Master of Nothing

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One of the common criticisms I hear of North American woodworkers is that we try to do so many things – casework, carving, veneering, chairmaking, turning – that we never become good at any one of those things.

There’s truth to the criticism. When I work side-by-side with traditionally trained European woodworkers, they beat the pants off me (speed-wise). German, English and Swiss joiners can cut dovetails and assemble casework much faster than I can.

I do get a small measure of revenge when I pick up a turning tool without a second thought to make a leg or knob. Most of them have never touched a lathe, worked with green timber, dealt with compound-angle wet/dry chair joints or carved even a simple detail.

Maybe it’s the frontier blood in our veins or the fact that our society never embraced the European apprentice system for woodworking. There was just too much work to do, not enough people to do it and not enough time to train people in that manner. Heck, most North Americans I know are one or two generations removed from our subsistence farming ancestors.

At times I wish our history was different. I covet the pure European skill when I watch people from the French schools, for example, make astonishing chairs with ease. Or when I watch German carvers at work on restoring a cathedral. Or English joiners making ridiculous dovetails. I feel inferior, as if I’ve spent my entire adult life working at the craft and haven’t really gotten anywhere.

And this is the part of the writing arc where I am supposed to say: But we’re great! We get to do so many different things! And blah blah freedom #Murica.

That’s not how I resolve this conflict in my mind. I turn to the parable of the scorpion and the frog, made famous in the movie “The Crying Game.”

A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river. But the frog queries: “How do I know you won’t sting me?”

The scorpion replies: “Because if I do, we’ll both die.”

Satisfied, the frog allows the scorpion to hop on his back. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. And before they both drown, the frog asks: “Why?”

“It’s in my nature,” replies the scorpion.

Sometimes I ponder my 11-year-old self. Would I have signed onto a seven-year apprenticeship at a technical academy if it were offered? It’s an unanswerable, navel-gazing question, and so I pick up a saw and get back to cutting some tenons. And so should you.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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22 Responses to Master of Nothing

  1. ikustwood says:

    This blog really strung a chord… Thank you . That’s the way I feel everyday . Not easy. But the passion is still there. Learning by myself is extremely frustrating and scary at times but your books help. Tx again.

  2. nrhiller says:

    Also: It’s not a contest (though I’ve certainly borne my share of competitive put-downs by people who felt threatened by a woman in “their” field, especially during the last millennium). You don’t have to resolve this via the “blah blah blah freedom #Murica” route. We are all different. And there is only one Chris Schwarz. Keep doing what you do so well.

  3. Derek Long says:

    The difference is that I’m a woodworker for my own enjoyment, not to compete with some technically trained specialist. Someone can cut dovetails faster than I can? Bravo, Joe. Don’t care.

  4. studioffm says:

    In the UK the training of makers has changed in my lifetime. First the apprentice schemes have gone, those old three to five year schemes pretty well no longer exist . i have trained a few apprentices two could have a claim to being among the best makers in the country. We can’t afford to do that now we cannot tie them in a contract for four years. They all leave after two when you have spent all the expensive time on them and are hoping to get some money back . They see their buddies fitting kitchens earning good money and they are gone.
    The training colleges are closing one by one, never leave the skill of a nation in the hands of government they will always let you down. Private schools like Rowden are taking their place, the apprentice pays a premium for the first year then aims to get into a decent workshop as an improver.
    We should be able to get industry to commission pieces to be made by trainees under supervision in a second year of training Do this at a commercial rate, £25 hr is common an improver can work at £7.50 and take twice as long and still leave a margin for the training shop .

    david savage

  5. Chris Decker says:

    There’s no “like” button here, so I suppose I need to leave a comment that confirms my “like”?

