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 Joel's Blog

The Future of Furniture - Part 3 - Information

11/21/2018


Thirty years ago it was fairly common for students to have classes in some sort of craft in high school. Arts ‘n’ crafts for younger kids, and as kids got older, probably home ec for the girls and shop for the boys (and all three for the lucky minority). This probably included woodworking instruction. This experience meant, among other things, that the idea of making something wasn’t alien or a big reach. Nowadays Steiner/Waldorf schools continue to teach craft, but by and large most public and private schools don’t. The underlying reasons are varied, but crafts courses of all kinds have disappeared from schools, and consequently most young people start out totally disconnected with the maker world.

And thirty years ago if you had the urge to make something and your friend-relative-teacher-neighbor couldn’t help you, the only information available was through a half dozen national magazines like Popular Mechanics, Popular Woodworking, and Fine Woodworking. Specialty and niche publications existed, but the smaller magazines did not have a ready access to distribution and they took some looking to find. The larger magazines functioned as a introduction to setting up a full shop and doing mainstream projects. Of course they all tackled projects with specialty techniques, but the magazines were generalists in orientation. If you had the urge to get more involved in a specific area of woodworking, the magazines were where you could find out about other smaller specialty magazine, woodworking clubs, and of course classes.

I remember that one of the appeals of Fine Woodworking when it first came out in 1975 was that it addressed niches (see table of contents in the photo above). While the other mainstream magazines of the day were focused on how to build practical furniture, mostly in neo-colonial or Shaker style, Fine Woodworking's interest and focus was about traditional techniques that were still being practiced, and how you could do them too. Of course, over the years what was unusual at the time has become usual, with the result that someone whose says their hobby is "woodworking" can mean anything from building simple pieces, fancy bentwood, to carvings, turnings, or all sorts of complications.

Then along came the internet!

We aren’t going back to the old way. Someone with the urge to make something can totally bypass the traditional furniture route. We meet a lot of turners, spoon makers, carvers, and chair makers, some of whom have branched out or will branch out to other types of woodworking. For most of them, the traditional path never comes up. The internet has made resources - the knowledge, the community of clubs, both in-person and virtual, the tools themselves - accessible with limited gate keeping.

In the pre-Internet days, information about a new group, a new toolmaker, a new source of tools and equipment might take years to circulate - sometimes too late, if the new thing folded before getting sustainable amount of support. Today this is not the case. This access to information will be what enables all sorts of woodworking to continue.

All this information affects the type of woodworking people will do because the leap for someone who has never had a shop class to invest in a table saw, a jointer, a planer, etc. is pretty large. But the leap to a local class, or following instructions on the Internet to build something, or find out about and then going to a club meeting is pretty small. I see a future where people satisfy their urge for woodworking by finding and participating in any of the less capital-intensive niches. And I am sure those niches will survive and prosper.

What is less secure is full sized furniture construction. I am pretty sure the high-end will survive but I am a little more worried about the weekend warrior. It's hard to convince someone to deck out a workshop if all they want to make is a bookcase. In another chapter I will discuss a plan for making simple projects simpler than ever, with minimal needs for the workshop. I have genuine enthusiasm for a new approach to casework that is becoming very common among professionals in New York City and will soon be readily accessible to amateurs.

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Comments: 11
11/21/2018Bob Groh 
Popular Woodworking has an on-going series of simple to build projects and, for a time, a video series on same subject - i.e. simple stuff you could build with little in the way of tools. General title was, I think, "I can do that'. Quite enjoyable stuff. There is also ongoing projects that show up in the magazine.

Regarding kids and crafts, our public school system here (Blue Springs, Missouri) do have a lot of the good old-fashioned stuff going on the school system - no shop classes per se, but lots of cooking, sewing, etc.
11/21/2018Bruce 
"In another chapter I will discuss a plan for making simple projects simpler than ever, with minimal needs for the workshop."

Joel, you really know how to keep the audience at the edge of their seats. And, don't think this plan is only for the Big Apple. I have limited space, limited budget, and oddly, limited time to "hobby" in a standard mid-20th urban environment. I have an idea of the new approach, but always expect the unique and useful from you.

Waiting with bated breath!
11/21/2018Dan O'Sullivan 
Joel
What is missing here is the same thing I have seen year after year on the subject of woodworking and skill development. Woodworking does have a smell. Looking back on the 44 year pathway to what I do now I think the smell of the boat shop at my uncles shop is the catalyst that made woodworking so different than something like fixing British motorcycles for me. The microwave generation of furniture builders need to take a pause and read a book by someone like James Krenov.

