Chris Schwarz's Blog

Woodworking Abroad: Common or a Curiosity?

One of my favorite woodworking projects I saw in Germany: A hand-powered Ferris wheel at a Christmas street fair.

Whenever I travel abroad, I always ask the locals about woodworking as a hobby. More times than naught, I hear that building furniture for fun is about as popular as do-it-yourself knee surgery.

Is this really true? And if so, why?

I guess some of the reasons would be obvious. In poorer countries, people are too busy scratching out a living to engage in a hobby that requires tools, a workspace and wood.

But other reasons I’ve been given are more difficult to pin down and relate to culture, tradition and sometimes law.

When I was in Germany a couple years ago I got to tour a couple professional woodworking shops and talk to people who make and sell furniture.

The woodworking I saw there was excellent. The tools and machinery they used (much of it made in Germany and Austria) was higher in quality and price than what I see in a typical American professional shop.

And the country has a remarkable history of fine craftsmanship that stretches back many centuries.

Yet, woodworking for fun (with the exception of carving) isn’t terribly common in Germany, according to the toolmakers, professionals and locals that I chatted with.

This surprised me. The country has the tools, the traditions and vast forests.

One explanation I heard was that houses were smaller and were more likely to be masonry, as opposed to our stick-built wooden houses. So there isn’t as much room for a shop. And working on your house , a common way to enter the craft , is more difficult.

Another explanation I heard was that becoming a professional woodworker was a tightly regulated process in Germany. And that you have to be certified to sell your work. Other countries I’ve been to had a different set of explanations and challenges.

In fact, this week I heard from an American woodworker living in China who was having a heck of a time finding a way to purchase woodworking tools and machines , most of which are made right there in China.

He was contemplating having a friend in the States order the tools and ship them to him. So his trim router would have to cross the Pacific twice.

What have you found in your travels? I’ve found lots of woodworkers in Great Britain, Australia and other English-speaking countries where communication is easy. Or if you’re in another country yourself, what can you tell us about woodworking as a hobby? Is there a secret underground of Swedish chairmakers?

– Christopher Schwarz

19 thoughts on “Woodworking Abroad: Common or a Curiosity?

  1. Jonas

    I agree a lot wit you Chris, but children often copy their role models, i.e. their parents or other grown ups around them, and if all they see is someone looking at sport in the TV or surfing the internet/playing computergames, they haven’t got any way of knowing that there is another way of spending your life.

    The fun thing is, it is quite rewarding to have children accompanying you in the workshop, because they feel so proud when they can present something they have produced themselves.

    If properly instructed, children of 5-6 years of age can actually use a hollow chisel and produce a small bowl. They just need the opportunity.

  2. Chris

    Al,

    You are correct about "opportunity to do stuff" being part
    of the advantage. Alas, as I alluded to, a lot of that
    opportunity has been slowly extinguished from the American
    landscape.

    I could talk on this topic all day. A fundamental shift has
    occured in America. It started at the turn of last century
    and hit high gear around WW2. In my opinion, the flight
    of a number of Americans to real tangible hobbies like
    woodworking is in some way a backlash against this
    change. Most other countries were already transformed
    or never had the freedom in the first place.

    Kids mostly waste all of their time nowadays. They sit
    8 hours a day, 9 months a year for 12 years mostly doing
    nothing. I am refering to the practical lab we call
    "public school", though very little is really public
    about it.

    If that massive body of students were really learning anything
    at all, they should be producing volumes of research and
    massive amounts of life improving innovations. But they
    produce nothing at all. Ever. Maybe a drawing you can hang
    on your fridge.

    I know, I know, they are only children. What do you
    expect from them? A lot. You might be shocked at just
    how fecund your little 8 year old can be if you take the
    ball and chain off of his foot. But to some world planners, that is exactly the problem….

    Chris

  3. Al Navas

    Chris,

    You said above:

    "But the spirit to learn, know, and create lives on. thus,
    a lot of independent minded folks are drawn to woodworking
    because there is a lot of learning, knowing and creating
    in the hobby. "

    It is difficult for many of us in the U.S. to truly appreciate what *doing* stuff does to us. We learn to fix bicycles at a very young age; we learn to pull engines from cars, and make the animals work; we even modify them to make them animals of brute force, all at quite a young age.

    I believe *that* is the big thing we have going for us. In other parts of the world, the kids just don’t have the opportunity to do the stuff I mention above, as resources are possibly not as abundant as ours, even in the best of times. As a result, many (most?) engineers, chemists, physicists, etc., graduate without the valuable hands-on experience many of get even before we finish college.

