Woodworking Overseas is a Rocky Road - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Woodworking Overseas is a Rocky Road

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

This week I’m headed to Germany to teach a couple classes at Dictum in Bavaria. I don’t teach much anymore, but I make a grand exception for Dictum for several reasons. The biggest reason? The woodworkers overseas are much more hardcore than those in North America.

Amateur woodworkers in the European Union (EU) have an uphill battle for the following reasons (and many more):

  1. Wood is much more difficult to find and is more expensive. Many lumber operations in the EU cater to professionals only or are indifferent to amateurs.
  2. Tools are more expensive. This is for a variety of reasons too complex to explore here. Taxes, historical trading relationships and market demand are a few good reasons. Bottom line: Getting started in woodworking in the EU is more expensive.
  3. Getting instruction can be difficult. There are fewer schools, and some trade organizations discourage members from teaching amateurs.
  4. Space. Many home in the EU are far smaller than a typical home in North America. There’s little room for a workshop.
  5. Masonry. Most homes in the EU are built using masonry construction. In North America, most homes are framed from wood. This makes a huge difference. Amateur woodworkers in North America usually start by doing basic carpentry in their homes. EU woodworkers don’t have the luxury of a system of home centers designed to help you work with wood.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. The interesting result of all the above limitations is that woodworkers in the EU are deadly serious. Perhaps because of the limitations listed above, when I get a class full of students in the EU, I know they are there to soak up every minute of instruction.

Teaching in the EU is also a huge challenge. While the students are enthusiastic, there is sometimes a language barrier. I’ve had classes with six nationalities represented. And there is an enormous difference in the woodworking culture to overcome. Many European countries have a different tool kit and a different approach to the craft. I’ve had to become adept at using a bowsaw and planing with wooden-bodied planes that are quite different from ours.

But in the end, it’s completely worth it. It’s a bit weird for me as an American to teach ancient woodworking methods in the countries that invented the techniques, but I’m thrilled to do it.

Look for more posts on international woodworking in the coming days.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • ivandro

    Whoever considers the activity of amateur woodworkers in Europe to be difficult is because they do not know what it is like in Brazil. It’s very hard! Wood is plentiful but lacking tools, instruction in courses and specialized literature. Importation is not a viable option for 95% of people because the rates are astronomical and the population does not have much money. So here in the third world, we improvise, but not always with good results.

  • teemacs

    The point about space is a very good one. We live in a typical Swiss house, where all my toys have to be put away before the car can fit in the garage. As a result, I have a lot of Festool stuff – expensive, but capable of being folded up and stacked away. Alas, no place for big workbenches or stationary machines!

  • jsunny

    Chirs, If you have the chance, I encourage you to travel to rural Mozambique. Hang on a minute, it’s not Kurtz descending in Heart of Darkness. I recently visited my daughter serving in the Peace Corps and noticed a remarkable young woodworkers producing exceptional work with the most basic hand tools. Electricity is unreliable and power tools very expensive and difficult to find. The hand tools are very low quality similar to those found at the Harbor type stores. Benches low and very high. Wood holding consists of the types you’ve written about in your fantastic book, Ingenious Mechanicks, nearly unchanged since the Portuguese and Dutch arrived in the 1570’s. The quality of their work which provides a basic living is excellent and very creative. I was very impressed and inspired to be even more interested in your oeuvre.

  • Bruce Chaffin

    FWIW, I’d take Europe’s Bauhaus stores over Home Depot any day of the week.

  • Dan

    I remember in Germany there was some kind of apprentice program where they were some special uniform/costume that identified them. I think they traveled mostly by foot & endured this program for a period of time. I don’t know the details but I’m curious if anyone knows about it

    • Four Maples Wood Solutions

      Dear Dan,

      This information may help you understand the German “Wanderjahre” that an apprentice in the old building trades may – but does not have to – undertake. You don’t see them everyday, but often enough to know that the tradition, its meaning and practical sense is valid even today.

      Michael Popp

      In English:

      More extensive in German:

  • MikeCashman

    What the God’s drink in München.

  • razumikhin1

    Speaking of those different wooden-bodied planes, have you had any experience with the E.C. Emmerich’s German planes? Some folks say they’re a cheap-but-good way to get into hand planing (much cheaper than Veritas or Lie-Nielsen). I’m considering this route myself, but I’d be curious to hear your take if you’ve tried them out.

  • Racer

    This is surprising. I’ve traveled quite a bit via motorcycle in Germany and Italy, and I always relish the abundance of hand worked wood over there. I especially like all of the decorative carving in the wood work and take lots of pictures of handcrafted entry doors, where the craftsmen have shown off their woodworking skills. Yes, the beer is better also! Bob Glenn

  • pmac

    Are you sure getting Bavarian Beer at the source doesn’t have something to do with your grand exception?

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