Crumbling Foundations

About a year ago, I took a teaching position in a technical school, teaching woodworking to adults.  Interestingly, the courses that I now teach are basically the same courses that I myself took 40 years ago at the same school.

The purpose of the courses is to teach the basics of woodworking to adults who have little or no experience.  They’re not meant to be a full training course for someone interested in going into woodworking as a career.  However, I feel that they should teach the foundational techniques of woodworking as they would apply to someone who might consider woodworking as a career.  That’s how the courses worked for me 40 years ago.

With this goal in mind, I accepted the position as instructor.  One foundational technique that I was determined to teach was how to dress a board.  Ideally, I would like to have started off with the use hand tools to straighten and square up a board but I realized I’d have a few problems with this:

  • Teaching the use of hand tools would take too long given the hours available for the course
  • Students would find the process tedious and many would lose interest; after all, in today’s society, people want quick results
  • Most of the students would not be using hand tools very often even if they did eventually become professionals

So I resigned myself to teach the students how to dress a board using a jointer, planer, table saw, and radial arm saw.

The shop I’m using is also used to teach woodworking to high school students during the day.  When I first inspected the shop, I was shocked to find out the condition of the equipment.

The jointer knives were so chewed up that they were unusable. When I inquired as to how to remedy this situation, I found out that no one knew where a spare set might be.  And it would take several weeks to send the installed knives out to be sharpened by the vendor that the school used.  I ended up buying a new set myself and spent an hour of class time showing the students how to install them.

Next, I inspected the 20” thickness planer.  It didn’t work at all and was so old that the company who did the repairs for the shop said they couldn’t get parts for it.  I ended up having to lug my 12” planer from my own shop just to get by for the semester.  After that, I put in a requisition for a new 20” lighter-duty planer.  Eight months later, there’s still no purchase order.

I found out that the person teaching high school students and my predecessor who taught cabinetmaking before me were buying dressed lumber and using it without straightening it.  So they had no need for a jointer or planer. Cabinetmaking and woodworking in general had become just an extension of carpentry.  That’s the way it had been taught and the results could be seen clearly in the projects that the students were creating- furniture made by carpenters.

This is the only vocational school that I know of on Long Island that even teaches cabinetmaking or woodworking.   It seems as though everyone has forgotten craftsmanship when it applies to woodworking.  Of course, we have micro-breweries that produce “craft” beer; we have “hand crafted” bread.  But hand crafted woodwork seems to have no relevance to most Long Islanders.

Back in the 1960s some people in school administration thought that woodworking was important enough to have all male students learn at least the basics of it.  (I realize that’s politically incorrect in today’s society).  The point is: there was a realization back then that exposing young students to different types of skills was a good idea.  And if they were going to expose them to it, they should show them how to do it right.  Woodworking was one way to show them hands-on skills in a way that was enjoyable to most students.  They were able to build something themselves that was both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

I’m grateful to the administrators who understood the importance of teaching hands-on skills since I chose woodworking as a career.  But I can also see how this helped other students choose something completely different.  Since they had exposure to hands-on craftsmanship along with math, science, language, arts, etc. they were better equipped to choose what suited them best.

Nowadays, I see more and more people who don’t know what career will work for them until they’re in their thirties.  Part of the problem is that they were told early on that everyone who is able should go to college.  They ended up being pushed into something that wasn’t right for them.

I’ve read a good number of articles lately that promote learning trades rather than the typical college bound curriculum with its tens of thousands of dollars in debt.  As a result of decades of pushing college so strongly, there’s now a growing need for people who know trades.  We can certainly see this in the woodworking industry.

If the condition of the shop I now work in is any indication of how woodworking is being taught nowadays, the shortage of skilled woodworkers will only get worse.  We need people to realize the importance of learning skills such as woodworking, preferably at an early age, if we are to have a workforce capable of producing high quality work in the future.

I’m encouraged to see organizations such as the Woodwork Career Alliance working to improve the situation in other parts of the country.  Hopefully, more and more people will come to realize that woodworking is still a viable career.  In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to work at reviving appreciation of wood craftsmanship in my realm of influence here on Long Island.