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Some time ago on this blog I wrote: If all it took to kill “fine” furniture-making was IKEA then the trade deserved its fate.
I stand by that statement even more so today than on the day I made it, but I would like to add an to it an addendum. For the profession of woodworking may indeed have been “killed” by so-called cheap furniture, but the profession’s cousins, woodworking media and hobby woodworking, were murdered by the very people supposedly perpetuating their existence.
I have been woodworking on a regular basis, meaning weekends, for the first time since last November. However, I have avoided woodworking media, magazines, books, and even videos, almost completely…that is until this week. I checked out a few (there are only few left) of the sites I used to view almost daily and almost immediately I discovered both the murderers and the murder weapon(s).
What was most frightening was not the content, which was disturbing enough on its own level, but the comments made after the fact. Instead of woodworking, I found pseudo-intellectual babble, BS political and economic philosophy, sycophantic kiss-assery (if you’re going to make fun of the President at least be funny and original), and worst of all: no dissenting opinion.
Why would there ever be a need for dissenting opinion on a woodworking site? Because it appears that these sites no-longer are about woodworking, they are about pushing an agenda that is quite frankly scary to me. Of course, I’ve made mention of this before, approximately 5 years ago, but I did not foresee the fall happening so quickly.
So what murdered hobby woodworking and the media related to it? A small handful of woodworking journalists. What was the murder weapon? The ideology they created in order to destroy competition, drive up costs, and sell their own products. Who were the accomplices? That is a little less clear, but my money is on the people who leave all of those lovely comments.
As I have said over and over and over again, the one thing that would and could end woodworking as a popular and viable hobby is the alienation of the working people who once were the professionals in the trade, and the middle class people who were once the majority of the hobbyists. This small group of writers managed to do both, and I have to give credit where credit is due, they did an absolutely terrific job of it.
Allow me to do a quick assessment of the current situation in woodworking media…
The few magazine editors still left are all journalism and English majors who may or may not have had a relative who once was a carpenter. The site operators are more focused on pushing products, a political agenda, and a horrible economic philosophy than actual furniture making. And the relative few who still read the very few magazines still in operation are upper middle class/wealthy people (nothing wrong with that in general, mind you) who have somehow come to despise capitalism and are now waging a war against “the man” and his “machine”.
I have to break it to you folks, and I hate to bring political ideology into this on my end, but the vast majority of hobby woodworkers I have met were and are what I would call politically conservative. When they pick up a woodworking magazine or sign on to a professional woodworking blog they really don’t want to read a political diatribe against corporations, religions, and the government. They don’t want to read comments such as “I’m a risk analyst for Manhattan Life, but I hate corporations! Down with the man!”, and they don’t want to be told that THEY are the problem, because they are not.
So what is the problem? First and foremost, much of the crop of woodworking writers who appeared as the new millennium began were not actual furniture makers. As I mentioned earlier, they were a group who studied journalism, or English literature, or marketing, and they couldn’t find jobs in their field because those fields are competitive and don’t really pay much, and frankly are far less relevant than they were in the past (for the record I am not belittling any of these fields, they have merits just as any other line of work does. I am only stating that in the current job market these fields are somewhat saturated).
This group, who really couldn’t write about woodworking in a way that spoke to hobbyists because they were likely even less experienced than their audience, decided to write about esoteric topics disguised as woodworking projects while at the same time interjecting their own political and economic beliefs into their work. In these magazines, actual furniture making became less important and was replaced with witty banter and subtle jabs at those who were not indoctrinated into the writer’s own beliefs. While I have zero magazine editing experience, I can’t imagine that alienating a large portion of your target audience is good business practice.
As the magazine’s focus became more narrow, more readers were lost. Couple this with a bad economy and suddenly tool companies stop advertising (mostly power tools, which remember are “bad”) and cheaply produced internet shows begin to take the place of long running television series. Because power tool companies advertising revenue drops considerably, power tools are even more vilified by the writers. The magazines focus narrows even more to cater to a more narrow readership and soon enough many different options are replaced by very few.
