Working wood by hand

Like Tracey, I’m supposed to write articles on this blog too, and because I’ve done this so very infrequently, I suspect that we might have amassed a following of readers interested in fibre crafts who might be a little surprised to hear me suddenly talking about the crafts that I do around the homestead, such as working with wood, leather and metal.

I’ve been working with wood for a little while, and I think Tracey has shown off some photos of some of our more useful pieces (like our bed, our shelves, etc). I’ve amassed a few large pieces of woodworking machinery, and a bunch of other useful power tools, all of which are used at the workshop at Earthsong eco-neighbourhood when I go over there. Being at the new homestead however, with a big empty shed (in the middle of a muddy paddock) has made me rethink whether I want to work wood with machines.

Like many professions, woodworking was changed dramatically before the industrial revolution. Before the advent of woodworking machinery, most woodworking trades were fairly localised. You might expect your larger local town to have a cabinet maker’s shop where the master cabinet maker and his apprentices produced much of the local furniture. Other specialised woodworking shop trades also included the chairmaker, cooper (makes barrels), wainwright (makes wagons) and wheelwright (makes wagon wheels), and outside of the shop you would also find carpenters, bodgers and lumberjacks.

With the invention of steam and then coal powered woodworking machinery it became cheeper to produce many wooden items in large factories which could afford the capital outlay that the machinery required. Many woodworkers had to find a slot in a fairly industrialised process and perform much more repetitive tasks than they were used to. Perhaps those with the most freedom to create original designs were those in the new profession of “patternmaker”, who made wooden patterns to be used to create moulds for the creation of smelted metal items. While perhaps quite a creative profession, the end result wasn’t a piece of woodwork at all, and this might have been rather disheartening.

It seems easy to argue that woodworking was a more pleasant and interesting job before these changes, a point which was the core of the Luddite movement for example, but it’s much harder to argue whether it was also better for those who weren’t woodworkers. We are now used to being able to afford new pieces of furniture for the lowest prices in history, say a day’s wages, rather than a month’s wages. This is great for the buyer, but the furniture that we buy often seems to last about five years before it ends up in the tip. We think of antique’s as something for collectors, but another way to look at an “antique” is simple a piece of furniture capable of lasting several hundred years. If we build a piece of furniture of similar quality and timeless beauty now, then it is just as precious.

Some of these thoughts came together for me when I wanted a video demonstration by Robby Pedersen from RVP-1875, a master cabinetmaker who works with the tools and techniques available to woodworkers in Iowa, USA, in 1875.

Dovetail join at RVP-1875

In particular it’s interesting to see the difference between Robby’s style of work, which is fun and lighthearted, but shows a strong commitment to creative work and beautiful pieces that last, however is most strongly shaped by the need to work fast enough to create furniture that people can actually afford. Every other video on modern hand tools use that I have seen is about working slowly and pedantically to achieve a greater level of perfection than even machines can provide. I’m a pedantic guy, and I love perfection, but there are other reasons for using hand tools too. One is simply that it’s more pleasant to work that way.

Here’s the video over at woodworking online. Tracey enjoyed watching it too, not because she’s a woodworker, but because she’s a history buff and likes watching a funny guy in victorian era clothes doing his thing.

For more info, see

2 responses

  1. Great article! Seems to be a growing trend towards ‘the old ways’. Not sure if it has to do with a lot of us growing older, the recent focus on ‘green’ or we have just gone full circle and now realize that creating something ‘faster and easier’ is not always true.

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