The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Nobody knows how to do anything anymore.


At work today I had to do a 600 amp, three-phase service lay out; they are fairly common in my line of work. The service consisted of a 75kva 480-120/208 transformer, a 600 amp MDP panel, a 600 amp 3R service disconnect, 3-200 amp 3R service disconnects, 3-200 amp MCB panels, 3-meters, and the kilowatt meter. A service of this size I can usually have laid-out and priced with the approval drawings in 20-30 minutes using a computer. If I have to do it by hand, which is very rare, it takes longer. You wouldn’t believe the questions I get concerning these services. People have no concept of how electricity works, and what it takes to distribute and meter it safely. I’m seeing this more and more.

Surely some of you reading this may say that I’m not being fair. After all, I’ve had nearly two years of schooling in electrical systems, 67 credit hours to be exact, not to mention on the job training and ten years of work experience; it should be expected and required of me to know more than the layman. Maybe. But there are books, videos, courses, etc. available to anybody who wants to learn more about electrical systems and how they function. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to learn the basics of electrical distribution. Electricity has been in widespread use for nearly one hundred years; the tools haven’t changed much; even the way it is generated has remained rather consistent. Surely the only things keeping the average person from learning about electricity, it’s uses, it’s generation, it’s equipment, and it’s tools are laziness and stupidity, aren’t they?

I know that some of you who read this probably are thinking that I am nothing more than a total jerk right about now. You may be wondering how I could be so presumptuous to assume that any person who doesn’t possess common knowledge of a skilled trade that requires years of schooling, practice, and on the job training must be nothing more than a lazy fool blissful in his own ignorance. You may be wondering how I could be so callous as to scoff at their questions concerning my trade. You may be wondering why I think it ridiculous for any person not to own a professional set of electrical tools. You may think that I am a creep because even though I do electrical work for a living, I expect people who are not exposed to it very often to have as much knowledge and skill as I do. You might think of me as nothing more than a complete A**hole to expect an amateur to dedicate all of his free time to learning about electricity, otherwise he is not worthy of the knowledge.

Now that I think about it, those of you who think those things may be absolutely correct. But I don’t mean to insult; I am just passionate. With all due respect, shouldn’t I expect everybody to be as passionate as I? Don’t I have a right to do that? I’m just doing my best to be an ambassador to the trade; is that wrong? I know that I get paid for my work in the trade, but shouldn’t I be able to expect the same level of dedication from those who want to learn about it just for fun in the little free time that they have? The bottom line is, I am only trying to get you people off your asses and show you just how rewarding electrical work can be. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?



  1. Interesting post, though I’m interested in electricity myself. Where does the “anymore” part come in? Did more people know how to do this 20, 30 years ago? I’m not sure.

    Speaking for myself, I’ve helped my dad do single-phase services and a fair bit of 120/240 wiring, both in EMT and Romex. I also rewired my 68 Jeep based on the wiring diagram, after it burned up and melted the harness. However, after a little blue flash and tripping a breaker when I was in college, I won’t touch 3-phase. The basic concept isn’t hard, but when there’s a mix of 120/208/240/480, it’s best left to someone who understands the existing system. That gives me a little bit of sympathy for the DIY woodworker who isn’t comfortable adding a 220 circuit to their garage (though understanding the blasted NEC is harder than actually doing the work).

  2. billlattpa says:

    Firstly, I wouldn’t recommend a newbe installing a 240v circuit. 240v hurts, and can easily kill you with the right circumstances. But you brought up an interesting point, electrical work, is not something commonly understood by the average person. I see no fault in that at all, and my post was somewhat of a metaphor. Woodworking, as a hobby, has not existed for a very long time. It’s probably been less than 100 years, even 75, which is miniscule when considering that woodworking as a profession has been around since the beginning of recorded history. Woodworking, like other trades and up until very recently on a historical scale, was a profession learned through years of study and apprenticeships. The average person did not do much, if any woodworking, though they certainly knew the trade existed. So when I read another article today on the internet with a woodworker wondering why “nobody woodworks anymore” I wanted to point out that his statement was completely ass backwards. More people woodwork now than ever, and up until the end of the 19th century, there really was no such thing as a woodworking hobbyist. Woodworking/furniture making was a job done by a relatively very small number of highly trained craftsman.
    Despite what many people think, not many people owned woodworking tools, and the highly coveted old woodworking tools of today were carpenters tools 125 years ago. There are more home woodworkers now than there were professionals of yesteryear, both in actuality and relative to each era’s respective populations. It seems to me that more people are “making” things now than there ever were. Yet take every trade, from electrical to mason, to carpentry, and there doesn’t seem to be the backlash from the tradesman to the layman that exists when it comes to the professional woodworker and the hobbyist. I wonder about that, and I wonder if professional woodworkers are as great a group as people think they are.

