Saving Woodworking, One Project at a Time

Thanks to Popular Woodworking Magazine, I was invited to panel discussion on saving woodworking at this years’ Woodworking In America  conference in Northern Ky. As I suspected, my perspective on this issue was a bit different from the others’ on the panel and I suspect from my friends in the room (it was held at the Hoffbrau Haus in Newport, Ky).

The woodworking I’m interested in slipped into obscurity 180 years ago or so. For the past 10+ years, I and others have attempted to resurrect what we could of a manner of woodworking long gone. We had to re-learn the techniques, re-make the tools and re-design the projects. Today, period woodworking is immensely more popular than it was just 10 years ago and tools and information are both more readily available. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together as a community and the broad acceptance for our output (not just furniture or tools but values, approaches, work styles and build philosophies).

So, perhaps predictably, when the facts were put to me about the rapid decline of woodworking institutions and industries, while sympathetic, I remain confident and optimistic about woodworking in the Americas. After all, the U.S. woodworking industry has never done a particularly good job of retaining it’s traditions, quality, craftsmanship or wages. From the beginning of the 19th century, the U.S. woodworking industry has done its level best to destroy the woodworking that I know and love. In no small part, the industry sought to destroy the practitioners as well.

From my knot hole, institutions, governments and big business aren’t the answer to preserving our craft. You and I are. We preserve woodworking with each project we build.

For me, a large part of the enjoyment I get out of woodworking is the development of new skills and the honing of old ones. I’m sure like all of us, I also enjoy a design challenge.

I just want to let you know that I’d like to focus on “boarded” (i.e. nailed) furniture for a while. I have no intention of abandoning fine furniture. And while this may look like a change to you, it doesn’t to me. My core mission remains unchanged: to encourage the practical use of hand tools and 18th-century style approaches to building things with wood.

Simpler nailed projects allow me to focus on core skills, think of it like weightlifting. It’s not football, it’s what you do to get ready for football. I think these simple projects are an excellent on-ramp for woodworkers interested in hand tools.

The charm of the finished pieces is not lost on me. I look at them as all that IKEA furniture should be: cheap, decorative, functional, and well built. I hope to make a few pieces to give away. I can’t think of a better way to influence the next generation than to have handmade furniture in their home. To some extent, I may even play up the compatibility with IKEA furniture.

I was interested to read Megan suggesting that my nailed furniture craze is just a hyped version of the I Can Do That column. From the inception of that column, I have always wanted to add these sort of projects to its pages. Clearly the mission is similar: To engage beginning woodworkers. But I’m also hoping to challenge you seasoned woodworkers to push the machines aside, put aside the nail and screw guns, and see if you can make a nailed box with hand tools quickly. That last bit means I’d prefer you saw straight and not rely on shooting every sawn edge.

So before I start blogging (much more often now) about this subject, and hopefully publishing some magazine articles and even a some video, I wanted you to know what my intentions were so you can talk me out of “jumping the shark” now.

Adam

15 thoughts on “Saving Woodworking, One Project at a Time

  1. David Keller

    One thing to remember when thinking about what shows up in the supermarket “home” magazines is that the production methods often influence what is “in style”. Producing a real reproduction of a Boston Queen Anne chair really cannot be done with production methods, to say nothing of a carved Philadelphia Chippendale chair. So what we get instead are bastardizations of the period pieces that are uniformly awful – think “Ethan Allen”. It’s no surprise that these faint shadows of the original are rejected by the general public.

    Another aspect of this is an attitude that, while intellectually bankrupt, is nevertheless popular – that lack of ornamentation is somehow morally superior to highly ornamented styles. Ornamentation has been a part of human culture well before recorded history – some archeological evidence suggests as much as 40,000 years in the past. Rejecting that as profligate reveals much about the person that says it, but little about the fundamental nature of the human desire to decorate their environment.

  2. cstanford

    I love the idea and the philosophy. I’ve met more than one woodworker who could cut a reasonably creditable dovetail joint but could not execute an accurate rebate joint pretty much off the saw in order to make a simple, small box. And to see them fumbling around trying to nail a small box together was practically heartbreaking. A handtool woodworker ought to be able to make an attractive, nailed, salt box for example in well less than an hour. Many, unfortunately, elect to dovetail such a project and turn a 30 minute task into one taking eight hours (or more). This isn’t real handtool woodworking – it is a corruption – one in which the craftsman is unable to apply an bona fide array of skills commensurate to the type of project at hand.

    What’s the old saying, something about when the only tool one has is a hammer… well, in this instance the tables are turned – when the only tool somebody has is the latest dovetailing video then…. you get the drift.

    Good luck Adam. You’re on the right track.

    1. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini Post author

      I agree, Charles. And thanks for the encouragement. I think it’s good to get back to basics. Schwarz has talked about his childhood shop class and I get the sense he nailed things together in his youth. I really doubt that’s what kids do now, though. So the “cut the board with a hand saw” and “nail it together” skills may be slipping into obscurity, even for us grown ups.

      I think it’s fun.

  3. tsstahl

    So, where do you get project quantities of period nails?

    Tremont is only friendly if you buy 30 or so pounds at a time. Period pieces look pretty silly with home center nails showing.

      1. tsstahl

        They mentioned the nails at WIA; using them to hawk their new cool hammer. Sure enough, they have them on the site for six bux for a half pound. Can’t even shake a stick at that.

