The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Weep not for the memories.


Earlier today I heard the song “I Will Remember You” by Sarah Mclachlan just before I got home from work, which is something of a coincidence because last week a video of Ed Helms-aka Andy Bernard-of The Office singing this very song for whatever reason popped up while doing a web search, and I watched it and enjoyed it. As songs go, I neither love it nor do I hate it, and while I think it’s a good song it’s not one that you will find on my iPod. However, for whatever reasons, the song got me to thinking about my own mortality. Maybe that sounds morbid; hell, it is morbid, but in my defense it was a grey, dreary afternoon.

As I entered my living room, the first thing I did was place my wallet and keys on the hall table I made last year. While that table is not a particularly impressive table as far as woodworking design is concerned, it’s a nice looking table that I made specifically for the space it sets in. A good deal of the furniture I made in the past few years currently sits in the 12 x 18 foot space that is my living room: the television stand, the end tables, the hall table, and the magazine cabinet. Not far away is a book shelf that I made. As with the hall table, the rest of the furniture is nice (if I do say so) but nothing you’re going to be reading about in an encyclopedia a hundred years from now. However, the furniture is well made and will probably be in use for the rest of my years, and I like to think that when I’m gone my family will look at those pieces of furniture and remember fondly who made them.

You all may want to stop reading at this point, I’m going to warn you now, and please do acknowledge that you’ve been warned…

Just as I sat down to write this post, I almost universally hated everything I’ve been reading lately about woodworking. I’m not talking about how to saw a dovetail, or how to tune up your table saw, but every piece of woodworking philosophy I’ve ever read. You know why? I’ll tell you. I’m tired of “the craft”. I’m tired of hearing what is good for “the craft”. How about this: Fuck the craft. I personally think if you woodwork for “the future of the craft” you are a warped person. I think you are messed up. I think you need a psychologist. I think you are a pathological narcissist. I don’t think you enjoy woodworking, and I think you are woodworking to impress somebody else, and I think that is sick. Worst of all, I am seeing it everywhere.

My kid keeps coloring books and crayons in the drawer of one of the end tables I made for our living room. One day in the future, maybe thirty years from now, my daughter will come across that table, and maybe she will think of me. It’s possible that thirty years from now I won’t be here anymore; I don’t know. I bet, either way, that she will think of her dad when she looks at that table, and I like to think it will be a very happy memory. She will not care one bit if I used mortise and tenon joinery, or fully blind dovetails, or if it’s held together with glue and brad nails. Maybe “the craft” will care, and that’s why I hate it. The “craft” sounds to me like a judgmental old man who walked up hill both ways to school. The “craft” is a dick. The “craft” is a bitter and angry, small-minded person. The “craft” never had a fun day in its life. The craft is a cry baby. If all it takes to kill the “craft” is Ikea and a pocket-hole jig then the “craft” deserves to die a painful and slow death.

Here it is, I hope “the craft” does die. I don’t want to hear about it anymore. If it’s on life support, like everybody claims it is, then let’s take it off. Let’s put it into a coffin and strap it to a raft and fire flaming arrows at it, cause if you aren’t woodworking for yourself, who are you woodworking for? A guy who died 300 years ago? Are you trying to impress him? Or maybe it’s “the future”? Maybe I want to teach my daughter that the past is more important than the present. Maybe I should stress to her that those tables I made for the living room shouldn’t be a happy memory from her childhood, but they should be judged on the crispness of the dovetails on the drawers.

Maybe if “the craft” dies then woodworking will be fun again and woodworkers won’t care anymore if their neighbor’s coffee table is from Ikea. Maybe if it dies woodworkers will make furniture because they really just enjoy doing it. Maybe if it dies I won’t have to read another suck-ass nostalgia soaked article on why we aren’t doing it right. And maybe woodworkers will stop building monuments to the past, and start making actual furniture again.

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20 Comments

  1. bOOm Bill drops bombs! “start making actual furniture” or anything else for that matter. Don’t over think it, don’t feel you need the best of everything, roll them sleves up and make. And don’t feel you have to compare your work to the best pros out there. Just do it already!

    • billlattpa says:

      I make stuff for me and my family, not for dead guys. They’re dead, they don’t need furniture. If I want to make furniture for dead people I’ll start making coffins.
      Thanks!
      Bill

  2. Bill

    Do you think one of these days some radical woodworker will say something like this:

    Lie-Nielsen and Veritas should start making tools with 18th century techniques and procedures, otherwise they will destroy blacksmithing and metallurgic engineering.