  3. Hey, using a tablesaw is dangerous, too, and I’d recommend that newbies stay away from those. Kickback hurts, and they can easily kill or maim you in the right circumstances. Leave that to the professional woodworkers!

    That was mostly tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there are comparisons to be made with any trade. If I recall correctly, some of the books published in the 19th c were aimed at gentlemen woodworkers, and I recall reading that the (French?) royalty thought ornamental wood turning was a great pastime. The bar for entry has certainly lowered since then, as a larger number of people have free time and disposable income. I’m not sure if there are more home woodworkers today than 20-30 years ago, though; I knew people who were heavily into it back when I was a kid. Are there a lot more people doing hobby woodworking today, or are we just more aware of each other due to the internet? It’s possible that the DIY field has narrowed, and pushed more people into woodworking, since being a shade-tree mechanic isn’t too feasible with computerized cars.

    • billlattpa says:

      The number of hobbyists has probably remained fairly consistent over the past 50 years relative to the population. But woodworking has not existed as a hobby for a very long time, at least not in the United States. I must have seen half a dozen posts on woodworking forums over the past week basically echoing Peter Follansbee saying “people just don’t make anything anymore!” That is an insulting statement. That is like asking a guy walking down the street to set your broken leg, and when he can’t , saying “people just don’t know how to be a doctor anymore!” Woodworking is a specialized field that requires years of training and experience to be good. Follansbee has been woodworking since he’s been a kid, he should be good at it, and shame on him if he’s not.

      I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more than a few professional woodworkers who are nothing more than bitter assholes when it comes to the field they work in. I don’t expect the layman to understand how long it takes to install an electrical system, why should Follansbee, or any professional woodworker for that matter, expect a person off the street to know how long it takes to carve a chair? It’s such a poor line of thinking that it keeps me away from the forums. I don’t want to be associated with that nonsense on any level.

    • Chuck Bender says:

      For the record, Adam, I have never killed or maimed a newbie with a tablesaw…ever…ok, maybe just once…or so

  4. Good blog, respectfully disagree..

    I’m a cook, (in N.American-ese, that would be a “Chef”, but that’s another argument for another day) did a 3 yr apprenticeship in Europe, worked in 5 star houses in Europe and S.E Asia for almost 10 years before hanging out my own shingle.

    I hate smart-azzes who think they know it all. Yes, you may know how to make a cake like on Foodnetwork, great, fantastic. But the T.V. never told you how many hours went into that cake, and how much a man-hour costs. Now I have to deal with it, “Why should I pay $40 for a cake that I can do at home?” Uh…’cause I work out of inspected commercial premises and have overhead costs, labour costs, ingredient costs, packaging costs and every level of Gov’t AND Visa wanting a piece of the action?

    Ignorance is bliss, as far as I am concerned. A little knowledge is dangerous and make the person a total dip-wad when he thinks he has something over another one. And someone who has the same or more knowledge than you can either be a very wonderful experience or a very humbling experience.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think you and I are in agreement more than you think. I like to believe that I am like most amateur woodworkers; I am okay, but I also know that I will never have the time and training to become “great”. It seems to me that some, if not a lot, of pro woodworkers look at the amateur and expect something out of them that they cannot give. When Peter Follansbee makes statements like “people just don’t make anything anymore!” How does he know? He came to that conclusion after talking to a person for less than 3 minutes at one of his chair carving demonstrations. The person he was talking to may be an expert in his or her respective line of work. That person may have spent years in school and training to do his job. Follansbee, who makes chairs, it seems thinks that if you are NOT making chairs for a living, your existence is somehow lessened. To be clear, this article was not really a response to what Follansbee had said, but a person on a woodworking forum who basically repeated it word for word and passed it off as his own thought.

      For instance, if you baked a cake and one of the customers said “Wow that was really good, it must have taken a lot of work to make it” Would that statement insult you? Would you come to the conclusion that nobody cooks anymore because they don’t know how to make professional quality food? It insulted Follansbee when he was asked a similar question, and apparently it insults a certain group of pro woodworkers who I won’t name.