    Fascinating topic!

  4. Jonas

    In Denmark, Slojd is also compulsary in the grammar school, and therefore everyone tries out a little of it.
    My father is a retired woodworking (Slojd) teacher, so I guess that I have inherited some of the interest there.

    I see the lack of space for a good workshop as the most preventive barrier for most people. DIY on your house is a lot more popular than making furniture, since it pays off better through the increase of value of your home.
    But woodworking is not uncommon as a hobby, but wood turning is more popular than actual furniture making. Maybe it is because it is faster to see a result, and even the first time you try the lathe, you will produce something that is round. People are not very willing to try out something that includes the risk of a "failure" after you have purchased some expensive wood.

    Another problem I am faced with, is that after inheriting some old family furniture and restoring them, you don’t just throw them out to give you space for something that you have made yourself.

    Due to a population of approximately 5.2 million, there isn’t a base for a serious woodworking magazine.

    I find that the lumber which is available at the home inmprovement center is mainly for building purposes, so no wide maple planks to be bought here… I don’t even know where I should purchase woos like that, so I have bought my own lumbermill (a 1950’ies model) tractor driven, so I am currently producing my own lumber out of elm (with dutch elm disease).

    Greetings from Denmark

  5. Santiago Carmona

    This is from Medellín, Colombia

    I consider woodworking as a hobby is not common, on the other hand generally, in this country carpenters belong to lower classes, unfortunately they are considered unreliable and poorly educated people.
    Other issue important here is tools, you can get the basic ones like bench saws, routers, circular saws etc, at pretty high prices, on the other hand, sophisticated or exotic tools are practically non-existent; for example, Veritas, Lie-Nielsen? honing guides? forget it.
    Since this country is not as rich as USA and the basic wages are so low, nobody is willing to spend US $200 on a bench plane, nobody understands what a Roubo workbench is, etc.

    Last week I was chatting with my friends and I told them:
    My dream workbench is the one that Robert Lang built in PW magazine, I love it because of this and that, etc, when I finished my explanation they looked at me as though I was crazy or something, thew answered me : You are a very complicated person, if you want a workbench just build a structure with 4 legs and the top, you don’t need such a complicated thing.
    I told them: I sharpen my chisels flattening the back with three different grit sandpapers sticked to a piece of glass, then, using my honing guide I work on the bevel with my waterstone, again, they told me : You don’t need to do that just work on the bevel.

    But it’s okay maybe they are right, just different point of views.

  6. Bas Hemmen

    Have not read all comments, but for The Netherlands (small country in Europe, 16 million people) there are quite a lot hobbyist woodworkers. We have started a blog this year http://www.woodworking.nl which is very succesfull.

    In two weeks time there will be a woodworking venue http://www.vormgeversinhout.nl and one month ago we had a very succesfull venue organized by the only specialized woodworking shop in The Netherlands with the name of the owner Pierre Baptist http://www.baptist.nl and one of the most passionate woodworker Alex Hemme, who is the shop manager. For video’s about this venue see Youtube http://nl.youtube.com/baptistarnhem

    By the way we also have lots of professional woodworkers. Have a look at:
    Intarsio the company from Sergej Kirilov http://www.intarsio.nl
    Fingerprint Furniture the company of Annette Koehnen http://www.fingerprintfurniture.nl

    Greatings from Bas Hemmen of Rotterdam in The Netherlands

  7. Mack

    Fascinating question, and fascinating posts! In my experience, much of the amateur woodworking in other countries seems to focus on boatbuilding rather than furniture making. I’m sure that the answer to that is demographic/economic;, ie. if you can afford a boat at all, you can afford the tools to build one. I did have the opportunity to visit England recently, and stayed with a retired Industrial Arts teacher — what we call "wood shop," wouldn’t you know? He had one large machine, a big 220v combo machine, which he used almost exclusively to remanufacture parts for player pianos. He looked at me as though I had antennae when I told him of my hand tool habit. Why should I be surprised about the last, though, eh?

  8. Chris C.

    Maybe the answer is right under our noses in the all
    time classic "Democracy in America" by Alexis DeTocqueville.

    DeTocqueville, in the 1800s, was serching for the answer to
    America’s superiority to almost every other country in almost
    every discipline. What was it? Better natural resources? No.
    Better blood lines? No, we came from Europe. Luck? No.

