Friday, February 3, 2012

Producers and Consumers

I was sitting in a pub with a good friend of mine named Rob the other night, talking about life, and things, and stuff. Rob's an editor for a textbook company, working primarily these days on online content. And at one point in the conversation, he made a tangent to point something out about the iPad.

"I won't get one. Period. They're purely and primarily for consumption. There's no USB port, nothing else, it's just for inhaling the internet, and playing media. And all you need to play music on it is [At this point he made a hand-mashing motion on the table.]"

He makes an interesting point. I'd thought about picking up an iPad because it would make writing more portable for me. But really, it's unnecessary. My laptop is huge by laptop standards, but it's still portable. The lack of something smaller hasn't kept me from being productive, and it's not really clear that an iPad would actually be a functional writing tool.

I've been writing more lately, because the shop has been pretty quiet. It's the calm before the storm right now, I know there are going to be more clocks on the horizon, and probably a few other things. But at the end of the day, I know that my time in the shop is spent producing, not consuming.

One of the things I've noticed about my time in the shop is that it has influenced other areas of my life, and it's enabled me to be a better producer, whether I'm working in the kitchen, or in the shop, or writing here at home or on the train. And it's a good feeling.

But I've noticed a weird trend among other woodworkers, and that is that it's become a sort of consumption via production hobby. Everyone buys the book, and then they build the Roubo Bench, or the old school Tool Chest, or whatever else is in vogue at the time. You can't necessarily go out and buy any of these things, you have to make them yourself, but it feels like these things are still being consumed en masse. There are other projects out there, too, but this is something I've started to wonder about. It's definitely a more interactive and productive form of consumption, and I think that in time it will lead to more people being more involved in working with their hands, which can only be a good thing. Maybe this is just a phase that many people are passing through where they're basically paying for a basement apprenticeship of their own. But in the end, I don't get the same vibe from some of these me-too project trends that I do from other people who are doing even the simplest of original projects. I have to apologize, because I feel like I'm unintentionally throwing stones here, but I'm not sure at what, or at whom.

I'd like to know what else people are working on, though, if they're not building something inspired by the latest woodworking trends. Please, in the comments... what are you working on these days? What would you like to build, or what's been pre-heating in the back of your mind?


upriver said...

I'm probably exactly the type of person you are finding irritating. I did buy a book about workbenches, and I have settled on a Roubo.


I've built a few workbenches already, but none intended specifically for hand-tools. They were made of cheap construction lumber, and are very sturdy. They have decently flat tops, and serve their all-purpose roles pretty well. However, I never really loved any of them.

When I saw the Roubo in the book, I did love it. So simple, yet robust. Almost Asian in its simplicity. I also like the simplicity of the workholding. There is some emotional appeal to its design though.

I've done plenty of (mostly power-tool based) carpentry and small construction in my days to feel like a "woodworker" but I am still new to the hand-tool and traditional world. I don't always need step-by-step plans, but the workbench book is giving me not only a design which I am intuitively attracted to, but confidence to just go ahead and make it.

I work like this in general. I use cookbooks until I have a grasp on a recipe, and then I start to improvise upon it. I don't think this is a bad thing, especially in this age where we lack person-to tutelage.

My wife, on the other hand, cannot follow a recipe the first time. She always changes something. Often, it fails spectacularly. Sometimes it comes out better than the original would have. I don't enjoy this unpredictable approach. Which of us is correct?


upriver said...

(part 2)

I suspect a large part of what you are seeing is just that, "basement apprentices". Many of us were not able to learn hand-tool use from our parents or even grandparents. Some of don't know another person in the flesh with these interests. Its simple and enjoyable to read an engaging book about a topic and plunge forward.

I'm actually undergoing a large experiment to see if book-learning works: it was claimed in the Joiner and Cabinet Maker that working through the book may very well leave one able to have the basic skills needed to really get going with traditional woodworking. I simply could not afford woodworking schools of similar depth, and to be frank, this plan is working. I am following the directions as explicitly as possible, yet still having to learn every tiny detail of the work by myself. It is great fun. Very frustrating at times, but much more rewarding than I had thought possible. I really do not think this type of thing could happen if I had no books, just some chisels and time to kill. Likewise, following the directions in a sharpening book has radically improved my skills there.

I'm not sure if you are saying that learning from books is wrong, or if you are more irked by a very specific subset of styles which is suddenly getting a lot of notoriety. My take is that there is nothing all that good or bad about these styles, items, and approaches, but that they are very well conceived, written, and published. Its common for anyone who is a free-thinker, a resident of the fringe, or a deeply independent personality to become threatened by anything gaining such mass acceptance. I know I have disliked music or media simply because they were so popular (without giving it any kind of chance).

