The Mission

The house we’re renting is being sold by it’s owners, so it seems an excellent time to move to our lovely ecovillage homestead. The only problem is, our “homestead” is currently just a paddock. So, we’re instituting a crash program to get our household shifted from a three bedroom suburban house (with heating, water, electricity, all those wonderful modern things), to a patch of bare grass with no services.

To start with, we carefully budgeted out the costs for what we saw as the minimum requirements for living in a paddock. Electricity connection, composting toilet, solar hot water heater, wood stove, and some sort of comfy roof over our head. The cheapest option would probably be a prefabricated metal shed, but I can’t justify that in my personal carbon budget. Also, our preferred option, of a nice big yurt, and perhaps a second smaller one for the bathroom, is fairly similar in price. So, with the budget drawn up, we stared at it, and looked at our bank balance, looked at our estimations of the next few months, and stared back at the plan again. It wasn’t going to work, we simple couldn’t save enough money to buy all the things we need to move, and we really don’t have any credit available for this.

So, plan B. Plan B involves buying less, and making the yurts ourselves. I’m aware that if I work evenings and weekends for the next couple of months in front of my computer, we could afford to buy the yurts and not make them. We’ve found however that in practice I can’t keep that up for more than a couple of weeks, and even then I need a break afterwards. The only way I can do more work, over and above my normal work week, is if it’s off the computer, and ideally physical.

This means, that for the next couple of months we’re going to be scurrying around like mad making all these things during evenings and weekends. We’ll be blogging the yurt construction here. Lets start out with a bit of an overview of what we hope to achieve. First up, for those of you who aren’t terribly familiar with yurts, they describe a range of different traditional wooden framed tents from various peoples in eastern europe, russia and mongolia. In particular, I’m really talking about the traditional Mongolian house, called a Ger. Here’s an example:

A Mongolian Ger

Here’s a more modern example, built by our excellent local yurt and tipi manufacturer, Jaia Tipis.

Jaia Yurt

Inside Jaia Yurt

As you can see from the inside shot, gers have vertical walls of wooden lattice. This is contained by some sort of tension band. We’re going to over-engineer ours, and use steel cable for this. I figure that will ensure that the thing wont fall down, even if I don’t get the dimensions of the wood quite right. The weight of the roof and it’s wooden rafters bears down on this tension band, trying to spread it outward. The cover will be a waterproofed canvas, and we’ll put an insulation layer (probably wool) inside the canvas.

Before we can start, we need to decide on the height of the walls, and since we’d like that to match up to the width of the canvas that we can get, first we need to find a source for our canvas. So, we’ll go away and research that, and hopefully by next post we’ll have some rough sizes for our design, and a rough idea of cost.

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Hand Tool Woodworking Resources

Woodworking without using power tools at all is still regarded as being a little against the grain, and despite the resurgence in the popularity of woodwork in recent years, many of the most popular magazines and blogs (particularly Fine Woodworking Magazine), still stress the use of machines. That doesn’t mean these aren’t great resources, but sometimes it’s nice to read about other hand tool workers, to help remind us that we aren’t totally crazy. So, here’s a list of my favourite online resources. Whether you use hand tools exclusively or not, if you enjoy woodwork, you’re going to love these links.

Roy UnderhillRoy Underhill

There’s a reason we call him St. Roy. Roy Underhill has been the champion of hand tools woodwork for more than 30 years, which is how long his show “The Woodwright’s Shop” on PBS (in the USA) has been running. You can watch the last few years of this online, and every episode is well worth it. Roy’s books are also excellent, and his latest book is probably my favourite woodwork book at the moment. Watching the Woodwright’s Shop isn’t just great for the interesting skills that it teaches, it’s great because Roy makes hand tool work fun.

St. Roy’s Website: http://uncpress.unc.edu/woodwright/index.html

Logan Cabinet ShoppeLogan Cabinet Shoppe

Bob Rozaieski runs this great site detailing his hand tool woodworking exploits. Go subscribe to his blog, and his podcast. In particular, his video podcast is proving do be one of the best resources around for getting into hand tool woodworking from scratch. After getting inspired by watching a few episodes of the Woodwright’s Shop, go watch Bob’s videos to get yourself started with the details.

