The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Something old.

My family and I spent a long Independence Day weekend at my in-law’s farmhouse in upstate Pennsylvania. The place is remote, as in no internet access, dirt roads, nearest town 25 miles remote. Thankfully I had a kindle to read because the weather wasn’t so nice, but unfortunately there was little to do but read, and woodworking was obviously out of the question. Yet I did make a few discoveries that I felt were interesting.
Firstly, the farm has been in my wife’s family since the end of World War 2, and because it was once a working farm, there are lots of old tools hanging about. I did just a little snooping around my wife’s grandfather’s old workshop and among the assortment found three Disston hand saws-two rip-filed, in excellent condition, a Disston one-man and two-man cross cut saw, about half a dozen braces of various sizes, a chair making scorp, an adze, several draw knives, a few Stanley block planes, an ancient smoother, and a large assortment of files, chisels, bits, hammers and mallets and hatchets, among boxes of old hardware etc. I don’t think my wife’s grandfather was necessarily a woodworker, though I would be sure that he at least dabbled., rather, these tools were used in and around the farm.
Though I have been to the farmhouse many times, this was in actuality the first time I really got an in-depth look at all of the tools at once.  I even considered asking if I could bring a few of the tools home and work on them, but I did not want to overstep my bounds. Though my wife and I have been married for nearly 12 years, and we’ve been together for 16 plus, there are still certain things that you don’t ask your father-in-law, and one of them is to borrow and work on his inherited tools. And though the tools were interesting to look at, perhaps the most interesting thing I found was an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1952.
At first, I thought the issue was a reprint simply because I couldn’t imagine that it would have survived for 60 years. But sure enough, I checked and double-checked, and triple checked and indeed it was an original copy. 1952 was significant in terms of the magazine because it just so happened that this was a 50th anniversary issue, as the magazine began publication in 1902. One article in particular was telling, as it showed an advertisement of woodworking machines available for sale in 1902, and most appeared to be treadle or hand powered. Also, one page showed a list of “Your Grandfather’s Woodworking Tools” which included a wood jack plane, a brace w/bits, some chisels, etc. I took a few photos of the pages, but I stupidly did not take any pictures of the “new” power tools sold to replace the old hand powered ones. I also missed the opportunity to take photos of the advertisements for not only tools, but lots of other items that are no longer readily available.

Plan for a closet banquet cupboard.

Plan for a closet banquet cupboard.

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Your grandfather's woodworking tools.

Your grandfather’s woodworking tools.

out with the old...

out with the old…

Craftsmanship gets a "new" face.

Craftsmanship gets a “new” face.

As you can imagine, the magazine was not in the best of shape, and I handled it as little as possible it so as not to destroy it, but what I saw made for some interesting reading. Companies such as Atlas, Millers Falls, Greenlee, Stanley, and Craftsman were well represented in the pages. Interestingly enough, the article concerning the power tools makes the case that those very tools made the hobby of woodworking a possibility for thousands, if not millions of people, in essence stating that power tools created the hobby of woodworking, at least on a large scale. While I do woodwork with handtools far more than I do with power tools, I don’t advocate one method over the other, yet I do agree with that conclusion.

I’ve said before that without the advent of homeowner level power tools,  which many so called hand-tool advocates love to insult and denounce, none of us would be here today talking about how great it is to woodwork with hand tools. There would be no hand tool “renaissance”, because the hobby of woodworking likely wouldn’t exist, at least not how most of us know it, and that is something to think about.

Baby Come Back.

For the first time since I picked up a woodworking tool and tried to make furniture I do not subscribe to a woodworking magazine. Earlier this year I decided to let my subscriptions to Woodsmith and Popular Woodworking expire. My decision wasn’t based on cost; woodworking magazine subscriptions are generally cheap. I came to the conclusion that woodworking magazines were becoming more of a distraction than a teaching implement. At this juncture, I don’t have the time or need for dozens of different finishing or sharpening techniques; I barely have the time to focus on just one method. I don’t fault the publishers of woodworking magazines at all, they need to do what they have to in order to stay interesting. The problem is with me, not them.

