The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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The other day I was working on the new wall cabinet I am building for my garage and it occurred to me that woodworking is dead. ‘How could I think that!?” you ask. It wasn’t hard. It was just as natural as taking a breath. ‘Woodworking is dead.” That sounds about right.

I had mentioned the other day the large pile of woodworking magazines I had in my garage. My small “keep” pile is still there, and maybe seeing it what triggered my thought. But last week I had to do some plumbing repairs at my house, and ran to Lowe’s to get what I needed. At my local Lowe’s, the magazine rack is just next to the checkout area. Five years ago, there would have been at least a dozen different woodworking magazines on that rack; I saw two, along with half a dozen how to books for shelf making.

So Lowe’s doesn’t sell woodworking magazines anymore; big deal! How about my local supermarket? They used to stock PW, Wood, Fine Woodworking, and Woodsmith. Those are all gone, part of a mythical time when there was more than one opinion in the world of woodworking. Surely my local bookstore must have woodworking magazines? It doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even have garbage woodworking books with titles like Woodworking for Dummies.

And it isn’t just the dearth of magazines that is concerning. It is the fact that woodworking is far less visible than it was not so long ago. During the past summer, I took a step back from woodworking, not in any academic sense; I wasn’t planning on conducting an experiment. I did it just because summer is not a time of year in which I like to woodwork much. In taking that step back, I discovered that woodworking is not only way out of the mainstream, it is not even a trickle into a pond, and that wasn’t always the case. For example, in 2016 I happened to notice there was not one woodworking show-that I saw-in this region of the country. That may not mean much in the middle of Wyoming, but in S.E. Pennsylvania, with its population of nearly 7 million, that says something; it says a lot; it speaks volumes.

In 2015 there were at least two shows because I went to both.

In 2016, zero point zero.

This could be a culling of the herd and nothing more. Maybe woodworking had a lot of fat that needed to be trimmed. Or maybe the herd is sick, and dying.

And here is the problem, as I perceive it: for most people, WOODWORKING IS A HOBBY, it is not a way of life, or a culture, or a religion, or a political system. That isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be taken seriously by those who practice the hobby. I needn’t remind anybody that everybody’s goal should always be to put forth their best effort no matter what the endeavor. I’m not telling anybody how and why to woodwork. What I am saying is that people who make tools, and write books, and produce magazines, and make furniture are professionals, and to try to emulate them is a losing proposition simply because they get paid to do it and the vast majority of the rest of us do not. The mindset is totally different and forever will be.

I know I’ve gone over this topic numerous times, but on this occasion things have changed a little, and not for the better. Because this time woodworking has already been pushed back into obscurity. Woodworking is now a few thousand half-assed YouTube videos. Woodworking is now an internet search that turns up a whole lot of nothing. Woodworking is now a stern lecture from elders who are not “eld”. Woodworking is now a clique, and it isn’t the “cool” clique. It is the geeky, zit faced clique that hides in the AV closet and thinks that deep down they are the cool kids, only to become the very thing they hated.

Woodworking messed up, big time, when it stopped telling people how to build and started telling them what to think. That philosophy may work on an 18-year-old little pissant who doesn’t know his ass from second base going to a 50k per year liberal arts college only because his parents have their shit together enough to send him there in the first place. But, in general, it doesn’t work with normal, well-adjusted, intelligent adults.

So what now? Nothing. I’m not offering a solution because woodworking is already FUBAR, unless you prefer your weekend hobby seasoned with some self-righteous posturing and pseudo-intellectual philosophy lessons then things are just fine and dandy. In that case you likely won’t be reading this post anyway.

But for the rest of us the only advice I have is to possibly start over, maybe get yourself a book on constructing birdhouses, or watch some reruns of The New Yankee Workshop. Maybe birdhouses and Norm aren’t your idea of woodworking, but neither is anything else currently being shoved down our throats, and I can guarantee you this: it is the path of least pretention.

 

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18 Comments

  1. Jack Palmer says:

    Well said and my thoughts exactly. I was doing this in a small shop in California when the first issue of Fine Woodworking came out. There seem to be a real creative period in the 70’s and 80’s. What happened?