Logan Cabinet Shoppe: http://logancabinetshoppe.weebly.com
Blog: http://logancabinetshoppe.weebly.com/blog.html
Podcast: http://logancabinetshoppe.weebly.com/podcast.html

Note: To subscribe to the podcast in itunes, open one of the episodes in it’s embedded video player, click on the little “packman” icon, and click on the subscribe tab. Or, just search for it in the itunes store.

Dan KlauderDan’s Shop

Another must-read blogger, Dan has been providing detailed explanation and pictures of his hand tool woodwork for quite some time. There’s a huge backlog of interesting stuff to read there, including good descriptions of the sets of tools used to build each project. In particular, you want to start with “the whole story in three pictures”.

Dan’s Woodshop Blog: http://dans-woodshop.blogspot.com/

The Village CarpenterThe Village Carpenter

Kari Holtman doesn’t use hand tools exclusively, but she uses them a lot, and seems to be coming over to the dark side even more of late. Her blog is always detailed, well photographed, and inspirational. Again, reading back through the articles is well worth it.

The Village Carpenter Blog: http://villagecarpenter.blogspot.com/

The Simple Life

William Noel Peregrin Ambrose

William Noel Peregrin Ambrose

We’re just recently back from the hospital with our new baby boy, William. The delivery was a little scary, and then having him with us was so wonderful, that I couldn’t help thinking that I need very little else to be happy. If my basic needs were met (food, shelter, warmth, air, etc), and I had meaningful work and Tracey and William to hang out with, then what other things are there that would be critical to having a good life?

In practice, I think I’m exaggerating somewhat. I have plenty of other hopes, dreams and desires, but dwelling on that thought of us sitting around the fire in a little cabin somewhere, little-house-on-the-prairie style, is a most pleasant image. The key here is simplicity.

Simplicity is something that has been on my mind a lot of late. I believe that it’s an important aspect of living a full and happy life. I haven’t quite figured out how strongly we should consider simplicity, as opposed to other criteria for good living, and I also haven’t quite figured out what simplicity means to me, but I’m convinced that it’s important.

I’ve called this post “The Simple Life”, which is of course one of those phrases that is so common in our language that even Paris Hilton uses it. The simple life has come to mean a return to small farming. Now, I love small farming, but I also think that this term is a gross misnomer. Farming and maintaining a homestead is anything but simple. In some ways, it seems to me that the simplest life I could lead would be to live in a serviced apartment in the middle of the city, to program computers all day, order in all my food, and spend my leisure hours sipping gin and tonic on the balcony. However, at the same time it’s clear to almost all of us that modern life has become too complex, and that as a result we have not necessarily experienced the increase in happiness and satisfaction over previous generations which would seem (on the surface) to be the goal of industrialised society.

It’s fairly obvious that a lot of advances of recent decades have not succeeded in making our lives simpler. When the first car came along, we thought “wow, great, now I can get to work and to the market in a fraction of the time that it takes on my horse”. That was true initially. We got to work faster, but then work got further away. Now, we spend more time commuting than before the car was invented. Plus, we have to labour at our jobs for weeks each year to pay for the privilege of having a car, and pay taxes to cover the government subsidised costs of motoring (road construction, etc). Maybe if we had known this all in the beginning then we would have thought better of the whole thing.

Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary Simplicity

So perhaps simplicity is about rejecting some of the assumptions which our civilization has made if we find that they make our lives more complex. One famous book in this field is Voluntary Simplicity, by Duane Elgin. This book is actually the result of a survey of people attempting to live a life of voluntary simplicity or frugality. Obviously, what it means to them varies wildly, but it tended to not be far off the images evoked by that phrase, “The Simple Life”. Hard work, frugal living, back to the land.

