There’s been a lot of talk lately about Norm Abram shutting down The New Yankee Workshop. All this hoopla really got me to thinking about woodworking in general.
I watched Norm on This Old House from fairly early on. I missed the early years of The New Yankee Workshop but jumped in and caught more than a few episodes once I’d heard about it. You see, I was really more of a Woodwright’s Shop kind of guy. What I liked most about Roy’s approach to woodworking is that he kept things simple and uncomplicated.
By the time I had started watching Norm in the workshop, he already had more nail guns that I even knew existed. Don’t get me wrong, machines are great but I always approached making furniture from the stand point of “do it by machine until the only way to do it better is by hand.” I mean, the only way to really make a cabriole leg properly is by hand but I’m not going to toss out my bandsaw because I have to rough out the shape by hand. Let’s face it machines help us do certain less skilled tasks a whole lot quicker with more accuracy than we can muster by hand.
So, you’re wondering where I’m headed with this post? I mean, look at it…I’m praising Norm while bashing him? I’m saying I relate to Roy’s style while advocating the use of power tools?!?
So here’s the impetus for all this introspection. I just wrapped up a two day finishing class here at the school. It was a great time and I think the students actually learned something. Granted, it was a fundamentals of finishing class and I approached it from the concept of teaching simple, repeatable finishing techniques. We talked for a few hours the first day about everything from surface preparation to sprayed conversion varnishes. We touched on the concept of French Polishing and discussed some more advanced techniques but then something happened. We started actually finishing stuff.
We began by mixing up a few basic dyes and stains. You know, just a couple of basic, flexible, all purpose colors that, when used in combination, can give an extremely wide variety of colors. Prior to this class I discussed the preparations with my wife. She is after all the one who has done the bulk of the finishing in my shop for the last 10 years. Last year, the class even had the benefit of her knowledge as she helped teach the class with me. Sure, I got stuck with all the technical information and the task of presenting it in a lecture but she is the one the students ran to when they wanted that perfect color for their project. And why not, she’s got a great eye for color. In the pre-class discussion for this year’s class, we decided it was more than a bit hectic creating all those custom colors for each and every student. Her suggestion “keep it simple and do what we always did in the shop.” It was brilliant!
For years we finished pieces and, like most professional furniture makers, we had a handful of standard stains we used to create a wide variety of colors and a couple of simple, repeatable finishes that gave great results. Our customers like the colors and finishes, so why reinvent the wheel? Keep it simple.
As those who’ve taken classes with me know, my teaching style is more about jumping in and doing rather than analyzingthe process to death. You can read a million ways to do something but until you give it a try, it’s merely theory. Learn by doing. For some folks that approach works well while others would rather intellectualize the process before proceeding. During my career I’ve been more of the latter but I teach a different approach.
During the class we discussed many things outside the realm of finishing. I told some of the stories from my experiences of the last couple of years being out on the show circuit teaching seminars. One of the things that bugs me the most about the state of woodworking today is all the “experts” out there that are “teaching” people how to work wood. There’s a million guys and girls out there teaching some of the most ridiculous methods I’ve ever heard. The woodworkers I’ve always admired most (and known personally or by extension), Werner Duerr (my teacher), Frank Klausz, Glen Huey, Sam Maloof, George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick all have one thing in common…the principal that woodworking should be kept simple. When you complicate a process, it becomes something outside the realm of pragmatism. It becomes a self-aggrandizing effort rather than pure woodworking. It becomes more about you than the work. It also become something less than profitable…it becomes time consuming.
Now you’re still wondering ‘where is he going with this?’
Well, I can tell you. Having spent a couple of days with folks of varying backgrounds and varying experiences in woodworking (in addition to the two years I’ve been teaching folks here at the school) all this talk of Norm retiring The New Yankee Workshop has got me feeling a bit sad. Sure, Norm was the Delta poster child and not everything he taught on the show was proper woodworking technique but he got more people in the pool than anyone else I’ve ever met. When it comes down to it he got people to jump in and do it rather than analyze the process to death. He showed us that the projects were not beyond our reach. In much the way that Roy Underhill does, he took the mystery out of the art of woodworking and allowed folks to truly believe they could do it.
I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to about their projects and the progress stumping problems they’ve encountered. At every single show I’ve ever done, I’ve had at least a dozen people ask for advice on how to overcome an obstacle in a project they have going. Eleven out of twelve, at every show, know the answer to their own question. They’ve just “thought” about the problem so much they’ve become paralyzed by fear. They “think” they might get it wrong because the answer to the problem seems too simple and they started reading all the opinions out there to find out if it really is that simple. They’re confused by the mountain of (mis)information available. When you find yourself in that position just think “Roy, Werner, Frank, Glen, Sam, George, Wharton and, yes, even Norm would try to find the simplest, fastest and most repeatable method of doing this. That’s what I should do.” Yes, woodworking is generally that simple.
Because of my many students, and all the folks who I’ve met at the shows, I’ve gained a new respect for Norm. He’s a simple guy who teaches straight forward woodworking. Sure he’s got gadgets galore but I’ve never once seen him complicate the process of getting from the beginning of a project to the end. C’mon, he’s only got 23 minutes after all! There isn’t time to complicate things.
While I’m not going to run out to the shop and add a duplicator to my lathe or use a drum sander to “flatten” two boards so I can face glue them together, I view Norm now as someone I can admire in woodworking. And what I admire most is the same thing I admire in all the other woodworkers I mentioned in this post, his simple approach to woodworking.