Help Answer the Critical Questions of our Craft

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Hello Everyone!

Chris and John at Lost Art Press have shown the grace to lend me spot here on the blog, so allow me to introduce myself:

My name is Henrik Lützen, and I’m a MA-student in English Studies at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. This spring I’m writing my thesis on the current craft revival, and why more people are drawn to hand tool woodworking especially. Oh, and I’m a knuckle-dragging hand tool neanderthal myself.

For this project I have a working thesis that the craft movement (among other things) is a response to three issues with contemporary society, which I have labeled:

Surface: That we need the perfect imperfection of a handmade surface to better relate to them, and that we appreciate seeing signs of both the item’s production and its maker in the surface (think of Krenov, Pye, Yanagi)

Community: That the crafts allows us to engage in three dialogues: With the past (through learning the traditional ways), with the present (online communities, courses, tool meets etc.) and with the future (through making heirlooms and through preserving tradition).

Practice: That the uncertainty of outcome and investment of effort inherent to hand tool woodworking shapes our experience of the world in a number of ways:

– We can transform a material = That is, we can influence the world.

– Wood or other materials have their own limitations and possibilities = That is, we live not in (digital) fantasy, but in material reality.

– Through persistence, effort and close observation, we may improve our skills = That is, our effort enhances our value to the world and matters to the world.

Some of you will possibly/probably hear echoes of Matthew Crawford or a certain anarchist book in this.

My point is that hand tool working is a deliberate alternative to the mainstream, and that it gives more sustainable and creatively fulfilling lives.

The real elephant in the room is, does the hand tool woodworking community have lessons for society as a whole? How do we use natural and human resources and fulfill our aspirations to be creative? This is something I hope to be able to explore further.

Now, such a thesis doesn’t exist in a vacuum: While I could just sample forums, this is the LAP blog: Home to the top tier hand tool aficionados, the anarchistic and the outspoken. So I need your help: I want to hear your own reasons for working with hand tools – in your own words.

Topics could include:

– What drew you to hand tool woodworking – and why do you do it?

– Do you consider sustainability with your work? Making furniture that lasts, reclaiming timber, using lasting, safe finishes?

– What do you feel you learn about yourself through craftsmanship?

– Have you considered doing this as a job – or a part-time job? And for those of you who have already, what led you to this path less trodden?

– Have you thought about the future of craft – or the value of craftsmanship to the world?

But these are only suggestions, if you have other ideas, write them down. Post them in the comment field or email them to me directly at this address henrik1224@gmail.com.

This is valuable stuff, and I will treat it as such:

You won’t be reduced to quantitative numbers (NO: X respondents expressed Y) – but I will anonymize your responses.

This won’t be published, but anyone can read an online copy of the (100+ pages) thesis when it is complete.

So share your thoughts and opinions with me. In return, I promise to give my very best effort.

Thank you – and stay sharp!

— Henrik

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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22 Responses to Help Answer the Critical Questions of our Craft

  1. greenebelly says:

    I would put money down that a majority of people going back to hand tools are mid 30’s. I’m 41 for reference. I grew up with a dad who woodworked. I am of the age that Norm was on TV using the best and newest power tools. Subliminally through advertising I suppose, the way to get better at woodworking was to continually upgrade to better and more expensive power tools. Machines are better than man right?!? Around 30, I started to pay attention to life in general and began to doubt all corporate lies that tell you you’ll be happier and have a better life if you just buy “this”. For the life of me I can’t recall the first “quality” hand tool was the first epiphany. Indeed it did happen though. Then age sets in. There is a harmonious moment I ones life whom grew up with straight bladed power jointers, who use a quality hand plane for the first time. You can hear the angelic harps for the first time whilst doing what you now love! I used to like working wood. Now I love it. You are told your whole life to ” do it this way”. I ask everyone to make a little something and not use measuring devises of any kind. Use dividers, story sticks and your minds eye for proportion. It will set you free. I didn’t invent this by any means. I have grabbed it whole heartily and pass it freely unto anyone interested. Good luck!

