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JOEL Joel's Blog

A Nation That's Losing Its Toolbox


A Nation That's Losing Its Toolbox 4

If you haven't read this article in last Sunday's New York Times, A Nation That's Losing Its Toolbox, you should. Closer to home, Doug Stowe's Wisdom of the Hands blog, is all about how we are falling short of teaching our kids craft. This we have been reading about for years. The Times article is about the loss of craft skills, the effects on the economy and what happens to our general national psyche and self-identity when those kids who never had shop class grow up.

Some of the points the Times writer, Michael Falco, raised weren't very persuasive to me. He mentioned that cooking shows and DIY shows are very very popular, but he didn't seem to know what to do with that fact. He described it as wistful nostalgia. To me, it's striking that although these shows are ostensibly about craft, they're less about doing it yourself and more about consuming craft. He also doesn't mention some of the root causes of the decline in craft skills, like the increase in the work week and the disappearance of leisure time. As a nation we want to be craftsmen, but many people don't have the time and have lost the inclination to get their hands dirty. Falco also doesn't mention that a lot of the things people used to build or repair have become too inexpensive and too hard to repair to justify the time.

The article notes that many tool customers are immigrants, and suggest this is further evidence of the loss of skill in the mainstream. But - at least in the largest cities - crafts were always dominated by immigrants. Even as far back as Duncan Phyfe, who was born in Scotland, immigrant craft labor was pretty common. Still, the article does raise important points, like how can we revive a manufacturing base when as a nation we get further and further away from the notion that we can make stuff.

Here is the link again: A Nation That’s Losing Its Toolbox.

Note: The picture of the tool department of the E. L. Wilson Hardware Company, Beaumont, TX. comes from the book "The Modern Hardware Store" edited by Carl W. Dipman 1929.
Join the conversation
07/24/2012 Robert Steinberg
Damn The Torpedoes. Full Speed Ahead. Sometimes you just need to make a stand and realize that anything worth having should be worth doing. I know that' s a bit cliche but it's true. People are to busy doing nothing to learn how to do something worthwhile. Some of this lies in the fact that Trade Schools have been in decline for decades and that the joy of doing anything for yourself has been replaced by the convenience of going online or going to the Supermarket and taking it out of the freezer section. Putting a bag of Bertolli's in a pot of hot water does not make you a cook. It makes you lazy. We have forgotten what made this country great. We were self reliant. We grew our own food, repaired our own creations and depended on our neighbors for help when we needed it. What we didn't expect was that our politicians would send all our jobs overseas so everyone else could experience prosperity.
07/24/2012 Mike Siemsen
I for one am still on fire to make stuff!

"As a nation we want to be craftsmen, but many people don't have the time and have lost the incineration to get their hands dirty."
07/24/2012 Mitch Wilson
I don't know, Joel. When I lost my incineration, I was no longer able to burn up my scrap wood.
07/24/2012 Dennis Matthews
HAHA... damn spell checkers. Another sign of our times.
But seriously, there really is no incentive to create new trade schools when there is no call for workers in most trades. Since as a country we have decided to become a throw away society with most all products to be thrown away coming from overseas. You and I can't compete in this market. Why, the cost of our lumber alone negates any competitiveness we might hope for. Speaking as a hobbyist mind you, not an industrialist. But even then...
07/24/2012 Paul Ebert
It's sadly true.I build Furniture both with power tools and Antique Hand tools.It depends on the customer's wishes and budget.There are honestly, a lot of people out there that don't even know furniture can be made by hand with power tools ,by a person[aka craftsman]
If you talk Antique Hand tools made furniture ,it just floors a lot of potential customers.All I here is made the "Amish". PLEASE don't get me started on that whole marketing scam.
I hope the select market for Hand made ,quality furniture stay around for awhile
There are so many factors in play here, many of which the author seems unaware. The connection between craftsmanship and manufacturing is tenuous at best. While there is considerable overlap, modern manufacturing has usually sought to reduce the need for craftsmanship through the use of standardized parts, precise jigging, and automation. In crude, economic terms, manufacturing is designed primarily to drive prices down. Since unskilled labor costs less than skilled labor, there are strong profit motives to automate production. It's been going on for a long time, too. Anybody remember the Charlie Chaplain movie _Modern Times_? The Arts & Crafts movement was an attempt to reintroduce skilled labor into the manufacturing process, and that was well over 100 years ago.

