More of My Beginnings As a Craftsman, Teacher and Educator
Partly in answer to the “How to get started in woodworking?” question
I remember hearing a more mature person ask a Woodcraft store (USA woodworking franchise chain) manager this question when I lived and worked in the US. The manager’s eyes shone brightly in response and he quickly whisked the customer off to the far side of the store and with a wide sweep of his arm said, “It’s all here!” Machines arrayed like cars in a new car showroom glinted beckoningly and I knew that the man yet to be converted was about to part with a chunk of his pension. Outfeed tables concertinaed in storage were whiplashed into position and bandsaw doors were popped open with the quick twist of two knobs. Laser crosshairs aligned saw blades to the task of crosscutting and delivery dates were arranged before you could say Norm Abrams. There was no questioning beyond the opening one and hand tools were never mentioned. It was an interesting phenomena to me as I prolonged my staring at the many books on display so I could listen in all the more to the words of the salesman. Evolution and the survival of the fittest has of course been proven to be a fallacy in that it’s been proven that those best able to adapt survive in an uncertain world. The chain stores do of course provide some level of service but the bigger they get the less likely they are to adapt and do going into such stores quickly becomes what Americans refer to as, “The same ol’ same ol’.” Should I have interjected something at that point? Perhaps offered a more balanced approach like start out with this or that machine and add in some classes and a few hand tools? I knew better. I was a complete unknown in the USA back there in 1988. My philosophy on hand woodworking was often mostly greeted with bemused tolerance and interest coupled with unbelief. I learned to kerb my enthusiasm a little and I picked my battles more cautiously. I knew that for me to make any difference I would need to prove the reality of hand work by using methods in front of my audience that obviated the truth that hand tools were far more interesting than people knew. It could not be slight-of-hand demonstrations but a real message of slowed-down woodworking everyone could really see, understand and then keep pace with and learn to master at whatever pace they wanted. Most of the audiences I engaged with saw methods most of them had never actually seen live before. This fact alone amazed me because I had been so used to it in my daily life growing into my craft. It was the simplicity of the message backed by reality showing. Just as all of my work on the videos we make are indeed completely unscripted, so it was back then when I decided to go to woodworking and craft shows where I would most often be the only crafting artisan teaching from a background of actually earning his living from real woodworking up against the empire of machine makers.
Back then I had a 10 foot by 10 foot booth only. My surrounding neighbours front back and sides had 40 foot by 40 foot booths. Dwarfed in the arena of giants seemed at first to be very negative but, as with many things, a minuscule presence often stands out in a crowd. With my single-sided 2 foot by 5 foot workbench and two dozen hand tools in a small toolbox I felt just right. Some people outright laughed at me whereas others chuckled, giggled, smirked or were outright rude. At least that’s what happened at first, but then my opportunity came. At 11am my first demo was scheduled and I had 20 minutes to wow my tiny audience with the reality of an unalloyed alternative but would they listen to this small voice in the wilderness. 20 seats were squared across the front of my workbench and only six people came to sit. I had already decided I was going to demo whether anyone came or not. Ten tools from the two dozen I had were laid out on my benchtop in front of me and I picked them up one by one. I was very much the fish out of water. A foreigner, a hand tool enthusiast and an unknown quantity to all. But I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma and though a long way from the comfort zones of my native England, Tulsa was one of the friendliest towns I’ve ever been in. The Okies welcomed me and made me so welcome and even if half the words I used were misunderstood the action at the bench was not. I picked up a piece of wood and split it along its length in two seconds. In a few minutes I made a spatula with a tenon saw, a mallet, a spokeshave and a brace and bit. Six people stayed in their seat, but 20 more gathered in the aisles either side. To be honest they seemed to be quite mesmerised and when I was done they did me the honour of clapping and cheering loudly. More people joined the happy throng and I asked questions and made statements like, “How many of you know that with 3 joints and 10 hand tools you can make just about anything from wood?” No reply but a few smiles. I then made a 2 minute dovetail joint with twin dovetails that just came out too perfect for words. I passed it around, explained its functionality and then explained the use of the knifewall. That was the first time I named the knife cut across the grain of the wood a knifewall. I didn’t invent the method but I did give it that name because I felt refining it and defining it created its worth in words people could understand. I used only four hand tools and a pencil for the dovetail demo and by the time I was done all the seats were filled and so too the aisles. I continued demoing and for the rest of the day all of my demos were filled and enthusiastically received. The show organisers doubled and then tripled the seating and gave me a bigger space. As the years passed we need large TV screens and 200 seats. The aisles too filled and non one could pass. My fears and doubts were over. That was my first experience of public demoing of any scale and imagine how it feels today to be able to reach many hundreds of thousand every month who are having their lives changed by a handful of people centred right hear in the beautiful Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire.
I made many wonderful friends at the woodworking shows through the decades I lived, worked and traveled in the US. Those early days gave me insights into the hearts of people searching for a worthwhile way of working with their hands that took them off the conveyor belt and into a proactive, sustainable way of working that truly fostered wellbeing. Today I love my outreach all the more because we still stand out amongst the giants. We are small a compact but we are truly a team of people who care so passionately about woodworking, woodworkers, the art and craft of work and providing an alternative reality people feel all the more able to explain away to others. You have become my voice, you are proof that what I and we do works. I come to work with a sense of real purpose and I am so glad retirement is just a distant concept I never think of.
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