The Slightly Confused Woodworker

Home » Hand Tools » More swag, and my wonderful opinions.

More swag, and my wonderful opinions.


Last Saturday I attended a Lie Nielsen Hand Tool Event at Hearne Hardwoods in or around Oxford PA. I’ve been to several LN events already so I know the drill. The main reason I attended was the chance to look around at Hearne, but I did purchase a new plane, for the kids. The plane I purchased is a #48 tongue and groove plane. I purchased it in good faith, because I’ve only really used it one time. It is quite the specialty tool, and in reality the type of tool that I try to avoid owning. But I like the tongue and groove joint, I use a lot of 3/4″ stock, and I hate making tongue and grooves using a table saw. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get my saw to produce a truly nice fitting joint, at least not without a whole lot of work. I believe that the #48 will eliminate the unnecessary work involved and use all of my energy the correct way. I also purchased a new dust brush, as my old brush bit the dust, no pun intended. Though attending a hand tool event is not the magical experience it used to be, getting that Lie Nielsen box in the mail doesn’t suck, and I was truly excited to open it. Now, once my bedroom remodel is finished, hopefully this weekend, I’ll mess around with the plane and share my thoughts on it.

Something good is inside

Something good is inside

LN #48

LN #48

Swag!

Swag!

On another note, the latest issue of Popular Woodworking magazine arrived today. I haven’t had the chance to really check it out as of yet, but I did read the editorial, the End Grain section, and an article about Peter Follansbee. Before I go any further, I would like to point out that my knowledge of Peter Follansbee begins and ends with the three page article I just read, before that, I had seen his name in passing here or there on woodworking forums. According to the article, Peter is a period furniture maker specializing in making early American furniture, as in very early American, as in 17th century. His shop is at the Plimoth Plantation, which is a living history museum/settlement in New England. All of that sounds very cool, and I can certainly respect what he is doing, as well as his woodworking abilities. However, in the article, Mr. Follansbee laments “People just don’t make anything anymore. They have no concept whatsoever of how things are made or how long it takes!”. As I said earlier, I don’t know Mr. F from Adam. He could very well be the nicest, most patient person on planet Earth, but if I’m reading the article correctly, there seems to be some resentment or bitterness towards…something.

The statement “people just don’t make anything anymore…” is a very generalized statement. He is painting with a very broad brush, as a friend of mine would say. I make things, and I understand the building and manufacturing process, as well as the shipping and marketing process. Both my father and father-in-law have the same qualities as I. The guys I work with, all guys in an office, all have an understanding of the manufacturing process, and all have some sort of hobby where they work with their hands. We are an eclectic group. My boss, along with two of my co workers, each grew up on a farm. I grew up in Philadelphia, another guy grew up in Reading PA. Two of the guys grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, one was an Army brat who went from California to Greece to the Far East. We all come from different backgrounds, and though none of us works in a living history museum, that doesn’t mean we are completely ignorant of the building and making process. As I was saying earlier, I attended a LN hand tool event last weekend. There were many hundreds of people there who all liked to make things. Seems to me that there are more than just a few people walking around who know a little bit about what it means to make something.

If I can offer my two cents, I would say that maybe many of the people that Peter Follansbee interacts with on a daily basis at his place of employment don’t do much building. That could be the very reason they are at a living history museum in the first place, to gain a little knowledge. It would also seem to me that Mr. Follansbee understands very little about how a modern economy actually operates. When he states: “It’s been interesting to see how far we’ve moved away from making things.” he forgets his history; he forgets the switch from an agrarian to an industrial society; he forgets the Civil War, the expansion west, the First and Second World War, the influx of immigrants from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. He forgets the fact that the ‘artisan’ life style is not sustainable on grand scale in a global market. It appears that he is chalking up those changes to laziness or stupidity. Hypothetically, if the vision of a world of ‘artisans’ existed, it is quite likely that Peter Follansbee would not even be in business. Either the competition would have driven him off, or the lack of demand for his services.

I for one am glad that people like Peter Follansbee do what they do. It is a good thing to remember how things were done long ago; it is a good thing to remember the heritage of the United States of America. Nobody can deny the woodworking skills that Mr. Follansbee has; you need look no farther than his creations; I just could do without the scolding. I could very well be misinterpreting the article. As I said before, I do not know the man at all and he very well could be the nicest person in creation. But, going by some of his other statements which were written in the article, it seems to me that he, like many woodworkers of a certain group, has a superiority complex. Peter Follansbee may be a great woodworker, but that doesn’t automatically make him a great person, or more importantly, it doesn’t make his views and assessments of mankind accurate. The fact that the average person doesn’t really understand how furniture was made in the 17th century doesn’t automatically make them ignorant fools. I can draw up, with the help of a computer program, a 1200 amp, three phase electrical service with panelboards, individual metering, feed through lugs, and it’s disconnecting systems fairly quickly. I can provide approval drawings of the transformers, where they would be located, and their safety disconnects. I do that for a living. I could ask Peter Follansbee to work up a project such as this for me and he might not know what I was talking about. Should I automatically assume that nobody knows anything about electrical work anymore? The truth is that what Peter Follansbee does for a living is a very specialized field, just like electrical planning. The other truth is that what Peter Follansbee does was also a very specialized field back in the 17th century. Just like the visitors at his museum today, a common fellow of 1687 probably didn’t do much chair carving either; that fact doesn’t make them or him useless.