The few magazines still operating focus on hand tool work. In and of itself hand tool work is a fun and viable way to woodwork, but the writers cannot keep from continually narrowing their views. It no longer is acceptable to use hand tools unless those tools meet a rigid criteria. Writers begin to focus on minutiae which has little to do with actual furniture making, but who forged your holdfast, where you purchased your saw, which company made your chisels, where you purchased your wood, and which country your workbench originated from. These things and not furniture became the focus of most woodworking media. Single furniture forms are pushed continually in order to sell books and videos. More and more people are turned off.
Who are those people who were driven away? I am one of them, and as a middle aged, middle class man I believe that not so long ago I represented the demographic which made up the bulk of hobbyist woodworkers.
Today, woodworking magazines are a pale shadow of what they once were. Woodworking television shows are virtually non-existent, and the woodworking “blogosphere” is a near black hole of nothingness. The few blogs remaining spend more time on political preaching than on woodworking. Corporate maligning has replaced content (a small-company can screw you over just as easily as a large corporation and you’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise). And woodworking experts have been replaced by internet gurus.
So, yeah, just as the profession of “fine” furniture making has died, so too has the hobby along with its corresponding media outlets. The profession no longer exists for a number of factors. Some people will blame large furniture manufacturers, and that is a part of it, but in reality the profession has died because it is no longer necessary for the survival of the human race, which is the same reason that dozens if not hundreds of now non-existent trades have vanished. It is now a quite minor specialty field. And though hobby woodworking didn’t need to follow suit, it has for the reasons I discussed in this post. It’s quite sad, really, because I used to enjoy the media aspect of the hobby. Now, I get my woodworking media fix the old-fashioned way; I watch re-runs of The New Yankee Workshop on YouTube.
Once upon a time I received quite a few comments on my blog posts. Some of those comments were actually posted on the blog, and quite a few were sent to my personal email (just to set the record straight, the hate mail to “fan” mail ratio was about 50/50). In fact, I received enough of those emails to warrant creating an email (gmail) address specifically for the blog posts. Strangely enough, once I did that, I received far fewer blog related emails..go figure.
Anyway, I received my first blog related email in quite a while, more than a year, asking the same questions I’ve been asked many times before: “Where are my fun posts?” “Where are my rants?” “Where have my fringe, op-ed pieces gone?”
I haven’t answered this persons email directly as of yet, but the answer I give him (or her) will be the same I’ve given before: It’s not worth it.
Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the world of woodworking is simply not worthy of my time and my opinions. I could go on a long diatribe explaining my reasons, but instead I’m going to break it down to this most simple phrase; Woodworking is dull.
Let’s face it; woodworking magazines, videos, books, and blogs (sorry) are or have become really boring, very bland, and more often than not, they suck. (Once again, sorry). At one time I liked to think of myself as a counter point to the boredom, but now I just don’t care enough anymore to bother.
So the last two paragraphs are going to be copied and pasted and given as my response to the email. I will continue to post on the occasional project or tool restoration, but my days of ranting are over. I don’t want to be lumped in with a group of boorish, pseudo-intellectual geeks anyhow (referring to trees by their Latin genus? C’mon)
Like nearly every other woodworker on the planet, I built a “Dutch” tool chest a few years back; in fact, I built two. I enjoyed both projects, and it was a good chance to work on several different skills: dovetail joinery, dado joinery, mortise and tenon joinery, joinery, joinery, joinery.
One of those chests I gave to my dad, the other I kept. For quite a while my chest was in my garage with most of my woodworking tools placed inside it. It sometimes sat on my bench, or under it, or under my feet. I bumped into it quite often, every now and again I would trip over it; I bent over countless times to get stuff out of it. Eventually, I smartened up, hung a cabinet and some tool racks on the walls near my work area, and put my Dutch tool chest in the attic.
Here is the plain truth that nobody wants to hear: working out of that chests sucked. It wasn’t a size issue; the chest was easily large enough to hold the bulk of my woodworking tools. It is a simple matter of logistics, too much bending over, reaching, stretching, dropping, knuckle banging nonsense.
I found the best way to work out of the chest was to put it on my workbench so that everything was at eye level. The problem there was it got in the way too much. Of course, I could put it back on the floor after I got everything out, but then all of that stuff was on the bench too. And who feels like picking up and putting down a 100 pound + tool chest four or five times? Not me.
