Codswallop

I know, I know. The best thing to do when a blog post annoys me is to ignore it – after all, if I engage, I give the author credence and send more people to his or her site. Much better to let it quietly fade away (and be replaced on an almost-daily basis by something new online that annoys me).

But sometimes, well, I just can’t help myself. And the person who’s raised my hackles (today) has more credence than do I; he’s an excellent woodworker who has taught a great many people a great deal about woodworking. And we’ve published his work. But in this case, he’s doing more harm than good. Paul Sellers, I’m writing about you.

In a post yesterday from a woodworking show in Tampa, Fla., Paul mentions his concern that there are few women and children in attendance. Now I agree that this is indeed a problem. All of us who work in woodworking publishing would like to see the craft expand to include more makers of both genders, and we need to find ways to cultivate a younger audience (in addition to altruistic reasons, it’s simply good for subscriptions and long-term employment). And yes, I would personally like to see more women enjoying the craft – but this is not a feminist rant.

No, what I take issue with is Paul’s assertion that women and children are not taking up the craft because of machinery, and, far more vexing, his statement that, “You cannot use a machine to work wood and call it woodcraft.”

Codswallop. On both fronts.

Hand-tool woodworking can be hard work. And in many cases, it takes more skill and practice (and more tools) to perform some operations by hand than it does to perform the same operations by machine. So what I hear you saying, Paul, is that one needs a much more advanced level of skill and far more practice to actually engage in what you would deign to consider “woodcraft.” The rest of us, well, we’re just pikers?

Surfacing lumber by machine, for example, is far quicker and less physically demanding than doing the same with handplanes. If you feed the lumber over the jointer then through the planer properly, you get good, predictable results every time (unless the knives need changing), and you can dial in the exact thickness you want. And most people need less than an hour of tutelage (including learning how to read grain direction), to use these machines. That’s a good thing – months of practice would, I think, be offputting for most men, women and children.

To surface lumber by hand, you need a series of handplanes (or blades for one plane) – and which planes, and how they should be sharpened, is a can of worms. Then, you have to know how to sharpen, know how to set up the plane and know how to use it. Plus you’d best eat your Wheaties before starting. And good luck getting a perfect 15/16ths board by handplaning, every time. (I know you don’t need to – that’s not the point.) It takes a much larger investment of time and practice (not to mention upper body strength and lung capacity) to wield handplanes well. You pick up handplanes because you want to, not because you have to.

There are many more examples to which I could point – but that would distract from my assertion that woodworking teachers and writers (and editors) perform a massive disservice to the craft by perpetuating a hard line between hand-tool woodworking and power-tool woodworking. And I find it breathtakingly arrogant (and irresponsibly divisive) to state that only by using hand tools can we call it woodcraft.

Machines have eradicated many of the barriers for all people to enjoy woodworking – particularly for those new to the craft (whom, as you imply, Paul, we need to cultivate). In some cases, machines lower the skill level and physical strength required to build something. In addition, machines used to fabricate tools (both hand and power) make those tools affordable to the home woodworker.

OK – one short paragraph of somewhat-feminist rant (instead of the pages and pages I could write); skip this next one if you like:

Did we see more women (or children) in the craft before the Industrial Revolution? Per one of Paul’s assertions, it’s the machinery that keeps them away. In fact, no; industrialization brought women (and children) into factory woodworking (albeit in horrible working conditions). Woodworking wasn’t a wide-spread hobby in the United States until after World War II. Traditionally, woodworking was a job – not something many people did for fun. Machinery has nothing to do with why more women aren’t involved with the craft. Patriarchal norms are why more women aren’t involved in the craft.

Sorry – had to get that out of my craw. Back to my universal rant.

Hand tools are great; I prefer using them for many operations. They’re quieter, and make less of a mess (or at least larger bits of mess that are easier to clean up) than do power tools. But if I were trying to make a living as a woodworker, you can bet your sweet Time-Saver that I’d learn how to use a router jig for dovetails (then decide when it’s appropriate to use it). And if you’re a hobbyist woodworker who uses a router jig for dovetails? Great. I’m glad you’re in the shop. You spend your time there however you prefer.

Does PWM print a lot of articles about hand tools and how to use them? Yes we do – because there’s less written about them in the contemporary record, and thus oftentimes more to teach and learn. Have we ever said hand tools are the only “real” way to work wood? No we have not, and we never will. Because that’s just flat-out wrong. We offer various approaches; you choose what works for you and your woodcraft.