Before I go, I would again like to point out that this is not a personal attack of any kind. The world truly does need more people like Peter Follansbee, but it could do without the condescending attitudes and insults. I am trying to do my best to not jump to a conclusion because I read a three page article in a magazine. I would also ask that a professional woodworker not jump to conclusions and judge people and their abilities after a brief conversation he had with them at a museum; not only would I ask it, I would expect it. If the world really could benefit from woodworking of the 17th century, maybe it also could benefit from the era’s ideals and courtesies as well. And people call me vitriolic?

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10 Comments

  1. Picking on Follansbee?? OK, I’ll bite. I think you’re overreacting to that nobody-makes-anything statement; my impression is that, by-and-large, the thousands of people he talks to a the museum have no idea how furniture is built, much less build their own. I think that’s a fair generalization. Obviously, we both know lots of people who build stuff, from cars to furniture, but I also know a lot of people who don’t know a screwdriver from shinola. They buy furniture and toss it when it breaks, trade in the car before it needs a tuneup, and have enough disposable income to visit museums in the summer (unlike me). Is that bad? I think there’s a case to be made that doing _something_ with your hands is worthwhile, so you don’t end up like that guy I knew in grad school who wouldn’t use a shovel.

    Also, I strongly recommend watching a couple of the Woodwright’s Shop episodes with Follansbee and reading back through his blog. He’s good to watch (if you don’t mind handtool-17th c.-bias).

    • billlattpa says:

      I would definitely agree that most likely the majority of the people that he interacts with at the museum don’t make much furniture. Yet I think he, like many woodworkers like him, form the easy opinion that these people and their lack of building skills is some sort of character flaw. Just as we try not to judge children, but their parents instead, shouldn’t we judge today’s society not on what it is, but what made it that way?

      For the most part, the changes in the way people live, work, recreate, and create were brought about more than 100 years ago. You could make the argument that people shouldn’t be ignorant of the past, and that would be true, but isn’t that the reason they are visiting his museum in the first place, to learn about the way things used to be done? I honestly hated to use Follansbee by name because I don’t want my post to be about him, but the mentality of a certain group of woodworkers as a whole. Like I said in the post, Follansbee is probably a very nice person. Even so, I don’t agree with his assessment.

      My daughter can’t milk a cow. Is that her fault? It’s certainly not mine. I don’t own cows and I don’t have the means or the property to own them. That certainly doesn’t give a dairy farmer the right to look down upon my existence, or think he is better than me because I know nothing about cow milking. Nearly everybody would agree with what I just said, but translate the analogy to ‘traditional woodworking’ and suddenly you’re not getting the same poll results. Why is that? Worse yet, some of these guys not only are looking down at the general public because they don’t woodwork, they far too often look down upon other woodworkers, simply for not doing it the way they do. That is what I like to question, and add my counterpoint to on occasion. I just don’t want it to sound like a personal attack. Thanks.
      Bill

  2. Fun example, because as it happens, I can milk a cow by hand :). In addition, I feel bad for my kids that they don’t know how to do that, or how to split and stack firewood. Is that their fault? Nope, we just don’t have the space for that. That doesn’t mean I look down on people who can’t do those things, and I’d be more than happy to teach anyone how, given the opportunity. Like you said, someone at the museum, looking and asking questions, is likely already interested. Where I’ll start losing respect for people is when they think manual labor or craft work is beneath them.

    In the abstract sense, I think looking down on people who don’t do woodwork or change their own oil is wrong, and I think that’s your broader point. In this particular case, I didn’t get a sense of disdain or snobbery from the article, and in fact I enjoyed it. Maybe Follansbee thinks the 17th c. was a better time and wishes we were living in the past, but I didn’t quite get that either. As a fan of his work, I may be biased, so bear in mind that I’m only arguing against the personal angle of your thesis here.

    • billlattpa says:

      I will also have to admit, that as a kid I would spend a few weeks every summer at a farm, and believe it or not I have milked cows. Still, I can’t call myself an expert, or even good at it. My daughter is lucky in the sense that my in-laws own a farm in upstate PA. They don’t use the land for farming though, they rent a small portion of it out to some farmers. But she already has had the opportunity to see me split wood and do other chores around the land.