    OK, what then? Unbelievable perhaps: maturity. In America
    kids were able to do real things at an early age. Get
    involved and learn whatever they thought they might want
    to. There were very few rules/regulations or special
    certifications. You did not have to be annointed by the
    king. Or devinely selected by the Church. Just go out
    and figure it out or get somebody to show you. Then
    have at it. Find a market for it yourself. Be self made.

    There it is, the secret of American genius: the proof
    in doing anything is…actually doing it. No exams, bogus
    degrees, or phony certifications. If you can do it, then you
    can do it.

    Well, up until around 1900 at least…then America fell in love
    with Prussian/German rigor and scientific management. That
    has largely ended the advantage, which you can plainly
    see.

    But the spirit to learn, know, and create lives on. thus,
    a lot of independant minded folks are drawn to woodworking
    because there is a lot of learning, knowing and creating
    in the hobby.

    And there you have it.

    Chris

  9. Leif Hanson

    While the vast majority of the referring sites to my samll web site are from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK (all English speaking sites), a surprising number of the referrals are from non-English sites in Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Brazil, Italy, Germany, France, and other misc. European countries.

    There are a few foreign language woodworking forums that show up with some regularity:

    http://forum.woodtools.ru/
    http://www.holzwerken.de/
    http://www.kotiverstas.com/
    http://www.lamortaise.com/

    I’ve had many conversations via email over the years with woodworkers from Finland, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Hungary with a fellow that knew Frank Klaus’ family well and was telling me of some classes Mr. Klaus was holding there.

    While I can’t say how commonplace woodworking as a hobby is, but it seems there are ardent fans of it worldwide. But, the feeling I have gotten was that most are not machining wood in large shops with expensive stationary power tools, but are rather working in a small room or corner using hand-tools.

    For me, it’s been truly fascinating communicating with people from around the world, and I only have one caveat – online translation software is a long, long way from enabling conversational interchanges and remains a pretty big stumbling block. 😉

  10. Jorge Gasteazoro

    Wll, here in Mexico, woodworking as a hobby is practically non existent, mostly because of cultural and as mention economic reasons. Most woodworking here is done by carpenters, and it is viewed a a trade practiced by not very educated people. It used to be that hiring a carpenter was so cheap that well to do people would rather do that than be seen with a hammer in hand.

    Once in a blue moon you can find what here is called an "ebanista", which would be the woodworker that has learned to be more careful, has some knowledge of finishes and most likely learned from his father. These are the guys who do the high end work like covering a spiral stair, finishing tables etc, but it is rare to see them make a kitchen or furniture.

    The other problem is getting the tools, since most are now made in China, and Mexico has a high tariff on Chinese made products, the price of tools is in most cases double or triple of what they are in the US, for example I just paid $1300 for a 6 inch Delta jointer, that in the US would have been about 4 to 500 bucks.

    I gotta tell you though, if you can manage it, then the market for finely made pieces is wide open in Mexico, people are susprised to see my newly made workbench, and it is not even a Roubo like the ones you make.. 🙂

  11. Tom Holloway

    Very interesting topic. My professional activity takes me to Latin America, particularly Brazil. I would elaborate a bit on Luke Townsley’s hint, from a Latin American location, that the presence or absence of hobby woodworking has a lot to do with culture, particularly historical patterns of what we might call the dignity of labor and the value placed on manual skills. I don’t mean these comments as saying that one tradition is better or worse than any other (although I have my personal feelings on that issue). Some societies have historically considered manual labor to be demeaning, in the sense of indicating lower social status. At the extreme, manual labor in those societies was assigned the people of lowest status–slaves. Those who have had the social prestige as well as the political power and economic wherewithal to change those cultural norms, the descendants of the masters, have had little incentive to do so. Fine handmade objects, from jewelry to furniture, were traditionally imported from centers of fine craftsmanship, primarily Europe. In a self-fulfilling cycle, local craft production was the work first of slaves, and more recently of the poor and desperate classes who have had little training, poor tools, and little economic incentive to improve their wares. In such societies, people who aspire to obtain, or seek to retain, elevated status positions do not commonly choose manual crafts as the way to fill their leisure time. As a compounding factor, the many people who must, from economic necessity, make many of the things they use and sell or trade to people like themselves, have little purchasing power and thus do not constitute a market for the quality tools, both hand and powered, that we in the USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe have come to take for granted.

