Irony of Hay Shop Blog?

The news of a blog from Colonial Williamsburg’s Hay Cabinetshop has already been received with a smirk about “irony”. I knew it was only a matter of time. When will these sorts of jokes (they’re not really jokes) end? I’m not personally offended, but the sentiment is in many ways belittling.

I had a reporter from a local newspaper once ask me if I’d like to live in the 18th c, as if reproducing 18th c woodworking was my gateway to a fantasy about living in the past or some such rubbish. One person asked me if I drove a car or went to a modern dentist. Another, wanted to know why I felt it was appropriate to use a computer if “everything was better in the 18th century” (inferred: if you love it so much, why don’t you just go there).

All suggest that reproducing furniture with hand tools is some sort of alternative lifestyle; a irrational repudiation of modern technology and that this alone (and not the possibility that hand tools may simply be better for some jobs or some people than machines) can be the only justification for using hand tools. Maybe we should be flattered that we shake the conventional wisdom so.

Believe it or not, my interest in this blog is not to complain but rather warn: If you are interested in working with hand tools or sharing your passion with others, you may encounter this shockingly common sentiment. Count yourself one of us and in good company!

Adam

32 thoughts on “Irony of Hay Shop Blog?

  1. dreamcatcher

    Captain negative here… I am NOT a hand tool aficionado, but I am a woodworker and a professional woodworker at that. I think many of the commenters here are blinded by the love of their own craft. Lets not forget that YOU are the minority. You cannot blame the populous for not understanding why you do what you do. Don’t ignore them… educate them but try not to be so pompous as you can sometimes be. Working wood by hand is NOT faster, or better, or more accurate, or even more rewarding. It’s just a different method. It’s YOUR method- it’s your passion and probably just your HOBBY. Not too many luddite woodworkers out there are paying the bills with just handtools. But a hobby is just that… a hobby, it needn’t make any more sense than that it’s fun for you to do. Why does anyone collect baseball cards? Why play a guitar, run a marathon, or grow flowers?

    As far as Adam, the Hay Shop, and a blog….well Adam you do work in a simulated 18th century shop and wear period clothing while practicing woodwork so you are ripe for suspect that you yearn to be back in time. I guess for you, it’s not hobby but could be considered an acting job… one that requires you to be a skilled woodworker and allows you to sell the props you create. Nothing wrong with that, it actually sounds like fun. We all wish our job was so much fun. I don’t think you should take any offense in the fact that your act is so convincing.

    Finally, I would like to say that contrary to popularwoodworking thought, teaching hand tool use is not a necessity of modern education. Why would it be? The field of woodworking and even carpentry is slim compared to the field of computers and medicine. It makes sense to me (a carpenter by trade mind you) that given the limited school budgets, woodworking classes are out ranked by computer classes. While I certainly wish there were more sources for traditional creative skills education, I think it should be relegated to private groups while high technology should be the domain of public education.

    That’s my opinion anyway. But hey what do I know, I’m just a dumb carpenter.

    DC

    1. KirkH

      While I don’t wear clothes older than the 20th century (though some show unusual wear for only 10 years of use), I still derive simple pleasure from relatively simple hand tools.

      I doubt, captain, that you could live up to the “NOT faster, or better, or more accurate” claim in anything but a volume run or simple cut. But regarding “or even more rewarding,” it’s really too bad you will not know the pleasure of sailing, riding a bike, or even turning a page of a fine book. Or maybe you are more like me in that you prefer to choose the method that returns the most satisfaction, whatever the endeavor.

      Nevertheless, luddite is the pompous term here when we hand tool enthusiasts are just attempting to save a neighbors ear drum.

  2. Wilbur Pan

    You think that reproducing furniture with hand tools seems wacky? Try using Japanese woodworking tools. You’ll hear similar comments from fellow woodworkers. :@)

  3. JorgeG

    "Many of my planes, panel gauges, mallets, chisels, dividers, knives, brushes, etc., are kept on the bookshelves in my bedroom because they are just plain beautiful objects in and of themselves."