Tools don’t build things; people build things.

And statements such as Paul’s help to build nothing.

— Megan Fitzpatrick

79 thoughts on “Codswallop

      1. gazpal

        Such a phrase doesn’t apply to any of Paul’s views or teachings and is more likely to do more harm than good for his hard earned reputation as a sincere and highly skilled craftsman and teacher.

        “Wood machinist” used to be the title applied to those who’s focus is upon machining wood, whilst “assembly worker” applied to those involved in parts assembly. Neither occupation relates to handcrafting in spite of how much other may wish to think they do, as handcrafting tends to revolve about the crafting of items from raw stock – regardless of whether it’s source is pre-machined to rough dimensions. Many calling themselves woodworkers wouldn’t know one end of a hand plane from another and would be at a total loss if their planer thicknesser , or biscuit jointer were to break down part way through a project.

        Food for thought.

        The present trend regarding the influx of new blood among hand crafting trades is bordering on terminal and there exists a dire shortage of skilled tradespeople. Unless children are taught the existence of hand crafted woodworking at schools there’ll be very little left in terms of skilled craftspeople within the foreseeable future. Highly skilled hand tool workers are few and far between and whilst rubbishing a craftsman’s innocuous comment – regarding the present existing trend – may win reader’s attention, it does nothing to encourage positive forward thinking with concern to ways of improving the present situation.

        Women and children need to be encouraged to participate in woodworking, full stop. Taking offence when true observations are made and evading the cause for such genuine concerns is tantamount to burying your head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away if it’s ignored.

  1. joshfrey30

    Megan,
    I must say I am quite disappointed with this post. It is very clear that you are writing out of irritation and not knowledge. Now as one who has done the same, I will not judge however I must advise that you consider your motivation before making a post like this again. I am a subscriber of your magazine and also a subscriber of Paul’s web video series. What is funny is that it was this magazine and its former editor Chris Schwarz who led to Paul’s blog and then his videos. It is clear that you have respect for Paul and his work, but what is also clear is the you do not know much about him, the way he works and the fact that he advocates very strongly a blended use of both hand and power tools. As an editor you opinion and voice has sway and reach over a lot of people, and I ask that you please exercise a little more self control before insulting someone else in the way you have done here.
    Thank you,
    Josh

  2. winboxes1

    Megan, regardless of what the gentlemen said, whether he did or not phrase his words properly is no reason for you nit-pick. Paul is trying to keep the craft alive and in my opinion contributes most to woodworking than any woodworking writer. Paul has heaps of knowledge on the craft and eagerly wants to past it on. You could the least contribute something by not being so negative. Let him continue teaching and if you pay a little attention you’ll learn heaps and understand where he is coming from.

  3. MikeyD

    “The statement that people have taken issue with is this: “You cannot use a machine to work wood and call it Woodcraft.”
    I have been puzzled why the reaction had been wrought with controversy but I think that I now understand. If I had said ‘You cannot use a machine to work wood and call it Woodworking.’ then I would understand the reaction, but that’s not what I wrote.
    Woodcraft and woodworking are not synonyms.
    Woodcraft is a combination of the two words wood and craft. Craft means: ‘An activity involving skill in making things by hand.‘ (see here)”
    So he manages to slam an english major and editor for not understanding the language. I guess it’s fitting, as an amateur woodworker was trying to slam some one with decades of commercial experience and who also has made a living teaching others after that career, and does so as a personal mission.

  4. dzj

    Both sides of this argument have their own interests in mind when discussing this issue.
    One has hand tool schools on both sides of the Atlantic, the other sells a lot of advertising space
    to power tool manufacturers.

    And both are in the business of selling a dream.

    Yes folks, you too can build heirloom furniture!
    Just buy these planes, take my course, read my magazine, buy this chisel, router, jig, planer, DVD…

  5. Clay Dowling

    I’ll tackle the feminist aside directly: Right On! My own mother was a woodworker, as a job rather than a hobby. For some reason this seemed to amaze a lot of people, especially women. The only thing keeping women out of woodworking is social ideas that tell women they can’t do it. They’re perfectly capable of woodworking, and as the SAPFM event in Detroit showed, there are women doing some amazing work.

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