Some of what you are seeing may soon pass if it is indeed just trendy. A ripple caused by a book, soon other books will come and go. Those who simply read, and talk, but don't do, should perhaps be the target of your frustration.

I do disagree, though, that following some well-written words in order to get moving on one's own lonely journey is a bad thing. I feel it might be one of the best moves I have made in life.

You often mention that its more important to get into the shop than to read or comment on blogs... and I absolutely agree with you. My own life situation involves lots of childcare. I can read bits of woodworking lore online in the weird 9-minute increments of time I get while baby is engrossed in the Legos. Not enough time to go out to the shop, but just enough to write a comment like this.

Thanks for sharing your thought-provocing words... baby's calling me.

JW said...

Hey Rob,

People who start out with a project that they read about are learning, and I don’t want to talk trash about anyone who's tough enough to do that... let alone do it with a kid around. (much respect... my turn will come soon enough, I think.) I went to school, but I also read more than my fair share of books on various topics, both before school and since... including the workbench book. I like the Roubo, but I'm not going to bring productivity to a screeching halt to make one right now. My first real project was an Ian Kirby Arts and Crafts bench that I read about in Woodworker's Journal. It's also very simple; the only real difference from the Roubo is in the way it's joined. And I built a second one that ultimately got shortened and brought home. (It’s on the blog somewhere, I haven’t used it enough lately.)

What gets to me is not the bandwagon, but the size of the bandwagon. Back when I worked in the stores, I met so many customers who didn't stray too far from well-beaten paths. It drove me crazy because ideas that conflicted with printed dogma made them go wide-eyed. And the impression I get sometimes is that everyone's building Roubo because it's the thing to do or have now.... even if they already have a shop that's working very well. Same thing with the tool chest. If you don't have one, by all means, they’re solid designs, and worthy projects. But it's not worth uprooting a functional shop over... and I've read about people doing just that. I have a hard time with those who ride the bandwagon down the beaten path, following in everyone else’s footsteps.

I get that I’m a woodworking snob sometimes. And I’ll apologize for that to a point. I wouldn't be writing any of this if I didn't have faith that there were people out there, like you, who were trying to learn. I want to pass on what I know to help shorten the learning curve, because I have faith that you want to get past the early recipes, and into creatively building whatever you need or want or could sell. The point of the above post is that I’m worried that there are people who will never aspire to get to that point.

Please keep reading. Please keep commenting. Please keep learning. And if there’s anything I can do to help you figure things out, please say so.

Grumpy Badger said...

Basement apprenticeship? That's me, quite literally. I read these blogs for info and inspiration as I try to train myself with hand tools. My grandpa is a woodworker, but he doesn't know much about tools that don't have tails. I too fall into the category of not knowing anyone in the flesh who shares my galoot interests. The Roubo (or Holtzappfel, or Nicholson, or Shaker) appeals to me because I do not have a workbench that I love, and certainly not one that is appropriate for hand tools. Also, while learning new skills it's very helpful to work on projects that are well documented. It's easier to find answers to the (frequent) questions that I have about every little thing. I do hope to progress beyond this and start designing my own projects, just give me a few years :0)

Also, James, I enjoy your blog quite a bit, largely because it always makes me think. But also because I don't know of anyone else's quite like it. Way to walk the walk on originality...

upriver said...

Wow my rant is wordy... probably should have heeded the character limit. I could have summarized it all as saying: Perhaps the phenomenon you are seeing is just due to some great books suddenly appearing, and lots of people taking them to heart. I definitely appreciate your desire to be original and avoid being swept up in any kind of momentum.

I also failed to respond to your question, but I am reluctant to disclose the family of projects I really dream about. Lets just say some historically interesting systems of holding specialized materials have always appealed to me, and I have been collecting literature on their traditional forms and will attempt to replicate them once I complete the Joiner Etc projects and feel I am up to it.

I also want to 2nd Grumpy's comment, your unique blog is great and I enjoy your take on things.

robert said...


I tend to be building a variety of projects at any given time. Not the most productive practice, but I don't get bored. Right now I'm working on chairs kind of like ones I saw in a Thos. Moser catalog, with some changes to suit me. Also, I just finished a tall vise that bolts into a dog hole on my bench, and a bench that has been in the works for a year and a half (heavy, stout, all draw-bored and pinned - like a barn - I cut the wood from the downed tree, had it sawed to my specifications by a friend of mine, I milled it flat with a router on rails, and roped my sons in to helping me to set the top onto the legs). I've got some molding about half done for a remodel project, a could of box projects in process and have the start on a few Krenov style planes (one complete). If you would like to take a look at some of my projects, please do at: I'm not a professional woodworker, just an excited amateur, one without a a TV - by choice.

Best regards,