Joinery and cabinet making was once one of the most important professions on the planet, but today it is nearly a lost art. In the early 20th century in the US and in the mid 20th century in Europe, people stopped buying furniture made by hand, and the joiners were replaced by people working in factories. Joinery was replaced by techniques that lend themselves to quick mass production. This has had two obvious impacts on modern furniture. It is cheaper and less durable. The low prices in some ways make up for the lack of quality, because when it breaks we can simply buy a new one. This unsustainable cycle has infested many other aspects of our lives.
The Organic Woodworker
There is in its infancy a movement to abandon the unsustainable practices in our lives. Industrialization has brought some amazing things, but at the same time we are starting to see that in the long-term, it also brings a lot of unexpected negative consequences. We are learning to combine modern and historical practices to create a new sustainable future.
I used to not eat organic. This was mostly because I didn’t know what it meant. I spent some time abroad, and the word for organic in Polish, ekologiczny, got me thinking. As I learned what organic meant, I learned it was not about being hip or trendy (though in some places it is both) but about farming in a way that is sustainable in the long term. Instead of destroying the ground and requiring fertilizers made from fossil fuels, organic farming is about ensuring that the food can be produced indefinitely without harming the planet.
If we apply the same the principles of sustainability to how we work with wood, we would embrace many of the practices that were common place for hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of years. Many pieces of furniture built a hundred years ago are still in good shape today, and with care could easily last another hundred years. Two years ago, my wife and I bought a factory-made dining room table; it will last another five years at the most. We don’t have to build 200 year furniture to be better stewards of the planet, but a table that lasts thirty years (but uses about the same amount of material) would certainly be better than six disposable dining room tables.
Where do we go from here?
My plan is to try to be part of the solution. I will make quality furniture and try to buy from others who are making quality, sustainable furniture. I will document my activities and endeavor to teach others how to do the same. Does this mean I will abandon all power tools? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly have a few that I plan to get rid of and others that I might acquire, but I don’t want to be part of the never-ending replacement/upgrade cycle that surround them. Quality hand tools survive for a very long time and with care they can last longer than the furniture they were used to build. The goal is not simply to move backward in time, but to find a balance that will take us into a better future.
This brings us finally to the point of this blog. The Joiner’s Workbench is dedicated to helping people learn to work wood. There will be a special emphasis on the tools and techniques for working wood by hand. Sometimes I will focus on a limited set of tools, sometimes a project will use a fuller set of tools. Some time will be spent on just how small the full joiner’s tool set is. Whether you are looking to learn or gain inspiration for your next project, I hope you find this blog interesting and enjoyable.</p>