    “Like”

  6. Ian Whitmore says:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
    — Robert Heinlein

  7. Britain has changed alot when I trained in mid 1980s. There were technical collages where you could train. These disappeared when all wanted to be university status so funding for other than the building trades vanished. Now if you want to learn the its to private educators you turn too. We are and have lost are knowledge skills and speed regarding cabinetwork way from the expensive machines.
    I wish we had a version of your Society of American Period Furniture Makes and the seminars for place like Yale, Chipstone Winterthur and Colonial Williamsburg which show the mechanics of each article and how the tradesman got from A to Z.
    You have to remember period craftsmen didnt do everything they stayed in one area so they would be quicker than today.
    Speed is not important just as the engineering to a very high quality as the furniture makes could not make money that way and as a restorer it is about shaving time which = a salary.

  8. Mark Dennehy says:

    Doing it fast is the wrong thing to focus on. Doing it right is far more important. Now if those guys can do it *better* than you, then you have something to strive for, which is not a bad thing.

  9. ​​Criminy Chris…This one seems to hit a “thought nerve” with many of us…​​

    My take on all this is similar, yet again I do have a different perspective on much of it as well…

    The observation that “…we try to do so many things…” is starting to wain down in my view. I even see in places like Japan/Asia, and all accross Europe, this massive movement back to traditional folk skills. Many are learning how to do all manner of thing…from basic Blacksmithing and Hide Tanning…to Timber Framing and Practical Ceramics…you name it and I can reference a dozen or more that are not only doing it…but…doing it pretty dang good. Some even making a living at it..This current coming generation is all up into this stuff around traditional art and craft…especially the Folk Arts!!

    Those of my generation have (for the most part) either completely lost touch with the basic life skills of…living life traditionally…or limited themselves into very narrow skill sets as suggested. They do not diversify the same way our Frontier Forbears did in many cultures accross the globe in what is now called the First Nations indigenous cultures. This “…do one thing…and do it well…” concept is, from a humanist and academic perspective, obtuse and limiting. Humans (both genders mind you) are capable of doing so much extremely well…IF!!!!…starting at an early age they are told they can. Some of us have had such a childhood…

    Now I have a friend, as an example, that has not only apprenticed and trained in several Wooden Boat Building traditions from Japan, he goes back and teaches there because of the lineage knowledge he has been given. This only happened because he was able to diversify and has multiple skill sets…It is changing all the time…and for that reason, I’m glad we are multifaceted in our skill sets. I would even further suggest, that it is our own individual psychologies that inhibit us or give us a notion that we can’t master multiple skill sets accross the many disciplines there are from ceramics, to metal, to stone and earth, on to wood and timber and further to textiles and onward…Where we can greatly improve this culturally is bringing back all these “Frontier Skills” (aka Indigenous Life Skills) back into our schools and learning systems from elementary to collegiate.

    ​My observation is that most that feel they haven’t “really gotten anywhere” (in life or a skill set) stems from within their individual psychology, childhood upbringing and/or the Normative Culture they currently still live in. It is not a necessity or a trap…it’s a rut that one can extract themselves from. This speaks to “it’s in my nature” concept, and though true to a point…humans do have that wonders capacity to adapt, improve and change…If they choose to.

    Since I grew up in a household of women Artisan and Crafters…accross the many craft disciplines I do have a very different perspective and take on much of this. I was blessed enough to have actually apprenticed as a Barn Wright (on and off) starting at age 13…I did (at an early age) get exposure to not only “tradition” but was also protected from what I call “traditional craft misogyny” that can be so limiting and is only now being dispelled…

    Great post, and thank you for it!!!

  10. Jeff Hanna says:

    I would also point out that it is a common misconception that very fancy ornamented pieces (carving, inlay, marquetry, etc.) were done by the same craftsman who did the joinery/casework. In some cases that was true, but a lot of that work was subbed out to someone who specialized in that trade. If I remember right, Roubo even had a quibble/complaint about carvers being oblivious to the needs of a joiner.