      I for one know that electrical work can be complicated at times, and sometimes dangerous. I would never be insulted if a layman asked me an electrical question they weren’t too sure about. I would be more insulted if they automatically assumed that they knew the answer because “how hard can it be?”. I wouldn’t expect a layman to have a full line of electrical tools; I wouldn’t expect a layman to have years of training and experience. I know that it isn’t always fair to compare a trade like electrical work to woodworking. But my point is that we are in an era when the woodworking hobbyist makes up the bulk of woodworking done in North America. Without woodworking hobbyists, woodworking magazines and tool companies would possibly cease to exist. Most of the hobbyists are people like me, guys who know how to work with their hands a little and enjoy it in their spare time. Yet some of the professional woodworkers and writers expect the hobbyist to behave and woodwork the same way they do, and if not they start with the insults. I doubt that you would expect a person off the street to be able to walk into your restaurant and cook a world class dinner; so why do woodworking writers expect the same out of the amateur? Would you expect every home cook to have a professional level kitchen and top grade appliances and cooking ware? I doubt it, but the professional woodworker expects that out of the amateur, though they hide behind their statements when they say it.

      So I really think that you and I are on the same page. Amateurs should allowed to be amateurs, and the pros should not expect any more than that.

  5. C Bowen says:

    That does it. DEFINITELY, hiring someone to sub-panel my basement shop when I finally get tired of the lights dimming when I flip on the planer. Appreciate your passion.

    • billlattpa says:

      Sub-panels are pretty straightforward. Make sure the power is off and your connections are tight. Always make sure you are getting the correct voltage when the power is on; you don’t want to damage your tools 🙂

  6. John Vernier says:

    Although I agree broadly with what you are saying, I think you are distorting Peter Follansbee’s complaint, and his attitude. I have seen him teach a couple of times now, and talked with him a little, and I have seen none of the arrogance or dismissiveness you attribute to him – quite the opposite, in fact. He is an excellent and somewhat self-deprecating teacher who really connects with his audience while he demonstrates the skills he has learned and, often, rediscovered from the distant past – and this is his living. He comes across as very excited about what he is doing, and I don’t blame him. At Plimoth Plantation, he is as much a professional educator as he is a professional woodworker.
    His remark about people not making anything any more came, I think, from his interactions with a certain type of museum visitor, who comes across as startled and confused that anyone actually makes anything by hand anymore. I don’t need to imagine this. I have done a fair amount of public demonstration (woodworking and blacksmithing), and I have seen this reaction, a lot. In fact, I think it is more common by far, than the sort of people who relate naturally to the idea of making things. I think you are quite right that there are more hobbyist woodworkers now than at any time in the past, and probably more hobbyist makers of all sorts, but I think this still amounts to a minority of people who are comfortable with making things, and that is a big difference between now and the past. I would like to see this change, of course, and I suspect Peter Follansbee does too, otherwise I don’t think he would have lasted for 20 years at a job where he spends his days demonstrating his craft to the general public.

    Which is not to say there aren’t arrogant jerks among professional woodworkers, because yeah, I’ve met those too. But I don’t think Follansbee is one of them.

    • billlattpa says:

      I would have to believe that you are spot on when it comes to Follansbee. I don’t know him from Adam, but he would not have lasted long at his job had he not been a good guy. I think it’s easy to take certain things out of context. My post was more aimed at several remarks I read on a woodworking forum from people echoing his statements. I feel that it is easy to look at the average person and jump to certain conclusions. In reality, the average person of today is far more educated than the person of yesteryear. That education is broad covering a large amount of topics, and then many take several years of specialty training and schooling. While all of this is good, it leaves little time for things such as woodworking. People must do what they have to in order to survive and earn a living. A small segment of the population can do that through woodworking. The rest of us do what we can.
      I am good friends with quite a few teachers. They are great people, but I have to say that they are the first to have what I call a “holier than thou” attitude concerning their jobs. Woodworkers are a close second, especially the by hand only camp. It doesn’t make them bad people, but in a sense they are not grounded in reality. I have no problem with that until its thrown in my face(figuratively) on a woodworking forum. I like to believe there is room for everybody, and that a person who even visits a place such as a living history museum has already taken the step in learning about a world different than his own. I can’t see any reason that should be criticized, but rather the woodworking community should embrace it. Unfortunately, that happens far less than it should.

  7. The thing that I struggle with is not that people are not passionate about specific trades or skills, but that so many people seem to lack passion about anything at a all.