    • billlattpa says:

      I think woodworking has become very specialized again, even as a hobby. The most popular names have created a very strict guidelines, and in my opinion strict guidelines turn off hobbyists very quickly.
      Thanks
      Bill

  2. Jeff Whitaker says:

    Glad to see you back and blogging, thought we had lot you and your (sometimes) contrarian views. Keep up the god work.
    As to the lack of magazines it is not just the wood working hobby. I have another hobby that I do in the winter when it is too cold in the shop. 15 years ago there were a good half dozen mags out there on now there is only two and one of those is piss poor effort that is more advertisement than how to AND has shrunk down to less than half it’s size.
    BTW did you ever restore that Fulton plane?
    Jeff

    • billlattpa says:

      The internet killed woodworking magazines, not that it really bothers me. But, the internet has become a very poor resource for woodworkers, and there really is only a small handful of legitimate resources that I can think of. 3 years ago it seemed the sky was the limit, but now it seems that the thing that was really supposed to save woodworking, internet access, is in some ways part of its downfall.

      I did finish that Fulton, all except the handles, which I have scraped down but never refinished. It is okay, but nothing great. Certainly not a tool I would go out of my way to find even for such a low cost. It does work, though, and it adjusts better than I thought. But I cannot get the frog to sit how I would like, and that makes the plane fussy.
      Thanks
      Bill

  3. Steve D says:

    The magazine industry has changed a lot since the internet came along. Fine Woodworking has done well and has what I consider top notch and varied points of view. From time to time the staff changes so it doesn’t stagnate.

    PWW on the other hand has risen from the world’s authority on router jigs and plywood carts to the penultimate recycler of editorial content. The editor is a woodworker through on the job training. The former editor still writes way too much for them. That same editor was also editing other magazines (like Woodworking) which were eventually taken over by the publisher of PWW. Why having the same editor writing extensively for multiple magazines made sense I do not know. Dollars and cents?

    Woodwork (not Woodworking) magazine was an excellent magazine which folded after being bought by PWW publishers. It seems like it was too much to continue a magazine of that caliber considering the following they had generated with PWW.

    Notwithstanding PWW’s fan base, they are relentless at recycling old articles as “books” and reselling content that has been repackaged. Buy the book on handplanes and it is all the articles from Schwarz in one binding. Same with the workbench book from them. He is entertaining to read for most of a single article but that style wears thin quickly. A whole book of it is nauseating. I know that taunton does the same thing but they do a better job of it.

    Magazines and educational publication are businesses. There are a lot of players now and I would expect to see some shakeout. As long as PWW can keep talented people submitting articles they have a chance.

    Don’t equate the state of woodworking with the magazine industry. I have read magazines for years but have learned more through youtube and online sources over the last couple of years. You have no chance of learning to turn on a lathe through a magazine article but the youtubes from Richard Raffan and Allan Batty are a great start to get you going.

    One problem is that Lowes and HD have siphoned the life from small lumber and tool businesses to the extent that only the lowest common denominator is served. Bad lumber, bad hand tools, bad machinery make it hard to attract new recruits to the hobby. One thing I credit Schwarz with is being able to get people interested in the hobby. I don’t understand it but I do recognize it.

    I had the chance to attend a talk by Allan Breed at Yale recently. The shop where he did his demo was filled to capacity and there was a wide mix of woodworking ability in the room. It’s great that someone of his talent level and modesty make themselves available to see real work up close. I am sure people were inspired to try new techniques and were truly impressed what he could do with hand tools in an hour.

    Sorry for the ramble but I saw red when you mentioned the religion of woodworking in light of today’s commandments that were published.

    • billlattpa says:

      In the past few years, with the transition from magazine to internet, I thought I would see something of a resurgence, and for a short while there was. The problem with the internet is that it is far overblown and filled with “experts”. There is no cohesion in the least. Only a small handful of sites are legit; Paul Sellers, 360 Woodworking, and Shannon Rogers come to mind, but everything else is a real cluster F**K. It is not an enjoyable way to keep up with the hobby.

      I sort of view woodworking magazines the way I view menus from a restaurant. You get a bunch in your mailbox, and even if you don’t care for some of the offerings, you know the restaurant business in your area is alive and well. Next thing you know, one closes, and the other, and the other, and soon you’re left with just the local diner.

      A woodworking magazine folding doesn’t necessarily bother me, but I do believe it is an indicator of the state of the hobby. It is obvious that woodworking has seen a large decline in popularity over the past year or two; in fact I have no doubts. Everything you mentioned is certainly a part of it, and with the most popular names in woodworking today turning it from a hobby into some sort of political movement/religion, I can easily see how it turns off both new comers and long timers.