    Hahaha….I love this. When was the last time you heard someone say, man that router is beautiful!

    When people visit my shop, they keep looking at the planes and chisels.

  4. Mark Schreiber

    Adam, I too am hooked on the old ways. Some may call it romantic, but I appreciate the skill and patience it takes to use hand tools. When using my great grandfathers tools, I feel his spirit. As I collect 19th and 20th century hand tools, I wonder about the previous owners, wondering who they were, wondering what they built, etc. A good friend once observed that we are not owners of these old tools but guardians for future generations.

    I have spent about six years in production millwork shops, and enjoyed it. But not as much as when at home in my shop surrounded with history.

    I am anxious to teach my grandchildren what I have learned–both the safe use of power tools and the use and care of the hand tools they will inherit someday.

    So, for preserving knowledge and teaching us, Thank You. Thanks to you and others like the Hays Shop, Peter Follensbee, the Village Carpenter, et al. Thanks to my other mentors like Fine Woodworking, American Woodworker, Popular Woodworking, Woodworkers Journal, Wood, and others who have gone out of business. Thanks to the authors of the almost 200 books I own on woodworking. Thanks to Roy Underhill, David Marks, and Scott Philips for over 25 years of television shows.

  5. Tim

    When I need to, I jam the silicone earplugs in, don the N95 respirator and the safety glasses, and flip the switch on my table saw or router. I am always relieved to have the machining out of the way, so I can get back to the woodworking.

    Many of my planes, panel gauges, mallets, chisels, dividers, knives, brushes, etc., are kept on the bookshelves in my bedroom because they are just plain beautiful objects in and of themselves. I can’t think of a time I have felt that about a power tool.

    Peeling a stick off of a router bit rotating at 28,000 rpm just does not even compare to the visceral feeling of sticking a moulding with hand planes. Anyone can flip a switch and play a cd. It takes desire and practice to play music.

  6. JorgeG

    "I just think guys who spend years learning these skills aren’t doing that."

    I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but in my case I believe people don’t realize how efficient hand work can be when doing one of a kind pieces. For example if you are making 100 tenons, all of the same size then yeah, a tenoning jig and the TS are the way to go, but to do two or three tenons, or tenons of different size, it was my experience I spend more time setting the jig than doing them by hand. Same with dovetails, by the time you set up the jig, with a little practice you could have done a couple of drawers and the dovetails look prettier.

    The problem with hand work is that it takes practice, and in our current world, if it cannot be done by a machine or in 5 minutes, then it is no good.

  7. Adam Cherubini

    Mark,

    It may be balance for some people and may even be for me. But if that’s the only way people can accept a desire to build by things by hand, I find that demeaning. I’m not all busted up about it, however. Remember that it was I who coined the phrase "cross dresser" for period attired museum interpreter. It’s the insinuation that the reason we build by hand is some desire to "go back in time". I don’t see anything wrong with that, by the way. I just think guys who spend years learning these skills aren’t doing that.

    Know that dissension is welcome here, though. And I’m not right about everything (and I know that).

  8. Mark Maleski

    Adam, I’m with you about 95% of the time, but don’t agree with you here. There *is* some irony in a shop focused on 18th century techniques to then actively engage in cyberspace – and it’s not belittling to them to have a chuckle at it. I also don’t think it’s deprecating to say that working with hand tools provides balance to a high-tech job. After a day of writing technical specification, building power point charts, and sitting in meetings, I look forward to going into my shop at night to build something tangible!

    By the way, the Anthony Hay blog is really good so far, eh?

  9. Mike Dyer

    I’m of two minds on this issue.
    First, I think that our progressive education system is largely to blame. For some reason working with our hands is portrayed as a lower class endeavor. No bright young person is encouraged to learn a craft or trade – instead college is the only ‘valid’ goal. If you don’t go to college you will have "fallen behind, relegated to a drab blue-collar existence". Never mind that a truly skilled carpenter, plumber, electrician, or machinist is worth his/her weight in gold. In keeping with that we’ve eliminated many (most?) of our trade schools.

