Glossary Intro and Glossary Annexes

Woodworking as Culture


How does one become an amateur woodworker? Among outsiders to woodworking, when observing craftsmen working on a project, like, say, routing the edge of a table top, or, simply using a plane to smooth a warped board, the almost universal question is, "How did you learn how to do that?" Sometimes, of course, these questions are easily answered:

"I just started, without any knowledge of the tools or skills, but slowly I became more proficient, and found that, with practice, I could do it."

In other instances, fewer than we would like, some amateur woodworkers have been fortunate enough to take course(s) in woodworking, maybe while in high school, or later, at an evening class in a community college. In still other instances, this same question cannot be answered easily. Instead, woodworkers have to fall back on responses like, "I am not sure, but …."

In my own case, while I did take a woodworking course in high school – I think is it was grade ten -- this experience was not enjoyable. Instead, I had little respect for my teacher, and really didn't get much out of it at all. My initiation into woodworking -- squaring a board with a plane -- was not sufficiently motivating, evidently. Likewise, the results of my other attempts at woodworking, i.e., working by myself at home, while more satisfying, and using the hand tools, such as an Atkins hand saw, a number 5 Stanley hand plane, and a Stanley adjustable square, were at the time disappointing, although not always.

These tools were given to me on my 10th or 11th birthday by my uncles, and I still have them, over fifty years later. Why was I disappointed in my initial results of woodworking? Because my results never matched my expectations. You soon find out that sawing a board with a hand saw takes considerable skill, skill that is not learned quickly, and for a teenage boy, I soon had to be resolve myself to accept less than my imagined results. (Further, years later, in retrospect, I have concluded that I am a power tool woodworker, that I prefer power tools over hand tools, a situation that simplifies achieving accuracy.)

Fortunately, unsatisfactory results did not kill my motives to continue woodworking. Maybe it was because still another factor entered the picture: economic need. Previously, I am convinced, it was from a response to my creative juices that drove me to woodworking. Still, I am not certain.

What are the components of woodworking?

I can't put it better than either Stephen Shepherd or my friend, Stan Klonowski III:

Only one half of the art of woodworking is in knowledge of the wood. The other half is knowledge of the tools and the ways of using them."

Source: Stephen Shepherd, Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker. Green River Forge G.S.L.C.,Utah, 1981, page 2
link to Shepherd's website:

While Shepherd is a professional woodworker, in my view, his wisdom also applies to amateurs.

My friend, Stan Klonowski III, both a professional woodworker and inventor, voices a similar thought, but also expands upon Shepherd when he says that woodworkers need to possess,

First, knowledge, of the strengths and weaknesses of both the wood and the tools.

Second, functionality, the intended purpose, the use, of the piece that you are creating?

Any notion of "functionality", moreover, breaks down further into two additional considerations:

Are you, first, trying to match a style or complement a existing style?

Or, second, are you "stepping out of the box" and creating something unique, different, your own innovative design?

In the end, then, the style/form defines the material and the joinery needed to achieve the function of the piece you are building.

All pretty heady stuff, and certainly inspirational.

Insiders vs Outsiders

Harvey Green's Wood: Craft, Culture, History is the first book in my experience that looks at the "culture of wood", or maybe it's "the woodworking culture". (Green, a professor at Northeastern University, is, first, a historian of material culture who writes about topics such as explanations of the origin and impact of Colonial Revival ideology and styles upon current American culture.)

Upon spying his book, I realized a heretofore unrecognized truth on any debate about amateur woodworking:

Amateur woodworking is a "culture", possessing its own, very numerous "discourse communities", which in my view makes woodworking similar to a "participatory" sport, like golf or tennis or racquetball, but -- at least in my experience -- has not gotten such recognition. Why?

In my view, this neglect of observation about the nature of amateur woodworking is obvious for several reasons, including:

(1) To a large part, woodworking is an activity of solitary engagement, that is, for the most part, when you do "woodworking", it means that you do it "alone", in your own woodshop. (The discourse communities mentioned above are the numerous, local, woodworking clubs that cover America, a movement that got its great momentum in the 1930s.)

(2) Woodworking is an activity engaged in by "insiders", who are not taken to introspection about their activities, while "outsiders" who may be looking in -- and while they possess the analytical skills needed to expose woodworking as a culture -- fail to understand (and thus overlook) the personal chemistry that "doing woodworking" involves.

To make sense, both of these comments need greater qualification, something that I will do later, but only as my own thoughts on each issue become more lucid, if I can put it in such terms.

An academic book that includes sections on woodworking, but written by someone who betrays himself as an outsider, is Steven M. Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. In his book [more on this later]

(Sources: Stephen Shepherd, Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker. Green River Forge G.S.L.C.,Utah, 1981; Harvey Green, Wood: Craft, Culture, History. New York: Penguin, 2006.)

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