The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Yet another reason I stopped reading professional woodworking blogs.


I’ve said before that for the past few months I’ve been generally avoiding “professional” woodworking blogs and web pages. This isn’t because of some personal vendetta, but because I feel that they have little to offer me as a woodworker. If I want to order a tool, DVD, or book I will go on a professional’s blog or web page, but as far as every day woodworking content is concerned, I can get it elsewhere. On another note, I simply don’t find most professional woodworking blogs very interesting. Much of the time they are dull and filled with bad puns and even less funny jokes. Yet with all that being said, I made the mistake today of clicking on a “favorited” post from Twitter titled “An open letter to Christopher Schwarz”. The link directed me to the Lost Art Press blog, where a post was written concerning a book review of The Anarchists Tool Chest written by a woodworker named David Savage. I clicked on the link to read the review.

Before I go on I would like to point out that as far as David Savage’s review is concerned, I agreed with nearly all of it. David enjoyed the book and felt that most of tool selections that Christopher Schwarz offered were good ones. He also pointed out that Christopher Schwarz’s call to amateur woodworkers to take up the mantle of fine woodworking is probably not feasible. An amateur woodworker by his very definition is an amateur. Like I’ve said before, to ask and expect amateur woodworkers to behave and woodwork like professionals is quite frankly stupid. A hobby ceases to be a hobby when it is approached professionally, and to approach a hobby professionally is impossible, unless you have the time to devote to becoming that expert, which again blurs the line between avocation and vocation. The reasons that most hobbyists don’t become professionals in their chosen hobbies are the same reasons for nearly every avocation, from golf to art to playing chess, and that is the amount of time the average person needs to dedicate to a field in order to become an expert automatically transforms that hobby to “profession”. My point being, if you dedicate 60 hours of week to woodworking (or any hobby); you are no longer a hobbyist, whether you are getting paid or no.

What I don’t agree with is David Savage’s statement that creating is “anarchy”, because it is not. Hobby woodworking is no more anarchistic than hobby golf. My wife grows a vegetable garden every spring time; does that make her an “anarchist chef”? I think not. Learning woodworking, either through an apprenticeship as a pro, or through classes and books as a hobbyist, is quite the opposite of anarchy. It is in fact very much an act of conformity and discipline. So how did hobby woodworking get lumped in with anarchy?

I believe that those hobby woodworkers who identify with anarchy do so because the act of working with your own two hands was/ is entirely new to many of them. Let’s face it, most hobby woodworkers are wealthy. Most of them grew up wealthy. Many are teachers, or lawyers, or accountants etc. These are all important jobs, but they generally involve little or no manual labor or handwork. The world I was born into, that many people are born into, is a little different. Unfortunately I didn’t grow up on a bucolic farm that wasn’t really a farm or in the perfection of suburban paradise. I grew up in the gritty world of inner city Philadelphia, where everybody in my neighborhood was a roofer, or carpenter, or steelworker, or factory worker, or electrician. Working with our hands was certainly not anarchy to us; it was and is very much a daily grind performed to keep roof over head on food on the table. And the real truth is that I find it insulting when some guy with a lot of money and free time turns his hobby woodworking project into some sort of bullshit political statement by finding the need to add way, way too much significance to it. Being proud of your woodworking project is commendable; telling everybody who will listen that your woodworking project is an act of defiance to corporate America is nothing more than sad self-importance. People in this country and the world around create every day, which does not make them anarchists; it makes them people who work for a living with their hands. Hobby woodworking, on the other hand, is no more anarchistic than writing Harry Potter fan fiction.

So you might be wondering why I am writing this post, as I’ve said it before in other posts. Well, the reason I am writing is because David Savage came off as a complete jerk in my opinion, and his attitude is one that I bet is shared by too many professional woodworkers. He doesn’t seem to care for amateur woodworkers all that much, which is fine with me because I don’t care for professionals either. But it seems he doesn’t object to taking their money, which doesn’t seem very anarchistic to me but that’s beside the point. I will guarantee that somebody will say that David Savage is a great guy and I am misreading what he wrote. Maybe he is and maybe I am, but in this particular instance he comes off as a dick. He is not remotely funny, and he is not a great writer, and don’t take that as a personal attack because it is not. My dad is not funny nor a great writer either, but I still love him.