On the other hand, the USA has always been the land of do-it-yourself. We came by it honestly. It's not just "pioneer spirit" either. When a large number of Americans were farming for a living, being an all-around handyman was a survival skill for many, perhaps most American young men and women. Americans aren't as "handy" now partly because we don't have to be. Our livelihoods don't depend on it. Mine certainly doesn't. I pursue my craft because I enjoy it, and because it allows me to live more cheaply. I don't have to hire a plumber to install a toilet or hire a cabinet maker to build me a set of shelves. I can do it myself.
07/24/2012 Rich Weingarten
I grew up in a do-it yourself family, and learned by watching talented family members and friends. As an adult I frequently spend some weekend time at garage sales. Getting to look closely at what some less than inspired folks attempt around the house makes me wince. Not our tool box is lost but our living skills are being lost. Sure you can use toothpaste to fill nail holes before you paint. Everyone knows that a coat of Pledge is a great start before spray painting 70 year old furniture with Rustoleum. I recently saw a truck radiator hose used to fix a sink drain and an old oak kitchen set that had been skillfully repaired with 6d common nails.
07/24/2012 Randy
On the one hand, we lament the apparent loss of future generations taking up the woodworking torch as if we have some sort of inherent interest in preserving the craft for its own sake and nothing else. On the other hand, I read over and over again about the plight of professional woodworkers due to the encroachment of the hobbiest hoards into their economic territory. By all accounts, there are more people involved in the craft today than 30 years ago, despite (because of?) the "Great Recession" since 2008. So I have a very difficult time reconciling the rhetoric on all sides.

It reminds me of the hand wringing by those concerned about leaving unmanageable national debt to the next generation while driving around the country in their RVs with bumper stickers that read - "We're Spending our Children's Inheritance..." At some point, actions and words need to coincide on some level to be taken seriously. Yeah, I'm cynical but not without reason.

As such, I really don't think we give a rat's patootie about some future generation's adoption of the craft for their sake or that of the craft. If we're honest with ourselves, we're more concerned about our own PRESENT self interests whether as a woodworking professional, hobbiest, manufacturer, retailer, whatever the case may be. And the best evidence for this position is the utter lack of self-sacrifice for the craft or its future generation on almost every level.

The stated "dilemmas" in the woodworking community today are nothing more than a reflection of the larger rhetorical nonsense that pervades our individual self interests and inaction on a national level. If we really cared, we would do something about it but we don't. Our purported concerns for the future of x, y, or z sound wonderful and make us feel good, but they belie our present behaviors.

No, don't worry about what I have or have not done lately, worry about what you've done lately and should be doing.

I don't matter
07/24/2012 kc
There are obviously some gaps in the writers knowledge and research. He thinks that prefab windows are somehow a recent invention but they were shipping prefab houses and house components all over the country in the late 1800s. The coming of the major railroads increased the quantity of goods made in factories.

Our loss of manufacturing jobs in the late 1950s had a major drop because that is when new standards to reduce pollution began to come into play. In the article there is no mention of the fact that many factories shut because they could not afford to modernize. So jobs left and went to countries where those regulations were not a cost factor.

When there is further equalization of wages and pollution controls the jobs will once again become local.
07/24/2012 Steve Branam
Meanwhile, manufacturers who are trying to produce in the US are having trouble finding trained, skilled workers to replace those who are retiring. The skilled workforce is aging out with no new skilled workforce to grow into its place.

