Democratic Woodworking

As we start to share more information about our upcoming summer workshop, Joshua and I are struggling to contain our enthusiasm. We’ve discussed this idea over many cups of coffee during the last year-and-a-half, and are excited to see it’s finally coming together.

But some might be wondering why we are beginning to host workshops at all. Wouldn’t we be better off spending all our waking hours breaking up arguments over David Pye or double-iron planes? The way we see it, teaching workshops perfectly fits our philosophy of empowering individuals with handcraft skills in today’s increasingly complex technological society.

But we’re not the first ones to attempt to find a better way. The Industrial Revolution incited several movements pushing back against the rise of the machine to return to some vision of pre-industrial utopia. While the Luddites and others sought to violently sabotage the machines they saw as a threat, other groups rallied peaceably around banners of religious piety, keeping the countryside beautiful and free of belching smokestacks, or the value of perpetuating skilled handcraft. In 19th-century England, one such company of individuals rapidly grew into the Arts & Crafts Movement, which dominated handcraft philosophy in Europe, North America, and Japan for better than half a century. This movement confronted rampant mechanization, extolled the virtue and beauty of craftsmanship, and sought for a radical realignment of the new industrial economy that seemed to be steaming ahead at breakneck speed. (David Lane has written much more about this in our upcoming Issue Six.) 

The initial Arts & Crafts promise began to falter, however, as makers found that their wares could not be priced to compete with factory-produced goods. At the same time, they fought a losing battle to convince the “Average Jane” that their handmade furniture was worth the hefty premium that it commanded over the factory furniture on display in the store down the street. Concessions were made, and soon “Arts & Crafts Furniture” was being produced in those very same factories that the movement initially sought to circumvent. What began as a headstrong, revolutionary vision became little more than a style of furniture in a catalog – “handmade”-flavored furniture, akin to “butter”-flavored popcorn.

But neither Joshua or I think this is the inevitable end for the hand-tool “renaissance” of the 21st century. We, along with many others, envision a different path entirely. Instead of battling the machine on its own terms, we advocate for something that industrial technique can’t deliver – freedom through independence.

Rather than seeking to keep up with the machines churning out hundreds of identical tables each day, we find freedom in unplugging to enjoy the peaceful process of making one table at a time. We are not factories.

Rather than relying on the system for the goods we need, we want the freedom that comes with learning to make them ourselves. “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.” This is how a movement begins.

Rather than allowing mass-production to dictate its mechanical aesthetic, we embrace the ancient, human process, and leave our tool marks behind to tell their story.

This is what we hope to inspire with our M&T workshops because this stuff is just too valuable – and too much fun – not to share.

Bill Coperthwaite, who lived not far from our shop here on the Maine coast, was a proponent of what he called “democratic living,” a philosophy that taught that human beings gain greater control over their lives through learning new skills and creating deeper community. He developed, for example, a “democratic chair” which could be made from easily sourced materials and basic tools, by anyone. This chair could act as a stepping stone to more complex lessons, mastery, and the opportunity to pass those lessons along to others. This is precisely the kind of model that has inspired our workshop.

We believe that when a person can approach a project with self-confidence and a modest unplugged tool kit to pursue his or her own creative ends, the vision of democratic woodworking may be realized. If it is seems to you like a lofty goal for a week spent in a New England woodshop, you are absolutely correct – but every journey begins somewhere.

Stay tuned this week for more information about this summer’s workshop.

~ Mike


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