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

81 thoughts on “Codswallop

  1. Oldtoolseeker

    Megan, I was at this woodworking show on Saturday and sat through all of Paul Sellers sessions that day. I feel that a couple of comments are needed to add some perspective. Paul commented that if his sessions were in England he would have 43% women and children. In America it is 3%. His whole session was about teaching skills with a minimum of tools much like Chris Schwarz does. He is all about educating the next generation to learn the fundamental hand skills required to do good woodworking. On his website he allows free access to video’s that are skill builders. I feel he has the heart of a teacher. All during the sessions he spoke of developing and using all five senses to work the wood by hand. He showed us how to and why to sharpen a saw with a progress pitch. There is no doubt that he is a hand tool guy and is very passionate about it. He made a distinction between professional woodworkers and hobbyist. He feels the professional has time constraints forcing him to make projects with machines to meet deadlines. He said it would be up to the amateurs to help encourage the next generation of both generations. One issue we discussed was shop classes being eliminated from schools and the impact of developing young folks skills. We are fooling ourselves if we don’t recognize one of the reasons shop classes are being eliminated is because of the chance of young folks being injured on machines and the lawyers all to ready to sue the school boards in court. It is kinda hard to get hurt in computer lab and cause lawsuits. I asked him about how he goes about getting young folks involved with the laws in place today protecting children. He said he made sure he got the parents involved. In summary I feel he was trying to motivate us all to share our woodworking skills with others before the skills are lost. Did I see him as elitist and arrogant ? No. Passionate about fundamental woodworking skills? Very much so. Ironically at the show he was set up near a Legacy booth with computerized woodworking.

  2. dpaul

    Well, I see a lot of smug elitist back-slapping in these replies to Megan’s ridiculous rant. I’ve read and watched Sellers quite extensively, and elitist he is not. He is just one man, with one opinion. So get a life.

    1. rdeviney

      She’s just one woman, with one opinion. Nothing ridiculous about it.

      I followed Paul Sellers blog and videos for awhile. While I appreciate his background, skills, approach, and passion I now avoid him. Paul, like a few others, can’t seem to make a point that differs from others without adding a snarky comment. Bad form, as they say across the pond.

  3. exyle

    Selecting the right blade for a job, aligning beds and pullies, sharpening and all of the general tuning that needs doing to assure flat, square, parallel lumber requires focused attention and practice to maximize the results. Orienting the lumber as it passes through the machine, knowing what speeds will give the best cut…I’ve certainly never been able to pop a tool out of the box, plug it in and carelessly jam a piece of wood into it and expect good results. I don’t know where everybody else is getting their stationary power tools; none of those I’ve purchased “does all the work” without my focused attention….Megan, you’re Irish, do you think it might be leprechauns some of these folks must have in their shops?
    All of that machinery use benefits strongly from a thorough grounding in hand tool use….most of the operations mentioned above are simply extensions of the same processes used in and informed by competent handwork. The machine and hand tool processes are complementary; any method one chooses to do their work would (ideally) be done mindfully and enjoyed. There is no production mentality inherent in machine use. Focused production of wooden objects didn’t take place before the advent of machinery? Craftsmen were just languidly shuffling about their benches, working when it suited them, without a care about getting that set of chairs out the door so they had a means to feed their families? Using the lumber we’re lucky to have to its greatest potential with the least amount of waste seems like an ideal worth striving for with hand tool, machine or both. After all “woodworking” is what its called; not “tool using”.

  4. Jay Pettitt

    Gotta say – I think Mr Sellers is more right than wrong.

    Not that I disagree that Machines, or at least Power Tools ~ the difference between a machine and a tool is that a machine does all the work without a person, where as a tool enables a person to do work ~ can make the craft accessible by removing barriers.

    But the the thing is, not all people are afflicted by the same barriers.

    And power tools bring barriers of their own. Expense. Danger. Space requirements. Production methodology.

    It’s getting better (not least thanks to your mag and staff) – but when I started getting interested in woodwork jus a few short years ago there was only one way to work wood. Via a Credit Card and a fully equipped machine shop. Thank goodness that particular nonsense is getting slapped ~ and may it continue to get so.