I’ve seen videos where the woodworker removed all of the tools he/or she needed at the beginning of the project and put them on the bench. I suppose that works, but then all of the stuff is on the bench and in the way (unless you have a recessed tool tray, but they are bad news, right?)
Okay, I’m complaining, so what solution am I offering? The same one that has been around forever: mount your tools on a wall rack and store them in a wall hung cabinet.
Everything is at eye level, out of the way, easy to see and easy to reach. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: since I’ve mounted my tools on the wall I’ve become a more efficient woodworker. AND, my back feels a whole lot better.
So here is my expert advice: If, for some reason, you travel a lot with your woodworking tools, make a tool chest for transportation. And if you are like the overwhelming majority of amateur woodworkers with tools that very rarely leave your work area, mount your stuff on the wall over your bench. Nothing bad is going to happen to your stuff if it’s out in the open. I live in a high humidity area and I’ve had very few rust issues. Keep your tools oiled (as you should be doing anyway) and they’ll be just fine.
So why rehash a topic I know I’ve already covered? Well, a few weeks ago I was getting some things out of the attic and I saw my tool chest sitting on the floor. It still looked pretty good, and it will certainly still hold tools, so I brought it down the stairs, dusted it off, and sold it for a few bucks.
I mentioned a few posts back that I had sold off some tools (mostly duplicates) and how I surprisingly had no sentimental attachment to any of them. But when I sold my Dutch tool chest I very nearly backed out of the deal. My second thoughts didn’t stem from the sell cost, I was just very reluctant to let go of something I had built myself.
I’m hardly a great woodworker, but I put a lot of time and effort into my projects. For whatever it’s worth, and for all of it’s shortcomings, I thought that my tool chest looked great when I finished it. When I brought it down the attic stairs and briefly back into my garage, it seemed to “fit the scene”. But then I remembered why I put it into the attic in the first place, so I put sentimentality aside and did what I know was the right thing to do. And though I pride myself on being a person who makes the right decisions, the right decision in this instance wasn’t an easy one to make.
When you’re a guy like me, and you woodwork at the back of a one-car garage, space is at an ultimate premium. The battle to remove clutter, create storage, and make the work area “work” is never ending. Generally, I keep my work space fairly clean and organized, yet, whenever I am working on a project, I always seem to notice something else that could be improved. And the past weekend was no exception.
This past Friday my daughter wasn’t feeling well, so I took the day off to stay with her. While she slept, rather than continuing my project, I decided to remedy something that has been bothering me for months.
My garage is “L” shaped, and the “L” section usually contains leftover paint, gardening supplies, and countless other items from countless other projects. Many years ago I built a three tier shelf from leftover “two-by” stock and slowly that shelf became more and more cluttered, no matter how-often I cleaned it. Most recently, my Dutch Tool Chest found its way there, and I decided to finally do something about it.
A few years ago Dutch Tool Chests were all the rage. I personally built two, one for my dad and one that I kept for myself. In fact, one of those chests actually made it to the daily top 3 on Lumberjocks. It was a fun project and contained all of my favorite joinery: dovetails, tongue and groove, mortise and tenon, and dados, as well as decorative cut nails. I enjoyed building it immensely.
I found that I did not enjoy actually using the chest; it always seemed to be in the way, and once I made wall racks for my woodworking tools, the chest became a storage bin for rags and cleaning supplies, the only tool it contained being the head of an old ball peen hammer that I found. Considering that just a few weeks back I purged my wall cabinets of hundreds of magazines, I had plenty of room for those supplies, and considering the chest takes up a lot of space, I made the decision to put it into my attic and cover it with a sheet.
Even though I spent a lot of time on that chest, the decision to put it into storage was surprisingly easy. Just as I said goodbye to the Moxon vise without any regrets, I am now saying goodbye to the Dutch Tool Chest. I am not impugning either project, as I’ve seen many blog posts describing their virtues; they just didn’t work for me. Both were trends in woodworking that I mistakenly followed without doing enough research, and now both are just side notes in my woodworking history. And though I do regret the money I spent on the hardware for the Moxon vise, I do not regret building the Dutch Tool Chest. As I said, it was fun to build and the construction process made me a better woodworker.