    Secondly, until someone introduces you to Lie-Nelson or Lee Valley/Veritas most attempts to purchase and use a hand tool result in frustration. Think about the average guy or gal picking up a new Stanley hand plane at the hardware store and taking it home for a try. What a disaster that is. Ditto for most hand saws that the average person finds for sale. It’s really not harsh to say that they are "no Scottish" (crap).

    Until I stumbled onto Popular Woodworking magazine and Chris Schwarz’s balanced perspective of combining power tools with hand tools, I thought that I was completely out of step with the world.

  10. Adam Cherubini

    Bart,

    My friends sometimes tease me that when we get nuked and every electronic device is permanently fried, I will rule the world. (There’s something to look forward to- I have glass half full friends!)

    I don’t think in these terms. Truth be told, I had to learn what I know now pretty much on my own. There were a few guys on the internet who knew stuff, but for the most part, the old ways of working wood really are gone (yes, despite the book titles to the contrary).

    For the guys who said I should "ignore the ignorant" I do that generally. But sometimes the "ignorant" are people I care about, am related to etc, so it isn’t always so easy. I’m less peaved by this than curious, really. I suspect there’s a part in all of us that wants everyone to agree with us. The guy poking fun at the Hay shop is doing it and we are doing the same thing to him ("why can’t we convince him our ways are valuable?"). I think celebrating diversity is kind of a joke really. We don’t actually do that.

    The point of the blog is just to let folks know that if they are feeling excluded or hearing similar comments (at the woodcraft store, in the pages of FWW, etc etc) don’t feel alone. You are in good company!

  11. C Israel

    Adam,
    Williamsburg is a GREAT place! Really enjoyed visiting, watching and questioning. Perhaps visitors fail to understand the reproduction concept — taking a moment out of history, make it a living example, demonstrate and explain so that the uninformed can understand.
    Hand tools are important to know how to use and YES, I need to learn more and use them more, even as a hobby woodworker. I agree with the statement about passing on skills to future generations — perhaps why there are so few new individuals entering the trade.
    What really scares me was the media reference. The movement to regress us into the 18th century. Cars are bad, light bulbs are bad, watering grass is bad, bypassing health insurance is bad, hiring a bunch of illegals to pick organic vegetables, paying a "less-than-family-wage" and sending me the bill for their education, health care, housing and food is GOOD? — so says the "educated and informed".
    Forgive the rant.
    What are some good schools for hand tool "education"?

  12. Seamus

    For one thing
    I have found I can on my limited budget
    more easily afford to purchase used
    human powered woodworking tools
    than I can fossil fuel consuming tools
    at flea markets, garage sales and auctions.
    Maybe that’s just where I live?

    Additionally in a "shop"
    that was originally a milk shed,
    electricity barely exists.

  13. bart johnson

    Adam…first, I love your blog. I do some woodworking, blacksmithing, leatherworking, just about anything involving hand work. I use machines (pigtailed apprentices) occasionally but really prefer to work by hand. The only electricity I have in my blacksmith shop is the lights and a small grinder. The grinder is temporary till I get my great-grand-dad’s sandstone wheel set up. My dayjob is as a hospital pharmacist, so I have heard many such remarks: "As much money as you make you should buy some power tools!", "Thats a pretty nice (box, candle holder, knife, etc) but you really need some power tools if you’re serious about making things.", "Why not use power tools? Are you afraid of them?"

    My responses? 1. "If I have to explain it to you, you probably won’t understand". 2. "My greatest fear is that tomorrow I’ll wake up and hear that the last person on earth that knew how to (hand cut dovetails, forge weld an axe bit, bake a cake from scratch) died in his sleep last night. I just want to be sure that at least one person will have that information to pass on." Then I tell them the story of how the secret to making concrete, which was know by the Romans, was lost for hundreds of years. sorry for the length…keep the faith…bart

  14. Halteclere

    Hell, I once had a roommate’s girlfriend ask me why I was making my own noodles for spaghetti when it was easier to run to the store and buy some. My response? "Because I want to".