Christopher Schwarz was quite happy to have the good review, and I can’t blame him for that. But he did somehow seem to compare Savage’s writing to Ernest Hemingway if I am reading it rightly. Well, if David Savage is Ernest Hemingway then so am I. He is not close to Ernest Hemingway; as a writer he is not even Mariel Hemingway. That is once again not meant as an insult; most professional woodworkers aren’t good writers for the same reasons that most professional writers aren’t good woodworkers. I’m glad that the book received the good endorsement, and I hope it adds to the continued success of both the title and to Lost Art Press as a company. I’m sure that Savage is a top-notch woodworker, so the need to over exaggerate his writing skills was unnecessary in my opinion, and I’ve read nearly every Hemingway title, as well as enough of Savage’s articles to at least have the right to form that opinion.

In the end, I am not happy in the least that I clicked on that link. Like I said, I made the choice to stop reading most professional blogs and I’ve been a much happier “amateur” woodworker for it. The few that I do read, I generally enjoy and keep it very light during the rare times when I do happen to interact with the author or commenters. Yet, a small part of me is at least okay to have clicked on that Twitter link, because reading that article confirmed my instincts. I am extremely happy to have stopped reading professional woodworking blogs, and never was that point proven more than today.

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18 Comments

  1. Boom! Bill, I can’t write like you can, if I did maybe my “Pro Blog” might get more readers :-). On Savage, I find it hard to navigate his writing, I instead look at the pictures of his and his students creations. Most of which are inovative and beautiful pieces. Could I ask what you look for in a blog? What draws you in and keeps in you intertested? I think know hat you don’t like.

    • billlattpa says:

      Hey Graham. Thanks for the compliment. As far as Savage, I only really know him from some of his woodworking articles. I don’t see anything special about anything that he has written. I don’t mean to sound insulting, because he is a woodworker and not a writer. But to compare him to a writer like Hemingway is way, way off base. He isn’t even what I would call good at blog writing, again no offense to him as a person.
      As far as woodworking blogs are concerned, I really enjoy reading blogs about projects being built. I like seeing a project go from an idea to finished. That is one of the reasons I like amateur blogs so much, because you can get detailed descriptions of each phase of the project. Woodworking magazines often times have to give a rough summary of a project which is understandable considering they have to fit the whole build into a few pages.
      At the risk of sounding pompous and self-centered, I would really like to see more woodworking blogs similar to my own in the sense that I really enjoy reading other woodworkers opinions. We are all adults here, and can agree to disagree at times. It seems that there are few woodworking blogs that offer opinions of any kind. For myself, I can’t blindly follow and agree without questioning. I would like to see more woodworkers, both amateur and pro, share their true feelings about woodworking without being afraid to “offend” somebody. I’m not easily insulted believe it or not, and I take disagreements as compliments as much as when somebody does happen to agree. If my opinion makes somebody question a belief or ideal, I consider it a victory whether they agree with me or not. The trick is to not be insulting on a personal level, which I honestly try to avoid at all costs.
      Other than that, I really am a normal guy 🙂
      Bill

  2. bloksav says:

    I would say that you are more like Irwin Shaw than Ernest Hemmingway (and that is very positive in my book).
    I have never been able to persuade myself into finishing a book by Hemmingway, I simply don’t like his writing style. But Shaw on the other hand.. He is a winner.

    I don’t see making something as anarchistic, but maybe that is because I like to be able to “leave my mark” in the World.
    I suppose that is one of the reasons why I mark the things I build. Part of me hopes that many years from now, some of my descendants will look at e.g. the workbench and say: Yup, Great grand father made that thing back in 2012.
    Have a nice weekend (and It is OK if you prefer Hemmingway to Shaw).
    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks Jonas! I can only recall reading one Irwin Shaw book, which was called The Young Lions if I remember right. It was a long time ago, but now you have me intrigued and I may have to pick up a few of his books to read. I am a big Hemingway fan, in particular A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. But I am also a fan of his short stories. In high school, my English composition teacher in 11th and 12th grade was a huge Hemingway fan, and encouraged me to read all of his works. I can honestly say that I’ve read nearly all of them except for A Moveable Feast.
      I too believe that making and creating is the exact opposite of anarchy. Anarchy is a mindset, not an action. A person who in every other way is a conformist may like building furniture, or gardening, or knitting. Enjoying any one of those hobbies certainly doesn’t qualify a person as an anarchist. Anarchy is a lack of structure and therefore cannot exist in a structured society. I don’t see building furniture as “going against the grain” in any sense. People have been building furniture for thousands of years. The knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation not only through apprenticeships, but through countless thousands of books and now video. Publishing structured knowledge in a book in order for readers to use it to learn and create is the antithesis of anarchy, which would instead encourage individual creation and design instead of following a hundred generations of oral and written tradition and structure.
      Like you, I build because I enjoy it, and I want to pass on my knowledge and creations to my family (again a very “conformist” way of thinking). Another reason I build is because I cannot afford to purchase custom furniture, and some of the furniture I wanted for my house would have to be made custom. Trust me, there is no anarchy here in my little section of Pennsylvania.
      Have a nice weekend 🙂
      Bill

  3. johnwiggers says:

    David Savage and Christopher Schwarz seem to have formed a mutual admiration society. Good for them; I hope they are very happy together.

