Logging On

I live in a rural backwoods of the Pacific Northwest, a place where there are no woodworking guilds, no woodworking clubs and very few suppliers of woodworking tools or even hardwood material. I used to be the classic example of a new enthusiast – making my own mistakes and working alone.

About six years ago, I gained Internet access. Sure, home computers have been pretty much taken for granted over the past two decades, but they have helped the world of woodworking evolve quite rapidly in recent years.

Web-site forums and chat groups make my isolation a thing of the past. No longer do I find myself stuck, unable to resolve a problem for lack of information. Any questions I post on a messageboard could result in answers ranging from one person’s opinion to stated fact to quite a few uneducated guesses that should just be left alone. Then I’m left to glean the most plausible “truth” from a wide variety of my fellow woodworkers’ experiences.

One thing I hadn’t expected from this interaction was the bonding that takes place among many forum participants. While web sites such as Saw Mill Creek and WoodCentral tend to draw unique sets of personalities, I’ve found that many visitors cross over to post regularly on neighboring sites. Web surfing has given me exposure to many different flavors.

Talking almost daily with people of common interests, sharing our senses of humor, being misunderstood and apologizing for what was perceived as an offensive remark – all these are things that make me feel like I “know” my fellow forum regulars. After trying out several different ones, adopting a favorite woodworking forum becomes like walking into the bar at Cheers – sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name.

FACE-TO-FACE

All this bonding eventually leads to people wanting to meet. Woodworking shows have been ideal venues to meet up with other woodworkers in a public place and talk shop. A message on a forum may pop up with something like “Midwest-area – who’s going to the show, and when?” Hearing a suggestion that forum members arrange to meet in Seattle one year was enough to convince me to drive 120 miles to the show when I hadn’t originally planned to. It resulted in faces attached to names, which put a whole new twist on my time logging on.

A while back, I placed a photo of myself on WoodCentral. At one of the trade shows I attended, while I watched Andy Rae do his presentation, I noticed he kept glancing at me as he talked. Afterward I went up to introduce myself and he seemed delighted. “I kept wondering where I’d seen that woman before,” he laughed. We had talked extensively on the forum and now we finally met in person.

Eventually I heard about the Northwest Salmon Barbecue, a get-together planned by David and Becky Sophusson on the northern coast of Washington. It started out as a “let’s get together at my place,” involving dozens of people devoted to the old Badger Pond forum, which shut down in early 2003. (Archived information is still available through WoodCentral.)

Though many of them still think of themselves as “old Ponders,” the get-together has become a longstanding tradition, pulling people in from several different forums and developing into an annual three-day event that includes shop tours, hands-on instruction, tool demos and a free pile of wood blanks that anyone is welcome to.

A friend and I showed up one year and were welcomed with sincere hospitality. Woodworkers from as far away as Texas, Indiana, North Carolina and across the border in British Columbia, Canada, made the trek to come together and talk about the craft. Professionals pulled out portfolios with $30,000 walnut conference tables that were awe-inspiring. Amateurs and hobbyists stood sharing Becky’s crab dip with home-remodelers, fine-furniture-makers and gallery-quality wood turners, all open and receptive to any conversation imaginable.

A NEW COMMUNITY

These kinds of forum get-togethers are sweeping the country. WoodCentral has gathered participants in Kentucky, California, Washington and Pennsylvania, among other sites, and former Badger Pond members have sponsored get-togethers in Washington, Indiana and Texas. Most often they are family affairs, which has resulted in some spouses picking up the hobby or encouraging a woodworker to buy new tools, which is a definite bonus.

What was once only a small group of woodworkers exchanging opinions on a forum has evolved into a new kind of community. We celebrate births and mourn the deaths of family and friends. When a “regular” was recently put out of business because of a disastrous shop fire, forum participants in his area were so sympathetic they organized an old-fashioned barn raising – In one long weekend party, professionals donated their time and energy to construct a new shop, putting the “regular” nearly back in business in only three days.

The Internet has provided a place to question a tool-buying decision, to gain from others’ experience and, when I can, to share my own thoughts. A relatively new web site, Women In Woodworking, has opened the woodworking world to women scattered across the country and even overseas who otherwise would never have known about each other.

Thousands of related web sites offer a vast pool of resources for woodworkers, with a diversity of products and rapid availability that individual stores are having trouble matching. That in turn leads to improved customer service in an effort to compete. Tool representatives are regularly tracking many messageboards, and many are even speaking up to offer their help if a participant voices a problem.

Authors, professional woodworkers and other authorities are available and willing to answer individual questions, often by private e-mail if necessary. Books and magazines will always be a staple of my woodworking instruction, but the group discussions on several forums have become my community. And it has become a very valuable one, both for increasing my knowledge of woodworking and for interacting with others. This community is alive and active in the real world as well as in the cyberworld. PW

Barb Siddiqui of Wenatchee, Wash., is a Book Review Editor on Wood Central, writes a regular column called “Starting Points” on Women In Woodworking and writes book reviews for “Canadian Home Workshop Magazine.”