    Tks

    • billlattpa says:

      There are some that are already saying it. Worse, there are some giving credence to it. Unfortunately, the guys doing it are also the loudest voices in woodworking at the moment.
      Bill

  3. dzj9 says:

    The ones complaining the most about the death of the craft, oddly enough, are the ones who are profiting on its ‘demise’.
    They market WW as a hobby/ lifestyle/ pastime… In essence, a manly version of pottery, or macrame.
    And they’ll sell you all the bells, whistles and videos you’ll ever need.

    • billlattpa says:

      Of course they are! It’s profiteering 101. Worst, it’s profiteering hidden behind “high values and ethics” it’s hidden behind “tradition”, it’s hidden behind “saving the craft”
      . I’ve said it a hundred times. It seems to me that you can make an awful lot of money by claiming to be a minimalist and “teaching” others to do the same-and I’m certainly not pointing fingers at one person, but a group of people. But they use scare tactics in order to get results, and just like in any war, i.e. the hand tool/power tool war, there is a lot of money to be made from it. And I’m not making it about money, just the ethics behind it.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  4. bloksav says:

    I like your idea that one should make furniture or whatever out of wood for ones own sake, and NOT for the “craft”.
    We have an old secretary in my daughters room. It is one that my parents bought a an auction in Sweden some years ago. It is clearly not made by a joiner or a carpenter. I think it was made by some farmer to fulfill the need of a secretary for documents etc. The joints are coarse and the proportions aren’t the greatest looking, but this piece still survived more than 100 years, and it is still working. Maybe those days, it was considered IKEA like, to build your own furniture instead of ordering them by a cabinetmaker, but I don’t care about that. I am glad that the long gone guy made a piece of furniture in his workshop or fire wood shed, or where ever he made it. Because like you and me, he just didn’t talk about it, but actually built something that did last.
    Have a nice weekend
    Brgds
    Jonas

  5. billlattpa says:

    I would bet that whoever made that piece of furniture wasn’t doing it to preserve tradition, or save woodworking, but because he needed a piece of furniture and he made it the best way he knew how. That is what we as woodworkers should be striving for, at least that is my opinion.
    There are woodworkers who no longer building furniture, they are building tomb stones; they are building monuments. They are forgetting that the reason to build furniture is because it’s fun. They are building in order to impress a dead guy they never met. They are seeking approval from a source that will never give a response. The approval I am trying to get is from my family, from the living. They are more important to me than “the craft”.
    This isn’t to say that I don’t respect what the old woodworkers did and that it shouldn’t be learned from, but when you sacrifice the present for the past you lose something. At least that’s what I think.
    Thanks.
    Bill

  6. Steve Diogo says:

    I started woodworking because we needed a dining table for our first Thanksgiving and I couldn’t afford one. I kept woodworking because I enjoy it and I like thinking someday we will have Thanksgiving at my kid’s house and he’ll tell his kids that he’s grateful to have the family gathered around the table Grandpa built. (He’s 9.) I use handtools because, A, I can’t afford decent power tools and, B, I share my work space with the furnace and figure it’s a bad idea to cover it in sawdust. Right now I’m working on an artists easel and i just ripped a 5 foot 2×4 with a hand saw for one of the uprights. My main thought isn’t that I’ve made Roubo or Schwarz proud…it’s that I’m wiped out and I wish I had a table saw. I may occasionally fall into romanticism, and I think it’s a good thing to have more people who know how to do, make and fix stuff, but I agree that the craft flag waving can be be disingenuous, pompous and just plain annoying. Keep doing what you do.

    • billlattpa says:

      Firstly, I think the whole “hand tool war” is a bunch of nonsense. In my opinion it is a marketing scheme. That isn’t to say that there aren’t woodworkers out there who are genuine in their love of the work and really do want to preserve tradition. But the hundreds of magazine articles and dozens of books being written each year are doing nothing more than capitalizing on nostalgia. It’s really not my place, but it bothers me that there are amateurs out there. like you and I, that have bought into this so whole-heartedly that they’ve become obsessed with telling everybody else how they are “ruining” tradition. I admit, I am stupid enough to read what they write.
      Like you, I work almost exclusively using hand tools, not for traditions sake, but because I don’t have any room, and I do honestly enjoy using them. I just think it’s wrong for everybody out there in the woodworking world to impose their ideals on other woodworkers and present their opinions as facts. It shouldn’t bother me a bit, but it does, the same way that they get bothered when somebody makes a face frame with a Kreg Jig. Thanks.
      Bill