An alternative viewpoint is provided in Walden, that classic american biographic novel by Henry David Thoreau. Published in 1854, it tells the story of Thoreau’s years living in a cabin which he built by Walden pond, and carefully designing his lifestyle so that his needs were simple enough to meet with the bare minimum of work and obligation. Unlike the respondants to Elgin’s study of voluntary simplicity, Thoreau doesn’t seem at all fond of constant manual labour, in fact it’s his wish to labour far less than those he sees around him on working commercial farms. He eats a very simple diet of bread and rice, vegetables and a bit of dried meat, and he turns down offers such as a door mat, when he considers what it will add to his life in comparison with what effort it might take to maintain. Thereau’s goal then is to remove complexity from his life so that he can spend as much of it as possibly thinking and philosphising, which he believes is a much richer human experience than working hard to achieve small periods of expensive leisure.

Thoreau’s definition of simplicity seems to me to be an accurate one, and his books worth reading, but it’s not the ingredient that I’m looking for in my life. I don’t want to work less, I want to integrate work with my life, rather than keeping it separate as I do when I program computers so that in my spare time I can spend hours at leisure with my family. However, I applaud Thoreau’s thinking in considering each expectation which society places on him and deciding whether it really is making his life better.

A Handmade Life

A Handmade Life

A very pleasing middle ground is found in the book “A Handmade Life” by William Coperthwaite. This is a very close competitor for my “favourite book ever” at the moment (jostling for space with “A Pattern Language” and of course the Lord of the Rings). Coperthwaite’s philosophy attempts to find a balance between Thoreau’s brand of simplicity and also a conscious attempt to consider the beauty of life. To Coperthwaite, beauty takes into account all feelings that something evokes in you. If you have a beautiful object, but know that it’s made by someone labouring in a sweatshop, you’d be hard pressed to find it beautiful. As a homesteader, Coperthwaite is certainly attempting to live a life of voluntary simplicity, but he occasionally surprises with his attempts to cut unnecessary items out of his life to an extent that I hadn’t considered doing myself.

I’m not really sure what all this will mean to me. I think that part of it is a desire to consider how to live a life with less things, and less time spent doing work which serves no purpose other than to maintain some cultural ritual which gives me no benefit, like mowing the lawn when I find tall and wild grasses more beautiful than cut ones. I’d like to keep simplicity in mind as a design criteria for the house that we build at our new homestead. Like Coperthwaite, and unlike Thoreau, I also expect to use beauty as a criteria for my life as well.

For some closing words on this topic, I’ll quote yet another William, William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement:

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”

Mapping Local Food

Tracey and I have been working on a little project as part of our local Transition Town group for mapping local food. We were at our local Swanson Market a couple of weeks ago with the big map that we’ve been working on.

Getting local food on the map

The map we’ve built is a two-and-a-half meter long terrain model of the area we live in, showing about half of Waitakere. It was built up with layers of fibre board and cardboard, using terrain maps projected from google maps, then traced and cut out. It’s in four parts, with sides to protect the map, which bolt together and sit on a display table.

We could have just used a big paper map on a pin-up board, but the having such a large and impressive looking model is a great conversation starter. When we take it to a market people come up to us and take a look. Then we tell them that we’re putting pins in the map for anyone who grows veggies, even for their own use, or sells local food, makes local food products, or provides garden instruction or tools.

Instead of trying to promote food growing, we’re asking people about what they are already doing. This sort of conversation is much less confronting for people (we aren’t trying to sell anything), and it has real benefits. In one day we collected information for about 40 local growers, and we’ll be visiting the Oratia Farmers Market this Saturday to collect more. Each pin on the map represents a real local resource, and also potentially the start of a conversation about local resilience.

A physical map has lots of benefits compared to some online tool, but it can only be in one place at a time, so we have an online tool as well. When we get home from the market, the information on each “map pin” gets typed up, and appears on this interactive map:

http://maps.transitiontowns.org.nz/regions/waitakere

The software that runs this can be used by anyone wanting to run a similar project. Contact me if you’re keen to try it in your area.

Building a Workbench

If you’re not a woodworker, then you may think that a workbench is just about the roughest bit of carpentry which one might undertake. After all, it’s not furniture for the house, so it doesn’t need to be pretty. A woodworking workbench, however, is much more than just a big heavy table with a vice bolted on. Both historical and modern woodworking benches are typically fairly complex works of precise joinery. This is because a workbench isn’t just a table, it’s more correctly viewed as a tool. A workbench, of any design, typically has a number of unique features in the way that it enables you hold wood while you work on it. Historical examples of workbenches differ greatly depending on particular woodworking trade, a chairmaker has a different bench to a cabinetmaker, for example, and also depending on the nationality and the tool technology of the period.

