Politics and Woodworking

When I took this job in 1996, I remember calling my dad to give him the news. His reaction confused me at the time: “That’s great son,” he said. “Woodworkers and carpenters are good people. You’ll be happy.”

It turned out to be a prescient comment. One of the things that has kept me in this job for so long (journalism is an itinerant profession) has been the readers who call to comment, complain or commend. There is something about people who work wood with their hands that sets them apart from the general population.

I know this because as a newspaper reporter, I got to sample a wide variety of the general population. And as someone who co-founded his own political newspaper (that failed), I also got to rub elbows with the elite and the powerful.

As I left the newspaper world behind in 1996, I wondered what sort of people woodworkers were, especially after my father’s comments. I knew only a handful from my classes at the University of Kentucky. There were no woodworking Internet forums that I knew of. I was unaware of my local club in central Kentucky.

And coming from a political publication, I wondered what sort of politics were associated with woodworking. I mean, you can see it both ways. There is the self-reliance and discipline in the craft that you find in many Republicans. And there also is a nature-oriented sensitivity that is common among many Democrats. There is a spiritualism in the wood you would expect from evangelicals. There is a deep river of science and chemistry you’d find in the atheists.

For years, I just assumed I’d never know the answer to this question. Then one day Publisher Steve Shanesy received a survey of woodworkers that had been commissioned by Woodcraft. The catalog and retail company was trying to assess the craft so they could see what should be done to ensure its future health.

The survey was interesting, but what was even more interesting to me was that the survey company Woodcraft hired was typically involved in political research. As I dug into the raw data, I saw that they had actually asked all these woodworkers their party affiliation and if they considered themselves liberal, moderate or conservative. And the survey company also compared this data to the population at large.

At long last, I was going to have my answer.

As it turns out, woodworker’s political persuasion matches exactly that of the population at large. The craft is filled with people from all political persuasions, from Yellow Dog Democrats to Rock Ribbed Republicans. (And don’t forget the Libertarians.)  So when it comes to what happens in the voting booth, we’re all over the map.

But there’s still something different about woodworkers. A couple weeks ago a reader wrote me about a sander I was selling (see my column from the August 2007 issue for more on this). So without a single qualm I boxed it up and sent it to him. I told him to send me a check if he liked it. Never once did it cross my mind that I’d be stiffed.

Yesterday the check showed up, right on time. I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Woodworkers are, like my dad said, just good people.

– Christopher Schwarz

11 thoughts on “Politics and Woodworking

  1. Bruce Jackson

    I like the one guy’s comment about requiring all of the candidates to date to craft something in wood. As for me, I spent almost a lifetime working with and teaching about debits and credits and, as of two years ago, am beginning to get the hang of this woodworking thing.

    So, let’s go down the list: the candidates and their most likely professions.

    Lawyers –
    Democrats
    John Edwards (like me, his BA is in English)
    Barack Obama
    Hillary Clinton
    Joe Biden
    Chris Dodd
    Dennis Kucinich
    Bill Richardwon
    Mike Gravel

    Republicans
    Tom Tancredo
    Duncan Hunter
    Tommy Thompson
    Sam Brownback
    Rudy Giuliani

    Business Professional
    Republican
    Mitt Romney (like Bush, with Harvard MBA)

    Physician
    Republican
    Ron Paul

    Military Officer (graduate of U.S. Naval Academy)
    Republican
    John McCain

    Clergy
    Republican
    Mike Huckabee

    Actor
    Republican
    Fred Thompson

    All of the candidates come from diverse background, but if I were a betting man, the two candidates I give a fighting chance to come up with a passable woodworking project, simply because of our similar backgrounds, are John Edwards and (I may be stretching this a bit) Bill Richardwon.

    Most of the other candidates have fathers who are themselves quite well off, at least well off enough to support their sons and daughter’s educational goals. Senator Obama’s father, an immigrant from Kenya, seems to have left the picture early. In any case, Obama was in a single-mom household during his teenage years.

    You know, we’re of a generation for whom our parents held high hopes. It was often that my mom and dad, neither of whom earned college diplomas, expressed their desire that their sons and daughter would "do better" than they did. Of course, my brother is a lawyer, my sister was a legal secretary, and as I said before, I messed around with debits, credits, costs of doing business, taxes, and spreadsheets.

    My dad learned his first trade as an electrician’s mate in the Seabees during World War II and then was a skilled tradesman (machine repair) and supervisor for more than 35 years. Most of the woodworking tools I have he passed on to me.

    I can also tell you that as I was growing up, Dad made it a point to teach me some of the basic repair and maintenance skills he believed that any guy (or gal) should have. I also worked summers, with his encouragement, as a seasonal ranger and maintnenance man for the county parks department while I was a college student.

    One other thing my dad and I have in common: as we grew older, we became better at choosing our words carefully. So, it’s not too much of a stretch that both of us tried to speak to here and now, and our desires for the days ahead.

    I can also tell you that some perspectives we picked up in school and as part of company meetings to motivate employees no longer hold water. Company-sponsored retirement and health plans are disappearing. Occupational safety and health rules are flouted. Healthcare costs are skyrocketing. Illegal aliens with false social secrity numbers are taking jobs at cash-over-the-barrelhead pay at well below minimum wage that Americans are said to be "not willing to do". As for the "good jobs", well, if we want to keep them, we need to move to places like India, Japan, Korea, and China. To top it off, down here in Florida, cypress mulch sells for half the price of eucalyptus or melaleuca mulch – and the latter two are alien invaders. At least we can get southern yellow pine at Lowes’ and Home Depot.

