-- how to save woodworking... you can't
How can we save woodworking? The simple answer is... we can't. Not in the way we think of it today. Small fine woodworking business will have an increasingly harder time competing against evolution and standardized production. I just don't see the craft as it's been for the past 1000 years surviving the next generations. But all is not lost because at the edge of our hobby I do see a splinter philosophy emerging that gives me some hope.
My argument revolves around these basic points:
- consumer values
- markets increasing adaptability and evolution
- exploding communication
- baby boomers
When most consumers buy furniture today it's style that they value the most. This is evident from the type of merchandise that is being marketed. Furniture stores are able to provide the average person a huge variety of styles and price points. The aspects of furniture design that we as fine woodworkers consider valuable are not a real consideration for them so it isn't a priority with the manufacturers. When was the last time you saw a furniture store advertise that it's products are built to last for generations. Hell... if they actually did that they'd eventually put themselves out of business because return customers would be nonexistent.
Was furniture better built in the past or do we have that misconception because only the quality stuff survived?
Disposable furniture is what is sold today because constantly changing styles means people recognize that in a decade they'll be wanting something different. So the skill and knowledge needed to make the characteristics of fine furniture are just not needed to produce profitable merchandise that sells.
For example the couch I bought seven years ago is utter crap. It only succeeds at meeting one of William Morris's requirements for household material. It created a spot for the dog to rule the house and kept my butt off the floor. For a few years it was "OK" but now you can feel the frame flex as you sit down on it. (No comments on my weight!) I've seen enough of these out of style overstuffed couches by the dumpsters to understand why. The frames are just screwed together planks of particleboard. Made to a price point quickly and then and covered in foam. Higher end stuff isn't much better. I can't count the number of times I've seen tables that look phenomenal at a small distance only to notice it's actually veneered substrate screwed together. The worst I ever saw was a $3000 table that had a faux thru tenon painted on and the stretchers were attached with pocket screws!
But this isn't the drug culture so we shouldn't blame the maker for providing what consumers are buying. In fact, as capitalist Americans we really should applaud them under our breath as we complain about them destroying the independent furniture maker. Over time these people will have to continually improve their product just to stay competitive so we'll eventually get stuff that's... better.
Now there are some discerning shoppers in the world today that know what "quality" really is and are willing to pay for it. These individuals are the dream clients of the custom furniture makers. But even their values are not necessarily in line with the livelyhood of the fine woodworker.
Louis Fry is a professional furniture maker here in Austin TX who came to speak to the local club about 'Hand Tools in a Power Tool Shop'. He did a great job demonstrating some techniques and wowed the club with his portfolio. I'm definitely jealous of his skill, talent and vision.
Two of his off handed comments hit me hard. I've also heard the same ideas repeated by numerous other professionals. Clients love the overall aesthetic of our craft but care less about how we get there. Including a proportionally tapered chamfer on a heavy curved leg takes skilled use of a chisel. Clients love how it reflects light and visually 'lightens' a heavy leg but they'd be just as happy if you could get the same exact characteristic using a CNC machine. He flat out said that he has never had a client ask if the dovetails in his work were hand cut. A lot of the hand work we woodworkers prize so much is done for the recognition and admiration of other woodworkers. Discerning clients appreciate the end results, not the method to get there.
Today we lament the demise of wood shop courses in high school. But we can't be surprised. It's an evolution of what our society prioritizes in products and the skills needed to create it. Schools produce the future cogs in a societies workforce.
Nowadays automation, computerization and standardization has dramatically reduced the need for the specialized skills woodworkers prized just a generation ago to be employed. In fact a formal fine woodworking education, would be next to useless in many current woodworking businesses. On the other hand you walk in with CAD training...
Hence I wasn't surprise at all when one day I saw all our school districts industrial shop equipment left out to rust in back of the bus barn. They had replaced them with computer labs teaching CAD and architecture courses. The reason is simple, it's what employers are demanding. As CNC machine prices plummet even small cabinet shops are leaving power tools such as table saws and band saws in the dust. One person can produce more, quicker, safer, better and to lower price point. One person can program a machine to do all the turning, cutting, carving, mortising, dovetailing, boring, etc... for an entire week. One person can load a machine, change bits, start a program and just assemble the final product. While the initial tool cost is high it can be offset by lower employee cost, higher production and a reduced need for a number of other machines. There is no way a small shop working with traditional tools, that require traditional skills, can compete. This may not be progress but it is evolution and it fills the need that consumers drive.