  12. Gary Roberts

    I’m thinking the cause of this Colonial/British centric activity was the advent of the manual crafts movement (aka Mission, Craftsman, Stickley, etc) that began in the latter part of the 19th C and exploded in the early part of the 20th C. Vocational schooling took off, hobbies as a way to personal health became a byword and Stanley produced lines of affordable tools.

    Now we have woodworking, weaving, pottery, metalworking and leatherworking as definable and approved hobbies. And a major market for the tools, books, schools and all that that go with ’em! Sorry for falling into a Palin-drome. Darnit. Hey, it’s the weekend, you betcha!

  13. Denis Rezendes

    I agree with you on german craftsmanship. my german teacher has went to germany many times and once he went to a german guys almost like a castle he said. very big house and the guy was a master woodworker. he showed him a great grandfather clock that he had made and my teacher was in awe of how beautiful everything was. then the guy told him that it had been a commission and when it was done it failed by his standards and he showed my teacher a little piece of molding in the middle of the clock that was out of like by about a mm. now i’m not sure how true the story is but i sure want to believe it.

  14. Rick Yochim

    Interesting topic. I spent a career in the Army that "allowed" me to live in – and deploy to – various exotic and not so exotic places around the world. I was a woodworker going in and coming out, so this subject resonates with me.

    From Glenn’s post, it sounds like little has changed since I lived and worked wood in Germany. I bought most of my wood through the on-post craft shop because all I could find on the economy was roughsawn blue spruce (that was in the 80’s). My German friends, those who worked with their hands anyway, were mostly into working on thier cars and motorcycles. The only woodworkers I met were pros. And their tools and machinery were first rate.

    It’s a little different experience in Korea. The Koreans are an industriuos, hardworking, can-do people. You see evidences of that spirirt even in cosmopolitan Seoul where I lived. While I didn’t see much hobby woodworking, I saw a lot of DIY subsistence woodcraft. Farmers made their own implements and city-dwellers made their own sheds and outdoor knick knacks(even with their toxic city air, a lot of things are done outdoors). And no matter how scruffy or scabby it is, all material gets used. It’s not beautiful work, but I was amazed how creative they were at making do. Everybody seems to know how to use a hammer – more or less.

    I also visited a chopstick factory once. THAT was interesting.

    Semi-related factoid. In rural Thailand, teak is so plentiful they use it to frame their houses.

  15. Glenn Whitener

    I only started woodworking once I moved to Germany. There are a few things which I think make it difficult.

    As an expat with the expectation that I will one day move back to the US, it is hard to commit to buying tools that will not work back in the US. I have contacted various manufacturers to see if a simple voltage change would be OK, but the standard answer is NO. The frequency difference appears to be a real showstopper. This is really just my problem, however.

    Second, even if I really did want to go ahead and buy some tools, I find the prices here really prohibitive. It seems like, for power tools especially, there is just a huge, huge difference in the quality of the tool for the money. While I will certainly not argue that there are some excellent tools made here and in Austria (like Felder, for example, whose line of jointers starts at about 1600 Euro), anything else that you can find at a more reasonable price (up to 500 Euro) is, frankly, sort of crappy. My experience with these kinds of tools in the US is limited, admittedly, but it seems like the range of tools and price points in the US is much larger.

    Culturally, you have heard right. I work in a high technology business, but have the pleasure of working with people that were trained as boat builders or woodworkers (go figure). And that’s part of what I think drives people away from woodworking as a hobby. People here in the trades still go through apprenticeship and testing before they are allowed to be called Meisters, be it in baking, carpentry, masonry, home renovation, etc. And while that really drives some of the amazing quality, it also drives away the less-than-fully-dedicated.

    Another big part that I think you have to keep in mind is the size of the market. The US just has an enormous market. Without that, I don’t think that there is much reason for toolmakers to try and expand their lines very much. I actually contacted a US manufacturer to see if they would be interested in trying to move into this market, especially given the dollar to euro ratio, but was told that it just isn’t worth it.

    Finally, I have had a tough time getting wood, if you can believe that. At the big box stores here you have a choice of pine or beech boards which are made of small, glued-together slats. I have found some places which sell nice wood (from flitches, cherry, walnut, beech, maple, at difficult to swallow prices). Given my own lack of power tools for milling it to size, it’s a little daunting to contemplate doing some of that stuff by hand. Even so, I am convinced that I need to start practicing with a bow saw to be able to make some thinner boards out of some 28mm thick cherry that I bought.

