Accessible Woodworking


This morning Richard wanted to explain to me his techniques for hand planing – something he is wanting to get across clearly for a video we’re working on this weekend. I thought the best way to test his explanations was to try it out. It looks so easy when he does it so I just picked up the plane thinking it would do the work for me; it didn’t. I stubbornly blamed my lack of strength but then Richard slowly explained the techniques for me, everything from my stance to how I hold and push the plane. Right away I was able to take full consistent shavings. Of course I couldn’t work anywhere near as fast as Richard does and I did back the blade out a little but I was planing and if I can do it then I’m sure anyone could be taught this way as well.

A couple of weeks ago Paul Sellers created a bit of a stir in a blog post where he expressed his concerns that machines and their manufacturers were responsible for a lack of woman and children getting in to woodwork. There was a bit more to it than that and since he put it across very strongly it appears that it did upset a few people. I don’t wish to step in to someone else’s debate here but thought that at the root of it was an interesting topic worth discussion.

How can we get children in to woodwork?
Well if your interest is sparked while you’re young then there’s a good chance you’ll continue to one degree or another to have that interest throughout your life. It’s important then for woodworking to be accessible to the younger generations.

The biggest opportunity for this would be to have it available to all students at school but for quite sometime (in England at least) practical skills are not high on the agenda. Many schools would sooner be perceived to offer courses in intellectual studies to set students on route to a modern degree at university than to waste resources on teaching traditional crafts.
For higher education the challenges is to create ’woodworking’ courses that offer something relevant to the modern industry and also comply with health and safety. Since machines are considered too dangerous for students to use a course can often be based on theory of materials, design and manufacture techniques rather than learning any practical skills.

The standard education system certainly fails to recognise furniture making as being a relevant career prospect. There are many factors that contribute to this and perhaps I’m going off on a tangent now but I wonder if it struggles to get any focus in education because it’s such a diverse skill. What I mean is we’ve never stopped educating people in the arts; whether it be music, painting, drama etc, and though it struggles we still have a rounded education for essential building trades; electrics, plumbing. Since Practical woodworking gets touched on within ‘Joinery’ courses and the theory is touched upon within ‘Product Design’ I think furniture making as we know it, as a craft and an art gets missed out.

Most children who learn woodwork then are likely picking up their skills from a relative in a home workshop and this is where I find Paul’s point about machinery very valid. I for one would much rather invite a novice to have a go with a hand saw than kit up the both of us with full protective gear and try to offer guidance over the top of deafening noise directing on how to keep their little fingers away from a whirling blade. I feel a lot of people would ward children away from a machine shop rather than encourage them in.

I’m no woodworker but am confident and knowledgeable enough to plane up timber for Richard or rip it down at the bandsaw. When I’m using these machines my results are the same as Richard’s and yet still I’d say I’m not a woodworker, the machines are giving me the ability to do something I wouldn’t attempt without them. Please don’t get offended if you too use machines in your woodworking because I’m not saying that using machines is inferior. Both Richard and I appreciate machines for how they speed up the roughing work for us and whilst we don’t like to use them much beyond that we can see a lot of skill and technique is required to do so. Woodworking with power tools can be very complex and the results very impressive, some of today’s finest furniture is being made with them. Approaching woodwork in a traditional way though, with nothing but hand tools gives you very different possibilities and limitations. Complete hand tool woodworking is different, not better than machines but it is an approach that is at real risk of being lost because woodworkers are becoming more and more attuned to thinking like machinists and most work is becoming a hybrid of the two. Besides a desire to keep our heritage alive we feel traditional hand tool woodworking is worth encouraging for many other reason not least for it’s relevance to all ages and all spaces.