  15. Stuart Hough

    Adam,
    I agree with the sentiment of most here that this mainly comes from ignorance, or possibly misinformation (a.k.a. advertising). When I first became interested in woodworking I thought I needed to rush out and get all the machines one would typically need. After a while I found that I wassn’t doing anything credible with the "toys" other than making a lot of dust and wasting a lot of time and materials. I have lately started back at the basics…sharpening, tuning (fettling) and working on the techniques of the hand tools I have and have found I enjoy this MUCH more. I can hear the tools working, and can sense more quickly when I am not doing something properly, and more importantly, I can see more clearly whe I have made mistake…well before the point of no return. Now, when I am asked by a neighbor or friend why I spend money on "old tech tools", I just grin and keep working while we talk, and ask them if they need any earplugs to block out the noise.
    Thanks for this blog. I started reading this one regularly after meeting you at WIA Valley Forge and taking your class. Your enthusiasm for hand tools is a big reason I decided to start cutting the cord. Keep it up!

  16. Gary Roberts

    I think they’re simply frightened of something different, jealous of the more than typical relaxed way hand tool people discuss the tools and their usage and untutored in the ‘mysteries’ and myths of hand tools.

  17. JC

    If you are competent in your craft, who cares what the whiners whine?

    The world divides into them that do = Doers and them that don’t = Mopers.

    The rule is simple = Doers do — Mopers don’t.

    Don’t get it?

    Worry

  18. Jeremy Kriewaldt

    Adam

    I don’t know whether this is completely true, but it does seem to me that this is a phenomenon which is more prevalent in the USA than anywhere else. Perhaps the continuation of trade education was longer in other countries, perhaps it has to do with the American love affair with the machine and gadget (rather than the tool), but the aggressiveness you and Shannon note would not be present in Australia or the UK (I have lived in both countries) or in Italy (where my sister lives).

    The same question might be asked, but it would be an invitation for explanation of your choice, not a challenge to your sanity! After all it is a perfectly sensible question – why do you choose to eschew the ‘advances’ in equipment which are advertised as improvements? Those of us who use hand tools should have an answer.

    It is tempting, when the questioner is being passively aggressive, to respond in kind. The best response tho’ is not to engage in what Tom Lehrer describes as ‘escallatio’, but rather to say "That’s a very good question. And my answer is….". There is nothing more deflating to the blusterer than to be told that they are being rational and that there is a good answer to their good question.

    Keed up the good work

    Jeremy (MuddleheadedWW)

  19. Shannon

    Adam,

    I got a few questions like that at Steppingstone this past summer. Often the questions are so passive aggressive that I want to respond with "how about a glass of shut the hell up!" but then I have to laugh and tell them that by day I work in internet marketing and practically live in cyber space measuring and monitoring campaigns. I tell them that hand tools are my form of karmic balance.

  20. Jonas H. Jensen

    I guess that people will always be suspicious of something that they don’t know enough about, or of something that is not particularly main stream. If I told people that I like to play football (soccer) during the weekends, and that I practice it once a week and in between that I like to run for the exercise, people will think that it is normal and I am one of the guys.
    But when I tell them that I like to use my 1950ies sawmill to make lumber, and make a kitchen with hand dovetailed drawers, they frown and think it is a bit strange. But after a while, most people accept that it is what I like to do.
    One of the comments I get the most is: "If you make it like that, you can’t even keep an hours wage on it". But my reply is that if the alternative is lying on the couch watching TV, then who gives a f…, because that surely doesn’t make an hours wage.

    Otherwise, It doesn’t bother me much, other people can have what hobbies they like, as long as they don’t hurt anybody else in the process, or makes someone sad.