    Cool post; I look forward to reading more comments from your overseas readers.

  16. Bruce Jackson

    Interesting you should ask. I have been to the Philippines, my wife’s native country, twice. First, one of the rubs of the Philippines is that all electrcity coming out of the outlets for the coffeemakers and lights are 240 volts, so I’m sure that if a Filipino woodworker has a router made in China to U.S. specs that he, perhaps, brougth back home from a trip to the U.S., he needs an adapter to step down the voltage.

    Second, and just as important, there are 83 million souls in the archipelago of some 7,000 islands, about 90% of the islands are barely big enough for one man to stand. So about 99.99% of the 83 million crowd themselves on three "main" islands of Luzon, Cebu, and Mindanao. Did I say "crowd"? Yep. So crowded that, as my wife told me, and I saw for myself, what used to be forest is denuded mountainside, with all the problems of bare soil on steep cliffs (think "erosion"). All that to make room for more people. This small country is actually severely overpopulated.

    There are carpenters plying their trade; my wife’s brother had them working on remodeling his family’s home while I was there for my mother-in-law’s funeral. As for most DIY work, I also saw examples of at best perfunctory repairs to stop rain leaking through the roof of my wife’s girlhood home, but no real passion for working wood into furniture or cabinets, at least not to the bare minimum standards we set for ourselves. How perfunctory? Try fastening unfinished sheets of imported plywood to the ceiling (Yep, that’s right) with nails. Doesn’t really do anything for the damn leaks.

    The only DIY person I saw there is my wife’s sister-in-law’s brother-in-law who had just retired as a president of a national university in northern Luzon. His main interest, though, is to continue his gardenng and farming – his Ph.D. is in agriculture. Pity, too, because narra is a lovely wood.

  17. Luke Townsley

    Well, here in the Dominican Republic (Think Hispanola, Caribbean) it is indeed as you describe it. I know just as many Dominican do it yourself knee surgeons as I do Domnican hobby woodworkers.

    I did meet a retired fellow once who played around with wood a bit, but he lived most of his life in the states and worked as an elite woodworker.

    I have also heard of another Dominican hobby woodworker who lives in the states.

    I could mumble something about tradition and culture, but I think a lot of it in this country really comes down to the fact that people who have enough money to have enough space to do any woodworking and set up a shop are white collar workers and never do anything that smells remotely of manual labor.

    I went into a friends house a while back to look at their computer. When I asked for a screwdriver to open the case, the call was, "Honey, go get me the screwdriver." There was only one in the house. I think it was the only tool of any kind in the house. Fortunately, it was the variety I needed.

    There are other factors. Americans, at least traditionally, tend to have a can do attitude that most countries and cultures don’t have.

    Part of it just comes down to exposure.

    Part of it is that in the US, we have access either at local stores or by mail order that a lot of smaller countries don’t have. I order almost everything I get from the states except the wood.

    Raymond McInnis has done a lot of research on just this topic as it relates to American culture. You can read about it at http://www.woodworkinghistory.com His reasearch indicates that home ownership has been a significant factor in the US.

  18. Mattias in Durham, NC

    Interesting blog entry. I might have been in a good position to answer your last question (about the Swedish chair maker underground community) since I’m from Sweden, and was there as recently as July. But as far as I know, there is very little hobby furniture making in Sweden. Actually, I was there for a month and kept looking around on news stands for any (ANY!) woodworking magazine, and I couldn’t find a single one. It was actually bugging me quite a bit.

    Your hypothesis about other crafts being more common is probably sound (turning, carving, slojd/box making, etc.). Also, shop space is probably an issue: People more frequently live in apartments, and when they live in a house it often has shared garage space a few hundred yards away. Home improvement is hugely popular in Sweden though, and I’m sure that the few woodworkers there are enjoy mostly German made high quality tools.

  19. Erik Lindskog

    Woodworking is a common hobby in Sweden but you do not see much of it on the net. Slojd is still a compulsury subject in primary school so everyone (and I really mean everyone) has tried it. To do some woodworking (at least some home improvement) is a natural thing and people do not make much fuzz about it. The level of organization is low which is a bit strange considering that Swedes tend to get organized in associations about eveything else. I have yet to see the secret underground of Swedish chairmakers. Maybe you can tip me off? The tool collecting / restoring part of the hobby does not seem to exist here. Tools are generally functional and ugly.
    /Erik
    Stockholm Sweden

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