      Thanks for the comment! Much appreciated..
      Bill

  4. Jonas Jensen says:

    Hi Bill
    Interesting subject.

    Woodworking as a mainstream hobby never hit Denmark as far as I can tell.
    So I can’t see any change, in that respect.

    20 years ago it was still possible though, to take some evening classes in woodworking, either for adults or through the public youth school system. But browsing through the catalogs of subjects that are taught, there isn’t much in the way of handicrafts anymore.
    My guess is that when kids never see their father or mother doing something like woodwork or needlework, they don’t really get the idea that it could be fun to try themselves. And if no one signs up for the classes, there is little point in offering them.

    Mainstream hobbies do change every now and then. A couple of years ago microbrewing was the thing in Denmark. It seems like every other person made his own beer. That has fallen out of favor now.

    I don’t know if it is good or bad – it is just the way things are.
    To my knowledge there has never been a Danish woodworking magazine. There used to be a DIY magazine that tried to cover everything from fixing a bicycle to installing a new set of gutters on the house. If there was any woodworking in that magazine it was mostly how to make a shelf out of plywood or something along those lines.

    A thing that I see as a potential problem in woodworking magazines is that eventually the magazine is going to repeat itself: “build a blanket chest”. After two years “the best blanket chest ever” – 4 years, “the easiest blanket chest” 6 years “heirloom blanket chest” etc.
    once you see the same projects appearing again you might as well just stop subscribing.

    The funny thing is that hunting magazines, fishing magazines and boating magazines to name a few – still seem to thrive. And although there are many ways to skin a cat (or a deer), I think they must have covered all those methods by now.
    That might be because they contain a lot more than just “how to” articles, there always seem to be a lot of experience articles or travel etc. And maybe they also appeal to a wider audience.

    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      I don’t see the decline of woodworking magazines as causing the decline of woodworking, rather, I see the decline of magazines as just a symptom of the problem.

      One thing that has left a huge impact is the loss of Norm Abram/New Yankee Workshop. Norm is much maligned by the “cool’ woodworkers, and treated with thinly veiled distain by the clique, but the fact of the matter is that his was the real face of woodworking for many, many years. I can’t personally say that I ever wanted a shop like his, and I prefer to work in a different way than Norm did, but I loved his show, and I enjoyed the furniture he made. His show was far and away the best woodworking show (specifically for television) that has ever been broadcast. Nobody is a close second in that regard. The purists will tell you how much better Roy Underhill’s show is, and while I definitely like it, it does not hold a candle to TNYW in terms of production value, accessibility and popularity. In fact, one of the biggest knocks of Norm was his use of a highly equipped power tool shop, when in fact Underhill far more often than not uses obscure, specialty tools that few people have access to.

      Woodworking magazines do tend to repeat themselves, though that doesn’t really bother me. Yet, I thought the internet was going to fill the void between the transition from print to digital, but it has not. The internet is too unorganized, too incoherent to be a true teaching tool. the handful of good sites being a brief exception.

      I have no solutions. Woodworking seemed to really be on the rise and suddenly has fallen into the abyss. There is nothing exciting going on, not that there ever was, but magazines are dead, the internet sucks, and there is no longer a decent woodworking show on TV. It’s now returned to a hobby of dark basements, garage corners, and run down sheds. Maybe that’s all it ever was, but for a while it seemed to be really going somewhere.

      Thanks
      Bill

  5. The decline of sales of woodworking magazines is directly correlated to the price reduction of toilet paper. If you think I’m kidding, just google historic uses of the Sears catalog.

    • billlattpa says:

      As I said to another customer, I look at WW magazines like I do the restaurant menus you get in the mailbox. When you get a lot, you know there are a lot of restaurants in the area, when you only get 2, you know there is a problem with the restaurant business.

      Magazines come and go and at that I really couldn’t care less. But it does point to the decline of the hobby in some way. The other being the glaring lack of woodworking shows that I’ve noticed. From where I’m sitting, it seems that woodworking is fading back into obscurity, and maybe that is where it should be. But there’s no denying that it had become very popular for a while, and during the past few years its popularity really seems to have fizzled. I think I know part of the reasons, but I still would love to know what other people are thinking.