The back corner of my garage is now a little more roomy, and a little better suited for my needs. I even took some of the leftover lumber from the shelf and made a quick little workbench to hold my grinder and drill press, two of the power tools I still actually use on occasion. It is a space I can put to good use. In fact, I hope to turn it into a dedicated sharpening station.
In the meanwhile, I did learn a lesson, and that is to avoid woodworking trends. Maybe there was a reason that items like the Moxon Vice and Dutch Tool Chest disappeared for such a long time. For my part, I found out the hard way that they weren’t for me. But then again, I would never have known if I hadn’t tried in the first place.
I may have mentioned in a previous post that my wife and I picked up two pieces of furniture for my daughter, a chest of drawers and a bed-side table, at an antique store a few months back. The antique store is local, local enough to where it’s easy to just drop by a few times per month, and luckily we happened to wander in to see what was new and discovered the pieces there.
Firstly, the furniture isn’t “antique” in the sense that it is ancient. I would estimate both pieces were made roughly 75 years ago. I know that both the dresser and table were made in Pennsylvania because the faded makers mark is still on the back of both, I just cannot make out the name of the manufacturer. It is extremely well made stuff, solid maple casing, dovetailed drawers and case sides (the chest of drawers case sides), all poplar innards. Knowing what I know about furniture, I would estimate that a similar chest of drawers “new” would likely cost around $900-$1000, possibly more, and the table in the $350 range. We paid just around $180 total for both pieces including tax. So why is the price important? The answer to that question needs some background information.
Some time ago I wrote a post which asked the question: If some sort of theoretical disaster were approaching, and you either save the furniture you made or your woodworking tools, which would you save? Firstly, this question was meant to by hypothetical. This wasn’t meant to be a real world scenario and I wasn’t interested in the logistics of saving both.
What it all boiled down to is: Are your tools more important to you or is the furniture you build with those tools the most important thing? There was no lesson to be learned, I just wanted opinions.
Of the dozen or so people who commented, to a man they all said they would save their tools over their built furniture. And I felt the same way.
I wrote that post a few years ago, and my views regarding the subject haven’t changed too much. And in fact, I can confirm that many people share the same sentiment, because often times when entering a place such as a flea market, or antique store, vintage tools often cost more than vintage/antique furniture, even tools that look like hell compared to furniture that looks great. Of course there are exceptions, and certain pieces of furniture sell for large sums. But, more often than not, even “valuable” furniture sells at auctions for pennies on the dollar. Why?
Here is something I’ve discovered in the time since I first began to woodwork: most furniture is worthless. I don’t care if it was handcrafted, or machine made, or a little of both. I’ve found (though this is hardly a new idea) that furniture often becomes a burden to the owners, and worse than a burden to the people who inherit it. To put that in perspective, the two pieces of well-made furniture we purchased for my daughter were likely once part of a bedroom set, and the original owner, I would think, was probably proud to have them in his/her house. They were likely sold as a ‘lot’ at an estate auction or some such sale after the owners died, or sold their house, or whatever the case may be. Less than 100 years later, within a lifetime if you will, they ended up at the back of a dinky little antique store, priced to sell so the store could make room for more stuff. They were essentially given away even though their ‘intrinsic’ value was theoretically more than double the cost that I paid for them, and many times more than the dealer paid.
As I said, there are high-end antique stores that sell both expensive furniture and tools. I’m not denying that. But well-made, “middle class” furniture costs next to nothing on the pre-owned market. And I’m not referring to mass market stuff, I’m not bringing up IKEA or places like that. I’m talking about the very good quality furniture that the average person had in his or her home 75-100 years ago. While not claiming to be a furniture expert, I know more than enough to recognize a well-constructed piece of furniture, and the stuff I’ve been coming across is extremely well made, and it is selling for “cheap”.
Here is the sobering news: This isn’t a market anomaly. I’ve been in dozens of antique stores and in general you can get good quality furniture without spending much, and at auctions it can get even more crazy. And all of this makes me wonder, wonder about what I do with my time and what woodworking means to me.