Plus the education the kids get in those CAD courses will transfer to many other subjects, machines and industries where as the traditional woodworking courses...
Now I know lots of people are screaming about the construction industry. "We need carpenters to build our houses!" A valid argument, but today's carpenters don't need yesterdays skills to earn a living on a job site.
I've observed that much of the construction industry is moving towards pre made components that are delivered for installation. I've seen pre made roof trusses, walls, stairways and even entire kitchens rolling down the highway on the backs of semi's going to construction sites. Some even looked wired and insulated! So technically a crane operating license would be fantastic job security as a carpenter today. Cabinet making has become pre made plywood boxes that are just adorned with pre made hardwood doors. Today's carpenters just don't need the same type of woodworking knowledge our grandparents did hence the change in our education.
On the flip side I 100% believe that there will always be demand for hand crafted work. Sadly I also believe that innovations in communication will mean fewer and fewer of these specialists will be able to actually make a decent living. Nowadays one Google search will turn up all aspects of woodworkers all around the world and the cream will rise to the top. So in order to just earn a living as a woodworker you also have to develop a complete digital marketing campaign. One that will reach a large enough audience to find enough people able to afford what you'll have to charge that you'll be able to make a comfortable living. That needed skill alone will flush out many talented artisans simple because it is a form of communication that takes a different kind of talent and mind-set.
The market for woodworking products brought about by mass production of adequate quality has demanded a different skill set for employees of the industry. Thus the education of the future workforce has changed, reducing the old school knowledge base we call fine woodworking. It's a vicious circle that means woodworking as a cottage business will be dissappearing.
All of this will not happen immediately. In fact it's almost inevitable that fine woodworking is about to enjoy a surge of popularity and an increase entreprenuerial ventures. The reason for this is simple... retiring baby boomers.
This massive wave of population is going to funnel large amounts of money into the industry on both the consumer and production sides. They have the money to buy the furniture made and purchase the tools to make them. Boomers also have the time, funding and inclination to start little craft businesses as a way to make a little additional income not a living.
Can you say chummed water?
But this is where I also see a silver lining if we act now. The focus of woodworking needs to change from focusing on the end product to the actual process. I see Jim Tolpin and Christopher Schwarz as major mover and shakers in the development of this change. Jim Tolpin's latest book, 'The New Traditional Woodworker' is worth the price for just his closing remarks as is Schwarz's latest, 'The Anarchist's Toolchest' for it's overall message.
We need to turn woodworking into an activity at the level of a low impact sport in order to get it to survive the coming generations. Think of golf, mountain biking, playing music or drawing. These activities are done for the enjoyment of the process, not necessarily for the end product. I don't see golfers thinking that what they are doing is producing used score cards to sell. (Well... maybe Tiger Woods...) Unless you accidentally smack your thumb, woodworking is a fantastic low impact workout. We need to convince beginners that the furniture and other things we build are 'bonuses' to the mental dexterity, physical coordination, and sense ofaccomplishment woodworking provides. Take away the tools and techniques designed for mass production in favor of those that make you sweat a little, develop coordination, keep you active, and work mental acuity. Let's treat it like a sport. Woodworking is fun and that is the message that can save it.
We also need to start building the social aspect NOW! As the Baby Boomers retire they are leaving a built in social network. The stereotype is that retiree's immediately go stir crazy upon retirement. They are jonesing for the action and society of the workplace to feed their ego's and build self-esteem. If woodworking can fill that void, become the first withdrawl drug they try, then it will develop a loyalty to the craft that will last.
Now unless some kind of paradigm shifting moment occurs, maybe a big Hollywood movie about the craft, this is going to take work. That work is going to have to come from education in a social medium. I do not believe books, websites or DVD's will accomplish this because they lack the social interaction. Online communities, continuing education courses, woodworking clubs or friends are who need to step up to get the Baby Boomers hooked.
There is a glimmer of hope to save woodworking, but only as a craft, not as a business.
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- Woodworking in America, Retrieved August 8, 2011 from Popular Woodworking: https://www.eiseverywhere.com/
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- University of California, Retrieved August 14, 2011 from Calisphere http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt6v19q4h2/
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