  11. josef1henri says:

    I’ve suffered from being a generalist all my life. As an engineer I refused to specialize and actually couldn’t because I started in analog and had to shift to computer programming to keep a job as the economy and profession changed. As a blacksmith now (I quit my corporate job seven years ago thankfully) I love being able to make anything I want although decorative functional work is what I love. But I understand tool steel and can and have made knives and woodworking chisels. I’ve never understood people’s concern over whether you have specialized in something. It is true that if you concentrate on one thing you should hopefully get better at it, but where’s the fun in that? I reject the old saying of “jack of all trades master of none”. Life is an adventure to explore.

  12. ianfraser23 says:

    I think you fall for the classic the grass is greener on the other side. Having grown up in Germany, I don’t feel the apprenticeship system (which is three years by the way) serves the majority well. If you look at the typical German cabinet / woodworking shop they do mostly fairly uninspiring work comprised of composite materials machined on CNCs. 99% of the time I look up a German cabinet shop’s website i am utterly disappointed. Yesterday I was reading on a German Forum for professional joiners about exterior wooden doors – a fully apprenticed joiner asked for help constructing a full timber door – most of the replies were along the lines of don’t do it, there will be too much wood movement and it won’t comply with local codes… And this is professionals talking to professionals…

    Besides all that, it is ridiculous enough that you are prohibited selling your cabinet work officially without an apprenticeship or you risk being sued by the “guilds” (Innung) The situations isn’t so colourful.. To me it seems, the opposite of what you state is true: wood working culture seem much more alive in the US and giving everyone the freedom to pursue what they will always produce a lot of enthusiastic folk. Maybe the top 1% of local apprentices who later became a master leaves you awe struck when they do some work in old churches but this is by far the minority. The other problem we have is that anyone with “brains” is very unlikely to stop school at the age of 15 to become a carpenter, cabinetmaker etc. Society makes young folks strive to go to University so the ones who end up pursuing a live in the crafts are sadly very likely to be the not so eager types… So don’t fool yourself thinking the grass is greener across the Atlantic- – but maybe it is in the UK / France? Would be interesting to hear other peoples opinions!

    • Danish craftsmen have had a great reputation for a lot of years post WWII. I am not sure how it rings around the world nowadays. What I do know is the gap between tech college is getting a further inferior reputation to college/uni, more so now than 10-20 years ago, that apprentices these days are hard to come by. Inequality is increasing.

      Eastern european and Asian workers are taking over on a bigger scale in Europe, whether they are welders, truckers, builders or something else. It is putting a pressure on wages that makes it more difficult to sustain a decent living by being a worker – craftsman – in Denmark. We are not there yet, but just south of the border, in Germany, working poor are a reality and a full time job is no guarantee to keep a roof over their heads. For those used to less, who do not have to pay for western European benefits and welfare, it is far better paid, than anything they will come across at home, even though some are working for less than minimum wage. We just cannot compete with that. Not on the price tag anyway. So we will have to do something else. Question is: What? What are people willing to pay for? Is a local business enough to sustain a living? Not likely. National? Continental? Global? Who are the customers, where are they, and what do they want and for how much, and what’s the competition? I’m guessing this would also be the source of disappointment when looking through german woodworkers. That and the fact that regulations box in real possibilities for making something into a very narrow field. A field so narrow that there’s not enough room for the wood to move. People spread themselves thin to make a living. I am not blaming anyone for seeking a better life, neither am I unwilling to share, but there has to be made adjustments to society for it to work, otherwise bankruptcy is inevitable.

      Trends are for brand names these days. There is apparently still a greater inclination to show off money than great craftsmanship. Why – I’m not sure.

      As for “jack of all trades, master of non”, I would have to say that a trained hand can be applied anywhere. When you train your hands you get a feel for form, structure, substance, lineage and a bunch of other stuff, which along with a trained eye, gives you an advantage in attacking any craft, as long as you know how to source the right info on how things are “done the right way”, which of course also is a variable. It is a lot easier to begin on something new, once you already know how to do one thing.