  7. This is about the 10th blog on this topic. I understand your point and think there is some sense in it. But where do you hang out online that people are telling you to throw away your tablesaw or that using 19th century hand tools is the only way to make legitimate furniture or whatever? I just see the blogs on Norsewoodworking and the Unplugged shop, and mostly the underlying argument seems to be that hand tools are more pleasant to use, and while, obviously like in most things, the sky is the limit in terms of price, that you can set up a minimal shop and get on with building nice stuff for the price of a decent cabinet makers table saw. I’m really happy there are guys out there that can make money building an infill plane, or wooden molding planes by hand. I’d never spend the money, but to me it beats the hell out of somebody trading up to some fancier car or fiddling with new apps for their new 5g i-thingy. I think the new hand tools coming out all the time are great. I bought a new Stanley #4 about 10 years ago because I needed it and the used ones are hard to come by in France where I live. It is a piece of shit. But I went to the same big box store the other day and happened to see one and looked it over, and it was much better. I was talking to a Stanley executive by chance one time and asked him about the crappy plane I’d bought, suggesting that they could do better, and he just laughed – why bother was the gist. Well they’ve apparently started bothering a little bit more, which is a good thing, and who’s responsible for that?

    Craft is a good thing. It’s good that people are re-learning how to work wood with hand tools. You’re always going to have idiots and evangelists and fanatics, but compared to the alternatives, I’d say we’re all ahead of the game if some dude want’s to spend three hours in his purpose-built shop cutting perfect half-blind dovetails for a drawer that nobody who understands the work that went into the joint will ever see.

  8. billlattpa says:

    I stopped hanging on the “kill your tablesaw” blogs and forums a while back. But in just the past few days I read several blog posts explaining why the furniture we as amateurs make really should be about preserving tradition, not for us, or our kids, but for “the craft”. The truth is that I don’t care about the craft. The craft dug it’s own grave 200 years ago by charging the equivalent of what the average person made in a year for a chest of drawers. It wasn’t the industrial revolution or mass production or the invention of electricity. Those things were only an answer to a problem.

    I don’t see this as a hand tool vs power tool argument, but a marketing ploy hidden behind the preservation of tradition and phony ethics. To profiteer, you kind of need a war to profit from. Truthfully hand tools are very enjoyable to use, I personally wouldn’t be able to do much work without them because I have no space for anything else. If a person can earn an honest living by making and selling traditional woodworking tools then I am happy for him/her, and would do my best to support them. If another person wants to make his living by selling a line of BS, I really don’t care all that much either when it comes down to it, but if I get the chance I’m going to call them on it. And if other amateurs want to spend time bashing everybody that doesn’t do it the way they do, I’m going to give a rebuttal on my blog. Why? That’s the kind of guy I am, right or wrong.

    I love the fact that the woodworking hand tools made today are perhaps the best they’ve been in human history. I can’t stress that enough. I love the fact that access to tools, classes, books, and home courses is the best it’s been in a century. I don’t love other woodworkers (mainly pros/writers) telling people that the sky is falling, because from my perspective it’s the opposite. But the falling skies articles sell a lot of tools and books. Should it bother me? No, not really, but like I said, that’s the kind of guy I am.

    I strive with each project to get better, to cut my joints a little tighter, and make my designs well proportioned. I know from experience that traditional joinery is nearly always a better option. I like working with hand tools, I like the quiet of it. I like the fact that nearly everything I build is within an 8×8 section of my garage. Like you said, craft is a good thing, but “the craft” is a bunch of bull shit. “The craft” is a way to sell books, magazine subscriptions, and tool advertisements. “The craft” is for suckers. “The craft” makes me hate woodworking and makes me want to stop blogging which is sad because I love doing both. I really and truly shouldn’t let it get to me, but I’m just not built that way.
    Thanks.
    Bill

  9. Andrew says:

    Wow, you are so passionate and so entertaining. Thanks for all the energy you put into this, I read every one. I am an old guy but a newbie wood worker and totally enjoy your POV. Don’t stop building or writing!

