To Make Woodworking Difficult

I am no expert on the recent history of American woodworking, but I find it amusing (and a little depressing) to flip through books on furniture making from the 1950s and 1960s. What strikes me is the dreariness and predictability of most of the pieces shown. The simple, geometric shapes, the blandness of the color palate, and the uniformity of design are simplistic to the point of being banal. It is truly machine-age furniture, in which basic woodworking machines spit out identical, interchangeable pieces that are then assembled with manufactured fasteners and hardware. While many mid-century pieces of furniture have long since been discarded, quite a few still litter the basements, back rooms, and storage units of American families.

The result of the mechanization of the hobby shop was that anybody could build furniture using a few, simple machines. Furniture had become simple and easy to build. The advertisements for woodworking machinery said so. Those were the key words: “simple” and “easy,” as well as “quick.” Therein lay the attraction, and therein lay the problem. On one hand, it was simple, easy, and quick for a middle-class guy to set up a small shop in his basement and build magazine racks, coffee tables, and wall shelves. On the other hand, it was simple, easy, and quick for his neighbors to do the same thing. Now what’s so special about making your own furniture if it’s quick and easy to do it? If anybody can do it?

This brings me to the concept of difficulty. My wife and I have been reading the works of Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish thinker who lived in a society in which everybody presumed to be Christians, which resulted in near-universal presumptuous and mediocrity. Kierkegaard has nothing to say about woodworking or any other handicraft; his great project was to, in his words, “make Christianity difficult,” and therefore to make Christianity meaningful and authentic for those who chose to embrace its difficulty.

In a way, this is what the Hand-Tool Renaissance that began in the 1970s has achieved. It has made woodworking difficult. I don’t think they intended to make woodwork difficult, but the early hand-tool enthusiasts demonstrated that woodworking is more than an endless process of running lumber through a table saw and a router table, and then assembling the pieces with dowels or pocket screws. Woodworking took real skill, dexterity, and creativity, and doing it well required well-made tools that might still be found in secondhand shops, but that could no longer be bought at a local hardware store. These tools required proper care and maintenance, and many had sharp learning curves. No matter. The wisdom of past generations of woodworkers had to be recovered and preserved, because we could still use their methods to build beautiful furniture. Cutting lumber from a log, cutting a dovetail by hand, and carving a cabriole leg were admittedly difficult, but that was part of the allure. With attention and care, they were within the capabilities of anyone patient enough to embrace the difficulty.

The result has been two-sided. On one side, working wood with hand tools has gained a mystique, and has gotten a reputation as a sort of exclusive sect of highly-talented individuals who magically (albeit slowly) transform piles of lumber into historic, reproduction furniture. Despite the best efforts of some hand-tool gurus to demystify hand tools, a lot of hobbyists are still puzzled by the enthusiasm for hand tools. On the other side, the trend has produced many excellent amateur woodworkers who are building heirloom-quality pieces in their home shops. They have invested time in acquiring advanced skills, and they have carefully selected high-quality hand tools to use in the process. Most do not use hand tools exclusively, but hand tools are integral to their workflow and their ethos.

The attempt to make woodworking difficult still turns off many amateur woodworkers. Insofar as the difficulty of hand work is there for its own sake, or used merely for bragging rights, it is detrimental to the craft. But insofar as we embrace difficulty in order to develop our skills and do better work, the difficulty of hand-work is something to be acknowledged and celebrated.

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4 Responses to To Make Woodworking Difficult

  1. Ross Henton says:

    Yes, it’s made it more difficult, and I think that’s a good thing. Because the availability of “how-to” in print and digital media is teaching us that “difficult” and “out of reach” are different things. With the revival of more difficult forms has come a tremendous amount of instructional material, and encouragement from other woodworkers. That’s helped teach us of the joys of completing a challenging project. It keeps our motivation up and the skills of quality woodworking alive.

  2. David says:

    This is an interesting observation. Something similar happened to cooking in the first half of the 20th century — there was so much effort to make it easy and convenient that all of the craft was drained from it and (as a result, I would argue) women largely quit bothering with it — why should they, when a “home-cooked” meal was as mechanically produced as a TV dinner? I think you’re right that the reverse is responsible for the revival in woodworking. There’s real, meaningful achievement in working with hand tools… and I know that part of what keeps me going at it is never being able to do it as well as I’d like!

  3. A little late to the party, but…

    I wonder how many of us have interests that were not introduced by someone else. How many people take up hunting that didn’t go hunting with their Dad as a child? The learning curve is both steep and expensive with hand tools, and I know this hobby can grow as we all make sure to share what we know. People just don’t think they are capable. “Sure it’s difficult, but you can do this, let me show you how…”

  4. I think that is indeed the case with many woodworkers. They grew up around somebody–a dad, an uncle, a grandfather–who puttered around in the shop and shared some knowledge along the way. That was not the case with me, unfortunately. Although I had ancestors who were very handy in the shop, I never got to see them work, let alone explore their workshops. So I had to start again at ground-level.

    On the other hand, the “you can do this” message came to me in books, especially those by Drew Langsner and Roy Underhill, and their enthusiasm was catching.

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