Saturday, November 5, 2011

A complaint

Earlier this week, I got my hands on a small run of early issues of Fine Woodworking, circa 1982. They're incredible, and it really makes me wonder what the hell has happened since.

There are a few sections that really stand out, just as a curiosity. Sections on sourcing parts and products, and so on. And sections where woodworkers were looking for solutions on one issue or another. These are sections that today would be served by online communities, so it makes sense that they're not there anymore. Another section is on book reviews. I think this is something that publishers should revisit. I think that if the monthly glossy pages would set aside a regular space to review books... old books, new books, whatever... that it would be a good thing. PWW recently did an issue on their 4 foot shelf of books, and I think this is progress, but I think that a regular part of the magazine, that says "Hey, we've been reading this, and you should go check it out," would be a good thing.

But the point of this entry is that I have a major complaint. These old issues were amazing, and the techniques and readers' tips and the articles were so much more in depth than almost anything that I see in print today. One article profiled a Vietnamese artisan who emigrated with nothing, and built his own tools while working for someone else, and opened up his own shop. Another profiled a man in Taiwan who was in his 70's, building amazing furniture in a factory setting by hand, and the wisdom that pounds out of the pages is amazing. There was a long article on the topic of Lap-strake boat building one month, and a follow up article the next month detailing a build by an amateur friend of the author, showing how it's done. A reader's tip explained how he made a tool for cutting out axles for wooden toys, by drilling out a piece of drill rod, cutting a plug cutter into one end, and a hole saw out of the other, and how he uses it.

I have some other articles from FWW from a few years later, detailing how to make a wooden clock: How it works, why it works, how to shape the gears, modified tools for making various components, etc. 

Part of my issue is that it really feels like the woodworking community has transitioned in 30 years from knowledgeable people who had a can-do attitude, and a functional craftsman's hands-on knowledge base that today's weekend amateurs just don't have. But I also feel like there must have been a huge weeding-out somewhere along the way, where the thinking, tinkering artisans that were clearly in evidence 30 years ago were lost. Maybe I've been reading all of the wrong message boards, and paying attention to the wrong magazines, I don't know.

I'm a little worried about this thought, that somehow the real thinking tinkers have gone the way of John Galt, and that we're on a serious downslide, as a community, or as a country.

Am I alone?


robert said...

I just came across your blog - a link from Chris Schwarz at Lost Art did it.

I agree with your assessment of Fine Woodworking. I inherited a collection of them from their beginning from my father-in-law. Those early issues were packed with great articles, information, craftsman profiles and quirky stuff that made them a blast to read. There were no tool reviews - and that's a good thing (Best Drill Bits for 2012! Now With New Shapes!).

I'm in a quandary as to where to go from here though. I have written to Fine Woodworking a few times expressing my thoughts, to no avail. For now I just enjoy those older issues that I have and am on the look-out for more.

Best regards,


JW said...

They were a blast... Are a blast. Yeah.

I've been at a loss for a while, but I chalk it up to several things, aside from the push for advertising dollars.

-We're living in an information age. People want to read about doing something, but not necessarily do it.

-Many of the people who wrote those articles were living in an age when people knew how to do things. There were a lot of hand made tools, etc, and the magazine was targeted at that kind of person. Years before China, India, and CNC gutted our skilled labor workforce, you could find people like that. That generation is dying off.

-With that generation we lose the stories of their experience. Some people still do amazing things, but IF they write about it, it's probably online somewhere, for a message board, but it's not edited, not cleaned up, and hard to find.

-Magazines are fighting for their lives right now, or so we're told to believe. Circulation gets a boost from people who aren't yet subscribers. That means (I'm guessing) that they have to keep the bar low enough for new guys to get excited. (WOW...Dovetails, reduxed, AGAIN!)

-Last but not least. If you read between the lines, it's not just about tool reviews. It's about tool sales. The truth is, dovetails aren't hard to cut by hand. It takes work to build skill, but it's not hard. Chinese joinery for knock-down furniture is hard. But if dovetails become a problem, dovetail jigs become a marketable solution. There's a lot of over-hyped beginner level stuff that's amped up to sell solutions that the manufacturers have on hand. Time spent on developing your own skill is still free, though.

I'm still trying to work out a viable solution to this issue.