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JOEL Joel's Blog

Making Stuff, and Other Human Impulses


Making Stuff, and Other Human Impulses 1
Last week a gentleman who runs a local maker space invited me to teach some hand tool classes at the space. I was happy to have the discussion but we got hung up by a central question: How do you get students to the point at which they can produce something?

My own answer thus far as a teacher has been to teach classes in which the product is the skill itself. I teach classes in making dovetails, sharpening, installing hinges with hand tools, and so on.

I admire those who are developing schools teaching a class with a PRODUCT - and we’re offering an exciting one in June on building a collapsible shave horse, so I guess TFWW is also in this group - but these classes often highlight the tension between several contrasting human impulses.

As woodworkers, we feel making things, especially with our hands, is deeply satisfying. People also love learning new skills, and most people also enjoy the social aspects of learning in a group.

But we also have conflicting desires. The desire not to be the laggard, in danger of being left behind the group. The desire for instant or near-instant gratification. I want it now! And - crucially - our identities as consumers.

Nowadays shop class has been consigned to the dustbin of history for most people. Many students come to woodworking classes thirsting for the satisfaction of creation. Andrew Zoellner, the new editor of Popular Woodworking, wrote an inspiring call to arms, The Joy of Woodworking - Out on a Limb as his inaugural editorial. “We’re here to inspire people to make more of the stuff they have in their lives and to learn the virtues of craft,” he writes.

For those who make our livelihood from making stuff with our hands, or teaching others to make stuff with their hands, getting paid is also a challenge.

Hand tools teach us to be responsive to subtleties and ignore the pace of contemporary society. Tuning out competing fundamental needs is a much harder act -- one I am still learning.

PS - My wife is actually the chief writer of this post. I am a lucky fellow in a bunch of ways, and at this moment grateful to be with someone who can turn a bunch of thoughts into a blog entry under deadline.

N.B. The pictures are of some spoons Pate, who will be teaching the City Dweller's Collapsible Shave Horse class, made on her shave horse.
Making Stuff, and Other Human Impulses 2

Join the conversation
05/02/2018 Jordan A
I personally love classes focused on skills rather than a product. I would rather learn what I need to make my own ideas come to life than build a piece of furniture I'm not attached to. Keep it up! And while I know it cuts into a service you offer, I would love to see a class on saw sharpening.
05/02/2018 Bob Groh
Totally agree with your column. One of the 'things' I put away as I got older was the desire to march to anyone else's drummer when it comes to taking wood working classes (or indeed any other classes). I do not compete - I am there to learn at my own pace and to match my own competency. In a wood turning class, I seldom get finished (well, I do sometimes). I guess it part of my nature and part of the 'old guy' (I am 77 years old) thing. And I do so enjoy using my hands and my brain! Great fun.
05/02/2018 John P.
Good piece. A challenge beyond having the tools, time and skills to use them is this: Most of us will produce things that we love and which make us proud, despite epic imperfections. The challenge is that these things will be viewed and judged by our non woodworking peers who will compare them either to a 20 thousand dollar table they saw in a gallery while on vacation or to the factory product from a place like IKEA. Our stuff may look odd and lumpy compared with either without a deeper education and understanding. I for one don't care but I am sure, as I have heard people say, this holds makers back.
05/02/2018 Wayne bower
I think it cuts both ways (no pun intended.) Sellers’ joinery fundamentals class started with saw and chisel techniques that were then used to make a pencil box, followed by chopping a through mortise and tenon and and curves with chisel and spokeshave for a wall shelf and then all of it plus tapers and glue-ups to make a small table. I also took Follansbee’s spoon carving class last month, and came home with a spoon-such as it is. Chris Pye’s Carving class was open to any area of interest, so I chose letter carving because I like it, even thought I didn’t leave with a sign. When I take Pete Galbert’s class, I sure as hell better come home with a Windsor chair or look for another place to live. Ditto next month’s box-making class with Doug Stowe. But if I were enrolled in marquetry, inlay, other other techniques currently above my pay grade I don’t think a product would be expected.
05/02/2018 Greg Rorabaugh
Guilty! Of all of the above. Joel, your assumptions are correct for me. And I have fallen into those traps that the other responders have mentioned. So my
“Production” has suffered. Several unfinished pieces. But I have rejoiced in the skills I have picked up with expertly sharp chisels and Japanese saws and wood behavior. I’m having fun and not expecting to master anything in any short amount of time.
05/02/2018 Sue Tolleson-Rinehart
I love it all! I came to hand tool woodworking in my late 50s, so it is all precious and spirit-nourishing and wonderfully stimulating for brain, eye, and hand! While I always enjoy and learn much from skills classes, I've increasingly enjoyed the classes that feed me the skills in the form of completing a project. Part of this enjoyment comes from having a master teacher help me traverse the space between my vision for something, and the thing itself. And, frankly, part of it comes from loving to use the product afterwards! Every time I sit on the perch stool I made in Pete Galbert's amazing weekend class or the Shaker bench Chris Becksvoort taught me to make, or open the 6-board chest I made in Meagan Fitzpatrick's class, or slide out the dovetailed drawer I built under Phil Lowe's tutelage, I am reminded of the joy of the class, and delighted by the utility of the product, all at once. So please, all you marvelous masters out there, please keep doing both! Impart the skills to us, and give us good project ideas too...and thank you from the bottom of this woodworker's heart!
Some skills are very difficult to observe. The phrase “she makes it look so easy” comes up often. My background includes building various types of molds, tools, and patterns often of a boatbuilding variety. In coaching, teaching, mentoring I almost always confront some basics that are hard for most to learn - especially in any kind of short duration training. Getting a surface “flat” or “smooth” or “fair” requires having a mental picture of what the end result is first and then knowing the steps necessary to get there. Building the mental picture then knowing how to use your fingers and wrists and arms and body weight to alter the pressure on a sanding block to close in on that mystical fair shape can be ellusive. I’ve often thought of trying to create a structured sequence of explorations that would improve the learning of these squish skills. Centering clay on a wheel is one of these zen like things that are foundational. Big topic - too much for this particular morning - gotta go.
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