The Trouble with the Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor
I think this subject is a tough one to write about, but I feel it’s gotta be said. It’s been brewing in my mind for a few years. The title sums it up for me and I could probably say what I want in just one paragraph. But what’s the fun in that when I can share stories at the same time?
I love my life and my work. I always have. I also like the people it connects me to. Craft is always about stories and those stories are always tied to people. Stories bind us to each other and making stuff is what we gather around to tell them. Meeting people is icing on the cake for me.
Because this year has been a big one, with a lot of great and exciting things happening as well as emotionally intense stuff too, it’s easy for me to be reflect and be introspective. Over the years as a professional woodworker I have adopted and discarded a lot of different perspectives on my work. This is an attempt to share some of my experiences for those who day dream about going full time and also for those who have strong opinions on what the green woodworking scene is or ought to be. I think that there are inherent problems with the title of our genre of woodworking and I have a blog post called ‘Death to Green Woodworking” on file that I didn’t have the balls to post. Maybe someday….or maybe this post will be in a series of critical and meant to provoke thinking on deeper levels relating to making within the 'green' woodworking scene.
I want to make it clear that this IS NOT meant to disrespect anyone. I think we should all be free to make stuff for our own reasons in whichever way works for us. I think this is totally awesome and good for many reasons both for our individual and also our collective well being. I also want to point out that this is about ideas and we are not our ideas. (This is a concept I’m afraid many won’t understand.) It’s also important to keep in mind that our ideas of right and wrong are just opinions, subjective thoughts and perspectives of them. They can exist both on the individual level and the collective or societal level but still they are not absolute.
I’ve been a professional woodworker all my life. Starting with log building, carpentry and timber joinery, with short forays (a few years here and there) into the wooden boat world and ornamental blacksmithing and tool making, then back into house building and carpentry. It wasn’t until about 8 or 9 years ago that I went full time into making spoons and other ‘crafts’ as a sole means for making my living. Before then it was a means of exploration and subsidiary income. I would like to mention that I carved my first spoons in 1993 made as Christmas gifts. I’ve been self-employed nearly all my life and have been relying solely on making and selling my work in some form or another since 1995 or so. This has been completely unsupported by a trust fund, full-time or even consistent part-time working spouse, or the like. April (now my ex-wife) and I built our house(s), home schooled our kids, which we continue to do, all the while living primarily on the income from my work and supplemented by her basket making. It is/was the road less traveled that’s for sure.
There have been many ups and downs. We went bankrupt in 2001, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to pawn my hunting rifle for a little extra cash. April and I have owned collectively over 25 cars, trucks and minivans in that time. We had many times found our check book with as little as $25 dollars in it with no idea how to make the next sale to replenish it and bills to pay. Not too long ago I’ve had to shovel side walks, mow grass, and sold personal possessions to make ends meet. These are just some of the facts that present themselves in a life devoted to craft, living close to the land, and having some strong ideas about what our life was to be and what we were willing to do for those ideas. We made a lot of mistakes. Which looking back are just simply great learning experiences. We both are pretty stubborn.
In the end, many of the strong ideas were put to the wayside as our reality weighed in on them. It seems life is about compromise and what you can live with and still feel good about yourself. I think being a parent was very much part of these compromises. But let’s put some of the personal life part aside for when we can talk face to face over an ale or cup of coffee or some such and if we meet I’d be up for it. So let’s bring this back to ideas about the business of craft and making.
I’ve always had to sell my work, whether it was my design, building expertise, labor, or the craft stuff I make and sell today. Along with this has been countless conversations about money, skill, value of labor, tools appropriate for the job being done, pricing, marketing, social media, apprentices, employees, subcontractors, insurance, taxes, web design, domain stuff and countless other details to business. I’ve made and sold literally 100’s of wooden snow shoes and toboggans, multiple 1000’s of wooden spoons, 1000’s of wooden bowls, then there’s the birch bark boxes, baskets, bentwood boxes, handles and rims for April’s baskets and on that note hand pounded close to 100 ash logs for splints. I’ve built 10 birch bark canoes, and also restored a few wooden boats too. I’ve designed and built 4-5 timber frame structures, and was part of building 4-5 more and countless building projects from wooden shingle roofs to bathroom remodels. I’ve also been teaching handcrafts since 2000 and have taught many 1000’s of people. I love it.
