The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Mission Statement.


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.

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8 Comments

  1. Jonas Jensen says:

    Well said.

    I personally have been very impressed with a lot of the work made by craftsmen /workers of years gone by. But out of an manufacturing point of view. E.g. to be able to make scientific measuring instruments without CNC machines. That demands some skills and above all time to do so.
    Impressive trim carpentry can still be done today, but at least in my part of the world (Scandinavia), that is not often done compared to houses that are perhaps built before the 1950ies.
    Our wages have gone up so much, that today when building a house, the materials only account for perhaps 15% of the entire amount. The rest is for wages.
    So today only a few can afford having a skilled trim carpenter making buiilt in cabinets etc. because you have to pay the person 65$ per hour.
    At that price, only a few people are wealthy enough to have custom built in cabinets and nice looking trimming. Plus perhaps the design style of our region is rather Shaker like, so things are supposed to look functional and not too much ornamentation.

    So to refer to one of your former rants: If they had a biscuit joiner, they would have used it, or the foreman would have fired them for being slow.

    Maybe the person you are referring to, is mixing up these subjects. So that since not very many people can afford a skilled trim carpenter that simply means that there aren’t such persons available anymore?

    As a side not, before everybody is rushing to Scandinavia to work and earn a fortune:
    The general tax level is 50% on income tax, the VAT is 25% on everything including food and clothes. road tax for e.g. a Volvo V70 is 900$ per year. etc. etc.

    Have a nice day
    Jonas

  2. billlattpa says:

    I would never run down the work done here in the past two centuries, there are still many beautiful examples left as living proof of the quality of the work. I’m just saying that there is still some absolutely beautiful work done this very day. I’ve seen it first hand from the construction phase to the completed stage. In fact, you can pick up many books detailing the millwork and cabinetry being offered in custom homes. My gripe isn’t with the joiners of two centuries ago, it’s with a guy who sees no value in a worker of today. It points to his ignorance of the subject to say that modern carpenters aren’t very good when compared to those of the past. They work within the parameters that are set by their supervisors using the tools and construction methods that are current, the same way it was done two centuries ago. i was saying that he refers to himself as a joiner, so therefore the “joiners” of today must be lesser than those of the past because in his own mind he is obviously much more skilled than some buffoon trim carpenter. At least that is how I see it. I know just by looking at him that he’s never spent any real time at a construction site building homes day after day, but he speaks as if he is an expert on the subject. I personally am insulted by that line of thinking.
    Finish carpenters here in America don’t make as much as in Scandanavia. A skilled carpenter is probably making around $25-$35 per hour depending on experience. Our effective tax rate is lower though, probably around 35-37% for the most part. Local taxes are diffferent from state to state. Pennsylvania has an effective tax rate of somewhere near 11% I believe. So it’s much less than in Scandanavia in any case. So even people who aren’t necessarily wealthy can afford to have skilled work done at their homes. You can even see it in the landscaping and masonry work people have done on their yards and lawns. Overall it’s done at a very high level compared to what the average persons home was two centuries ago. Why would that skill level increase while carpentry diminish? It’s partly because the tools of today, power tools in some cases, are much better for the type of work. They allow people who aren’t wealthy to still have fine work done, same as mill work machines and power tools do for carpentry. This guy fails to see that two centuries ago here in America very few people could afford this fabulous cabinet and mill work that he loves so much. It was a luxury for the nations elite and wealthy. That is a point I’m trying to get across because he always seems to forget it.
    If you don’t know who I’m talking about I’ll email it to you. That I won’t sound so cryptic. Thanks again.
    Bill

  3. Jonas Jensen says:

    I think I know you you mean. But as a principle I wouldn’t write the name, and I find it very correct that you too haven’t done it (not that I would have expected you to).

    But again it is not a huge surprise.

    It is a bit the the ever ongoing discussion hand tools vs power tools.
    I really don’t know why it makes people feel better, if they calim someone doing it differently are thereby inferior.
    So thats also one of the reasons I like your blog, there is a high level of tolerance displayed here.
    Keep up the good work
    Jonas

  4. billlattpa says:

    Thanks Jonas. I write these things because I honestly care. I care about woodworking and those who would like to give it a shot. I care about people who maybe should be woodworkers but they think they can’t afford to try it. I care about people who work hard for living. Maybe it’s silly but I actually do. And thanks again, I really appreciate it.
    Bill

  5. Tom Speirs says:

    Is it even a hand tools v’s power tools thing? Power tools were created by/for skilled craftsmen to speed up the process of repetitive work while retaining the integrity of their craft. In many cases, power tools cut down on waste. Some timbers are becoming a very precious resource after all.
    I’m an electrician by trade, but currently work in I.T. My woodworking is my relaxation. An escape from “real” life. I took woodwork as a subject in high school, where everything was done using hand tools. I still enjoy using hand tools, but use what power tools I have. Why not? That’s what they were made for.
    I buy what I can afford. If that don’t live up to the standards of the tool snobs, then so be it.