After reading two books on workbench design, numerous blog posts and magazine articles, I settled on making a copy of a bench built by popular woodworking magazine editor Bob Lang.

http://www.popularwoodworking.com/article/bench

This weekend, I’ve just finished constructing the base of the bench, ready for the top to be bolted on.

Workbench Base

Workbench Base

The base is made from recycled Rimu, from an old house frame. I dressed the timber by machine, but the rest of the joinery was done by hand, making this my first big project to be performed largely with handtools. I’ve improved immensely at simple tasks like sawing a straight line, and using a shoulder plane. I heartily recommend the experience of creating fine joinery with hand tools.

The bench itself, even without a top at present, is magnificent. The first workbench I ever built was rough recycled timber held together entirely with bolts. The timbers were massive and strong, the bolts tight and plentiful, and the workbench rocked.

Tracey leaned a hand against this new workbench base, and said “holy crap”. It’s quite startling to touch because you seem to unconsciously expect a tiny amount of give or movement when you push a table or piece of woodwork. This bench doesn’t move. It sits there like the original immovable object. This feeling of solidity comes not just from it’s great weight, but also from the huge mechanical strength of the joinery. The dovetails, and wedged through-tennons are shaped to resist the slight twisting and flexing that normally occurs when two bits of wood are joined. 

Joinery Close-up

Joinery Close-up

 

The bench top will be coming up soon, and to get a nice reliably flat surface to compare my hand planing skills against, I’ll unashamedly be making heavy use of machines to make it.

What is Peak Oil, and how does it affect hand crafters and homesteaders?

When Tracey, Buffie and I talk about how to run our homestead, or practice our crafts, one thing which often shapes the conversation to a large degree is an understanding of peak oil. Recently Tracey mentioned that I’d been writing as if this was a universally understood concept, when perhaps it merits a little explanation.

(by tatianes on flickr)

(by tatianes on flickr)

You might have heard the phrase “peak oil” in the news recently, particularly as the price of oil was spiraling upwards in the first half of this year. If you’re not already familiar with it, stay with me for a moment while I explain what this term refers too. Since we first started to extract oil commercially (about 150 years ago), we’ve discovered more and more of the stuff under ground. Initially, it was used for lamps, and then we started making petrol cars and wanting more and more of this black oily stuff to power them. As people demanded more, we built more and more oil derricks, and pumped more and more of the stuff out of the ground. With a few exceptions, each year since we started extracting it we’ve extracted more oil each year than we did the year before.

Now oil is a finite resource. There’s only a certain amount of it under the ground. It’s made by a naturally occurring process, but that process requires certain geological conditions, like warm seas full of plankton blooms. It occurs on earth every two hundred million years or so. The point here is that the ground isn’t magically making more oil as we speak, and so within the timeframe of the human species, we can consider oil to be a once-off limited resource.

Since there’s a limited amount, clearly we can’t go on extracting more and more each year. This isn’t a “theory”, or in dispute in any way, it’s simply an unavoidable fact. At some point will come the year that we’ve pumped the most oil we can in any given year, and the next year we’ll pump a little less.

It’s hard to spot when that year is for the whole world, except in hindsight. In a particular country though, it’s much easier. In the 1950’s, a geologist named M. King Hubbert predicted that the peak of oil production in the USA (which was the world’s biggest oil producer at the time) would be 1970. At the time he was laughed at, but the peak turned out to be only a couple of months into 1971. Since then, no matter how many new oil rigs the USA builds, it still produces slightly less each year. From being the world’s biggest produces, the US now imports about two thirds of it’s oil needs.

So basically, “peak oil” is that point where we’ve used up about half of the oil in the ground, and now it’s no longer coming out faster and faster, but is in fact slower each year. The global oil peak is really hard to compute, but most oil geologists suggest that it was last year, this year, next year maybe, or in other words, around about now.

So are we running out of oil? Absolutely not. There’s still around a trillion barrels of oil in the ground around the world. What is happening though is that we get a little less of it each year, and unfortunately our whole society is based on the idea of growing each year.

