Searching for the woodworkers of the future, Nick Gibbs asks if we bear as much responsibility as the education system
T here are plenty of discussions to be had about woodwork in schools and colleges, as seen in a recent issue of Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine. Exactly the same debate has been had about sport over the years. I believe that schools can certainly sow the seeds of interest in all sorts of activities, but to convert them into active participation there has to be a connection at home, and/or with the local community. We can bang on about schools providing better teaching of woodwork till our arms drop off, but the majority of woodworkers who buy a bench as they approach retirement haven’t touched a saw seriously since their schooldays, bar a bit of home improvement. What good was that, then? There is obviously a lot to be done to encourage more young people to take up woodworking as a career, and we are already working with colleges to facilitate that leap, but our society will be changed more fundamentally if we can inspire more adolescents to have a go at making things, and develop their creativity as a passion rather than just a career.
The idea is to develop skills, confidence and a sense of achievement that stimulates people to keep going with their interests so that we become a more creative, self-reliant society, and not one glued to the box. We woodworkers are in the vanguard for such a movement by inspiring our own children and grandchildren, and by making the link between school and the rest of their lives. That schools make themselves more accessible, and that more parents get involved, further helps to ensure that all that stuff children learn in the classroom gets remembered in real life, and school isn’t just a funnelling process for colleges and jobs. But woodwork isn’t that easy to teach, either at school or in the shed at home. So here at British Woodworking Towers we’ve taken to kitchen table woodying, where it’s warm and familiar, and helps you break down some of the fear of machines and tools. Lara (12) and Sasha (10) started the other day by making pendants for their friends, burning the names with a pyrography tool (you could use a soldering iron) and cutting them up with a fretsaw. “Oh, I’ve used one of those at school,” exclaimed Lara when I plonked my old Hegner on the table. “They’re brilliant.” But actually, as we quickly discovered, they’re difficult to use if you don’t have variable speed because at max revs and without a hold-down the wood flies around all over the place. We overcame this, to a certain extent, by linking the saw to the foot switch off a sewing machine so that you can feather the speed, but if you are planning to help children we recommend a more controllable solution. You also need to be able to cramp the fretsaw down solidly or it will jump around, which children also find disconcerting. It’s oh so easy to lose their attention when the work becomes awkward.
They loved burning names onto 3mm-thick strips of maple that I’d ripped off the edge of a board and then thicknessed. It’s good to develop a system that makes the woodwork easier for the children. Cutting small pieces with a fretsaw can be quite scary, so instead we worked out that it would be better to write a number of names along a long piece of wood first, drill them for the ribbon holes and then cut them up. One problem we encountered was that you can’t sand away broken grain around the holes after pyrographying or you’ll sand away the burnt names as well, so instead we used a fine burr in the drill press to tidy up the holes. I was surprised how keen the girls were to make the pendants look really neat, and how clearly they noticed the improvement of a sanded edge. They both loved using the drill, which Lara had also tried at school. “We used one of those whirly things with a handle,” she said as I was assembling the cordless Power8Workshop. “That’s it. Can I have a go?” Once we’d finished making the pendants Sasha spent 15 minutes drilling holes into a block of wood, just for the sake of it, while in the background Children in Need was doing its bit. I’ve tried woodworking with the children a few times as they’ve grown up. Sometimes I’ve successfully got them into the workshop, where Sasha, particularly, loves cutting things up on the bandsaw. But I’ve had much more success igniting enthusiasm by bringing the workshop to them, getting them to make things on the kitchen table. You might have to fight with other influences to maintain attention, but at least when you win it’s a true victory and a real connection with real life, and not just because you’ve locked them in the workshop.
Obviously not everyone will agree with this approach, and the kitchen certainly takes a bit of a hammering and gets dusty, but sometimes you have to be creative to engage. I’m sure we should be teaching children to make things at school, introducing them to new skills they might not learn at home. But I’m not convinced that the old ways some people yearn to be re-introduced did actually create a nation of makers, beavering away in their sheds through their twenties and thirties. Perhaps the fact is that when austerity died in the 1960s the motivation to make your own stuff diminished, and with it went the need to develop skills that not only save you money, but also give you a sense of freedom and self. Perhaps the times are right for a reversal of that trend, with more people using local materials to make their own chairs and tables, rather than relying on imported goods from around the world and spending our leisure time watching Strictly Stop Living. Perhaps, finally, with changing economic circumstances we’ll break our addiction to convenience and find ourselves.