what does “tradition” mean in Traditional Woodworking?

outdoor classAfter the class at Lie-Nielsen with Jogge Sundqvist, I got an email from my friend Bryan MacIntyre. It was something I knew I wanted to tackle, but it took some time to sift through. Here’s the bulk of it:

“I’d like to start a larger dialogue about tradition…. Essentially Jogge recited his TED Talk, as requested, towards the ends of the Q&A… He talked about the four walls he’s aware of while he’s working: the materials, the tools/tool skills, tradition, and other people. (I’ve tried looking for the YouTube version now and can’t find it again… (PF – yup, it seems to be gone for now. Jogge was trying to see what’s the story)

I have been able to identify with all but one; the wall of tradition. Since we, as modern woodworking Americans, may not have knowledge to create objects such as the wooden spoon, knife, bowl, or distaff handed down from generation… How do we define our tradition? What object do we connect with if we haven’t been around it our entire lives?

So I’m asking how do you define your tradition wall? What do you look at as tradition, while you’re creating your furniture, wooden ware, houses…etc? What object of your creation do you most identify with and why?”

To which I say “well, look – a can of worms! Let’s open it.”

I’d say it’s generally true that modern American (& probably others too) woodworkers are part of what I call a “broken” tradition, in that the continuous link from one craft generation to the next died out. For various reasons, some through a general drift away from agricultural basis to a more urban setting; mechanization of woodworking – which led to a dumbing-down of processes (and a poorer product, when you think furniture), a cultural shift away from a small economy to a larger one, advertising – other reasons too.

But I am not sure that this is restricted to America. In fact, I’m of the opinion that it isn’t by any means restricted there. Starting with Sweden, because this question stemmed from the workshop we just had with Jogge Sundqvist, I look at his father’s work, and think that Wille set out to teach his knife & axe work because in his lifetime (the past 90 years) he saw those agriculturally-based hand-woodworking skills disappearing in Sweden. This trajectory is well-covered in the DVD about Wille’s career called The Spoon, the Bowl & the Knife. 

Wille Sundqvist
Wille Sundqvist

In England,I think about Robin Wood http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/the-craft/ wanting to learn bowl-turning on a pole lathe – and he had to learn it by studying George Lailey’s tools and lathe, and then piecing together parts of the story from various sources and lots of trial & error. George was already dead.

Robin Wood turning a bowl
Robin Wood turning a bowl

In America, my “green woodworking” started with ladderback chairmaking, taught by John (Jennie) Alexander, an urban hobbyist woodworker who set out to find out how “old” chairs were made…JA found few surviving chairmakers to learn from, but pieced together bits of the story here & there. So I think in some cases, the tradition was either broken, or nearly broken, and then revived. The  skills part of the tradition, that is.

Alexander's post-and-rung chair
Alexander’s post-and-rung chair

The tradition of having & using these “folk” forms – hmm. that’s another whole angle, too. When Bryan asks “What object of your creation do you most identify with and why?” for me it’s the 17th century style joinery that’s my specialty. I started studying this oak furniture back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and have continually worked at it. It really spoke to me for several reasons – the simplicity of the mortise & tenon work, the frame & panel – these techniques and forms are timeless really. But also, in a personal way, all the pieces I studied were made within 60 miles of where I have lived all my life.

joined and carved chest, 2010
joined and carved chest, 2010

All of this rumination gets wrapped up in other views, angles and outlooks too. It touches on why I work the way I do, hand-tools, and mostly using wood riven from the log rather than sawn. (I do use sawn wood regularly, but almost always as a supplemental, or secondary wood in furniture). The “why” there is simple. I like it. It’s how I want to spend my day. Working with machinery doesn’t have any appeal to me whatsoever. I watched a TED talk the other day, some guy using terms like “craftsmanship”, “hand-made”, “technology” and all kinds of other buzzwords that left me shaking my head. He & I were from different planets altogether. HIs idea of handmade & mine are quite far apart. Likewise, technology. I understand that languages are fluid things, and words’ meanings change, but when I hear people talk about “technology” today, I think electronics. To me, technology is using tools. Like hammers. I get that this computer I’m writing with is a tool, but calling all these related gadgets technology leaves out the axe, the knife, the plane – hmm.