Please don’t take my experience as me trying to make myself look better than anyone else. That’s not my intent. I’m just trying to say that I do have some strong ideas about craft and business and it’s from my experience that I draw them. I’ve been around the block a few times and I guess I’m to the point in life that I’m not afraid to say it. It sure doesn’t mean my ideas are right. They are just my opinions—take them for that. But I will attempt to throw down some logic and argue my point of view a little.
The one most contentious subject within the ‘green woodworking’ community is the hand tool vs. electric tool debate. I don’t think it’s really a healthy debate at all. It’s just two sides puking their own ideas on the opposing side with no real ideas of coming to a middle ground. This can be seen paralleled within our political systems today and I wont go there here. Most of these countless conversations and remarks are from folks who make things as a hobby. It really gets to me that they can draw certain conclusions and hardline opinions on professional-level choices, from the sidelines. This is nothing new, I know. I think that these naive opinions are really disrespectful to anyone trying to make a living making things. Ideas of what is right or wrong without considering actual design first is actually slowing the maturity of the craft by creating a sort of unspoken rule that electric tools are bad or in some way inferior. If we were to argue over something let’s argue over what good design is rather than how something is made.
I’ve been slowly building my thoughts and ideas in regards to what it’s like being a professional and willing to share them with the many who are interested, but in the face of said opinionated hobbyist it’s been hard. It seems the zealots or hardliners somehow view talk and discussion about the choices and decisions having to be made as a professional, as being elitist or somehow exclusive. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. My guess is that none of them make a living selling their work.
Using electric tools vs hand tools and getting paid to work is something I’ve been dealing with all my professional life. This brings me to a point that I’ve been on the fence about talking about—I think the green wood community is in its adolescent stage. Mainly because it's almost and completely dominated by hobbyists. I don't think this is a bad thing, but it’s true. I skirted around this idea with my last fairly serious post called Context is Important. I’ve been wanting to discuss these ideas for some time but have been afraid to get into it with folks that can be really sensitive to the idea and they actually act like teenagers about it too! Believe me I’ve had plenty of awkward conversations with folks that are all puffed up thinking I’m attacking them as a hobbyist when I talk about the difference in choices that the hobbyist and the professionals face. These choices could be about design, material, tools, pricing, etc…which are all linked to the market and our success if our goal is to make a living doing this type of work. We NEED to sell every spoon, bowl, chair, basket, box, chest, etc….One of the reasons I left the big Spoon Carving group on Facebook was that vocal members of the group and some admins had a hard time realizing that there could be different reasons for why we make things and that the professional perspective was also part of the whole picture. Even today a few in that group think that my desire to talk about professional level stuff was and is elitist or the like. They argue that the group is open now that a few of us professionals left or don’t post any of our thoughts there. The group has now limited the conversations from the professional perspective in a very passive aggressive way. I would ask how is that an open group where all have a place to discuss ideas? How does that help the young folks who aspire to make a go of it as a professional? That’s still a little sore spot for me.
I was talking to a friend the other day about the fact that I’m developing the use of an electric lathe for part of my turning. This is due to serious pinched nerves in my standing leg. To be clear I’m the only person in the US making small runs of handled wooden drinking vessels and other things on the pole lathe in a sort of production/professional level. I make the handled vessels with a pole lathe because it’s the only type of lathe that does the job. From Feburary 2016 to present I’ve made over 200 of them and sold them to folks all over the world. This may not seem like a lot, it’s not really compared to the turners I researched in Boras Sweden a few years ago. Now those guys could turn. But what I’m doing is still more than anyone else in the country, actually in the world right now.
Oh yeah, my friend said ‘just don’t turn into a factory.’ and ‘don’t forget why we got into this in the first place’
Hmmm ok, so?…If I’m to have any sort of quality of life I need to make between $500-1000 a week. So if I’m making things within the ‘unspoken greenwood ethos’ am I bound to be poor? If I consider ideas of increasing production with a band saw or an electric lathe is that somehow bad? or wrong? and to be honest I may have even bought into these thoughts a few years ago! I’ll also add I used to use a band saw to rough out blanks about 5 years ago anyway. Who the f**k cares if the design is good?