Slow down.. the process is fun.
11/21/2018Brian Moran 
I agree Joel. Kids and young adults today don’t have the exposure to making stuff. For me, 7th grade was wood shop, 8th grade metal shop, 9 th grade auto shop or advance wood or metal. Today in our public school they teach you how to cook which translates to heating up soup, microwaving leftovers and breaking open the tube of bread dough. It’s a shame. Our two sons in their 20’s have always had an interest in building, fixing, and repairing so I showed them when they were around. I’m always amazed when one of their friends will ask,”How do you know how to do that?” I always take the time to show them... and have planted the woodworking seed with two of them. It’s criminal that the physical creative spark isn’t fanned in public education anymore. And society as a whole has moved way away from self sufficiency in general. It makes me worry about our children and their future at times. Hopefully when I kick the bucket, my tools are kept and used and don’t just become landfill waste! I can only hope...
11/21/2018Bill Risso 
Joel... You are as always exactly on target!
11/21/2018Robert St.Onge 
hi Joel, your blog is as always at the leading edge of current thought. Here in Ontario, Canada; Hard Tech such as woodworking, construction, automotive classes are still valued and supported. I am an 18 year of experience "shop teacher".I love my job and for the most part my students are interested and engaged. I stress safety, design and fabrication of a wide variety of projects, from jewelry boxes to tables using a variety of hand, portable and stationary power tools.Although I don't believe that the desire to "Make" will ever disappear I fear that the desire to build classic, and complicated reproduction pieces will. The desire to commit the time and effort to learning and practicing the skills necessary seems to be lacking. the furniture world cannot survive on live edge, epoxy, and steel bases alone!
11/22/2018Jeff Polaski 
In Wilson Junior High School, this future academic student had shop classes in woodworking, drafting, electrical work and metal work. It has stood me in good stead throughout my life. It would have been great if the young assistants who work for contractors working on my house had had the same experience. They very clearly have not been taught the basics. About reading, writing and arithmetic, don't get me started.
11/22/2018Dan Moerman http://naeb.brit.org
I was lucky, and got all three, plus one more, perhaps the single most useful class in my high school experience: personal typing!! What a craft! We learned on huge Underwood upright typewriters, giant things weighing 50 pounds or more, with maybe 50 unmarked keys. Fabulous machines. After a few months, I could type without looking at the keys! Then, of course, years later, came computers. To this day, I really can't type on my laptop (with little button keys); but on my desktop, I have a gamers keyboard, with keys that resist, and make a significant "click" when you push them. (Azio fyi) Second best was woodshop where I first experienced the magic of turning a piece of wood on a lathe. I made a table lamp. It was (imho) beautiful! I turn something just about every day. Third was home ec. In fact, I do all our cooking: for thanksgiving today, I made the cranberry sauce yesterday. Yum.
11/22/2018Chris Murray http://themurrayco.com
Joel, so many of your blogs have been a source of reflection for me and an appreciation of your deep knowledge of tools, methods, and especially your articulate delivery of same. Thank you for that. I found myself also appreciating the comments by you folks with a similar interest in the values gained by hands-on work. And repairing or designing or building something that produces a sense of pride long into the future. And the confidence in meeting other life challenges through that mind/hands problem solving process.

I had the good fortune to take a class in 'wood shop' followed by a class in 'metal shop' in the eighth grade at Quincy Jr Sr High School in Quincy, CA in 1961. No class prepped me more for a university education, and four decades of designing and building custom homes. I now teach community woodworking and the building of 12'-16' Douglas Fir 'longboard' racing skis [plumasskiclub.org] for our local community college in that same old high school wood shop. Same drill press, same benches, same crummy towel dispenser!

I am grateful to those who taught me how to use my hands and I have become a proponent of all young people having that confidence-building experience. A book spot-on this subject: 'Shop Class as Soul Craft' or 'The Case for Working with Your Hands' [2 titles, same text!] by Matthew B. Crawford. I would like every school superintendent to read it...and bring these classes back!
11/22/2018Paul licata 
Things have been changing for a couple a decades now. Shop classes were disappearing in the 90’s. The book, I am half way through “ SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT by Mathew B. Crawford take a good look as this movement.
There is a local historic steam driven sawmill that is ran mostly by retirees, recently a group of younger, 30’s, men and yes woman got involved. I think the craft’s will carry on. Just not by our public school system.
11/27/2018Mike 
My dad was always building and fixing things. Sometimes he made me help (i.e. hold the flashlight) and he never said the words "don't touch my tools". I was free to use them to build tree houses or bicycle ramps or whatever I wanted. I do regret that I never took him up on his offer teach me to weld (he was a pipefitter by trade). But if I should ever have the desire, it is not a huge mystery to me because I know the basics just by observing him.

While it would be nice if schools brought back shop class, for me charity always starts at home, and in general I view parents as the primary solutions to most problems - schools should be a second or third line of defense. Kids don't even need to actively participate, they just need to see you doing things and as they grow up they will realize the value of hands-on work. Another example - my dad was always cooking on the weekends, so I never viewed the home kitchen as a female domain, as many people do. My wife probably does wish my dad folded more laundry, however :)
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