      The natural progression for a woodworker would probably be blacksmithing. You already know how you want your blade. You are also used to put a keen edge on it. You know how to strike a hammer. Now you have to source info on the steel, about heat, tempering and so forth. And you will find similarities along the way. Guaranteed.

      Fiberglass – as atrocious as it may sound – has a lot of similarities to wood, in that it more or less splits the same way, and therefore also has a lot of the same characteristics as wood. The denser the fiber, the stronger the material – up to a point. Exactly like softwoods.

      Straight grained fiberglass is an advantage in the same places as with wood. But then you also need to know the difference! A knot in a beam is usually no disaster. Neither is the grain going around the knot. It can very well be a disaster, if the same thing was to happen in fiberglass. Try taking some dry strands of fiber, and see if you can tug them apart. Odds are you can’t. If you can, then try twice or ten times as many. Now I’m sure you can’t. Then take that exact same bundle, and tie a knot in the middle of it. Tug it again. It will snap instantly. The strength of the glass is much higher than wood, but so is the vulnerability. It is not as forgiving, and certainly not as nice to work with, as wood. Especially getting rid of it in an environmentally sound manner is a problem. There (untreated) wood will always be king.

  13. Eric R says:

    One of your better pieces in a long time…honest.
    (You have a wisdom that is much older then you.)
    Thanks
    Eric

  14. The question of can’t afford… Can’t afford to, or can’t afford not to? Something dies along the way when funding or lack thereof becomes an issue. I’m partial to funded schools and programs because it has taught me something… I’m not dismissing other ways. They can both be better and worse – the core is enthusiasm, from teacher and student alike. What is really ruining things is when a need is turned into simple consumption and the appreciation for work of the hand is gone. When a stick chair is replaced by Ikea as a natural choice. However that would ever happen for anybody. But apparently it does for a lot of people, though probably not anyone frequenting this particular blog.

  15. Reblogged this on Inthewoodshed and commented:
    In the shed right now you will find two end tables being refinished, an island being built, dovetail practice, and a green wood chair. I am not a master, but I can make a whole bunch of stuff for my house and others

  16. I like that last bit about the 11-year-old you. We all do it, hindsight being what it is. My day job is in Information Technology, but I didn’t get my first actual computer until sometime in High School. Would life have ended up different had I gotten an earlier start? Guess it doesn’t matter, just have to kick some ass and take some names now and keep learning new tricks along the way.

  17. Lee B says:

    I saw a documentary about seeds a while back, and it was sobering to realize that out of the vast variety of seeds cultivated by humans over thousands of years, most of them have been permanently lost relatively recently. There are a small number of small farms trying to preserve the varieties we have left. One seed bank in particular had hundreds of seed types and they try to grow each one at least once every ten years on their 60 acres. The guy who ran it described our situation with an hour glass analogy: There used to be a huge abundance of vastly different seeds in production all over the world, and that could be the case again in the future, but right now we’re in this bottle neck with only small quantities remaining of the varieties we have left.

    I think an argument can be made that hand tool woodworking is in a similar predicament for similar reasons. If we were in the midst of a thriving ecosystem of master craftsmen, it might not be of much value for a person to become merely proficient at a variety of different skilled crafts. However, in an era when hand tool woodworking is a niche within a niche and true master craftsmen are nearly extinct, it’s pretty valuable to be able to learn the basics of a lot of different trades. For one because most of us aren’t wealthy and it’s the only way we’ll have a home full of hand made goods, and also because you can teach someone else how to make a lot of the things they need, as opposed to one really nice thing.

    A specialist farmer might look askance at someone inexpertly growing 15 different types of plants on their modest plot, but if the latter can grow most of their own produce and one day put 15 different types of seeds into the hands of someone else I think he or she has more than proved the worth of their efforts.

  18. A personal journey is the quest and it’s not a race.

  19. Jordan Alvis says:

    I’m 31 and make my living woodworking out of my own shop. Would have been great to have an apprenticeship. Its a real hole in our economy and social order. With accreditation comes good wages and a life to match.

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