    • billlattpa says:

      Funny, I was an electrician for quite a while. I guess I technically still am but I work in an office now. In my opinion the hand tool/power tool aspect of this so called woodworking schism has more to do with an elitism that seems to be growing in the woodworking community. Go to a woodworking show or a tool show and you will see what I mean very quickly. When a guy talks about or shows his $10,000+ collection of Lie Nielsen tools I’m honestly happy for him. When he tells people that his tools are better than everybody else’s I think he is a snob. When he tells people that he is a “real” woodworker because he uses those tools I think he is an elitist who is basically saying that if you cannot afford what I have you don’t deserve to be woodworking. Just for the record, what I just described is a true story.
      As for me, I actually do use a pretty good amount of hand tools. During any given build I generally use one power tool which is a table saw. Second would be a jigsaw but that is a distant second. You’re much more likely to see me using a backsaw or a jack plane than using a power tool. I work this way for one reason only and that’s because that’s how I like to woodwork. I enjoy it and it works for me, plain and simple. When we are at a point when a person builds a set of shelves for his or her kid’s bedroom using pocket screws and because he or she is proud of what he did so it’s shown on the internet…when we are at a point where more than a few people have to rip that person’s work or call that person a hack or even worse tell that person that he or she is ruining the woodworking hobby…I don’t think I like that too much, and if I can have a say about it I will. And, as I’ve been told, maybe it isn’t my place to have a say, and up to now I’ve had no trouble voicing my opinion. But I may start to take that advice. I would probably feel a lot better if I just ignored it and stuck to my own workshop.
      Bill

  6. Art Watson says:

    As a rank beginner in woodworking I find your comments refreshing. The only thing I took exception to was the crack about craft beer. Many craft beer afficianados (er snobs) are home brewers and take pride in this work as well! (Bill you can’t see me winking but I am seriously just teasing).

    And although not the same divide as power vs hand, there seems to also be that divide between inexpensive vs expensive tools. That somehow you will never craft anything useful unless you spent $400 on your chisels. Which I find funny because none of those 18th Century craftsman ever did. I don’t think veterans are doing beginners a service by always pointing them to tools they can’t afford and I love all the underground jigs and tools being made right at home!

    Cheers my brother….

  7. billlattpa says:

    If you’ll believe this, I actually have no problem with craft beer 🙂 or any beer for that matter. One thing about this post that I wish I could change was that in it I attacked a persons upbringing or station in life if you will. The truth is that none of us can control where and to whom we were born. He was born to good parents and made the most of his situation, that is something I admire. I honestly wasn’t trying to run down his situation, I was trying to point out that where he was born and what he does for a living doesn’t necessarily give him the right perspective to comment on the work of the average carpenter.
    I won’t put his name here because he doesn’t deserve that. But I will point out that he reaches a pretty good number of readers with his writings. It’s quite easy for him to say that today’s carpenters aren’t as skilled as they used to be and then have more than a few people who read what he writes misinterpret that as “today’s trim carpenters suck” Even that isn’t the end of the world until that line of thinking starts to permeate into the rest of their lives. Then it literally becomes a cultural thing where suddenly people like trim carpenters lose quite a bit of respect because of one misinterpreted statement in a book. I know it sounds far fetched but it really isn’t in the least.
    The biggest blessing in my life, besides my wife and daughter, is probably where I grew up. I grew up in a working class section of Philadelphia where unfortunately too many of the people in my age group ended up on drugs, or in jail, or even dead. I somehow managed to get out of that mess. For years I was a just another guy working in a mill, I worked hard, continued my education, and managed to get to a point where as long as I continue to work hard my daughter has a shot to do some great things. That’s all I can ask for. I am lucky because I can see things from two sides. I was on one side and now I’m on the other. Many people don’t ever get that chance. Most of us are born into a station and stay in it for our entire lives. There is nothing wrong with that, and the world worked that way for a long, long time. The only problem with it is that sometimes we don’t know or realize how things are different for people who aren’t like us, and that makes it easy to run down somebody who may not have had the same advantages or even disadvantages that you have.
    I’m glad that you mentioned chisels as your example because I have a funny story about it. Once a guy emailed me and asked me why I used such crappy chisels. My chisels are made by MHG and I have nothing against them, I don’t think they are great but they certainly work. I’ve come to the conclusion that the hand tool/ power tool war isn’t even about that, it’s about a tool class system. What made me realize this is that I’ve seen many blog posts and forums where people had said that they made the switch from power tools to hand tools. Even then they had gotten replies saying things like: why don’t you get some “real” tools, or something to that effect. These weren’t people trying to give advice, they were just looking for an opportunity to put somebody down because they couldn’t afford a certain tool, nothing more. Believe me I have nothing against good tools. If I could afford a $400 set of chisels I would already have them. Like you had said, the divide at it’s heart is really down to tool cost, and what is that really? People being snobs!
    Sorry about the rant, but you made some good points that I had to talk about 🙂
    Bill

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