Being of a fairly small build I can see that having less strength can be a disadvantage for woodworking whichever approach you take but it isn’t any reason to be put off. Whilst I’m comfortable working at the planer and bandsaw I would sooner run a mile than turn on any table saw or router. I’m not sure that this is a strength issue or just fear but I could never find them appealing or encouraging to use. Hand tools are the opposite, whilst I don’t have the skills to use them they’re very enticing and I’m more than happy to give it a go. I’ll often pick up a saw and see how straight I can cut just because it’s been left lying there and I’ve made some not too bad (terrible) attempts at cutting dovetails before as well. I wouldn’t have attempted these if I’d had to use a router so I do feel that working with hand tools would be much more accessible for children too.

To give some context on our thoughts, here’s Richard’s post on Machines in the hand tool workshop & I’m really pestering him to finish up with his follow up post of The Hand Tool Approach – he’s just got to find a bit of time.

If you like a bit of drama with your woodwork you could check out Paul’s post here followed by a response by Popular Woodworking magazine.


13 Responses

  1. Ken

    I work wood with hand tool, because thats the way I love to work. I love hand tools. It would be nice for young people starting in the craft to be taught hand tool skills, before moving on to machines.

    I have nothing against using machines, they do have their place in the workshop. Hand tools, machines or a combination of both, as long as people get pleasure from what they are doing, that’s what counts.

    For me hand tool skills need to be kept alive, and passed on, but sometimes a machine is the way to go.

  2. Paul Chapman

    It’s such a shame that they stopped teaching woodwork in schools. It’s where I developed my love for it back in the 1950s. If you were fortunate enough to have a good teacher, you left school having all the basic hand tool skills and the ability to produce all the basic joints. They were probably the most enjoyable lessons of my time at school.

  3. George Jon.


    A great post. My sincere thanks for stepping in, and for finding exactly the right words. You have a very well balanced point there, and I find it – for the lack of a better word – truly soothing to finally read a mediating statement.
    Well done, if I may say so!


  4. Paul McConkey

    Having been taught woodwork and having my metalwork and technical drawing ‘O’ levels I can’t agree more with this article and the responses so far.

    It seems pretty obvious that if you introduce all children to practical ‘making’ skills, then at least some of them will have enough interest to follow a trade or craft later in life. Using hand tools is a great approach – even if it just means that you appreciate the labour savings that you can achieve with machine tools (as long as you want straight lines and 90 degree angles).

    I suspect that a big barrier to changing the way that we approach the teaching of these skills in schools is that there are too few teachers nowadays with the relevant skills themselves. This is not a criticism of teachers, but it is the result of the changes to the teaching of practical skills over the last two decades.

  5. ScottV

    Well stated. You and Paul Sellers are on the right track to emphasize that children need to be introduced back into woodworking as a hand crafts.I know that Paul has recently given away some workbenches to youths and sponsoring some slots at his school for young people interested in woodworking. Bravo!

    Every time my son is in the shop with me, I make sure to show him a new tool or technique that will hopefully set his mind astir. He is too young for some tools, but a rasp, a hand crank drill, 6″ brace, a coping saw and a small block plane are easily in his grasp. Luckily I have enough “extra” tools lying about my shop that I can dedicate these for his use. Someday soon we must build him a small toolbox and he will be hooked forever.

  6. John Walker

    Most of the blame for children having no growing interest in woodworking is down to successive Governments, shunting such things off the curriculum:
    a) They were expensive to provide for.

    and b) There were a ‘gender’ connotations with handicrafts.

    This was a big mistake of course, but then Governments make these mistakes,. Well they are but politicians after all.

  7. Kris

    I am presently learning woodwork as a mature student at college 2 days a week and I am surrounded by very young people who have come right from school and say they took qualifications in woodwork and design.

    I feel completely out of my depth next to a 16 year old who can build a cabinet quite fast and has the confidence of someone who has never been knocked. I see the speed at which they pick up new ways of working wood and I am envious. The reason I say all this is to highlight that woodwork has not been dropped from the curriculum as far as I can see in Cornwall. The issue I think is there just is not enough apprenticeships available for them all, only half of the class has apprenticeships. There are 16 children being taught as one class for Pendennis’s new influx of apprenticeships on top of the class I am in.