For the record, I don’t make furniture to sell it, or in the hopes that it will one day become valuable in a monetary sense. But it dawned on me that there is a chance that some of the furniture I made may end up having a dollar value placed on it, not so much because it will be sold, but because that “dollar value” may decide if it is worth keeping. Or it could very well end up at an auction or an estate sale of some kind. It most likely won’t sell for much, if anything at all. Don’t misunderstand me; I make my furniture as well as I can using sound, time-tested methods. But that really doesn’t mean much with the realization that much of the furniture I have built or will build in the future will probably end up in the garbage.
The standard response I will probably get is: “Then strive to build stuff that won’t get tossed aside!!” My reply is that I already try. I can also point out that the vaunted furniture makers of yesteryear, the fellows who made some of the best furniture ever produced; the fellows that the experts tell us are far, far better than we could ever hope to be, built a lot of stuff that ended up in the garbage too, not because it was garbage, but it became garbage nonetheless.
In conclusion, I guess what I am trying to get at is the whole “make stuff that will outlast you” is all nonsense, because it will not. It is rare to find furniture more than 200 years old. Most furniture 300 years old or more is in a museum, and in some cases not just because it was well-made furniture, but because it belonged to somebody of historical importance. The stuff older than 400 years is relatively non-existent.
I know I’m going to get some responses pointing out “all of the antique furniture” that is still out there. Yeah, there is still a lot of antique furniture, a boat load of it, tons, but it is a miniscule amount when comparing it to all of the furniture made at the same time that no longer exists, or still does exist in the back of somebody’s storage basement. And all of the stuff that is still out there is worth little in a monetary sense when it really comes down to it. And here again, I am not trying to put a cash value on what I make, I’m trying to say that just because one of my grandkids may one day have a table I made sitting under a sheet in his or her attic doesn’t mean that I built a piece of furniture that “outlasted me”.
Furniture, like most things, is perishable. It is a fleeting object made by those doomed to die and fade into obscurity. Rest assured, I’m not preaching doom and gloom. I’m saying that working under the pretense of “it outlasting me” may be a losing proposition. I’m not advocating slapping together garbage out of wood and calling it furniture, but I am advocating the end of the high and mighty notion that our furniture is oh so important in the grand scheme of things.
Build furniture; build it the best way you know how, and most importantly have fun, but sooner, or later, nearly everything we make, no matter how lovely or well-made it may be, will likely end up being sold at a yard sale, or covered in dust in somebody’s attic, or gracing the bottom of a land fill. And that is a very sobering thought.
The spring and summer of 2016 has led me to more vintage woodworking tools (and tools in general) than the entire past 6 years combined. Last January I made the vow to not purchase any new woodworking tools. I sort of broke that vow when I purchased a bench grinder specifically for sharpening woodworking tools, but otherwise, I haven’t made a single purchase. That being said, I’ve shared on this very blog some of the many vintage tools I’ve come across during the past months. The good news: I paid little or literally nothing for all of them; the bad news: I have a lot of old tools laying around that need a lot of work.
So this all leads to the question: Can a woodworker have too many tools?
As of today, the mindset among the most influential woodworkers seems to be that too many tools is a bad thing. The arguments are compelling: they take up space, they take up time, they decrease the chance that a woodworker will develop proficiency in using a core set of tools, and maybe most importantly, they can be expensive (in particular if you are purchasing nothing but new tools).
Too many tools can also keep a woodworker from actually making furniture. Care for both new and vintage tools can be very time consuming (this includes power tools). As of today, I have enough vintage tools in need of restoration to take me well into next spring. If I spent every Sunday restoring one of my vintage tools (that needs restoration) I estimate that the my next piece of finished furniture wouldn’t happen until sometime at the end of April, 2017.
The whole idea of woodworking is actually working wood, isn’t it? Tools can be fun, for sure, but tools are just a means to an end, right? The furniture, the end result of our toil, is why we woodwork.
So that still poses the question: Can a woodworker have too many tools?
After careful consideration, my answer is: F**K NO.
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.