  5. Tico Vogt

    Hi Megan,

    I share your frustration with the superior attitude of many hand tool purists. Not one of the highly inspirational craftsmen who drew me to woodworking fitted that category. The system of apprentices and guilds is long gone. Historically jointers were among the first tradesmen to expire from shear exhaustion.

    Take a look in the parking lot at woodworking shows and at woodworking schools. Do you see many old beat up cars? Are those in attendance really worried about whether it costs more to sharpen on stones versus abrasive paper? They will be gone from this earth before it could make the least difference. My point is, it’s a hobby for the vast majority of participants. Have fun learning and reaching for excellence, but don’t get up on a purists’ high horse.

  6. MikeyD

    You’ve gone off the rails here, Megan. The title is accurate. Codswallop. Only it applies to you, not Paul Sellers. Please try to remember where he is coming from. The man is one of the last generation of apprentices in europe. He has witnessed that system fall by the wayside, with less than great results. Being from europe, he has also mentioned the realities of woodworking there. Most do not have the space for machinery, and if they do, they still cannot make noise without disturbing neighbors. He has watched manufacturers of hand tools consistently reduce the quality of their product due to price pressures, or go out of business. Yes, he sometimes calls them to task, and to some that may sound like he is raging against modernity. Yes, he is raging against the machine.
    Your example of surfacing lumber is total BS. If you read his site at all, you would know he spends time explaining how to pick lumber at Home Depot or elsewhere, and advocates using wood that is surfaced already to avoid this whole problem. Your rant that his advocating hand tools requires years of training and scares people off is exactly the opposite of his position and methods. His point is exactly the opposite, that hand tools can be used with some dedication and practice, that they represent much less of a bar to getting into woodworking than the cost of machinery. He spends time explaining good low cost tools, both used and new. Your own example contradicts your argument about all the training and years of practice. You’ve been using hand tools for how long now? and have learned to prefer them? Right?
    Anyone paying attention could see this fight coming from a long way off. Sellers has picked a fight with most of the woodworking press. He doesn’t like the new planes coming out of Lie-Nielsen (they’re too heavy). He picks on what a lot of writers produce, saying they make things unnecessarily complicated. I would not doubt he is the guy who took a shot at Chris, because Chris has never actually worked as a carpenter/cabinetmaker.
    Just read some more of the guy’s blog before you take the shot. I don’t think you have. You’re doing yourself and your readers a disservice. And I think you are the one throwing bombs to attract attention, not him.
    The argument of hand vs. machine work is old, he hardly said anything revolutionary.
    PS. Theres a reason classes aimed at women and children fill up fast. They want to master the machinery and work safely. Sometimes it’s because it’s cool to use all that power, sometimes, it’s mastering fear. My wife worked in a storm window factory, using saws, punch presses, etc to make aluminum frames. Work with the machines at home? No way, not until she got instruction. I think the fear is there, and sensible, and give women credit for not having the macho mentality of men who seem to think they can do anything without reading the directions.

  7. captainbandana

    Addressing the comments about young people and their interest in becoming ‘woodworkers’ I would direct you to the program at our local HD big box store that sponsors Saturday morning ‘kids and parent’ carpentry classes. Kids are given an apron and a few other little freebies connected to woodworking and then are guided in making small projects. Maybe some of them will not go on and use these new found skills but maybe, just maybe, some of them will become carpenters and join the ranks of ‘woodworkers’. My hat’s off to HD for this program.

    1. BLZeebub

      Maybe if we hadn’t closed down all the shop classes and force fed everyone the notion that the only true value in life is going to college and getting a degree and getting married and [insert retching sound here]. I fear we’ve done a great disservice to ourselves in this country by taking this college and college only approach to education. We need plumbers, carpenters, brick masons and other tradespeople. Lord knows we’ve got enough college grads already that can’t support themselves and will spend the rest of their lives making payments on their school loans.

  8. BLZeebub

    Geez Meg, did you open up a can of wigglers or what? I would ask Mr. Sellers this, “If Sam Maloof made his rockers with only hand tools would we think less of him?”