    Does Savage come across as pretentious, and dismissive of amateur woodworkers? He certainly does to me, especially when he issues a blanket dismissal of women as makers by suggesting that “you gals” focus your creative talents on cooking, sewing and gardening.

    However, one should not assume that Savage’s arrogance is indicative of all professional woodworkers. First, let me say that regardless of how accomplished Savage comes across as a “professional woodworker” (based on the few images of his work that I’ve seen) his professional energies seem to be more directed at teaching, writing and doing tool reviews than actual furniture making. Therefore, from my perspective I see him as more of a professional woodworking writer/teacher who is talking his book as a maker.

    I have been a professional maker for over 30 years, and in that time I have crossed paths with some of the world’s most accomplished woodworkers and furniture makers, including Wendell Castle, Scott Grove, Vladimir Kagan, Garry Knox-Bennett, Silas Kopf, Po Shun Leong, Sam Maloof, Jere Osgood, Alfred Sharp, Lee Weitzman, and others. Let me say that regardless of whatever fame and success each of them has accomplished in their respective careers you will never find a more down to Earth and easy going group of individuals.

    As for writing styles, Bill, I am far more impressed with how you write, which is why I’m following your blog.

    • billlattpa says:

      You’re absolutely correct and I should clarify. When I say I don’t care for a lot of professional woodworkers, I don’t mean the profession. I’m speaking about the world of professional woodworking media, not the guys who own and work in cabinet shops. I personally know just a handful of people who build furniture for a living, but they are hard working, “average” people just like most. I’ve found the world of “written” woodworking to be a little different, however.
      I’ve read just a bit of what David Savage writes and I’ve never really cared for it, which is no big deal in and of itself. But I was somewhat surprised to see some other woodworking writers heap praise on his writing, because apparently a lot of woodworkers feel the same way I do about him. To me, it’s just a small clique of woodworking media professionals patting each other on the back because they know something “we” don’t.
      Thanks for reading my blog and for the compliment. I really appreciate it.
      Bill

  4. dzj9 says:

    There are very few pro ww blogs around.
    Most focus on publishing, teaching, tool peddling, various videos…
    Woodworking is just the niche in which their main activity resides.

    Don’t get me wrong, it is commendable when people in the twilight of their pro career turn to teaching and passing on
    the vast amount of knowledge they have accumulated, but such examples are few and far between.

    • Try My website at http://www.thewoodworkersguide.co.uk certainly no jokes and no puns.

    • billlattpa says:

      I agree. Most of the “pro” blogs/web pages are run by people who aren’t pro woodworkers in the sense that they sell furniture, but woodworking related items, like videos and tools and classes. When I say I don’t care for professional woodworkers, that is what I am referring to, not the everyday cabinetmaker. I have a great deal of respect for anybody who spends 40-50 hours per week working in a furniture shop, be it a small operation or a factory.
      And I would say that many professionals who’ve turned to teaching have done a great job. It’s some of those that try to become professional writers that annoy me. Thanks
      Bill

  5. dzj9 says:

    Had a look at your site, Adrian. Well laid out resources for anyone interested in the matter.
    And not only for the beginner.
    The first rule about drawers and doors made me laugh…so true.

  6. Andrew says:

    All people are amateurs until they perfect their skills in whatever ‘HOBBY’ they pursue. For Schwartz to infer that it is not feasible for amateurs to take up fine woodworking is a joke.Savage on the other hand is not only pretentious and dismissive of amateur woodworkers , he also comes across as chauvinistic with his views in regards to women. Thoroughly enjoyed this article.

    • billlattpa says:

      I have no problem with Schwarz giving an opinion like that; he has every right. I do have a problem with the aftermath, when all the “anarchists” on the forums started berating everybody who didn’t see eye to eye with it. I’ve heard it said many times “Amateurs are the only ones who can afford to take the time to be craftsman.” In theory that sounds like a good idea; professional shops need to get furniture out as quickly as possible to make money. In reality, amateurs have far less time. If we all were to follow the old apprenticeship course like the anarchists say we should, that would involve 5-7 years of woodworking 12 hours a day, 6 days a week just to get to the point where we could make furniture without supervision. It takes years of time and practice to become good. I’m not saying that amateurs cannot make good furniture, I’m saying that one year to a pro is like ten to an amateur.
      Another problem I had with the book is it’s very exclusionary. Woodworking is expensive and most woodworkers understand that. However, the book claims to be a call to woodworkers everywhere to start making “heirloom” furniture with a specific tool set. This set is very expensive no matter which way you slice it, and frankly out of the range of most hobby woodworkers. It will take the average person 5-10 years to just accumulate the set that Schwarz recommends. A wealthy person is the only person who could afford to gather that set together in a reasonable amount of time. I find it ironic that Schwarz calls for an ideology of creation, self reliance, and the rejection of consumerism, yet the only people who can really live by that ideology are people who are generally wealthy. To make my point: you don’t become wealthy by being an anarchist, no matter how you define the word.
      All that being said, I did like the book for the most part, there are some parts I just don’t agree with. As far as Savage is concerned, I think he is a great woodworker and a horrible writer. Everybody seems to think that I am somehow insulting him; I’m not. There is an insinuation, in particular among the woodworking media, that because a person is a talented woodworker that automatically makes them a talented writer. There is no correlation between the two whatsoever and I’m not sure where it even started. My problem with Savage’s horrible writing is that, like you said, it’s also biased and dismissive. It’s one thing to be a bad writer, that certainly isn’t a character flaw, but it’s another thing to be bad and insulting on top of it. One guy asked me what made me an expert on his writing. Nothing did. I’m also not a professional baseball player, but I easily can tell the difference between a good player and a bad player.
      Whether or not I always agree with Christopher Schwarz, I do think he is a talented writer on woodworking. There is a lot to be said for that because many woodworking books, no matter the content, aren’t very well written. I’ve been accused of not liking him and that isn’t true in the least. There are times that I just don’t agree with him, nothing more.
      Thanks
      Bill

  7. Andrew says:

    Do not underestimate your own writing skills. your writing is not only informative, but very engaging to the point where the reader wants more. A true sign of a good writer.

  8. I pretty much agree with what you say here Bill. Certainly not enough disagreement to debate any of it. That being said my writing skills are horrid and my woodworking skills are only slightly better. My blog is dead for a reason. I do enjoy the woodworking much more than the writing though. I am a rank amateur at both but I often think the so called experts are quite often totally full of themselves. They probably think I’m an idiot when I reply to them. That’s life. I try not to get to worked up over any of it. Just do my thing and to hell with the rest. Does that make me an anarchist?

    • billlattpa says:

      The only pro blog I read now is Graham Haydon’s, and that is just a technicality because he is a professional joiner, not a pro furniture maker-meaning no offense in the least to him. As much as I admire Paul Sellers as a woodworker I don’t even read his blog.
      Guys like David Savage I cannot stand when it comes to his stance on woodworking. Now, maybe he’s the nicest guy in the world when it comes to his personal relationships, I have no way of knowing. But he comes off as a real dick on his blog, which admittedly I haven’t read in years.
      Firstly, he doesn’t care for amateur woodworkers, which is fine. So why interact with them? He makes statements to the effect of: Amateur woodworkers will never be true craftsman. For the most part I do agree with that, but once again, why interact with them? Why go to all the trouble? because if you believe your own personal philosophy you cannot help an amateur.
      CS, who I do honestly respect, likes to chalk up Savage’s statements to eccentricity, or extreme criticism that deep down is helpful. Some people my respond to that, and if he were training apprentices to work at his business that approach is more acceptable. I personally just think he is being rude because he can get away with it. There was a saying: “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split.” Meaning, he says stuff he knows he can get away with because there are no repercussions.
      To put that in perspective, I went through basic combat training. While Drill Sergeants aren’t always the cliché you see in movies, they can be nasty, mean, tough etc. But they are never condescending, if that makes sense, because they know that they are training a group of volunteers, some of whom have joined the military specifically because they may have the opportunity to kill somebody. They KNOW they have to back up their tough talk. Savage insults people solely because he can get away with it.
      I’ve found that the case with too many pro blogs. Once again, they can make all of these statements, but they love taking that amateur’s money. It just annoys me, and I don’t by into it at all.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  9. Paul says:

    Hi Bill,
    a good view of David Savage’s woodworking school in the link below:
    https://paulchilton.com/2015/12/06/review-david-savage-school-of-fine-furniture/
    The scary bit is in the comments at the bottom where a reference is made about David’s attitude towards his students.
    Regards
    Paul

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks Paul. I never understood the appeal of Savage’s writing. I tried to read his blog a few times and I really didn’t care for it in the least. That in and of itself isn’t such an issue, but when he started receiving high praise from other writers I thought it was really nothing more than over the top pandering, and that rubbed me the wrong way.
      Bill

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