I could slowly sell my stuff for hundreds of dollars which will turn what I make into something too valuable to use. It’ll just sit on the shelf. This I feel distorts the perception that it’s something really special and rare, even though it is in some ways. I don’t want to go there with what I make. I think it turns my work into more of a luxury item than they already are. I have serious problems with that for my own work. If others want to go that route more power to them. I think the stuff I make should be affordable enough that folks buy and use it. I can tell you right now any one in my shoes is faced with the same choices if they are going to eat and pay their bills, etc. Pricing is a tricky thing and there is a really big market out there. I don’t think there are any rules or should be on pricing or methods of making. It’s whatever you can live with as a maker. If you can sell your work at whatever price you can that’s a good thing.
I’ll add advise to anyone reading this and trying to sell their work—DO NOT listen to anyone who doesn’t sell their stuff, and a lot of it, about pricing. Its confusing enough as it is. You’ll figure it out in time and it will always be changing anyway as you move from one demographic to another.
What about the idea that the more folks using wooden bowls and cups the better? What about the folks that love their factory made wooden spoons (met a lot of these folks when I was selling at shows and farmer’s markets) and they care not about how it was made? They have great stories about their grandmothers in the kitchen, stories about love and nourishment. Are we somehow creating an elitist situation when we frown upon the factory spoon? and in turn frown on those folks’ feelings of love for said factory spoons that they cherish?
These things are made from wood. We use trees, the forest. This is the heart of what we do and I think it deserves some thought that maybe this is the ONLY thing that matters. I’ll write on this subject next.
Back to hobbyists and zealots…. that’s a problem because the fact that some of us are, or more importantly, young folk are aspiring to make a living carving spoons, turning wood, making chairs, etc… having opinions like “don’t become a factory” don't help at all. Arguably they actually hurt and send ripples through the growing green wood community that you just can’t make a living doing it or worse…..you shouldn’t if you have to use a band saw, electric lathe, circular saw, chain saw, etc..
I look to the pottery world. My friend and very talented potter served 4 years at St. John’s in Minnesota and 4 in Japan in Karatsu. He served hardcore apprenticeships. We’ve had lots of good talks on the subject of craft and the merits of apprenticeships. From what I understand that within the pottery world nobody is having a hissy fit about kick wheels and throwing off the hump vs electric wheels and weighing clay per piece. If they are, it’s surely not as contentious as the hand tool vs electric tool debates and conversations within the woodworking world. I would argue that after the renaissance the potters had 50 years ago or more, their world is more grown up. Pottery is very accepted and potters are in what seems like every town making a wide range of good, bad and the even more rare excellent bowls, cups, etc…for prices that vary extremely. Hell they even have programs in the universities and feet into the art world. Plenty of room to move without judgement from a bunch of zealot hobbyists and plenty of opportunity to take it up as work or hobby without having to take it on the chin which ever way they choose to fire their pots or what type of wheel they sit at. Plus they have collectively explored what good design is which I feel is a really good thing for their craft.
Looking to Japan…there is still a lot of wood kicking around, tea cups, wooden bowls, baskets etc… In my search for electric lathe styles I've noticed that there is still a lot of production work and of the highest quality for sake cups, and rice bowls. The craftsfolk are turning with amazing skill on electric lathes. I don’t think they'd consider for a second using a pole lathe for some nostalgic or ideological reason. There is a spoon carver I’m following on Instagram who carves these gorgeous spatulas. He uses a bandsaw to rough out and hand tools to finish them. The things he makes show great design, function and beauty. His designs are not at all compromised by the tools used to make them. This is mature making. Great stuff!
Let’s look at the blacksmithing world. They too had their renaissance about 40 years ago with the formation of ABANA by 27 blacksmiths. They have local hammer in’s, regional and international conferences and many, many resources for the aspiring smiths, both hobbyists and professionals alike. I’m pretty sure there are no contentious arguments about the need to hand file or hot rasp every axe vs the use of the grinder or the need to use a few strikers with sledge hammers in hand over the use of a power hammer to legitimatize their work.
If the wood culture renaissance or new wood culture is going to reach it’s full potential we need to grow up…and with that we need more professionals to do it. We need to realize that there is plenty of room for everyone with whatever method they want to use within the wood working scene and we need to say it loud and clear.
For the rise of the new wood culture and the craftsperson class.