        Thank you.

    1. Joe Cunningham

      I’m lucky enough to have a place within a few miles that sells them by the pound (or less). Tremont has a dealer listing, perhaps you can find a local place that has them in smaller quantities. Shipping on these kind of items usually takes care of any markup and sales tax savings you might realize on an internet sale, especially in small quantities. Plus my local place also has a selection of nice hardware and are open on Sundays, so if I have a hardware malfunction I can recover (though it is usually the hardware installer that malfunctions).

    2. John Cashman

      I’m not sure what you mean by this. I’ve bought one pound boxes from Tremont in the past, and they still list one and five pounders on their website.

      1. tsstahl

        Tremont currently tacks on a surcharge for small orders. It doesn’t make sense to me to massively over buy material.

        I wish I had a local source for their period stuff.

  4. Robert W. Lang

    I’ll drive the speedboat for you Adam. We can’t really understand the past by only looking at what the fabulously well to do of any era had in their homes. That’s what we tried to do with the MEDSA book, take an in-depth look at what might be seen in a typical home, and we found lots of nails in places that wouldn’t be acceptable today.

    Bob Lang

  5. Bob Rozaieski

    Jumping the shark? Nah! In fact, I think the subject is way more relevant to the majority of today’s woodworkers than a Philadelphia Chippendale chair.

    Not meaning to offend or downplay the chair at all (and you may even agree with me). I got the message and realize the series was not just about building a period chair. It was a very interesting project and series of articles to me and is something I absolutely will build myself.

    However, as you have mentioned many times before, I think high style 18th century furniture is losing popularity with the woodworking masses, except for a select few of us. Most people simply don’t want 18th century style pieces in their modern McMansions and metropolitan lofts. Like you, I know studying these pieces is the best way to learn to work the way that we do. But most modern woodworkers are more interested in, to put it in your terms, “Ikea style” (cheap, functional & stylish). Period furniture is simply not in style. Just look at any decorating magazine on the supermarket checkout line. And it certainly isn’t inexpensive.

    I think boarded furniture serves multiple purposes. First, it makes working by hand accessible to new woodworkers. I showed your piece from WIA to my wife and she loved it. I’m actually going to build something similar (with minor changes) for my two daughters (who are 4 and 6½), and let them help with a lot of the build. I couldn’t do this with a dovetailed case.

    Second, it provides quick gratification. These types of pieces can be built pretty fast, especially using presurfaced lumber. This keeps new woodworkers engaged and excited about building stuff rather than frustrated because the joinery isn’t perfect.

    Finally, the pieces can be built fairly inexpensively. Sure, this stuff can be made from expensive hardwoods too. However, I think a lot of the appeal of the style is that one can go down to Home Depot, pick up a few pine boards, some cheap hinges, a bottle of glue and a box of nails, and make a finished piece of furniture in a weekend or two. Plus, that piece will be much better built than anything from Ikea, for about the same or less money, and there will be a personal connection to the piece because we’ve built it with our own hands.

    Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything not to like about the style.

  6. Gary Roberts

    Adam, I do believe my first major woodworking project was a ‘go-cart’, made up of salvaged bits of fruit boxes, parts of baby carriages, a cast off 2×4 and a lot of nails. And some rope. I loved it.

    Which may have nothing to do with the subject other than the nails.

    As for find furniture, a well made, carefully designed nailed plank chest has as much if not more appeal than does an out of proportion chest on chest of ill matching grained birds eye maple. Take away all the flash and the workmanship has to carry the piece.

    In other words, go for it. And I’ll race you in my go-cart any day.

  7. John Griffin-Wiesner

    Bring it on Adam. I enjoyed your “Nailed” talk at WIA.

    For me squeezing woodworking in during my free time, usually after the kids go to bed, being anything that might approach prolific has always been aced out by trying to figure out what the next step in a project is and also doing “fine” work. I’m all for simplifying things, and see this as a nice continuation onto the simplification theme in Schwarz’s ATC.

    So I think you should start looking for a black leather jacket that goes with your period garb.

  8. Jonas Jensen

    First: I’m glad that you are going to be blogging more often now, I hope it means that you are at home and with all your limbs in place.

    Second: Nailed projects will be a nice change, and I still remember one of your punch lines (in my opinion the best one that has been printed in Popular woodworking) “that one shouldn’t sacrifice what is visible from 50 feet away for something that is only visible from 1 foot away”. I think it was in one of your preliminary articles before making the standing desk.
    So in short: if the pieces you intend to nail together are as nice proportioned as your other projects, then just go ahead.
    Brgds
    Jonas

  9. Dave Pearce

    Personally, I like the idea. I wouldn’t call it “jumping the shark” to focus on a particularly practical aspect of woodworking, ie. nailed, more simplistic, but wholly functional pieces. I’m sure many period craftsmen worked on various types throughout their careers. Not every client that came to their shop required, or even wanted, a Bombay chest. I’m sure many wanted a simply-made (but pleasing to the eye) sugar chest or dresser. And I’m certain a good craftsman would be able to adjust his method of work to accommodate a less wealthy client, such as building using sawn edges versus shooting *every last edge* (which would add to his time, and consequently, to the clients’ cost), and still manage to make a living and produce an acceptable profit. So, when it comes to these types of projects ending up in the “I Can Do That” section of the magazine, I don’t really see this as a bad thing, in fact, I think it’ll be refreshing for a change.

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