    • greenebelly says:

      I would add my line of distinction to power tools. I think it can change. At my skill level before, when I was using all power tools, I would have and did believe that my projects were hand made. I now am down to a power jointer/thickness planner,bandsaw, and the occasional table saw just to rough dimension things. I would not say to my former self that those things I made weren’t hand made. The level of handmadieness(new word, I call dibs) is much better now than before. It is much more worthy to be sold/given as handmade on the handmade hierarchy scale if there is so a beast.

  2. Stefan Rusek says:

    For me, woodworking started out as a way for me to build/repair things around the house and the joy of building things. I was primarily building stuff with power tools. Then I read the Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and that all changed. While Chris made a compelling argument, the book really caused me to think about how woodworking fit into my life. For example, my wife and I generally buy organic, local, or local+organic food. My motivation for this is out of a desire to have trustworthy food for my family and to play whatever part I can in creating a sustainable future.

  3. Henrik, this is a brilliant thesis, and I look forward to reading it. I plan to respond with my thoughts within a few days.

    Merry Christmas!

  4. – Do you consider sustainability with your work? Making furniture that lasts, reclaiming timber, using lasting, safe finishes?

    I do think about sustainability, but not in a typical way. If I can build something close to perfect, there is a good chance it will never be replaced. That takes the burden off future generations to have to replace a chair, table or bed.

    I do use reclaimed lumber when I can, but I also keep in mind that the rotting process of wood is part of the life cycle, as is the growing and culling in a forest.

    As to finishes, I have turned my back on most modern forms and instead use historical finishes that are less harmful to make, use and dispose of. This is as much for my personal health as it is for the world around me.

  5. I will send you my wood work cv within a few days. Good topic.

  6. bloksav says:

    Hi Henrik

    Do you draw a special line when it comes to the use of power tools?
    I for instance use a table saw and a planer for dimensioning lumber, but I still consider myself a hand tool user.

    I’ll mail you my answers.
    Merry Christmas

    Brgds
    Jonas

  7. KampWood says:

    It calms me, I restore the tools I use so cost is cheap, it give me a connection to history that is seldom had in these days, and it gives me more feedback in my hands so I can control what is going on with the hand saws. This is why I use hand tools.

  8. Sean Yates says:

    Simple practicality born of necessity.
    If I still lived in the suburbs I doubt I would have developed an interest
    in hand tool wood and metal working. 13 years ago my wife and I moved
    to a rural part of the Midwest. A paucity of fiduciary resources and a surfeit
    of things needing done necessitated skill, material and tool acquisition.
    Hand tools were easy to find 2nd hand, far less expensive than power tools
    and easier for a neophyte to learn to use without injuring myself. They take
    up less space and don’t require electricity. Today some cities have tool libraries.
    Had there been such a resource here, I would have gone the route of the majority

  9. mnrwoods says:

    Henrik,

    My first experience working wood was in high school, forty years ago. Although I was aware of hand tools, as I recall, they were usually not sharp, bent out of shape, or otherwise troublesome to use. I started down the power tool path.

    After years of disappointment at the results I was getting from imprecise power tools, I found myself trying to decide how to smooth the tapered edge of a workpiece. For some reason, I picked up an old handpkane and gave it a try. Although it badly needed sharpening, it was still a revelation to me to make shavings and to smooth that edge. That was ten years ago. Since then, I have been selling power tools and acquiring quality hand tools with which I can work wood as precisely as my skills allow. The Anarchists Tool Chest helped greatly to reinforce my thinking and to guide me in deciding what hand tools are truly necessary to build fine furniture. I don’t miss the noise and the clouds of dust from the power tools. My hand/eye skills have developed to the point that I am no longer continually frustrated by less than accurate results I used to get with midpriced machinery.

    I enjoy working the wood now that I am no longer machining the wood. I take all the time that is needed to make each piece and to fit it to its mate. I may not have Krenov’s eye for grain and coloration, but I am learning to read more fluently.

    My aim is to use the wood to its best potential as I make things for certain people that they cannot obtain anywhere else. My hope is that it will bring them as much joy through the years in using these pieces as it brought to me In making them.

  10. Thrilled to see you doing this, Henrik. Can’t wait to read the finished product (and shout it from the rooftops so others will read it). Best of luck with the research. I’ve sent my reply over via email.

