In “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” I tried to show how woodworking journalists are treated like geese being prepared for foie gras. During my 15-year tenure I was force-fed tools, jigs and meaningless innovations (see also Bench Cookies) to fill the great void that is the autumn issue.
What I didn’t get to explain in that book were the market forces behind this Golden Corral of injection-molded garbage. Why does this happen? And more importantly: Why does it work?
Some of you won’t believe me, but that’s because you are probably a beginner and therefore an indiscriminate sponge.
When people begin woodworking, most go through a phase (I did) in which they soak up every single piece of information they can find. Many will subscribe to multiple woodworking magazines, buy astonishing numbers of woodworking books, seek out catalogs and advertisements for woodworking tools, and buy anything they can afford that looks remotely useful.
This is when people are vulnerable. They need guidance. Unfortunately woodworking is a mostly solitary pursuit. And so we spend incredible, astonishing and shocking amounts of money on equipment, books and instruction. And most of it is of questionable worth.
Because of this phenomenon:
- The woodworking magazine business had a glut of magazines. When we ran the numbers in the 1990s, we surmised that there should be three magazines serving woodworkers. Instead, there were more: Fine Woodworking, WOOD, American Woodworker, Woodsmith, Shopnotes, Workbench, Popular Woodworking, Woodworker’s Journal, Woodshop News, Woodcraft, Weekend Woodcrafts, Woodwork and a host of specialized magazines. What propped up these magazines? Beginners. Eventually, most woodworkers winnow their subscriptions down to one or two magazines. But the spendthrift beginner made it possible for many magazines to survive.
- The woodworking book industry produced a glut of books. In the 1990s, my mailbox was stuffed with new woodworking books every week. It wasn’t unusual to see seven or eight new woodworking titles in a month. That’s coo-coo. Why did this work? New woodworkers wanted the latest information. New books are better than old books (duh!). And so publishers churned out books that had an 18-month life cycle before disappearing forever.
- The woodworking tool industry thrives on new SKUs. After covering woodworking tool manufacturers for two decades, it’s obvious that they introduce new products every year to goose sales. That’s why you have a new crop of cordless drill/drivers every year. And it’s also why you have a rash of odd products that seem (on the surface) to be innovative – silicone glue brushes, painter’s pyramids, many router table jigs, marrying a chisel with a rasp, aluminum squares, putting a laser on everything, oddball and worthless sanders (the Black & Decker Mouse; Porter-Cable Profile Sanders), and battery-powered clamps and tape measures. The list is endless, and it’s not a modern phenomenon. When my grandfather was woodworking in the 1970s, he was charmed by a jig that let you cut dovetails with a corded drill. The only people who are dumb enough to fall for these products are beginners and woodworking journalists. Beginners don’t know better, and journalists need copy to fill the empty space between the covers.
Some of you might be thinking I’m exaggerating my experiences. I’m not. The good news is that the Internet did a Half-Nelson on most of these stupid business practices. When people now go through their “indiscriminate sponge” phase, they do it on YouTube and soak up as much ridiculousness as they wish.
Eventually they will be able to ignore the tool-chugging nincompoops and focus on what’s important: Building basic skills using simple and robust tools (and maybe a few well-built machines).
Honestly, it’s a good thing to be a bit jaded about the woodworking tool and publishing industries. It makes you a better consumer and encourages them to do better. So please, for the sake of the future of the craft, don’t buy the Bench Cookies.
— Christopher Schwarz