    Greetings from Denmark
    Jonas

  21. Matt Foster

    I build muzzle loading guns at events in the midwest, and get the same questions all the time. I just demonstrate how a scraper can be used to smooth the surface of the gun and how a deer antler burnishs the surface so that it reflects light. Then ask them how long it would take with sandpaper. Most people walk off thinking at least talking to them selves

  22. Ken Pollard

    I like handplanes; I don’t like cholera.

    It’s basic pigeon-holing. Journalists (to use some pigeonholing myself) seem particularly prone to this, maybe because they’ve done just a little background research.

    But it’s a really good chance to educate. I had a local TV reporter interview me for half an hour at the bench. I had no idea how it would turn out, given questions like: "Isn’t that tedious?" I was able to answer that one by saying I didn’t think of it as tedious, but precise. The resulting TV story, about a minute long, was actually quite nice and showed respect and interest.

  23. Dave Anderson

    Hi Adam,

    I don’t see any irony. Frankly I sort of divide folks who are not woodworkers and who comment upon our magnificent obsession into 2 classes; the ignorant and the obnoxious. Calling someone ignorant isn’t an insult, it just acknowledges that they don’t know anything about a particular topic. Ignorance is easy to cure through education and those people I am happy to talk and discuss things with. The other group variously described as wise ass, smug, amateur comedian, obnoxious, etc I now ignore. During earlier times when I represented a woodworking organization and was doing demos I had to put up with the "guff" and respond politely and smile. No longer. If during the process of one of my hand tool demos I get ragged on, just shake my head wordlessly and then ignore the person.

    I’ve got to run now and go block my felt hat with some mercury vapors.

    Best regards,

    Dave

  24. Francisco

    I find that working the wood by hand is far more rewarding. You get a stronger sense of pride in the finished piece because of the time spent, from sharpening and setting up your tools to the rythmic motions of ripping and crosscutting the pieces by hand. Apart from being totally fun, I have learned how to be more patient. Patient with myself while learning a new skill and patient with the wood and tools as I work with them.

  25. JorgeG

    Some people don’t understand that fro some of us the journey is as important as the destination. For me it was similar in photography, I used a large format camera and inevitably people would ask me why I would choose to use it when digital is so wonderful. My answer was that there was more to photography than just pressing a button, well there is more to wood working that just flipping a switch.. 🙂

  26. Jim S.

    This is the sort of thing that happens whenever you choose to do something differently than the vast majority of people. People think they understand your motives when they don’t, resulting in completely silly statements and questions. For me it’s commuting by bicycle and being a vegetarian.

  27. Mike Mitchell

    Adam,

    Great post and I totally understand where you are coming from. I like working with hand tools because they are quiet, less dangerous to have around my kids and I am less likely to make a mistake. I frequently have people make comments about how impressive it is that I can do things with hand tools. There is a clear gap in understanding here, I cannot figure out how to do most things without hand tools. My router and table saw were responsibe for creating more mistakes than any hand tool I own and that is why I rarely use them anymore. The only use my table saw has had in years was to cut laminate flooring that I would not dream of using my handsaws on.

  28. swirt

    I think mostly the irony questions are just lack of understanding of the reasons some may choose to use old hand tools. Some may choose it because they are trying to model a certain style of furniture. Others choose it because they like the quiet way of working with wood (as opposed to flipping a switch and doing battle against it). Others are simply not in a rush or because it can be more affordable. Some may do it just because they have taken a liking to old tools. There are probably a few, who it really is about fantasy role playing or longing for days gone by… but perhaps they don’t use the internet.

  29. Adam Cherubini

    Hi Shannon,

    I’ve heard guys say that before- "I have a hi-tech career and this is balance", but that’s sort of deprecating don’t you think? It’s as if we need some special note from the doctor. Maybe we do it because it’s fun? I know this is hard to believe, but maybe just maybe, it actually works for me?

    I love the offer of a glass of "shut the hell up". That’s funny right there.

  30. Gary Benson

    Adam,
    I think we have all been asked these questions. Dovetails by hand? Why? I would much rather use a cool new router and dovetail jig. But most of these folks seem to understand what hand tool work is all about given a little exposure.
    Keep up the good fight.

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