  11. momist says:

    Born in 1949 in Northern England (UK), my family had a long experience of the rigours of war and rationing. In my early years, groceries were delivered in an old converted bus by the local grocer, packed into an empty orange box nailed together with assorted nails. My job was to convert the old boxes into kindling for lighting the coal fire in the living room, which also heated our water (back boiler).
    Some of the better, thicker pieces, I rescued from the firewood to make things from. Later in what would now be called high school, I took woodwork instead of metalwork, and did good. Although I did not seriously do much woodworking after leaving school, I could make the things I needed for my new family, and did so. I also learned to hate and fear the power tools that I used. Once I retired, taking up the hand tools again seemed the natural thing to do.

    I agree with the three points you make. As for lessons for society as a whole? Yes, I think so. Especially as humanity spirals down into anarchy due to the limits to growth.

    An old wise neighbour once told me “you can have it, if you can make it!”.

  12. henrik1224 says:

    Wow, how many great responses are coming in already.
    Many people have written emails as well. I am humbled and amazed by the depth, variation and thoughtfulness in your responses. I will write back to everyone, but your opinions deserve careful thought.
    The time difference – and Christmas traffic – might cause slight hiccups in my replies to you, but I’m
    reading avidly!

    I will learn to reply directly to posts here on the blog, but I’m really a monkey at this web 2.0-stuff:-)

    Jonas fielded an excellent question: Do you draw a special line when it comes to the use of power tools?
    The answer is; No, I don’t draw the line anywhere. What is interesting to me and this study is: Where do YOU draw the line – and WHY? There are no disqualifiers.

    Please keep up the flow of thoughts – they are important and valuable.

    Thank you for your help, and happy holidays to everyone,

    Henrik

  13. Is it possible that the craft movement is not a “response” to modern society? What if it is less of a rebellion against contemporary deficiencies and more a realization of a well of enlightenment that has always been availabile to humanity? I think what people get from craft is an unmediated experience of “will” being transmuted to material reality. It is literally a magical act to transform a piece of wood into an object that began as a thought. I think handtool use becomes an obsession because it is a more direct experience of this magical process than when using machines. As an analogy, it would be like the difference between a priest assuring you that there is a god or having a direct conversation with a god yourself. The more someone creates using hand tools, the more proof they have of their ability to transmute thought to reality. It becomes a positive feedback loop of creation. For me personally, this is the seed for why I use handtools. Things like sustainability, community, or making a living, while nice side effects, are fairly abstracted from the original motivation.

  14. parks2167 says:

    Having been a life long DIY home owner, like my father before me, I learned to work with tools at a young age. Not very well but a tool user none the less. My woodworking really comes from my grandfather. He was a real interior jointer who made all types of interior fittings for large homes and wealthy associations. He worked his sons like slaves and none of them ( 6 in all ) took to woodworking as a profession. They all went to steel. As I got older I wanted to connect with my
    grandfather and his obvious love of working wood. I want to do it to learn and grow as a person, not as a professional. My grandfather worked with hand tools and upon his death, the sons and sons-in-laws stripped his tool chest of everything except one gouge, and one very tired hand saw.
    These two my father passed down to me. I read and study and do woodworking as an educational activity as I am too old to start another career. I love doing it, I am in my shop every day. I’ve met some wonderful fellow woodnuts and look forward to meeting more of them. They all have so much to teach and give. The benefits of working wood are too numerous to site here.
    I have made a few things and each one teaches me to me better than the last. That’s growth and that’s what I am after.

  15. David Clark says:

    I am coming to the end of a thirty year career teaching industrial design and engineering at the high school level. My shop at school has had the usual shop power tools, table saw, band saw, etc. We’ve made some wonderful projects, but I’ve had enough of listening to running machinery.

    When I get to my home shop, I enjoy the peace and quiet of working with hand tools. There is no pressure to finish by a deadline and I can work as slowly and deliberately as I want. It becomes as much about each pull/push of the saw or creating a really nice looking plane shaving as it does the finished piece of furniture.

    Good luck with the project Henrik!