    As for that "ownership society" notion, look it up for yourself: the Dow rises much more when a certain party holds the Presidency – and it ain’t the party of the current … president. Small business and "one-person shops" do much better when a certain party holds the Presidency – and guess what?

    Woodworkers, like other skilled perple, are problem-solvers and independent thinkers. These are only my two bits worth. It would be interesting to hear or read other thoughts.

  2. mike paulson

    Chris,
    You would be very interesting to talk to about wood as well as politics.( I would guess)
    Lets stick with wood, though.
    Sincerely,
    Mike Paulson (log-head@msn.com)

  3. Grishnakh

    Chris,
    You obviously haven’t checked out the forums on woodnet.net, especially the political forum. I haven’t seen many more unfriendly and downright nasty forums on the internet.

    However, I suspect many of the "woodworkers" on woodnet spend very little time actually working wood, and a lot of time just talking (or typing), and bragging about their tools.

  4. R. Chaudhry

    Woodworking is, at its heart, work. It attracts the industrious and self-sufficient. Woodworkers are, by definition, builders.

    Woodworking also demands a certain honesty in approach: It rewards patience and preparation, and it punishes those who seek shortcuts.

    Woodworkers tend to be thrifty and creative. They would rather build than buy. And in a low-cost, disposable society, woodworkers prize quality and durability above all else.

    I guess the question is, does woodworking attract people with these qualities and values, or does the craft shape the person? Some of both, I expect.

    Thanks, Chris, for the interesting post.

  5. Kevin Thomas

    Chris,
    I can relate to your obsevation. While I can’t agree with any of Jimmy Carter’s political opinions, I wholeheartedly respect his passion and skill of his woodworking. I’m sure I could talk for hours with him about woodworking without a problem. As long as we don’t discuss our political beliefs.

  6. Jeff Skiver

    OK…not to break up the love fest, but any discussion of politics needs at least one post that attempts to tear into the originator. So here goes:

    Chris, you ignorant (*&(&)^&^%!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Wait; that’s too strong. Let me try again.

    Chris, you make some interesting observations, but there is one item that requires my complete disagreement. You use the phrase "Yellow Dog Democrat."

    I’ll have you know that whenever my wife and I acquire fake Social Security Numbers for our Yellow Labrador Retrievers, then use those numbers to register the dogs to vote…we ALWAYS register our Yellow Labs as straight-ticket Republicans.

  7. Doug Fulkerson

    Not to get overly philosophical, but I would suggest that when we talk of woodworkers as "good" people we mean they are "responsible". They take the blame and the praise for their actions. If the chisel doesn’t cut or the band saw is out of tune the woodworker knows it is their fault and no one else’s. If that mortise and tenon joint comes together just right the woodworker knows it was through lots of practice and several screwed up attempts. Much like evaluating a project after you are done, woodworkers evaluate themselves to a similar standard and work hard to try to overcome their deficientcies. That would explain the political diversity. Whether someone is trying to convert everyone in society to renewable resources or lobbying from K Street for drilling oil in ANWAR, it takes a familiarity with problem solving to be successful. Problem solving is something woodworkers know about in spades. Fixing problems, too.

    Maybe we are asking our political candidates the wrong questions. At the next presidential candidate debate, maybe someone could ask all the candidates to build a piece of furniture and come back in a week. The candidate with the best crafted piece wins the debate. Well, they’d get my vote anyway. It seems that if you can make good things out of wood you can make good decisions for your country.

    One final thought. Jesus was a carpenter. He has a reputation of being a good guy, too.

    Doug

  8. Chris C.

    Chris, You are on to something big here in your
    observations. I certainly don’t want to try to paint
    with too broad of a brush, but generally speaking there
    is a strikingly thoughtful quality to folks who
    are woodworkers. But why?

    I’m not sure. I think part of it has to with how the
    craft leads you, invariably, to discover what is important.
    I think it’s the whole journey. Few woodworkers, I would
    guess, simply build something and go "Ok, that’s that."
    No, I think not. Most of them will start to wonder, Who
    were the Shakers? What is the history of this tool or
    technique? Where and how did other people learn the craft. This starts down the road to lessons in history which
    turn up a rather amazing past.

    Inherently, every woodworker I know is curious. None
    of them can resist most of this history and how it
    links them to the past. That gets the curious and clever
    woodworker ruminating. In the shop. And out of it. About
    what is important. And what is not.

    And what is important is making sure that someone who
    sent you a tool no questions asked gets treated fairly.
    Some people would not care. Woodworkers would find
    that attitude obscene.

    Chris

  9. Christopher Schwarz

    John,

    Nice comment.

    When I was a newspaper reporter I had an internship at the Miami Herald and was assigned to write a piece about two former police officers – partners – who had left the force to start their own custom cabinetshop. I asked the guys why they had abandoned a steady paycheck. One of them replied:

    "My job was to make people miserable. No one ever said, ‘Thank you for putting me in jail.’ That wears on you."

    The same could be said for the newspaper life.

    Chris

  10. John Clifford

    I agree whole heartedly Chris that woodworkers are good people. I’m a Sergeant of Police in the City of Chicago so my business is to deal with people you would never want to have to deal with. So it’s a very nice repreive from my daily grind to socialize with you fine folks even if it’s just over the internet. It definately helps to restore some of my faith in human beings which is something I can always use. Becoming a woodworker 4 years ago has really helped me retain my sanity both for allowing me to lose myself in a project and just as importantly because of great people I’ve met who share my passion. Woodworking and woodworkers have been very good for me. Chris, your dad was right.

    John Clifford

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