When I started this blog in July 2012 I had been woodworking seriously for roughly 18 months. In that short time span I was amazed at the amount of conflicting advice you find in woodworking publications. I knew then and I know now that is more than one way to woodwork, so the presentation of several different methods to complete a certain task didn’t really surprise me all that much. What did surprise me was the derision that some writers had towards these other methods that were presented. When it comes down to it, everybody has their own way of doing things, and we all think that our way is the best way. That’s only natural. For me personally I try not to knock others methods, even after I had tried them. What works for you may not work for me, plain and simple. Take making a mortise for example. You can choose from several different methods that all work. If I need to make one I will generally chop it by hand. If I need to make many I will do it with a router table. There are several out there who will tell you that unless you are chopping them by hand you are doing woodworking as a craft some kind of disservice. So after I began to woodwork on a steady basis I found myself becoming quite upset at certain woodworking writers. Of course on the surface many of them come off as open minded, but reading between the lines isn’t too hard, especially when you start reading their blogs and not the magazine articles. That, in a nutshell, was one of the reasons I started writing this blog. I’m not experienced enough to present my blog as some type of teaching implement. But I can give you my personal experiences on different ways to woodwork and tell you what worked for me and why.
Last night I was reading Roy Underhill’s The Woodwrights Guide: Working wood with wedge and edge; I received it as a birthday present last summer. In the book Roy describes the number of different trades that came into play when taking a tree and turning it into a finished piece of furniture. The section on Joiners interested me more than the others for a few reasons. Before I started woodworking I had heard the term and understood vaguely what a joiner did way back when. For those of you who don’t know, a joiner was somewhat like a trim carpenter on a modern build site. Joiners often made the cabinets, doors, and window casings along with the trim work for a newly constructed home. Sometimes these items were made on site, in the shop, or a combination of the two. Joiners also made specialty items such as wooden gears, gates, and cupolas. I’ve heard it said by some woodworking writers that the joiner of the 18th/19th century was much more skilled than your average trim carpenter of today. I would have to disagree with that whole heartedly. The joiners of the bygone era were certainly skilled workers, but so are many of the top level trim carpenters working on homes and businesses of today. I’ve seen, in person, some stunning examples of millwork and built in cabinetry, some made right on sight that were as nice and well-constructed as anything ever made. Modern joiners still exist, the title has just changed. All you need to do is watch an episode of This Old House. Guys like Tom Silva and Norm Abram do much on site cabinet and millwork in every episode, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. So to make a statement that modern carpenters are not nearly as skilled as yesterday’s joiners tells me several things: You’ve never been on a high end construction site and therefore do not know what goes on there; You have no respect for working people, or you are a woodworking snob who feels that the only work that matters is done with a specific set of tools that you approve of. If you take a well made piece of furniture from 200 years ago and compare it to a well made piece of furniture built today you won’t notice much difference. The joinery tends to be the same in most cases. The use of material, proven designs, and solid construction hasn’t changed in two centuries. So, all things being equal, what is the difference between yesterdays furniture maker and todays? I would have to say the tools being used. The average professional joiner of the 18th and 19th century worked almost exclusively in hand tools; todays version probably uses more power equipment than the hand powered variety. So does all of that matter as long as the end result is a nice and well constructed piece of furniture? I don’t think so. But some people do. For the upteenth time in this blog you will here me say it: hand tool snobs.
Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis are probably asking: Why the hand tool/power tool tirade again? To answer that question, it was something that I read in a certain woodworking writer’s book on workbenches the other day. For the record I think it’s a great book, but the offending comment really struck a nerve with me. Why? This writer grew up the son of professionals, he obtained a journalism degree from a highly respected and expensive university, and spent much of his career writing for newspapers and woodworking magazines. Nothing wrong with any of those things right? Not at all, in fact I admire him for it. But, nowhere in his bio did I read anything about his years spent working on construction sites. Nor did I read anything about him being a time traveler who saw first hand the job site work of an 18th century joiner. So I’m a little curious on how he came to the conclusion that modern finish carpenters just aren’t very good when compared to their past brethren. He read about it in a book? Oh, that solves anything. As I’ve said, I’ve seen millwork in newly built homes that rivals anything done anywhere, ever! The principles of making mouldings, trim work, and cabinetry haven’t changed for a long, long time. So this guys foregone conclusion is that they must have been better then because they used hand tools. Well, drop by a real construction site and you will still see plenty of hand work being done, trust me. Yet you will also see some fantastic work being done with power tools. The people who hire these guys: I would say that they really don’t care what methods are being used as long as the results are good. THAT is what people like this writer do not understand and never will. The guys that he and people like him admire so much were working class fellows for the most part. These guys were and are busy earning money to feed their families. I’m sure they had pride in their work, but the people they were trying to impress the most were their boss and their bosses clients. They weren’t hoping that one day a pretentious writer from the future would someday fawn all over their work. I would feel comfortable in saying that had this guy been born in the 18th century to a comparable station in life he would have had little time for the joiners of the day. How do I know this? Because he has little time for todays version. Finish carpenters don’t fit into his world of literature, and craft beer, and publishing parties.
My conclusions leave me in somewhat of a difficult position. Truth is that I also love hand tools and I enjoy working with them. The truth also is that for the foreseeable future I don’t have the money to spend on the handtool kit of my dreams. This writer, and the hobbyists that follow him, as well as some pros, usually hide the true cost of their tool kits, which in many cases easily surpass the $20,000 mark. I would also feel safe in saying that my estimate is on the low side for the most part. So when they tell you that they only way that you can be a “real” woodworker is to own toolsets similar to theirs, what are they really saying? Maybe they are saying that only people who can afford toolsets such as theirs should be woodworking. Either way it’s what I would call an elitist statement. And look at the source, a guy whose station in life he was born in to. I’m not saying that he doesn’t work hard. I’m saying that his socioeconomic status at birth afforded him his current station. That of course is out of his control, he cannot help where and to whom he was born to one way or the other. But, it doesn’t take much understanding to see his elitist attitude towards people like jobsite carpenters. They, in his eyes, are unworthy of the title of joiner because he sees himself as a joiner. So there can be no way that a man as educated and thoughtful and talented as he can ever be compared to a lowly carpenter. I mean, he went to $$$ university, he has a degree in journalism, he has been a professional writer for many years. He’s no dumbbell with big tattooed arms and a dirty worktruck who lives week to week and paycheck to paycheck. That’s what carpenters are right? He’s better than that. So he refers to himself as joiner and his conscience is clear.
For those of you who made it this far, here is my mission statement: It is my hope that the people out there who live paycheck to paycheck and work hard to try to get ahead, if they find themselves at a point where they would like to try a hobby like woodworking, I hope I can be of some kind of service to them. I was that person at one time. Maybe you want to cue the violins at this point, but I grew up in a little row house in Philadelphia, just about 700 sq ft if you want to be exact. My dad worked in a paper factory, my mom was a secretary for an exterminator. They were divorced when I was 7 years old. My childhood wasn’t easy. I got an academic scholarship to my high school, joined the military, and worked the nightshift at a printing factory for 10 years while I went to school in the afternoons. It took me a long time to get to the point where I could afford a hobby like woodworking; it took me a long time to get to where I am now. I will never tell somebody who wants to spend a few hours of their well earned free time woodworking that they aren’t doing it right. I will never discourage somebody by telling them they have no skill because they don’t woodwork in a certain way. I will never tell a person interested in woodworking that they are destroying the craft because they don’t think they are a joiner from the 18th century. So that is my mission, and that’s why I will continue to write this blog.