  16. Scott Taylor says:

    Interesting responses. For me it is about what gets the job done the best and most efficient way. Tage Frid was in my opinion the master of this. He did not have a hand vs. power tool opinion, he was about results. I am sure the Townsends, Goddards and even John Seymour would have taken to a Unisaw and Festool with glee and still used their hand planes.
    I move from power to hand tools many times during a project. I started using a hand mitre box and shooting board when doing very small mouldings, but the power mitre saw is still there and gets used a lot. It is about the process and the result and what works for the individual craftsperson.

  17. – What drew you to hand tool woodworking – and why do you do it?

    I’m female, age 38. I began working with hand tools at age 24 strictly out of necessity, both financial and contextual. I could not afford power tools nor did I have a place to put them. I lived on $17k/year in a small, one-room studio. When I slept on my futon, my toes touched the refrigerator door.

    I had one, very small utility closet so that was my “shop,” as shown in the Appendix of Aldren S. Watson’s book, Hand Tools: Their Ways and Working. I had a short bench top attached to the inside of the closet door, with a light that pulled out above it. With the door open, the bench top down, and the light extended, I could push my futon out of the way, cover the floor with a sheet, and practice quietly hand planing without disturbing neighbors. Power tool noise would have meant eviction.

    I soon fell in love with this no-noise constraint. I utterly, viscerally hate noise, to the point that there’s probably something wrong with me. I cannot function in a big grocery store, for example, between the beeping machines, announcements, music, people. I want to crumble and bang my head on the floor.

    Anyway, I loved how quiet and effective hand tools could be. They weren’t just simple, they were efficient. I loved that I did not need ear plugs. I could hear classical music over my efforts. It was hand tools that made woodworking harmonious and meditative which, at age 24, I had not predicted and wasn’t really looking for.

    I appreciated that my few hand tools were so compact, a big deal in my 12’ x 14’ room. I could do so much with so little. I don’t think I had more than a hand plane, a scraper, a rip saw, a hammer, a dovetail saw and a single screwdriver to start, and I did not buy more tools for years.

    I was brainwashed, however, to believe — basically without question — that my condition would inevitably change, that once I could afford and store power tools they would supplant my use of hand tools. A few years later, I started down that path without giving much thought to it, I’m ashamed to say. I rented shop space from a very well known woodworker fortuitously located one block from my apartment (fate?!) and from whom I’d taken classes. I immediately bought a table saw, an old band saw from Craigslist, and a router. I set up a router table on the table saw extension.

    I did not love it. I did not even like it. The pay-off did not nearly meet the expense. I hated the need for serious dust collection, the energy they used. I hated wearing ear protection, the noise, and the vibration. At the time I was making several copies of a single item and that plus the power tools made me feel more like a small-time manufacturer than a woodworker. About a year later, I gave away or sold all of my power tools.

    It’s 14 years later and I work in a one-car garage so tiny that only a Mini or Fiat is short enough to park in it. I have to put the car in the street in order to work. It’s a similar context to my one-room studio apartment and, again, hand tools suit it perfectly. I work with the garage door open. Neighbors come by, as they cannot hear me working, think the door is left open, come to tell me, and are stunned to see me working away.

    – Do you consider sustainability with your work? Making furniture that lasts, reclaiming timber, using lasting, safe finishes?

    Yes. I got into wood working when I did because I could not find a single affordable, well made coffee table to buy. I found American-made things at Crate & Barrel and the like and, if the quality was acceptable, the price and style usually were not. I cringed to see Midcentury coffee tables embellished with some stupid 1980s style flower.

    More tasteful things were far outside my price range and still came from a factory. Items at estate sales (where I eventually found a $15 table) were my inspiration. They were beautiful, well made, and stood the tests of time. If I didn’t like anything I saw in stores, and that was why I sewed and knit, then I’d just have to make my furniture myself, too. So I did.

    I hate cheap crap. I hate slave and underpaid labor. I hate all waste strongly and equally, whether it’s food, water, energy, or “disposable” goods cheaper to replace than to fix. I hate that we have no standards and that so many people accept all of this as normal.