There is a lot that can be said about what this means. Opinions on what can happen range from a slow shift to alternative energy technologies (hopefully renewable ones) to the total collapse of society as we know it. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

What does it mean for crafters, homesteaders and pioneers like ourselves?

(by gazzat on flickr)

(by gazzat on flickr)

Well, on that front I like to look at the good news. For starters, the world is growing again. We used to talk about the world shrinking, about global markets and just-in-time delivery systems. In the last year, the cost of shipping goods internationally has approximately doubled. The cost of airline flights has increased, and about 20 airline companies have gone bankrupt this year, with predictions that it’ll include another 30 before the year is out.

It’s no longer economically profitable to earn a livelihood from local crafts because it’s hard to compete against products made in factories in China, and elsewhere around the world. As transport costs go up, this starts to change. Higher transport costs mean less ipods and world trip holidays, but they also mean more local jobs and more locally made products.

Oil is also incredibly energy dense. There is so much easily available energy in a barrel of oil that other technologies we have for generating power don’t look able to make up the gap in the near future. In a world with less energy available each year for running complex machines, you can easily imagine that the things that people find valuable economically will change. Expect hands-on people, particularly those growing food, to be much more valued in such a society.

I’m by no means a luddite. I’m a computer programmer, and like listening to my ipod while knitting my own socks. I’m not suggesting that a return to an agrarian society is going to happen, or is desirable, but I think that at the moment we’re a little out of control and could use a bit of time to slow down and value the things that are just outside our front door. It’s my hope that we’ll navigate all these changes well, and perhaps end up with a world where surfing the internet and weaving (or woodworking, blacksmithing, sewing, etc) are all highly valued.

I’ve mainly covered the good side of things here, and there are also plenty of dangerous waters to navigate in the years ahead, but I think that it’s easy to dwell on these a little too much. For more information about peak oil, how it relates to climate change, and what people and communities can do to adapt to the changes being forced upon us, I’d recommend taking a look at the Transition Towns network.

http://transitiontowns.org.nz (New Zealand)
http://transitiontowns.org (UK and global)

If you want a more balanced and properly researched and referenced explanation of peak oil, check out this page from the Oil Drum website.

Finding a homestead

We’re renting our homestead, and every now and then we have a think about where we might like to eventually buy one. We’re pretty sold on the idea of going north, rather than south, so we’ve been busy getting to know the northlands and yesterday we took off on another impromptu land scouting mission.

I say land scouting, but although we did look at property prices, it’s perhaps more correct to say that we were region scouting. We’re trying to figure out which areas we should look at more closely.

The area we are living in, on the edge of Swanson, is quite beautiful, but the downside of being so close to Auckland is that land prices are high due to the common desire of buying a small lifestyle block and commuting to work in the big city. Unless something very dramatic happened to shake up this pattern, we couldn’t afford to buy in the area we’re currently living in.

If you look at property prices, there’s a magic circle around auckland where land that is within commuting range of the city is subdivided for premium prices. Anyone wanting to buy within that land is probably best served by waiting until petrol gets more expensive, and then buying in areas that are currently seen as a reasonable commute by car, but don’t have access to the train, as I’d guess these will come down in price. Failing that, it seems best to look further away.

As one drives north of Auckland, the magic circle of expensive land seems to extend to about Warkworth. Warkworth has the feeling of a country town, but it’s strongly influenced by the influx of commuters and also the tourists passing through. This, and all my perceptions of Northland towns is fairly uninformed. I’ve on been living in NZ for a couple of years, and I’m trying to judge them based on rather short visits. However, it’s the only viewpoint I have, so lets press on further north.

Next major stop up the Route 1 is Wellsford. Wellsford feels to me like it’s less influenced by Auckland, and has all the ingredients of a real country service town. It’s the major destination for lots of farmers east of the Kaipara to get all their agricultural bits and bobs. It’s also got the major highway of course, and so is used by tourists visiting their batches as well. It has a McDonalds, and a tiny bit of “mini-suburbia”.