  10. Chris Carruth says:

    Not sure if you check old posts, but I had to leave a message here in support of every word. As a fledgling woodworker who has neither time nor money to sign up for classes, buy the best tools (or many tools for that matter), outfit a shop, etc. this post spoke to me and all my Internet searching for some goddamn HELP. I never thought I’d see so many twee and precious people who profess to work wood, and wading through the mounds and mounds of bullshit to glean the few words of sane advice is getting old. I’d love to have a workshop with a picture window overlooking the Great Smoky Fucking Purple Mountains Majesty. Instead I have an 80 square foot space wrapped around the boiler in the basement. I use handtools because I don’t want to blow the house up and if I make a personal virtue of a necessity I don’t want to be told that I’m either doing it wrong, or doing it for the wrong reasons. My kids need bunk beds. Full stop.

    • billlattpa says:

      I try to do everything “right”. Meaning using the correct joinery, methods, tools, proportions etc. If that’s not enough, then to hell with the entity of woodworking. I am simply tired of the one-upmanship that many of the woodworking writers now employ. What really bothers me about it is the fact that to me it is nothing more than a clever marketing ploy to convince those woodworkers who’ve already made the switch to “hand tool woodworking” to purchase stuff they generally already have.
      Case in point would be handsaws. There is a reason you don’t often see much written about them in woodworking magazines, and it’s likely because they are relatively inexpensive, and even the most hardcore handtool woodworker will only need 3 or 4 to build most projects. A woodworker can usually purchase a high quality panel saw and 2 or 3 joinery/back saws for the price of one high end hand plane. How many saw articles/cover photos do you come across in a woodworking magazine? Few if any. How about hand planes? Almost every woodworking magazine will feature a handplane in every issue, even though saws are by far a much more important tool to a handtool woodworker. Could it be that advertisers are trying to push the product with higher profit margin over the more important tool that just so happens to have a much cheaper cost? Maybe I’m reaching, but it sure as hell seems that way. Yet you will read hundreds of articles and blog posts telling you why you need to have a full assortment of bench planes, when you really only need a jack or trying plane along with a block plane to do most work. In fact, joinery planes are far more important tools to handtool woodworkers, but once again far less is written about them because they are relatively inexpensive.
      Sorry to ramble, good luck in your woodworking and thanks for the comment.
      Bill

  11. Chris Carruth says:

    Kinda’ feels liked you’re being played, don’t it? Being taken for a sucker. I hate that feeling.Thanks for the good wishes, and good luck with yours.

    • billlattpa says:

      It’s pretty easy to see it when you read between the lines. I’ve subscribed to just about every woodworking magazine available at one time or another. I felt that Woodsmith was probably the most honest. I currently don’t subscribe to any, and I probably won’t for the foreseeable future. Most of the “technique” articles, which should be the heart of a WW magazine, are nothing more than sales pitches for tool manufacturers. I can read them for free. Thanks
      Bill

      • Steve D. says:

        Hi Bill,

        I am about to turn 53 and started woodworking at about 14. Notice that I didn’t say that I have been woodworking for 39 years.

        I used to do what I could with the tools I had and go to a neighbors house to cut things that I couldn’t handle at home. He was a foreman in a machine shop that made aircraft parts and had a very tidy disciplined shop. What I can remember is a South Bend metal lathe and Rockwell’s Band and Contractor saws. He was partial to making clocks with lots of molding from black walnut. The moldings were made on the table saw with one of those molding heads you could buy back then.

        He read Fine Woodworking, which I properly thought was way over my head. Fast forward a few years to when I want to start my own workshop and read up on woodworking. I chose my reading to match what I aspired to learn and went with something more fine than popular. Also, at the time, the popular magazine was pretty pedestrian, so no regrets. I would pick up other magazines from time to time if there was a cover project I wanted plans to. None of those can be located so that was a waste.

        So I end up with a house and a shop, doing projects from time to time until I was too busy. The shop is like one of those villages buried in volcanic ash where archaeologists can see exactly what people were doing when everything stopped. I have a morris chair in quartersawn oak that is 2/3 done and is hung up at the steam bent back slats. The table saw is buried under furniture awaiting restoration and remnants of home renovations. The chair has been abandoned for around 13 years. Complete disfunction.

        Before the chair became an orphan, I was making a breakfront cabinet for a new closet. Birch ply constituted the sides from top to bottom and regular birch to add 4″ of depth at the bottom. The solid wood was quite a bit thicker than the ply and I needed to get them flush. I typically use a router jig for this when the edge band is thin and I can take one pass then trim. This was a lot of passes and the setup would be critical. I knew from experience that I would sand right through the veneer, so I tried a block plane.

