Back when I was in 4th grade people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would just say whatever popped into my head. Sometimes I’d say fireman. I knew that was a good answer. But I really didn’t know what all my choices would be. So I am glad to be here today to tell you about working with wood. I believe it is important for children to know what all their choices will be and being a craftsman of some kind can be a good life.My audience will be 100 4th grade students ready for transfer to middle school, and at a good point to begin thinking of what their own futures may be. I will have a small piece of furniture to display along with books and magazines, and my reliquary of wood containing samples of 25 species of Arkansas hardwoods. In addition, I have a small piece of inlay to give each student with a label on the back which says, "If you can think it you can make it.
When I was your age, my father would give me things that were broken and no longer worked. I liked taking things apart and trying to figure out what was inside and trying to guess how things worked. Some times I’d put things back together and once or twice I was able to fix things so they worked again. From that time I began to think of myself as an inventor, and I began to think about making things. My dad had a few tools to repair things around the house and he would allow me to use them if I remembered to put them away when I was finished with them. I made all kinds of things. Once I figured out how to turn a self-propelled lawnmower into a riding mower, and that made the chore of mowing the grass a lot more fun.
When I had graduated from high school, I went to college and my parents thought I should become a lawyer because my grandfather had been one. But I didn’t have any idea what lawyers did. By the time I’d graduated from college, I’d realized that the thing I really enjoyed the most was working with my hands. I still liked making things, and I had noticed that things that I learned hands-on were at a deeper level of interest for me. So I went back to school to study pottery then moved to Arkansas as a professional potter. I became a woodworker in 1975, so at this time, I’ve been working with wood for over 35 years.
I make small wooden boxes and furniture and some sculpture. I also write books and articles about woodworking. If you go to Barnes and Noble and look in the magazine section for Fine Woodworking or American Woodworker Magazines you might find copies including my work. I design the project, write the article and take the pictures. Just in case you are wondering how I can take pictures of my own hands doing the things in the photograph, I’ll let you in on a secret. I put the camera on a tripod, aim it at where my hands will be at work, and set the timer so I have just a few seconds to get my hands in position for the shot. In the books and articles, I write, act as photographer, and do the woodworking, almost all at the same time.
There are some things I really like about my work. The first is that I get to be my own boss. I get to make almost all the decisions. I can work as long as I want to and I get to do lots of different things and take breaks when I need to. If I get tired of doing one thing, there is always something else I can do. But I don’t get paid for sitting around. If I don’t do the work, it doesn’t get done and I don’t make any money for it.
Another thing I like about working with wood is that it allows me to use most of the things I learned in school. Every day I use math, I use science, biology, and physics. I make things that are inspired by history, and social studies. And so woodworking is a place where I get to put everything together like a hands-on living puzzle of what’s in my mind.
When I make something from wood, I start with plain rough-sawn boards and go from there. Every step is one I take myself, so when a thing is completed, I feel pride in what I’ve done. Each and every day I can see real, tangible things I've gotten done.
I also like that working with wood makes me feel connected with the natural environment. I love wood, the smell of it, how it goes from coarse to smooth as I sand it. It is very pretty to look at and even more beautiful when I’m, finished with it. I also love trees, and by working with woods from Arkansas, I feel that I can help the forests by helping people to understand how beautiful and valuable the woods of Arkansas are even before they are made into useful things.
I also teach woodworking. During the school year, I teach students from 1st through 12th grades at the Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs. The students come to class and make things, and I get to see my own interest in making things passed into new hands. In the summer months I teach box making to adults. In both cases, it is fun to see how excited my students become when they have created a beautiful box or other useful thing using their own hands.
One of the best things about wood is that it can last over a hundred years if it is made into something beautiful or useful that people are willing to take care of or use carefully. I have been in museums and seen wooden furniture over 400 years old that could still be used in someone’s home, so I know that some of the things that I make may last on this earth a lot longer than I will, and it is a very great pleasure to see things I’ve made being used and cared for in people’s homes.
You may wonder if there are some things I don’t like about my work. First, it is messy. I sometimes have sawdust all over me, and I have to clean up a lot because sawdust can get on everything. Secondly, woodworking is not always a steady income. Sometimes I worry about whether I can sell enough woodworking to pay all my bills. It can be demanding.
Another thing, when I tell people I’m a woodworker, they want to see my fingers to see if I’ve cut any of them off or something. I work with sharp tools that demand my attention. You can get injured in woodworking so you can’t let you mind wander very far from what you are doing. I’ve had lots of small injuries, but so far, after over 35 years, I still have all my important parts. Doing something that is a bit dangerous is actually a good thing, as it keeps me living in this exact moment, instead of wandering off into fantasy and missing out on real life.
One of the things I like best about wood working is that I have to come up with new ideas all the time, so in some ways, I am the inventor that I wanted to be now that I’ve grown up.
At this point, I would like to open things up for your questions. Are there some things you would like to ask me about woodworking or what it is like to be a woodworker?
Make, fix and create."