Everyone is on a “journey” these days, and now I am too – my journey into woodworking has begun.
I remember very little about the craft lessons I took at school, although I vaguely recall doing a term of wood working and a term of metalworking – I suppose about 30 hours of training in total. Not much, and certainly I was not left with a single technique or skill because of it.
I read that a good woodworking apprenticeship takes between 4 and 6 years. Let’s call it a minimum of 7000 hours of practice. It was this fact that left me with the depressing realization that – short of a pools win (and early retirement) or living to be around 150 years old – I will almost certainly never catch up. So I am going to need to focus on a few things and try and learn to do them well and the thing I have decided to focus on is basic techniques using hand tools.
A helping hand from the internet
My inspiration is for this approach is an English woodworker called Paul Sellers. He is a prolific source of information on the web (youtube and his website) and has published a couple of books. He’s had a long and prestigious career and clearly loves his work. He is also very keen encourage people to take up traditional woodworking skills. What I found most interesting about his writings and videos is that he identifies two major – and, in his view, unnecessary – obstacles to people taking up woodwork. The first is the prevalence of electronic machines and the second is the existence of a marketing consensus that if you do not use machines then only very expensive hand tools will get you good results.
His concerns about the ubiquitous use of woodworking machines, particularly by people offering information and training material on the web, is that many people are scared of using them. His argument is that if these noisy, expensive and dangerous tools are seen as mandatory for creating things in wood (and you could easily get that impression from the web) then many people will be deterred from taking up woodworking as a hobby.
He goes further and says this apprehension about machines deters women and young people in particular, and his evidence for this is that he asks this question of the people who join his (hand) woodworking classes and this is what the tell him. Some people have left sniffy comments on his website about this last observation , but regardless he is obviously sincere in his belief that it is important to get more women and young people to take up the craft if it is to continue to flourish.
Is using machines to create things from wood really ‘woodcraft’?
Like many popular hobbies there are plenty of pundits in the world of woodworking who like to share their ideas about how things should or should not work and, as is usual , a few of these people turn out to have a talent for building a presence on the web which results in them gaining a large audience, which in term drives the influence and visibility they have. This kind of visibility attracts controversy, and it is true to say that Mr Sellers has attracted his share. It does not take much research to discover he is well known and highly respected in the international woodworking community – and many people, including me, are very grateful for his generosity in sharing his knowledge – but he has also upset some people by stating repeatedly that woodworking using electric tools is not a craft.
Although he may be right semantically I am not sure it is helpful to point it out, particularly since it might be interpreted to mean that using electronic tools is cheating. This interpretation can have only one effect – whether intended or not – and that is to alienate the group of woodworkers who do enjoy using machines to create things.
Besides, these comments also detract from his much more important point namely that, even if expensive machines can be very convenient, they are not essential, and indeed he argues (and shows) it is possible to create beautiful things in wood even with a small set of inexpensive second-hand tools. I am lucky enough to be able to afford good new tools – indeed I bought a number of them when building my shed – but I am also very attracted to the idea of taking an old and previously loved tool and putting it to good use. So that is where I have started to do – and my first skirmish into hand tools is the hand plane, of which more in the next post.