    Even so, I discovered “sustainability” almost accidentally as — at the time — it just meant “better, affordable materials” to me. At the time, when I lived in the Great Lakes region, I could get old hardwood salvaged from the bottom of Lake Superior. (That wood makes quick work of today’s table saw blades, FYI.) I also bought salvage wood from a small family company that milled wood from trees that fell down in storms. These materials were far more interesting than what I could get from the home store, and I liked the idea of working with what the weather had wrought.

    As for safer finishes, that seemed a no-brainer where my health and air quality was concerned.

    – What do you feel you learn about yourself through craftsmanship?

    Patience. I’m an impatient person, a bit of a control freak, and a perfectionist. (I’m a real delight to be around, huh? I remain surprised that I have a) a husband and b) any friends). I was the kid who, when I was three years old, would stay up late at the kitchen table crying because I couldn’t write my letters perfectly… at age three. Woodworking (along with sewing, knitting and spinning) has kept those attributes from holding sway.

    I love that slowness is key, that I can’t do something well if I do it too quickly. I love that I get more efficient at process, fine tuning how I do things — whether that’s making a jig or changing my set-up to be better. I’ve given up trying to predict when something might be done. Previously, I was never someone who could comfortably “roll with it” like this.

    I like that all of these self-improvement type things also happen to be diametrically opposed to mainstream culture. We control our technology so much (or it gives the illusion of our controlling it) and it responds immediately. We press a button, a thing happens. We feel like gods. But that’s not what craft gives me. My outcomes are at the mercy of the materials and my own skill level and limitations. It’s humbling in a good way.

    I also feel a bit rebellious, because a fundamental knowledge of the world, our surroundings, materials, and process in an age when this is deliberately hidden and supplanted by the digital is rebellious. The design of things actively tells us *not* to be hands on, not to touch anything or investigate further (as Crawford wrote in regard to cars where nothing can be seen or tinkered with under the hood).

    – Have you considered doing this as a job – or a part-time job? And for those of you who have already, what led you to this path less trodden?

    Yes. I quit my full-time corporate job in June 2015 (best decision ever) and am doing a combination of tech freelancing, sheep shearing and — I hope — making some wood items that combine my love of textiles with woodworking. I have also designed some furniture patterns over the years that I’d like to release, similar to what independent designers of sewing patterns are doing.

    – Have you thought about the future of craft – or the value of craftsmanship to the world?

    Yes, but I’m afraid those thoughts are not coherent enough to share. Maybe someday.

    – RE: that we appreciate seeing signs of both the item’s production and its maker in the surface (think of Krenov, Pye, Yanagi)

    This is key to me. Modern ways of making and consuming deliberately hide and remove the maker, and thus human agency, because our system depends on that. Corporations do not want us to know who made anything because that person is, almost always, a person being taken advantage of, and who does not have a lot of human agency. When we hide a human, we deliberately hide agency and minimize the idea that our actions can impact the physical world.

    When a maker is not hidden, we have to face both them and ourselves: the maker and consumer become more human and, hopefully, more humane. Looking at another person is also looking in a mirror, which makes it harder to rationalize the purchase of a $4 tee shirt and the like. (And, as someone who grew up without much money, don’t tell me anyone “needs” that $4 tee, brand new. Someone might need a new-to-them shirt, but that doesn’t mean they need the $4 one from Bangladesh or that that’s the only thing that should be available to them.)

    – Re: That the crafts allows us to engage in three dialogues: With the past (through learning the traditional ways), with the present (online communities, courses, tool meets etc.) and with the future (through making heirlooms and through preserving tradition).

    For me, it’s the type of community. As Crawford says, communities of craftspeople are based on shared skill. It’s the difference between a crew and a team. The true appreciation of competence can only be mutual. People who don’t create don’t understand the accomplishment of making in the same way, even if they might appreciate the end product. These communities are — happily — less about you, unlike so many office contexts with their Myers-Briggs and all that crap, than they are about your work. There is so much BS in the “work” world today; it’s so rarely about the amount or quality of work anyone does.