    When people ask me about handwriting or woodworking or many other subjects, I can tell that they are either not genuinely interested and are just passing time by asking questions because they are uncomfortable with silence, or, more commonly, they are just lazy. I cannot tell you how many times people have started off a question with, “You know, I’ve always wondered about….,” and they proceed to ask me something amazingly basic and could be answered by picking up a book or even in two seconds in searching a search engine.

    There are things that are very dangerous if one does not know what one is doing, but since so many people are doing them safely and successfully, obviously, they can be done with a bit of learning.

    I do think that there are certain areas that people are just not interested in, and I think that is okay. For an eighty year old woman to not know how to rebuild a transmission is fine with me, but there are other things that are a bit more disturbing.

    Before my hearing was damaged, I worked at a musical instrument/gear retail store. There were quite a few younger people working there with me. When the younger guys found out that I knew about automotive repair, they started asking me things like, “You know how to change your own oil?!” “Can you show me how to fill my windshield wiper fluid?” Do you know how to unlock a car with a coat hanger?” or even, “I need a jump and I have cables. Can you show me how to jump it?”

    So, skills in subjects that, at least when I was younger, used to be common, practical knowledge, should be learned, in my opinion, but if people choose not to, then they are the ones who will be in some sort of predicament at some point or will need to spend quite a bit of money to have others do it for them. I try to take the opportunity to show them how easy it is and show them how to do it and leave it at that.

    Where I focus the emphasis of my urging of people to learn now, are in areas where most people don’t even know it is there to be learned and how, often times, doing things the old ways can provide a safer, cheaper, faster, and superior result.

    End of soliloquy.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think there is a definite lack of interest in certain ways of doing things, and many of those things are manual labor type tasks. I think society as a whole is to be blamed for that line of thinking. We all put in ridiculous hours at work trying to earn a living. Everything from cars to houses to food is ridiculously expensive. At the end of the day, or week, people are run down, exhausted, and want little to do with changing oil, or sawing boards. or what have you. There is a part of that which can be attributed to little more than laziness, and ignorance.

      I’ve been fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) enough to see things from both sides. From the age of 20 to 33, I worked at a very physical job. It was a job operating machinery, with loads of heavy lifting, being on my feet for 10-12 hours a day, and of course working with my hands. The job left me physically exhausted every day and eventually took its toll on my back. Now, much of what I do is behind a desk, and while I work at a less physically demanding job, it has its mental stresses that also leave me exhausted. I spent years learning my job skills, both in the class room and on the job. I’ve done my best to be assured a decent living. There are days, I admit freely, that I don’t want to do any more, I don’t want to learn any more, I just want to come home and relax. I think a lot of people fall into that category. There comes a time when you’ve just had enough.

      It’s funny that you worked at a music store, because I was a part time musician for years. To use that example, some musicians get to a point where they put in their practice everyday, play their gigs 3 nights a week, and that is enough. They are good enough to earn a living, and they know enough to get by. So when it comes time to change their oil, or maybe hang a door in their house. they call somebody to do it. Of course you can read a few books, or do a little research, and learn how to do those things yourself, but some people just aren’t built that way. I was always the guy who bought the books, or experimented, or took the weekend class. That mentality is probably why I eventually started woodworking. But I don’t look at it as a character flaw when somebody doesn’t think the same way I do.

      There are certain jobs I want no part of, from trash collector, to policeman, to doctor, to politician. I am glad that there are people who are willing to do them. That doesn’t give any one of those people the right to look down on what I do because I want no part of what they do. I think some woodworkers exhibit a superior attitude because “I work with my hands”. I don’t care for it. I am proud that I woodwork, I am proud of the furniture I make, I am proud of my hand tools and what they stand for, but I am no better than an accountant who sits behind a desk all day and doesn’t know a hand plane from a space ship. Don’t get me wrong, that very same accountant may look down on what I do, but as long as he keeps it to himself that is his right. It’s when that attitude starts creeping its way into woodworking forums and magazines that I get bothered, and it seems that I am seeing it more and more. Thanks, and I enjoyed your soliloquy!

  8. In regards to cakes vs. 600 amp 3 ph services, no I don’t feel insulted when people ask me questions. I do feel insulted when people assume that because I enjoy making stuff, that
    A) my time spent making the item has no value, because I enjoy making it, B) Because I work with my hands and have no University degree, my work is somehow inferior, and
    C) People always want to compare my work to someone else’s.