      Thanks
      Bill

  6. dzj9 says:

    Perhaps it will suffer the fate of stamp collecting or butterflies…Judging by the photos of WW shows, it looks like Casual Friday at the Moose Lodge. Old guys, getting older…

    • billlattpa says:

      I agree. Even more to the point, there are fewer and fewer shows every year and I know that for fact. As I said to other commenters, the folding of magazines really doesn’t bother me, it’s just a symptom of the problems with marketing the hobby.

      The most popular woodworkers today are at best bland, at worst, really unlikeable. Pompous, self-righteous lecturing really isn’t the way to convince a guy to plunk down some of his money and time to start up a new hobby. If I want a religious sermon I’ll go to church; If I want to follow politics I’ll watch the news.

      Woodworking is supposed to be fun. And woodworking media is no longer fun; it’s not entertaining, and it really isn’t even very educational when it comes down to it. It has regressed, badly, in every way, shape, and form.

      Thanks
      Bill

      • Steve D says:

        Bill,

        Here is my advice for you. Learn where you are going to encounter the musings of offensive former editors, stay away, do some woodworking. Honestly it’s like watching you poke yourself over and over. Cancel PWW and don’t look back. Throw out the back issues. You’re going to make it.

        Woodworking is fun. Don’t lose sight of that.

    • billlattpa says:

      Believe it or not, but I haven’t really read a woodworking blog in months, maybe longer. That could be the problem, and maybe I’m just missing something, but the state of affairs in the world of woodworking media is pretty bleak from what I am gathering. At that, I just renewed my subscription to PW and I thought the issue was pretty good. But there seems to be an overall feeling of being on a slowly sinking ship. It’s sort of depressing when you think about it.
      Thanks
      Bill

  7. theindigowoodworker says:

    Woodworking is dead as a door nail. Might as well give all your tools to me and hang it up. I’ll see that they live out the last days of woodworking with dignity. You might try underwater basket weaving instead. I hear it’s making a big comeback. Move to Portland, OR and be part of the resurgence. Enrollment at Reed College is through the roof!

    • billlattpa says:

      I view woodworking the same way I view classical music. It’s nice, it’s respectable, people generally enjoy it, and skilled musicians will always play it, but it will never be popular again, and it certainly doesn’t entice most kids to get into music in the first place. Popularity isn’t everything, but “unpopular” activities are hardly at the top of the growth chart.
      In short, it has become a hobby/pastime of older men-nothing wrong with that-but it also not a good sign…
      As far as my tools, I planned on leaving those to my kid, but if she doesn’t want them I’ll keep you on the list 🙂
      Thanks
      Bill

  8. Graham says:

    I have to concur with the comments and the thrust of your post. I don’t make things like Norm but his shows were accessible and he could speak to a wide audience. I feel part of that was down to his experience in the construction industry.
    I also hope woodworking could just seem more like a hobby. I’m not sure what is wrong with a hobby, it’s something to do and do well at. Woodworking has become a niche within a niche.
    Perhaps there’s another “norm” out there. Someone without all the “lifestyle woodworker” dross or “political woodworking” rubbish. I do find it insulting when it gets preachy.
    I’ve pretty much gone for second-hand books and looking at furniture in the wild while my heath improves. I’m eager to start making things again when the time is right for no other reason than it’s a hobby and I like doing it.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think the turning point was when a few people decided to stop marketing woodworking as a hobby and instead turned into some sort of political/spiritual crusade.

      As I’ve pointed out many times, if a person finds “spirituality”, or “inner peace” by woodworking I have nothing but respect for him. But, those who found the need to push an agenda rather than showcase all of the fun aspects of woodworking are really doing a disservice to both the hobby and profession.

      Here again, I am not trying to tell anybody how to run their magazine, or business, or web page, but when definitive statements are made concerning how a hobbyist spends his/her free time, such as those concerning construction methods and furniture styles (how often have you seen still popular furniture styles mocked?) I don’t find that as a very constructive way to showcase the benefits of woodworking.

      Once again, everybody can have an opinion, and taste is so subjective. But when those same people who do all the mocking, and preaching, posturing, begin to wonder why nobody subscribes to magazines anymore, or attends woodworking shows, or what have you, then you may have to begin to question your own line of thinking rather than placing blame on Ikea.

      Thanks!!
      Bill

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