworking adding decoration, and woodworking as fine art. Some woodworkers see woodworking as a vocation and some see it as a hobby. There are many divides beyond "hand tool vs. power tool" or which brand of equipment to use. Different levels of commitment, different approaches, and different styles of practice and thought make for some complex and very rich conversations.

Politics of a more conventional kind also divide woodworkers. Many online forums have either banned politics from the conversation completely or put it in a separate "off-topic" place. Hippie woodworkers and dittoheads argue about the state of the world like anyone else, but it is often especially difficult to discuss politics that affect woodworking directly: environmentally friendly sources of materials, the conditions under which tools are made and sold, safety regulations of various kinds, gender and woodworking, and the nature of the markets into which professional woodworkers sell.

There are a lot of misconceptions around woodworking which make these conversations much harder. A lot of people seem to think woodworking is growing easier, that new tools have answered age-old problems. While I enjoy it, woodworking isn't always relaxing, and projects are almost never completed as quickly as in the neat formats where many TV viewers experience woodworking vicariously. Thinking it's easy brings new people into woodworking as a hobby and fuels demand for tools, but also makes it hard for woodworkers to charge for their work at rates which reflect the learning and effort which goes into it.

I'm hoping that this column will reflect the enormous and sometimes uncomfortable diversity in woodworking today, as well as some of its history. It'll take a lot of columns to cover even a small fraction of what's out there. Relatively simple practical projects will complement more general discussion, though I don't plan to compete with the many books and magazines already covering so many aspects of woodworking. While I'm leery of much of the advertising surrounding woodworking equipment, I'll also point to resources I've found that work well for me. Figuring out what you need and don't need is important, for both skills and tools.

I am not an accomplished woodworker, though I strive to be one eventually. Hopefully this can help the column, letting me can share my learning experiences with you as they happen, reflecting on what worked and what didn't. I'm hoping to have a few interesting disasters to show at some point as well. Some of the columns will be demonstration pieces, showing how to turn wood into new and useful or interesting forms. Other columns will explore woodworking as a practice, and how it has evolved over the past few centuries as social, economic, and environmental pressures have changed it drastically.

Like the early Arts and Crafts idealists, I'd like this column to inspire people to examine how they consume things and reconsider their relationship with their environment. If you have the time and interest to work with wood, that's wonderful, and I hope to show you some new ideas along the way. If you don't presently have time or interest, I hope the column can widen your perspective on a practice which has survived despite its lack of economic viability. There will be plenty of construction and contradiction in the columns to come.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Simon St.Laurent published on February 14, 2013 9:06 AM.

Dreaming of a museum (and school) was the previous entry in this blog.

Fields of Woodworking Practice is the next entry in this blog.

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