This weekend Rick McKee & I will help a new group of students learn the age-old technology of riving wood, and shaving it with a drawknife.



shaving horse work

It’s one of our offerings with the group Plymouth CRAFT, http://plymouthcraft.org/ a small cadre of folks dedicated to teaching various skills at making things in many crafts. Our woodsy bits are part of what Jarrod Stone-Dahl calls the Wood Culture Renaissance. I like Jarrod’s philosophy. http://woodspirithandcraft.com/  It reminds me of a short essay written back in 1960, by one of my inspirations in hand-tool woodworking, Daniel O’Hagan. I met Daniel in the mid-1980s and he is directly responsible for me getting rid of my “power” (i.e. electric) tools.  

Back in 1960, Daniel wrote: “Slowly, imperceptibly, the handcraft revolution is coming. More and more people will find the inexpressible joy in making things from start to finish with simple tools, simple materials, and being content to live simply while doing it.”



17 thoughts on “what does “tradition” mean in Traditional Woodworking?

  1. To mix metaphors, you’ve put your finger on a two-edged cutting tool here, the double-edged sword embodied in a particularly annoying current buzzword, “disruption.” The way information flows nowadays means that traditional transmission of craft, from one experienced practitioner to a beginner, by way of in-person instruction, with only very limited outside influence, isn’t really possible except in increasingly small isolated off-the-grid pockets. Many reading this will assume I refer to the Internet, but in reality this process of disruptive information flow started with the invention of print and has been accelerating as new info-dispersing technologies come into being, and as the proportion of humans with access to them grows.

    Disruptive, non-traditional information dispersal is a double-edged tool because it can free humans to try alternative and perhaps more efficient means of doing their work (thus freeing more of their time to spend as they wish); on the other hand a great deal is lost or even actively destroyed in the process, as you point out. (I leave out, of course, the development of powered tools, factory work, and systems of mass marketing and distribution, all of which also loom in the background of what you discuss in your post).

    One of my favorite blessings of this non-traditional information flow is you, and others like you, who are making it possible for people like me to do something worthwhile with my woodlot full of white birch (which my neighbors think is only good for selling as pulpwood or biomass), and with my interest in my Swedish roots.

    So, thank you! The thing about coming from a disrupted tradition is it leaves us free to pick up what threads we can find, work them to the best of our ability, and hope others find it worthwhile to continue by our example. Who could ask for more? You’re doing a fantastic job of it.

  2. Daniels comment sums it up for me. It was always about plugging something in. Something has clicked in me this past year or so. Now I avoid plugging something in. Making something from scratch in a peaceful and contemplative way is a fantastic expedient. Learning to use hand tools and understand the material I’m working with is another joy. I even cut my hedge with shears and not a plugged in rattling set of teeth. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s certainly mine! Thank you Peter. I always enjoy your blog. Inspiring.

  3. This question is one that we all come to at some point. It has many facets and angles as you point out as well. I do think that there is something to the idea that and entire immigrant nation (save for the displaced and forgotten first nations people, again another story) and our country being born at the beginning of the era of the industrial revolution (I don’t like the term for that few hundred year era, but…) folks came here to be americans.

    In most cases to forget the old world and start or be art of something new or in some way it was required on a unspoken cultural level. Then their children all went to public school together…and all hell broke loss (in the perspective to the elders of the time in some extent) It was and still is a great experiment in ways too many to discuss here.