    Keep up the good work, Megan. You’re a champ in my book.

  9. jerrysats

    This is my favorite line “Tools don’t build things; people build things ” well said Megan !!

  10. xMike

    All Right Megan!
    One of the things that first attracted me to this magazine and it’s predecessor was a focus on the blended workshop.
    You have restated that focus just marvelously!
    Mike D

  11. David

    I like to ride my bicycle to the bar for a couple of beers, but if I am going to buy a case I will probably drive a car. That doesn’t mean the case of beer is less valuable because it was acquired by machine. I use hand tools and machines in my shop depending on time restraints and how well my arthritic hands will tolerate the job at hand. Our job, as woodworkers, is to provide an opportunity for those interested ( regardless of gender and age) in the craft to join and learn as much or as little as their desire requires. We can only provide opportunities for others to participate and not analyze why others do not have the passion for woodworking that we have. Contrary to popular belief ( at least among those of us who butcher wood) there are many other activities with which woodworking is in competition. Don’t believe me, ask your church staff why the church programs have become so poorly attended. They will tell you there are too many other activities: school programs, dancing, soccer, piano lessons, karate. Those interested in becoming involved in woodworking, will find a way. Have you checked to attendance at the local sewing circle? Bet you won’t find many men. Do you think those ladies are concerned about the lack of men in attendance? Well, enough soapbox. Except. I am sure if Roubo and Moxon had 18″ bandsaws, 20 inch planers, and the latest dovetail jigs, they would have surely used them without reservations or apologies all the while crying out ” Halleluia-Thank you Jesus!.

  12. Prostheta

    Hi Megan,

    It must have been a difficult decision to write such remarks on the writings of another given your position. However I do think the milksop journalistic style many seem to have adopted of late has blunted critical journalism so your post was refreshing and I spent a few bit of the day thinking and how I actually feel about it. I applaud it. I just hope that the target of your ire can take the blow on the chin 🙂

  13. jerryolson19

    Right on Megan your comments are on target. In the days of all hand tools the craft depended to a great extent on the labor of the apprentice whose job it was to plane down boards and resaw out veneer. The benefit of power tools allows us to enjoy the craft with out the drudgery.
    In my work if the surface is not hidden the machine marks are all removed with hand tools. In some instances the marks of an aggressively curved jack plane are added for effect.

  14. mbholden

    Just finished the SAPFM demo at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I was demonstrating how to carve a ball and claw foot.
    Had a lot of males say that they “could not do that” , not a single female. In fact, I had three that asked how to get involved in woodworking and learn. One lady even accepted my invitation to come around the table and give it a try.
    There is hope!
    To paraphrase: Don’t let the misogynists grind you down! (grin)

    1. gwalker

      If I could add to those comments, I also participated in the SAPFM event at the DIA. Much of the time we had a line of boys and girls clammering to ride on a shaving horse and make some chips with a spokeshave. The youngest was a boy just shy of three. We shared our passion for craft across age and gender lines but also across a wide cultural mix. Hand tools were featured but they were secondary to our larger goal of sharing the fun and richness of our craft tradition. I drove home wondering how we could bottle what happened at the DIA.

      Georgw Walker

      1. Eli

        Both of these examples involve hand tools rather than machinery. I am curious if you, or mbholden, think this had anything to do with the level of interest. Were people demonstrating routers or other machines also receiving attention from people of all ages and genders?

        Eli Cleveland

        1. zdillingerzdillinger

          Eli, there were no people demonstrating with power tools at the DIA show. I was cutting dovetails and had a lot of interest from both genders. Almost exclusively adults, only a couple of kids had any interest in what I was doing. The spring pole lathe drew a lot of attention.

    2. Clay Dowling

      I was one of those people who had the pleasure of watching you work on the foot. While there are no ball and claw feet in my immediate future, I thought you did an excellent job of showing people that anybody can do this, provided they’re willing to learn about how the form is constructed and how to use the tools. In fact that seemed like a universal theme among all of the demonstrators I saw: simple, easy to understand steps with simple tools that gave amazing results.