This does not mean that I’ve stopped reading about woodworking. Lately, my woodworking “education” has more or less been reading books rather than magazines. While I enjoy reading woodworking books, I’ve found myself missing the familiar feeling of receiving a woodworking periodical in the mail monthly. Though the world of woodworking media may already be a long way down the digital road, I still miss stuffing the latest woodworking magazine into my bag and reading it during my break at work. Woodworking books, as much as I enjoy them at times, aren’t a substitute for magazines in that sense and likely never will be.

I could switch to a digital subscription. Like just about every household in America it seems, we also have a smart tablet, but I really don’t want to go that route. Maybe it’s my generation. My age demographic (born between 1965-1975) is probably the last generation in America that didn’t grow up in a digital world. To put it in perspective, I did not touch a computer until I was 13 years old. I took three years of typing in high school, the first two of which were taught on actual typewriters. While this is hardly the equivalent of walking miles to get to the nearest water pump, it pretty much makes me a dinosaur in the digital age. For example, my daughter, while in kindergarten, used an iPad rather than workbooks. Still, like the vast majority of my peers, I adapted to and embraced the digital age. Just last night after work, I plugged the smartstick into the TV and my daughter and I watched YouTube woodworking videos for almost an hour. Nonetheless, I honestly miss reading a woodworking magazine, and I really didn’t think I would.

So later on tonight I may just hop on the computer and renew my subscriptions to both Popular Woodworking and Woodsmith. My magazine withdrawal came as a real surprise, because for the first month or two I didn’t even think about it. But like an old pain-in-the-ass girlfriend that you just can’t seem to let go of, I find myself missing the familiarity of it all. Maybe she’ll end up breaking my heart again, but I think I’m going to risk it anyway.

Woodworking Media

I’ve said it a hundred times before, but I don’t watch much TV, in particular if you take football and baseball out of the equation. Up until very recently, one of the few indulgences I had was watching television woodworking shows. Unfortunately, I’ve just found out that The Woodwright’s Shop is no longer being shown in my area. While there are a few other woodworking television shows still being shown, it just so happens that I’m usually not home when they are on. For all intents and purposes, woodworking television no longer exists in my house, and it’s disappointing.

I’m not sold on internet woodworking. I write a woodworking blog, I read many woodworking blogs, I watch woodworking videos, and I even watch The New Yankee Workshop and The Woodwright’s Shop, all on a computer. It just isn’t the same thing. There is a disconnect that occurs when using a computer. I can’t necessarily describe what that disconnect is, but it does exist. Sitting at a computer desk and watching a screen is not the same as watching a television program with my family, or even the same as reading a book in the same room. My daughter, and even my wife would watch Norm Abram with me; she would ask questions, or tell me what she liked and didn’t like. If I happen to be reading a woodworking magazine or book, my wife will usually check out what I am reading. My daughter always enjoyed looking at the project books I have, and she particularly likes the Eric Sloane books. I can only speak for myself, but you don’t see too many families gathered around a computer screen enjoying each others company.

I know that the internet has done a lot of amazing things for woodworking like allowing people to take woodworking classes who otherwise may never have that opportunity. But something about sitting at a desk watching a computer screen just bugs the hell out of me. It feels lazy, it feels wrong. In this paperless world, I print out articles I want to read because I don’t like having to sit at a computer to read them, in fact I have several ring binders filled with them. I find it funny and ironic that many woodworkers took up the hobby to work with their hands, get away from the grind, get away from the computer screen, and maybe slow down an ever quickening technological and fast paced world. Yet the world of woodworking media is now dominated by the internet, and I don’t know if that’s for the better.

Internet woodworking is here to stay; I know that. And internet woodworking certainly has its place. I’ve been able to share my thoughts and radical ideas with people around the world because of the internet. I’ve been able to learn woodworking techniques by watching skilled woodworkers, both amateur and professional, who were thoughtful enough to post their videos. In fact, you might argue that the hobby of woodworking would not be flourishing without the internet. I would probably agree. But I like woodworking television, and I like woodworking books, and there are those out there that would say that those forms of woodworking media are dead or dying. I don’t agree. For all the internet has to offer, it can’t replace a book, or a few minutes watching Roy Underhill while sitting on a couch with your kid. So if the day ever comes when you no longer can buy a woodworking book, or watch a woodworking television program, I believe that woodworking will die along with it.

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