    But, in the end for me it;s more of a modern thing than a american thing, although the americanization of the world is spreading to all realms. I’m not sure what that is really but that;s what local folks around the world say. So, the question I’ve been thinking about is… and the flip side is, are we damned to be only working in the modern american ways because we are american?(again whatever that is, but you get what I mean)

    So in the current rebound to the handmade and crafts as a cause and effect situation to the industrial era of wild abandon of the last few hundred years, and can’t forget to add capitalism in the mix (I despise capitolism) We must look to the past to find something, some connection or we will lose ourselves to the machine (this reference is to the very large negative soulless juggernaut, seaminglingly consuming all, not the table saw type machine in the garage)

    This is also coupled with the information age, so today we can find affinity with any documented culture around the world, whether individuals or people from that culture like it or not. This is a great subject to think about!

    When I traveled to Sweden last year I gave 2 talks on this very subject, my woodworking inspirations. They come from Sweden and Native America, specifically Ojibwe. Again, I have great stories in regards to encountering folks that were liking my work and not so much, because I was neither Swedish or Native. Personally I try to be respectful but I will do what feels right to me in the end.

    This subject an the ideas touches on the very core of what culture is, who belongs, what makes certain objects cultural ones, etc…

    My head is reeling with other tangents too. Sorry I may not have answered the questions directly. :)

    Thanks for the great question Peter. I think this may have gotten me out of my writing funk I’ve been in lately.

    • Jarrod – there was no question, and you answered it perfectly. I didn’t know you were in a word funk, but you seemed to have spewed out plenty. I hadn’t thought about you being between two cultures, really. Interesting. Can’t wait to hear the other tangents. And it was Bryan who kicked it off, I was just lucky enough to have an outlet for it.

  4. For many, our “tradition” is that of innovation (another terrible buzzword, sorry) where because of the rural/pioneer heritage or lack of the old system of craftsmen, American woodworkers have primarily come up along the DIY route (well before there was DIY) and had to create fresh ways to solve problems with each generation (even if they are actually old solutions to even older problems). Even those of us that are second generation woodworkers have generally only grown up where the tradition was to be continually improvising with tools, materials or techniques. As you say this is not unique to Americans as traditional crafts were steamrolled after the industrial revolution, but this tradition was likely started here first.

  5. Well this issue of disconnect is pretty much isolated to the wealthy countries. There is no disconnect of the traditional forms and methods in many other countries. So basically its wealth that is the underlying issue.

    Of course I also don’t think it is universally true in the USA that there are not still people around who have learned these skills by having them passed along in their families or local economies. It is likely true for most but not for all. Factor in that many who are interested in the traditional ways are not interested in living a life filled with electronic media or in starting crafts schools and of course you won’t see them signing up for the classes either.

    If you want to find them follow the threads and journals of those persons who went out into rural areas in the 1940’s, 1950s and 1960s to find the existing pockets of traditional rural crafts where they encouraged the start of new cooperatives where the existing skills could be passed on. They are still alive and well and passing on the skills through the generations.

  6. I hear a lot of frustration about our modern disconnected culture and the disconnection in craft is just a part of it. I’d go further than that, and say that we live in a “post culture” world. I’m not sure our ancestors had to wonder what tradition meant. It was simply the air they breathed. All aspects of life, family, craft, and belief were all part of a continuous tapestry that each generation passed along to the next. I’m not interested in designing or building something completely novel (good luck with that). What I find thrilling is making objects infused with beauty inspired by the tradition and extending that tradition into the present day. I’d like to think the generations past could look at my work and know I respected them and perhaps provide some fertile ground for the next generation.

    George Walker

  7. My wife had a good perspective on your quandary.

    If I make a carved wooden spoon, lidded box, or chair and the one who will use it wants it to be historically accurate, then tradition is my goal, my target, but not my wall. If the one who will use it does not care about historical accuracy and I want to try something different, then my conscience may prod me if it does not follow tradition and tradition becomes a wall.