The article mentions that countries like Germany still maintain apprenticeship programs. We need to find some way to reincorporate that here. That's a combination of cultural attitudes and corporate and government policies. People have to be willing to invest in training, whether it's the employers or the employees. The problem right now is that no one wants to pay for it. The financial model to support that has broken down and needs to be rebuilt.
07/25/2012 Rick Schuman
There are, in my view, 2 converging issues at play here. The most obvious is the above topic; a lack of craft training. The second is the marketing of power tools on the premise that if you spend enough money on routers and such, "you too can get professional results, first time, every time". I put this in quotes because this is the litany that has proffered for the last 20 or 30 years by the power tool (and other domestic devices) industry. The worst offense, I believe, is not that we are not teaching craft, but that we are teaching that craft is unnecessary and that we are not as capable as machines in performing the related tasks. Of course "professional results" (read quality verses cost) have taken quite a hit in the process as well. It comes down to the degradation of the value of being human as well as of skill and learning.
07/26/2012 Eric R
I have read every one of the comments and agree with aspects of each.
One thing for sure is that I would have certainly loved to work at the E.L. Wislon Hardware Company back in 1929.
07/28/2012 Dan Gordon

It does seem to be a crisis of values, as I read the above contributions; i.e. consumerism/industrialism gone too far vs. humanitarian concerns.

The best of Craft grows out an act of generosity when one person is helping to fill a need of another. Craftsmanship enters when that need is met with grace, patience and, dare I say, skill.

Skill acquired through hours of practice and through self teaching or the skill of sound teachers. Craftsmanship, perhaps more than anything else, suggests a care and concern for those people and those resources around us.

Below is what I wrote to the NY Times in response to the original article that Joel thankfully highlighted for us...thank you for the discourse...

I am a craftsman and I teach woodworking. The beauty of teaching and practicing craftsmanship is that the underlying principles have a universally applicable quality. Students must practice precision, discipline and tenacity to yield positive and progressively more sophisticated results. My students produce beautiful, well-made furniture and are assessed on product and, perhaps most importantly, process—i.e. craftsmanship in practice.
I repeatedly remind our students that appreciating well executed craft and walking a path of mastery, in something like woodworking, opens your knowledge base and sense of self, as it relates to reaching a level of mastery in any life pursuit.
My sense is that an appreciation and predisposition for craftsmanship is in our DNA as individuals and as a culture. By demonstrating a true commitment to the values and value of craftsmanship we could move from a philosophical lament to actually increasing resources for such pursuits; perhaps then we may begin to make real strides in rejuvenating our manufacturing sector.
I, and my shop teaching colleagues, work daily in our classrooms/shops to stimulate students creatively and intellectually so that they create in the hands on tradition. The results are tangible, measureable and inspiring.

Dan Gordon
Teacher of Practical Arts,
Mahwah High School,
Mahwah, NJ
11/06/2012 Jack in TN
IF we really want to hold onto craftsmanship, cost of education, etc, how about using the 'new to us again' apprenticeship program, currently being called 'interns'. People advertise for them and people DO accept working for 'free' as part of a way into the 'new order of business'.

Does anyone out there that DOES handwork / craftwork / woodworking / blacksmithing / etc use 'interns' in their business?

Would you be interested?

Talk to your insurance provider first about the ramifications, and the local employment office. The put your ad on Craigslist, or in the PennyPincher news (or similar local publication) and see if you can get some help.

Now figure you WILL pay for the help. You NEED to educate them and expect mistakes, but you will grow them, your business, and your craft IF you are willing to invest in people. ... Oh yes, do celebrate their successes, holidays, another year in business, whatever with them. Give them an engraved woodworking plane or something as a 'graduation present' when they turn from novice to journeyman in your care. Also celebrate when they want to 'break out' and go to the next step in their life. If you are lucky you will get an intern for 1, 2, 3 years, or they could turn into a business partner and friend. Then there is the opportunity to raise up another person as the more experienced intern moves to the next stage in their life.

Have I done it, myslef? No. I worked for large firms doing computer geek work. But I did mentor many that turned into 'master workers' in their own right.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.