      I hated to use Follansbee by name, but as the article is about him I had no choice if I wanted to be concise. I have no real feelings either way about him. I respect what he does and his talent. My ‘problem’ is not with him but an attitude that has really crept into the world of ‘written’ woodworking, and that is a holier-than-thou mentality towards anybody who sees things a little bit differently. Follansbee, Christopher Schwarz, Adam Cherubini et al have every right on God’s green Earth to live their lives by any ideology they see fit. They have every right to advocate their choices, but I don’t see any right to criticize those who choose to go a different route. To take that a step further, you could even say that they have a right to criticize, even though it may not necessarily be morally correct, but if they feel the need to criticize they should also not be surprised if there are those who may be upset by it.

      All that being said, this may have come off as a personal attack and it really wasn’t meant to be. I know nothing of Peter Follansbee as a person. I would be under the assumption that he is a good guy, simply because he has managed to make a career partially by interacting with the public. A mean spirited person would not last long at that job. I, like you, did enjoy the article, and I may be misinterpreting it. But I like to think that I’ve read enough articles like it to read between the lines, and I do think there are a few jabs there, as very subtle as they may be. Thanks.
      Bill

  3. Hi Bill,

    FWIW I think perhaps you might of been looking a bit too hard for a point that was not being made.
    More broadly I support the basis for your post which I think is we all need to find a healthy respect for anyone who goes out to work to put food on the table, be that a brain surgeon or a refuse collector. Further to that to know we cant know everything about everything and we are very fortunate to have a diverse range of folks doing a diverse range of things with a wealth of skills for us to enjoy.

    • billlattpa says:

      The article, and Peter Follansbee for that matter, probably weren’t good choices on my part to bring up the point that I was trying to make. I used the example because the article brought it to mind after I read it. I was saying to another commenter that I have no problem with Peter Follansbee in the least. I don’t know him even an inkling. I have to assume that he is a pretty nice guy just because of where he works. Like you said, my post was really not about Mr. Follansbee, but a broad line of thinking that has crept into the world of ‘written’ woodworking.

      That community of writers and woodworkers, which is a very small one, has become very close knit. That’s to be expected, as they all share similar ideals and philosophy. That in itself can be a great thing, and a lot of good can come from it. At the same time, when you have a small group of like minded people, it can lead to a very narrow minded way of thinking. When everybody you associate with has the same view point, that view point has no choice but to be ‘correct’. Kept within the group, there is no problem. When you present your ideas to a wider audience there is nothing wrong with that either, as it may get people to see things in a new perspective. But when your ideas become the only ideas, and you decide that those who don’t live by them aren’t doing something right, that is when I have an issue with it.

      Just as Follansbee, Schwarz, Roy Underhill and crew have the right to feel that the world needs to slow down, or embrace older customs, I believe that others have the right to defend their own choices in life. The feasibility of the general public of the 21st century suddenly embracing the world of the 17th century is nearly non-existent. We can all take some of the good ideas of past generations and incorporate them into our lives. That would probably be a good thing when it comes down to it. But I think there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and criticizing people for something that is really out of their control isn’t the right way in my opinion. Thanks.
      Bill

  4. onecarwood says:

    Great post! He may be referring to the ever shrinking market for someone that makes custom things and price accordingly. In these past few years I think there has been, what I call, the Walmart effect. Seems people still want that handmade quality but are only willing to part with Walmart money. I know I am stretching a bit but I have run across this more and more over the past few years. I did get the magazine but have not read much from it yet so maybe that would be a good idea before commenting on a post like this!

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks. I hope that my post didn’t come off as a bashing of Peter Follansbee, because it really isn’t meant to be in the least. I think that the real issue here isn’t Peter Follansbee, but the mentality of some in the woodworking community concerning “moderns” as they call them. In my opinion, if something should be called into question, it shouldn’t be the way that people woodwork today, or even live in general, but the reasons why. There is a line of thinking that working with your hands is a concept that is being lost. I agree with that 100%. But we can’t criticize everybody living today who doesn’t work with his or her hands, because it really isn’t their fault. All any person can do is work with what is given to them. Most people born within the past 60 years will never really know what it’s like to work with their hands, or to make something from scratch. But is it really their fault? This is the world they were born in to.

      I said in my post that the world needs people like Peter Follansbee, to keep those ideals alive. But rather than to condemn those who don’t understand, wouldn’t those of us who do know a little bit be better served by showing and teaching what we know? I’m tired of the scolding nature of some of these articles. I’ve read too many of them to believe that they are simply bio pieces. I think there needs to be a change in the way they are presented, and in the mentality behind them. If we want more people to work with their hands, we should be sharing the joys of doing it, rather than condemning them for not. Thanks again for your comment.
      Bill

      • onecarwood says:

        No it doesn’t come off like that at all! In my mind it’s raising the bigger question of why this shift is happening. Working with your hands just isn’t as lucrative as it used to be. So that shift is just a reflection of the times as you have pointed out. Thanks for the post!

      • billlattpa says:

        No problem, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the comments!
        Bill

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