    I am in a class that goes right from 16 to people that are retired and on their 4th year of learning. I believe there is hope, the first year of my course is focused on hand tool woodworking and I take great pride in making something my self from start to finish, but the young ones, they want to jump on the mortiser, use the table saw to cut 10mm of the end of a board, or use the tenoner to speed up those joints. I am not sure they get the “thing” you get when you do something from start to finish by your own hand but they would still call it hand made 😀

    You cannot teach passion!

  8. Marilyn

    Great post! I very much enjoy thoughtful words that encouraging wood working in all manners. It’s also really fun to hear what other women think about the subject.

    I suspect that no more high school shop has a lot to do with lawsuits, liability and the like and that always makes me sad.

    Milling aside, I’m trying to do more with hand tools but lack of time and skills tends to send me back to the power tools. Space also severely limits power tools for me and tends to push me toward hand tools. Its funny to me that more discussion around the hand tools verses power tools doesn’t bring up the space issue more.

    In the end, I’ll probably always use both depending on what I’m trying to accomplish.

  9. Stephen


    you’ve lit a mighty touch paper there, all the points from yourself and others are all valid, my own memories of woodwork at school were great ones because the tools were accessible to me and provided by those who knew more than i did, my teacher was fantastically enthusiastic, however i would add that i also did metalwork where machines were used, it certainly didn’t change the premise that both were exciting and new to me….and perhaps dare i say it in a age where health and safety didn’t completely get in the way of education but ran alongside it.

    Here we are in this day and age and surely the excitement is the same if you give a child a tool and a simple project to achieve with good encouragement….however the shame of it is that schools are now out of that loop……the new teachers are people like yourselves raising the flag and many other online enthusiasts and professionals alike who have taken it upon themselves to share their skills and insight….this can only be a good thing and the message needs to continue….cost of teaching always comes into it which again is a stumbling block, i guess we all do our bit and these small grains of educational sand surely will add gravity somewhere to a growing community of learning.

    Finding a more direct route to the young is always going to be the challenge.

    Thanks for highlighting some of the concerns and points Helen a great article.

  10. Jason Breen

    Great post and discussion. I have taught my eight year old son how to work wood since he was 4. My younger daughter the same, although she is less excited about creating in wood. She does, however, come to the shop and help with some projects, and make some things of her own on her own. Both kids started with a good saw and hammer, earmuffs, too. spokeshaves and a #3 plane recently. My son made a nice pine lap desk this winter with a little help. As he is homeschooled and I am a professional woodworker, he has the time to be with me in the shop just up the drive, sometimes for days at a stretch. His enthusiasm has not been forced out by tying him to a desk and teaching about the properties of wood or tools. He watches me. Then he learns about how wood works by working it.
    I have long felt that hand woodworking will better teach the properties of wood. This will better prepare one for machine work when the time/need arises. To that end, I have been doing more by hand as an example to my kids. It may take a little more time, but teaches them how and keeps me in shape, too, both physically and spiritually.
    One point that has not been mentioned about teaching craft in schools is the appreciation gained by youngsters and held throughout their life. At least here in the colonies, we are struggling to convince customers that handmade is much more valuable than the imported manufactured junk found in many stores. I won’t use any names, but my furniture is not held together with STAPLES!

  11. Helen

    I’d just like to add thanks for such insightful comments. On a broad topic like this I think it’s the discussion from others that’s the most valuable.

  12. Lynn Bradford

    Here is a link to The Wood Wright’s Shop, with Roy Underhill talking about “The Book of Sloyd”. Sloyd, was a late 19th-century Swedish system of learning woodworking. I found a pdf of the book on Google, along with the other book Roy shows that goes with the handbook of the projects to be built. Very interesting topic. I hope you and others enjoy.


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