  8. Tradition, a can of worms, and yet today worms come in boxes at the bait store. At one time they would have been toted in a wooden bucket or box.
    Tradition. The wall of tradition. For many Americans there is no wall but an apparent drop into an empty void.
    We are all human and the first humans were woodworkers and we still are woodworkers, it is in our blood and souls. We are lucky that there is a written record and museums to visit to see what craftspeople that preceded us managed to do without the aid of electricity or steam but by the aid of wind, water, animal and human muscle and human ingenuity. We can follow their footsteps if we learn to study the tracks they left behind, the tool marks and finished products. Like finding an old overgrown trail in the woods and following to discover a waterfall or a meadow full of flowers and sometimes a deep pit of despair. We need to take the good and learn from it and avoid the bad, lead paints, mercury, silicosis to name a few, or just a poor product. Tradition is not a wall to me but the foundation we stand upon as we seek to move forward. The true tradition is to get off your ass and make the things you want or need for yourself, or find someone that will make what you need and trade with them. Tradition has to do with community, the expectations of your community. If there is a renaissance or handcraft revolution it is because people are finding a community of crafters they feel a part of. That community is growing due to the internet, it gives us the knowledge that we are not alone and that we can join with other like minded people to share knowledge and experience. It also links us to a community of people seeking the goods that we produce. The tradition we lost was the self sustaining village community and I believe that often that is what we seek when we forge a knife, carve a spoon or turn a bowl or build a chair. Why else would we want to show it to somebody?

  9. I have to respectfully disagree about furniture today being a poorer product. The world of makers is huge and if you really look around you’ll find tremendously interesting and enduring work made by people who use power tools in their work for the simple reason that they are tools. I’m sure that house carpenters weren’t too unhappy when the morticing machine came around. I think you have to be careful about getting on too high a horse here and making sweeping statements. Great stuff is being made by people coming out of ” broken traditions”, as well as, for example, places in Asia, with makers from uninterrupted traditions.
    Craftsmen will find the tools and methods appropriate to what they wish to make.

    The difference I perceive between craftsmen who do admirable work and those who don’t is the personal commitment to taking all the required steps to make the object right, whether working green wood with simple hand tools or kiln dried wood with high speed cutting tools.

    • Tico – It’s great to hear from you, hope you’re mending well. Thanks for reminding me that there’s a bigger world out there than the one I see. One caveat, I never said, and never say, that power tools are inferior/bad/horrible/stupid, except for me. I always try to be careful and say that they are just not my bag – I think above I said “it’s just not the way I want to spend my days” something like that. As far as modern-made furniture and its quality, I should have been more specific – I’m speaking of the stuff we see generally today in the average home. Most folks live with crap-made stuff. But you’re quite right, there’s a slew of really-well made work out there in all shapes, sizes & configurations. thanks for the wider point of view. Hope to see you at Phil’s place in Dec. PF

  10. Maybe the most fundamental tradition that I work within is that furniture (houses, barns, toys, etc.) is for the most part made of wood. Maybe it could be called a wall, as I work within it. Then there are all of the fascinating people, books, and artifacts that act more as doors through which I can pass on the way to explore the wonderful things they show me as I turn this wonderful wood that I have found into something useful and maybe beautiful with these lovely tools I have found.

    By the way, that was an interesting essay on apprenticeships and learning crafts in PWM.

  11. Awesome post Peter, I think you pretty much nailed it.
    Only thing is that at least in the New Worlds, tradition is perhaps the foundation rather than a wall and I think you hinted at that. It’s your choice to adhere strictly to the tools, methods and materials of 17C white America but for someone else who uses tools that came later or methods that came later to produce something that otherwise reflects that period or as you might do, make something with that 17C method that looks contemporary these are still bound in that tradition.
    Luckily for you and your readers I should be in bed with an early start for another week of wading in the blue waters of the Rangitata wearing polypropylene thermals (way better than the saddle tweed knickerbockers of my forbears) but woollen socks because they still can’t be beaten for warmth and comfort.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s