    In regards to P. Follansbee’s statement, Yes, I really do indentify with it. When scouting out highschools for our kids a few years back, the majority of the schools had no shop classes, or no home economics classes, so there is little opportunity to learn how to make things with their hands at school. Now compound this with students of parents who also have no experience working with their hands, (no exposure to working with your hands…) and the prevailing attitude that in order to be successful in life, a university degree is an absolute must. These opinions were formed by talking to people–customers or otherwise, from my side of the cash register over the last 15 years

    • billlattpa says:

      I do agree that we lose something when we don’t work with our hands. Most people, if given the opportunity and guidance, find a real joy in making something. I also agree with the over emphasis on university education. I went to college for 3 years because I had planned on teaching music. One day I realized that if I wanted to get married and start a family, I would need to make more money, bottom line. Because I already had a background in electrical work and machinery, I took an associates course in electrical systems. Nowadays, it seems every other person walking the street has some sort of masters degree in..something..but to me they are empty sheets of paper. I put no stock in them. Not to brag, but had I wanted to I could have gotten a masters degree rather easily, I just didn’t feel like spending $40,000 for a sheet of paper that anybody with $40,000 can obtain over the course of a few summers. I have nothing against a masters degree, or any degree for that matter, but I do not think that they are “earned” anymore.

      That being said, the converse is that many people who work with their hands tend to look down upon people who don’t. To use Follansbee as an example again; he specializes in chairs. No offense, but if the world lost it’s supply of ornately carved chairs I don’t think it would be plunged into chaos. I’m not knocking what he does for a living, but just like the world needs furniture makers, it also needs doctors, accountants, garbage men, and computer geeks.

      Believe me, I get my share of questions that you wouldn’t believe. That first part of my post was very true. People have very little understanding of how the “mechanics of infrastructure and living” actually work. I do believe that every adult should have a basic understanding of those things. Part of the problem is nothing more than ignorance, both self imposed and because of the system at large. Ignorance often breeds laziness, or at least they sometimes go hand in hand. I don’t condemn anybody for it, though. It’s not my place. For as many people are lazy, there still are a lot of people who work hard, and are good people, yet they may not know the inner workings of chair carving. The fact is most people don’t have carved furniture in their homes, me included, and the real truth is that I personally don’t care for how it looks, but that is just the opinion of one man. I don’t consider that a character flaw or a failure of the system. I do know that many, many studies have proven that the average working person puts in more hours, wears more “hats” at work, and makes relatively less money now than for nearly a century. That HAS to be part of the problem here. I can attest to those statistics first hand, I’ve lived them!

      I know only one thing, and that is I don’t know the answer, or even if there needs to be an answer. Like I said, when it comes down to it, it really isn’t my place to judge. Thanks.

  9. Michael Murphy says:

    I’m retired now after thirty years of Marine Wiring. I specialized in yacht upgrades and always prided my self that when you open a panel that I had built, I always wanted you to appreciate how it looked. It’s not all about load calculations and the shortest runs you could get away with. My company’s motto was “Wiring-It’s an Art not just a Science” maybe if you don’t see yourself building something worthwhile then maybe it’s not. I’ve trained enough people to know you have to have a natural God given gift to think electrically. Credits and classrooms are great but that makes you a wire mathematician but maybe not a Electrician.

    • billlattpa says:

      I worked mainly in residential and commercial wiring once I got out of the printing industry. I always wanted my load centers and panelboards to look “labeled and parallel” as we used to say. I did more than my fair share of load calculations and there was a time when for a regular residence I could do them in my head. It was something that came naturally to me. I haven’t done a residential load calculation in more than 8 years, so nowadays I would probably need the code book to do one properly.
      I was very much a “code” electrician. The inspectors in the area are tough and it was simply much easier to be meticulous, take your time, and do it right the first time. I work in an office now and spend much of my time in parts, planning, and sales.
      In order to pull an electrical permit, most of the larger townships in PA require a master’s license, or at the very least a journeyman’s. In order to get a master’s license, we were required to have at least 900 hours of schooling which if you completed you were given an electrical certificate, and to maintain it you were required to have at least 9 credit hours per year if I remember right, though it’s been more than 8 years for me and things may be even more strict now. I am the first to say that degrees and diplomas tend to be overrated. In my case I had no choice, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to pull a permit. I know some electricians who have never taken a code examination and they are very good, at the same time, they are always dependent upon somebody else to get an electrical permit for them. I didn’t want to depend on anybody else, so I went to school for nearly two years 5 hours a day. 5 days per week. Believe me it wasn’t a picnic, especially because I was working full time while I did it. In an ideal world I wouldn’t have had to do it, but I knew that it was my best chance at making good money. Thanks.

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