North of Wellsford is Kaiwaka, which is a bit of a favourite of mine. Kaiwaka is now fairly popular with lifestylers who want to move to the country, stop working regularly in town, and set up their beautiful little homestead. Retail stores in Kaiwaka include the gourmet cheese shop, the excellent italian bakery, and the very creative cafe Eutopia. These tend to indicate that there are a fair few affluent people in the area now, and also a fair few people who “a little bit hippy” (like me). To round off that last demongraphic, Kaiwaka is home to two lovely ecovillages and the Koanga Gardens store.

So being a middle class greenie myself, you can see why I would like Kaiwaka, but I’m curious about it’s resilience in the face of future change. It’s success is at present very much determined by the lifeblood of traffic traveling up and down route 1. Without that, it’s retain stores would have to adapt, and the town itself currently doesn’t have much in the way of economic activity centered around country life, with the main exception of the Sawmill. Mainly I mean that I imagine a lot of local farmers currently visit Wellsford for many of their needs.

I’m pretty confident about Kaiwaka’s ability to rise to meet these challenges in a post oil world. In particular Kaiwaka has one of the most active Transition Town groups in the Northlands, and the skills and people at Otamatea and Kohatu Toa ecovillages shouldn’t be ignored.

In an optimistic powerdown future, then I could see Kaiwaka really leading the charge with creative responses to a future with less oil. In the case of a future involving a bit more of a sudden collapse, then I wonder if I should be looking for places with more resilient local infrastructure. Perhaps there’s an advantage in being surrounded by experienced and practical local farmers, rather than idealistic lifestylers (even if I’m in the latter category myself).

Yesterday’s drive through the country had two main purposes. Firstly, to try and find some places that might work well in the latter situation, and secondly to explore the potential of towns with water access to the Kaipara harbour. These two goals together lead us to Dargaville, which is on route 12, the tourist route for the west coast, and is on the Wairoa river, a great big fat (and brown) river feeding into the north end of the Kaipara.
 Dargaville is traditionally a port town, and although on the river it does appear that it was once regularly visited by ocean going ships. In it’s early days, it’s main industries were logging Kauri trees and digging up Kauri gum. It has a few historical attractions for the tourist, like it’s museum, but mostly it’s a true service town for quite a large surrounding area of farmland. There aren’t any Kauri trees to been seen anymore, but this area now prides itself on being the kumara capital of NZ. Apparently the soils to the west of Dargaville are fairly sandy, compared with the usual clay based soils, and good for growing kumara (and no doubt many other things).

As well as being a port, Dargaville has a train line. It goes up to Whangerie, or down to Auckland. Unfortunatelly, it doesn’t run passenger services, only cargo (there are no regular passenger trains in the northlands), but I’m still going to call that a significant asset.

In a post oil future, I’d predict that Dargaville’s role as a serious farming area, in particular one that grows a lot of carbohydrates (kumara) as well as the usual cows and sheep, will make it a vital food source for Auckland. I also like to imagine a revival in water travel. The end of the current passenger line from Auckland is Helensville, and from there one could board a boat and travel in basically a straight line across the Kaipara to Dargaville, rather than the long way around that the road takes. I’m keen to give this trip a try and see how long it takes.

What are the downsides of Dargaville? Well, for starters, I might not find many people I get along with. I am a bit of a hippy and a middle class city boy at heart. Also, the area around Dargaville is dead flat, and my dream property always has rolling hills and mountains in the background. Not just flat, Dargaville is also pretty close to the water. I’m pretty worried that only a few metres of sea level rise will put it under water.

Seeing both these positives and negatives in Dargaville, we continued to follow the Wairoa river north east, thinking that as it got a bit further into the hills, we might find our perfect landscape and still have access to water transport. There are no other major towns in that direction, so if you lived up that way you’d want to be able to reach Dargaville by boat in a reasonable amount of time.

However, the landscape is stunning. The river winds it’s way through meandering valleys, with mountains rising up in the background. The train line also follows the river. Transport by water, road and train. Beautiful scenery. Affordable land prices. The only downsides might be the isolation (it’s a fair way from Auckland), and possibly the lack of like minded people.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the sort of area you live in or would like to live in, and how you think it might function if oil was scarce and expensive.

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 http://www.rvp1875.com/