Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cover Boy

When Woodshop News contacted me last year to ask if I would like to be interviewed for a story, I was a little surprised. I have received and read a lot of woodworking magazines over the years, and the majority of them simply don't speak to me, personally.

When I have discussed my issues with different editors in the past, they all offer the same version of the argument: Magazines are in business to make a profit. The profit comes from the industry of selling woodworking machinery. Therefore, we need to appeal to the sector of the market who consumes that product the most.

It is the pyramid theory of woodworking. The group of woodworkers in the world fit into a pyramid. At the bottom, the majority of people who work wood simply make utilitarian objects in their garage when they have spare time, and consume a lot of things in the market place, as well as reading the most magazines and articles on how to do it. In the middle sector of the pyramid are the woodworkers, both amateur and professional, who are experienced and able to create interesting projects which are at a more advanced level. These woodworkers know more about the tools and methods and represent a more sophisticated consumer, who is willing to pay more for certain things. That is the market most woodworking magazines hope to attract in choosing their articles and advertisers.

That leaves the top of the pyramid. At the smallest level of the market are the individual artists and craftsmen who have managed to establish a reputation over the years. These people are likely to be members of the Furniture Society, or the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, or other, more local groups, often in a leadership position. Unfortunately for me, most magazines do not focus as often as I would like on articles which would appeal to the top of the pyramid, and that is a complaint I am always willing to express.

Woodshop News has established a secure market share which represents the "industry" of woodworking. If you want to spend a lot of money investing in the most advanced machinery this is the magazine which you would usually read. Tod Riggio has done an excellent job for a long time keeping this magazine positioned at the top of his market pyramid. From time to time there are articles about individual "artists" or "craftsmen" but the thrust of these articles is always presented from a business position.

So, when I was contacted by Jennifer Hicks, from Woodshop News, about an article, I immediately told her that I would not fit into their normal format. To her credit, she persisted and told me that she was looking to expand their coverage of woodworkers in the market. I was impressed with her professionalism and knowledge when I met her, and working with the photographer was very easy and enjoyable.

Now that the November issue is out, I am receiving calls and compliments from woodworkers across the country. Looking at Jennifer's column, "Taking Stock," I find her insight into why they choose to include me: "So the question here is whether Woodshop News is simply following the evolution of the industry or suggesting that shops that rely on traditional skills are a dying breed." I have often wondered about this very question.

She continues, "Interestingly, Edwards points out that the industry could evolve in a backwards fashion--and it just might. For one thing, the environmental movement continues to gain momentum, making the use of veneers and sustainable materials more popular than ever. Also, We can probably all agree that individual craftsmanship will always be valued, and, when the economy finally improves, customers will be willing to pay for it again."

I often think I am a dinosaur. The term "dying breed" hits close to home. All the elder statesmen who I looked up to when I was learning the trade are either dead or no longer productive. I have a very few good friends who can exist with hand skills in this business. Mike Dunbar, Roy Underhill, Al Breed, Don Webber, and a dozen other peers make up my world.

However, when I realize that all these men are teaching, like myself, I am encouraged. Perhaps we can keep the tradition alive and actually change the world. At the very least, we can change the way of thinking about the process of work. Embrace the Workmanship of Risk!

It is significant that an industry standard would choose to feature alternative methods of work at this time. It has been a century, almost exactly, since the famous "Form ever follows Function" lectures of Louis Sullivan, which defined the relationship between Man and Machine for the entire 20th century.

Is it possible that workers in the 21st century would return to "Form ever follows Process?"

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