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Earlywood: Master of Nothing
Publisher’s note: Welcome to Earlywood (something you’ve likely mastered for a while now), a free excerpt published every Saturday from one of the thousands of pieces I’ve written since 1996. Sometimes, it’s from a magazine article. Or a book. Or (in this case) a blog post from 2017. Each entry has been updated or annotated with some modern context or point of view. We hope you enjoy it.
One of the common criticisms I hear of North American woodworkers is that we try to do so many things – casework, carving, veneering, chairmaking, turning – that we never become good at any one of those things.
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There’s truth to the criticism. When I work side-by-side with traditionally trained European woodworkers, they beat the pants off me (speed-wise). Traditionally trained German, British and Swiss joiners can cut dovetails and assemble casework much faster than I can.
I do get a small measure of revenge when I pick up a turning tool without a second thought to make a leg or knob. Most of them have never touched a lathe, worked with green timber, dealt with compound-angle wet/dry chair joints or carved even a simple detail.
Maybe it’s the frontier blood in our veins or the fact that our society never embraced the European apprentice system for woodworking. There was just too much work to do, not enough people to do it and not enough time to train people in that manner. Heck, most North Americans I know are only one or two generations removed from our subsistence farming ancestors.
At times I wish our history was different. I covet the pure European skill when I watch people from the French schools, for example, make astonishing chairs with ease. Or when I watch German carvers at work on restoring a cathedral. Or British joiners making ridiculous dovetails. I feel inferior, as if I’ve spent my entire adult life working at the craft and haven’t really gotten anywhere.
And this is the part of the writing arc where I am supposed to say: But we’re great! We get to do so many different things! And blah blah freedom #Murica.
A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river. But the frog queries: “How do I know you won’t sting me?”
The scorpion replies: “Because if I do, we’ll both die.”
Satisfied, the frog allows the scorpion to hop on his back. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. And before they both drown, the frog asks: “Why?”
“It’s in my nature,” replies the scorpion.
Sometimes I ponder my 11-year-old self. Would I have signed onto a seven-year apprenticeship at a technical academy if it were offered? It’s an unanswerable, navel-gazing question, and so I pick up a saw and get back to cutting some tenons. And so should you.