    In regard to a connection with the past… This is ancillary for me, but my ancestors were all Polish carpenters, cabinet makers, finish carpenters, seamstresses, lace makers. I didn’t overlap in time and space with most of them, and if I did it was not for long. Still, their values were those I was raised with: you cook your own food, you make your own things, crap is not worth it, take pride in yourself and your skills. Have as many skills as you can; you’ll need them. I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of making and documenting patterns of some of the traditional objects my elders left, and those things are some of the items for which release patterns for. I only wish I could have a few days with my great grandfather, to learn his techniques!

  18. henrik1224 says:

    Hello everyone,

    Thank you for all your thoughtful posts here and the more than 50 emails.
    Just wanted to say that I have 3 kids with ear pain which has occupied the holidays and night. As soon as everything is back to normal, I will resume writing back to yu. Thank you for such personal and interesting letters, reading them has been both educating and a joy.

    Until soon
    Henrik

    • Hello Henrik,

      Sounds like a great study…I look forward to the results of your pondering on this broad subject…

      To some of your direct questions:

      “The real elephant in the room is, does the hand tool woodworking community have lessons for society as a whole? ”

      Yes…Especially after the IR (industrial revolution.)

      “How do we use natural and human resources and fulfill our aspirations to be creative?”

      It all depend (I suppose) on the context of our individual interests and goal sets…

      For me, not only being a “traditional woodworker,” I find great reward in stone, earth and textiles as well. Further there are so many “folk crafts” and “indigenous life skills” (et al) to pull from that have bearing on “natural and human resources” to “fulfill our aspirations” that the applicable response to this query would go on for many pages (or hours of discussion.)

      “What drew you to hand tool woodworking – and why do you do it?”

      I was born to it in many context and mediums…

      “Do you consider sustainability with your work? Making furniture that lasts, reclaiming timber, using lasting, safe finishes?”

      Yes and no…

      As a traditionalist, ecologist and permaculturalist…I have no choice but to think of sustainability/economy in much of what I do privately and professionally.

      “Sustainability” is a result of practice in the “traditional arts” as the many mediums and resulting products are typically far superior in durability and function than many (most?) “consumer products” they replace. For example a modern concrete bridge can “try” to replace a traditional stone or wood bridge…yet few (big picture…mind you) seldom can or do. These types of examples are endless and the current normative culture coming back to “traditional arts” are become not only aware of this, but further enlightened to its impact on all aspects of their individual lives…

      “What do you feel you learn about yourself through craftsmanship?”

      Beyond common and typical “personal satisfaction” we “feel” through craftsmanship, I would say the primarily “learning” we can gain is “independence” from consumerism.

      “Have you considered doing this as a job – or a part-time job? And for those of you who have already, what led you to this path less trodden?”

      Culture and family upbringing was the primary catalyst both in my private life and professionally.

      As for the “path less trodden,” (not to sound critical of the question…mind you) I believe that “western” (perhaps Eurocentric?) belief that “traditional crafts” are on the “path less trodden,” isn’t actually true. “Consumerism” and “modernism” in general is a relatively new occurrence within the human context of day to day life. In history and in most “second and third world” cultures (as they are called) “traditional” or “bespoke craft and artistry” is simply a way of life as it has been for millenia.

      “Have you thought about the future of craft – or the value of craftsmanship to the world?”

      All the time…!! and another long topic to explore…

      Regards,

      j

  19. wmcdermott says:

    Hand tools came to me through inheritance, as the next stop. Some from the 1800’s, most from the pre-WWII era. All were owned and used by ancestors who could do it all, and do it well. So, much of my interest in hand tool woodworking derives from respect and emulation of my elders.

    That was the beginning… then I discovered the world beyond my basement shop and my family hand me down tools. Each step forward has been rewarding. The process of learning, trying, doing and improving continues.

    The online community has been tremendously helpful with regard to discovering what certain tools were meant to do, how to tune them and how to use them. Easy access to that information has greatly shortened and smoothed the learning curve.

    Producing quality pieces with my own hands has become very gratifying, but the ability to blend art and craft into the production process has been most fulfilling. When a life’s work is pushed out through a keyboard and has value related directly to currency, it feels like a way to pay the bills, rather than improving the world. Building beautiful and useful things to last feels real good.

    Kindred spirits, met along the way is icing on the cake.

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