        It was a revelation for me that a plane could be used on a surface beside the edge of a board. In June 2000 the popular magazine had a funny looking guy on the cover bulding a chair with a chopsaw, so my experience was before the reversal of the industrial revolution.

        At that point I became fascinated with planes and managed to buy quite a few. To me it was not a matter of dogma. No philosophy. It was the best way to get the job done, was quiet and clean, and also had the benefit of producing a super surface finish.

        My next project was a blanket chest for my daughter that I used a plane to face plane the boards on. Unfortunately I was not up to speed on blade crowning, so there are ridges galore.

        Fast forward again to now. My daughter graduated from college. I have some money again. I work close to home and have reasonable hours for the first time in 20 years. Oh, and I cut down my black walnut and milled about 600 bf of lumber.

        So upon reentering the “craft” as you like to call it I have stumbled on the latest and greatest popular magazine and scratched my head why I was not reading it. (it is because I was dormant during the renaissance of the publication). I started looking into what the mag had to offer and started following the blog set of a lot of writers.

        I do give credit to PWW in that they probably had a bunch of subscribers who were brought on a journey away from “plywood router table of the month” to hand tool woodworking. Those who didn’t want to go that way are long gone I suspect. The fine mag that I have subscribed to has never gotten into the religious aspect of woodworking. They may have an article on hand tools but I believe that the presentation is informational for the reading and not an evangelism.

        I do agree with you in that I pick up on the dogma associated with PWW. Perhaps they are insecure about their life in the shadows of American Woodworker, Woodwork, or FWW. I was perplexed by their recent staff departure and bought the all encompassing DVD of PWW. There has definitely been a lot of change in that publication and for the better. I can’t say I would bother subscribing for fundamentalist outlook on hand tool use.

        I think that the reason for a decline is that people move more often and are more focused on their careers. They don’t have the time or place to develop their skills. Also, when I look at what passes for architecture in homebuilding, I am convinced that good design is not widely practiced.

        We are all in different stages of our hobbies. I look at the blog of Kari Hultman and am amazed at the skill she has and how fast she developed it. I hate her. (kidding)

        I still have a huge collection of magazines and look through them still. Projects that were unthinkable make more sense now.

        I really do enjoy using hand tools. I enjoy the process and good tools.For years manufacturers have made poor quality tools for reasons I don’t understand. Aside from tool shows, I never held a sharp saw until I lost it and sharpened one myself. There must be a dozen saws down there, only one has ever seen a file. I think once people learn how to tune and take care of tools a lot of opportunity opens up. Hand tools enable apartment dwellers, parents of babies, space constrained people to start a hobby. I am restarting mine and have my reasons. I don’t plan on selling my power tools, but I do plan on making their presence less dominant in my shop.

        My suggestion for the new year is to ditch reading PWW. At this point you should know how to arrange your tools in every size toolbox and how to make the only two types of bench permitted.

        Don’t give up on yourself. Keep your tools and if you have to take a time out to raise your kid, that legacy will be more visible than your dovetails. You will have plenty of time when that project is complete.

        Keep blogging

        Steve

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks Steve. I’m mainly a hand tool guy as well; I enjoy using them, and they don’t take up much space. However, I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be using a table saw to prep stock. I have the typical bench planes that most hand tool woodworkers use: #4, #5, #7, and block. I’ve found that the #5 and block are by far the most used, at least in my garage. The #7 sees a fair amount of use, the #4 may as well be a paperweight. In my opinion, a handtool woodworker is better served by purchasing joinery planes first, such as a router plane, a moving fillister, and a plough plane. I personally wish I had gone that route. I’d rather have spent the money on those items first, which I believe are far more important to good woodworking than an item like a smooth plane.

      At the same time, I would never dissuade anybody from purchasing a tool that they would like to own. The way I look at it, if you have the money, and you would like the tool, then go for it. I would only encourage somebody to go the joinery plane route if they were on a budget and had limited funds for start up tools.

      As far as magazines are concerned, I still enjoy PW, but I haven’t found it necessary to keep subscribing. Maybe I will change my mind, but for now I’m going to be subscription free until I figure out what my next step is.
      Thanks for your comment, and sharing your story.
      Bill

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