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 hand tool 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.