  15. peppersvnv

    My shop is a blended shop. I like a hand saw over a table saw simply because it gives me more pleasure; a plane to finish the surface because I enjoy it and because wood planed to a finish leaves a better surface than a power planer and abrasives, IMHO. My dovetails are hand cut because the noise of a router plus vacuum is obnoxious, and I enjoy cutting them by hand. Time in my shop is not for making a living. Hell, it’s not even for making furniture given my under developed skills. My shop is for my pleasure, period. Keep your eye on the prize.

    One of my other pleasures in life is playing with words. “Obnoxious”. Using hand tools is less noxious, and the noise is less much less obnoxious. I’m going to look up the origin of both “noxious” and the prefix “ob”. It give me pleasure to learn. hmmmm, maybe that has something to do with my preference of hand tools over power tools.


    Megan – You are right on the money. I love to make furniture and I love to use hand tools. However, I have third stage Lyme Disease and, as a consequence, am chronically fatigued. If i limited my “woodcraft” to only hand tools I’d accomplish very little. So when I have the energy, I use the hand tools, but I mix it up so that I don’t run out of steam early in the day. An attitude like Sellers’ is elitist BS.

  17. Brian Greene

    Well said Megan. Paul Sellers is a very talented woodworker and teacher but there is an underlying attitudinal tone (elitist) that has always bugged me. These attitudes should be called out and you did it well.

    As a woodworker I use, embrace, teach and promote both power and hand tools as the most expedient approach. One without the other means your tool kit is missing something, in my opinion. I’m also tired of the one is better than the other discussion. As for women in woodworking, I teach the craft at a beginner level and my classes usually have men and women. I know there is nothing inherent to the craft that prevents them from taking it up or doing well. It’s societal, cultural or personal interest that keeps them away, but it’s not anything to do with WW. Sellers is totally wrong. Once in, women are as capable as men and have the common sense to ask for help to lift stuff! If you are a man with an attitude, get over yourself. There’s my feminist rant!

    Brian in Ottawa

    1. Eli

      I haven’t read enough of Sellers work to know his tone, but I wonder if some of the elitism is in the way we respond. I have never heard people voice a desire for their work to be called “woodcraft” but suddenly there is a strong reaction when he says it is not. We may disagree with his definition of the term, but why is it an insult not to be a woodcrafter? Some words describe what we do and some don’t. To him, “woodcraft” does not describe using machinery prominently. Should architects be offended to be called not engineers? Different is not better or worse.

      Regarding gender, Sellers seems to agree that woodworking is not inherently discriminatory. He also points to social and cultural issues as the dividing forces. He claims that with manufacturers not addressing the disparities, they perpetuate them. Also he believes that machinery discourage everyone from entering the craft:

      “I think too that many women feel intimidated by many things surrounding woodworking when there is no reason for them not to work wood outside or inside industry. I think that they are right to feel intimidated by highly dangerous machines but so too men today are unused to the physical and mental demand-requirements it takes to work with woodworking machines. This is not gender specific, although I do think that women show higher levels of respect for machine woodworking and shy away from it because it is so highly invasive and aggressive. I was raised with machines, worked with them for 49 years, and I find them invasive. We should find them invasive.”

      We should acknowledge that his experience and understanding of “woodcraft” appears to relate to a connection and experience rather than a quality. Machines interrupt this experience.

      Eli Cleveland

  18. thesylvansmith

    I think this is what Paul was attempting to say in his blog post…

    “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”


    1. nkallner

      I think that may be a good analogy. Hand tools like a light saber require that the user learn to use them. That task takes some effort and repitition in order to become good at it. Power tools remove a bit of effort and with a bit less skill allow reasonable results. With some practice some rather good results can be achieved. I prefer to use the power tools to remove some of the hard work of getting the piece close to what is needed. Then switch to hand tools to achieve that last few thousandths in the fit. A little practice over time allow a person to develop the skills needed use those hand tools to truly make a fine fit. Of course there are some things where hand tools are actually quicker or the only reasonable way of doing things. Same is true the other way around. Choose the proper tool for the task.

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