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It's all about the why...


For many years I have worked in the woodworking retail sector. With a full spectrum of employers including Gregory’s, Carbatec and Timbecon. I have also had the opportunity to work with several well-known brands such as Veritas, Robert Sorby, Laguna and most recently Woodfast. It has been an interesting journey, getting to know the businesses, seeing the production methods, learning their back stories and how they got started. My favourite being the Veritas story, a true story of entrepreneurism, but more about that later. On this journey I have also met a lot of people. A very diverse range from all backgrounds and cultures. And though all these people are all very different, their interest in woodworking creates a commonality that all may relate too from the customers on the ground through to the industry executives who pull the strings. Besides retail I have also worked in the manufacturing sector including making my own furniture and selling it from the workshop door, through to working on teams completing hotel and super yacht fit out. A diverse career no doubt, all wrapped around by an unavoidable and deep passion for woodworking.


Meeting makers including this 3rd generation Japanese blacksmith has been a great part of my journey.

My story is not uncommon. Many of the industry people I have met both in retail and manufacturing also have a love of craft at the heart of what they do. Each also have a hands-on woodworking experience in their background that developed their passion in the first instance. The most common is probably the trad grandfather or father to son woodworking dynamic. This is the experience I grew up under. Both my forefathers were into woodworking, no doubt if different ways but making things was very central to both their lives. Unfortunately, not all those who are interested in craft have had the luxury of such an experience. Women have generally missed out on this introduction to craft with social conventions largely to blame. People from disrupted and destroyed cultures have also missed out, their ancient ways and craft practice stripped away due to colonialism, war and political upheaval. And even the average person living safely in the suburbs. Either dad wasn’t interested, wasn’t around, or they weren’t paying attention when the opportunity arose. Apologies for any oversimplifications of complex human experiences, yet the result remains the same and the question arises, how to get started in woodworking or any form of craft from ground zero?


A young Chinese family enjoy access to craft via businesses such as ZOOWOO located in a Shanghai city shopping mall.


The more cynical folk out there will now shake their heads and I quote, “this article is just about selling woodworking classes!” This is true to a certain extent - I remind you that in western culture most actions are related to consumption at some level. The point is, even though there are multiple options available these days to start woodworking, people still struggle to know where to start. I have seen them. Here they come dazed and confused wandering into the retailer’s showroom. Eyes wide checking out all the shiny bits and pieces sweating with excitement. The salesperson senses this. Circles and sizes them up. Licking their chops like a lion surveying a lame antelope on the savanna. This situation usually ends in one of two ways. They either buy the farm and head home with a full suite of gear that would impress even Sam Maloof himself. Or they run for cover claiming they must speak to the “boss” before committing to purchases of any kind. Either way the outcome is as equally predictable. Sam’s mate is standing in their now overcrowded workshop with an array of gear they either don’t know how to use or are too frightened to touch. Most of which they don’t really need anyway and is destined for the marketplaces or landfill. Meanwhile our nervous friend didn’t quite get a chance to talk to the boss and now sits in front of the TV watching reruns of Lumberjocks contemplating their next move. Is there not another way!


A group of happy relief carvers image courtesy of Olivia O'Connor

The more fortunate new woodworker has a mate who is into craft and through them they can gather advice and the confidence to get started. Others may happen upon a working craftsperson who offers classes in their workshop, woodworking events are a good source of such opportunities. Many people join clubs to solve this problem, this has the double benefit as your new pastime now comes with a huge group of new friends! The determined don’t muck about. They get online researching educational options and take hold of the experience for themselves. These are just a few examples of pathways into woodworking, and it's only been getting easier since the woodworking renaissance commonly known as the Covid 19 pandemic. Yet though this first step is hard, the next one can be even harder. And that is, the decision to keep going once the honeymoon is over.


Honeymoons are great. I went on one back in the day. A week of beautifully pre planned bliss spending time with a loved one doing fun stuff. Yet when the honeymoon is over it's back to work, paying bills and the daily grind. When the new woodworkers six-week class ends they take home their piece. They may then bask like a sleeping dog in the mid-day sun as the positive feedback and encouragement shines down from family and friends. Yet the sun sets each day and dark blanket of night is upon you. The pre-planned part is over, now what? Another class? Maybe I should buy some tools? What the hell will I make? Can I do this on my own? The subconscious emerges to remind us of all our weaknesses. You can’t do this. It’s expensive. You don’t like going out at night. It’s just a waste of time - oh where is Jung when you need him! The conscious mind fights back. I am a bloody woodworker you tell yourself. Mum needs a seat for beside the pool and I’m gunna make it. In fact, I’ll make two and sell one at the markets! Easy solider, pace yourself. To take the second step you need to focus. It's time to forget the how and consider the why. Why do you want to do woodworking? Answer that correctly and you are on your way.


Mr Lee's son Robin Lee discussing Veritas at the Handworks event in Iowa.

The why is not always easy to understand. Rooted deeply in your subconscious. The product of primal genetics, upbringing, life experiences and social conditioning uniquely skewed as you. The why may be either practical or subjective. Why did Lee Valley start making hand tools for example? The story goes that not enough reasonably priced quality tools were available to meet the demands of Lee Valley’s growing chain of Canadian lifestyle stores. So business founder Mr Lee decided to simply make hand tools for himself. In this case the why was based in a practical need and thanks to Mr Lee’s entrepreneurial mindset we can now all enjoy the fruit that is Veritas. Today we have Melbourne Tool Company emerging for similar reasons, history never repeats as they say. The why for our friend Olivia O’Connor was very different. Growing up in country surrounded by beauty and a father who tended racehorses developed a love for both craft and horses within Olivia’s mind. As she moved through life this energy emerged and now the why takes form as Rocking Horses. For me the why is also subjective. Woodworking has been a pathway for life. Sometimes I make things, sometimes I don’t. I have worked in all kinds of situations and have strayed far and wide, yet I have always stayed in touch with the bench. Not so much to make a living, or to make an egotistical point, though this would probably help settle the conscious mind. No, I think for me it's more about the commonality of experience, something that I understand and through which I can relate to others. Knowing the why helps make the second step far easier as it is an insight into your place in the Universe. Know the why and you are on your way. Oh, and for the record, woodworking is also a ton of fun.


I made this bench mid 90's from Oregon I found in a skip, it's been my constant companion ever since.


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