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The Craft of Woodworking

2/21/2014 9:38:50 AM
Article by John Howell

The term “craft” when applied to woodworking has acquired the status of a cliché as a result of the word having been over-used and abused with regard to wood products. The disconnect between how a product is advertised and the actual product, has rendered the term virtually meaningless.

So, what really distinguishes a wood product as being “crafted” as opposed to manufactured? After all, some wood products are manufactured to very high standards. To achieve those standards, knowledge of woodworking including aesthetic considerations must be employed. I addressed this type of skill in my last article, “The Technological Artisan.”

In part, the distinction is a matter of perception. The idea of buying a piece of furniture, or other wood product, that was conceived and built by a single person in a small shop has a romantic appeal to be sure. In some cases, the product itself is superior to the vast majority of factory made wood products; in other cases, not so much. How can a customer distinguish between high quality wood products and low quality? After all, they see very little of the joinery and can’t judge the durability of the product.

What they do see is the finished surface. Then why is it that the overwhelming majority of furniture buyers settle for mediocrity? Maybe it’s because they see what they’ve come to expect—muddy finishes that obscure cheaply made products.

For the most part, consumers have accepted this type of product, but where has that left our industry? Since 1996, approximately seventy percent of U.S. furniture manufacturing has been lost to overseas competition1. Cheaply made wood products are easy to duplicate since the competition can create them with readily available materials and low-skilled labor.

So what can be done? Well, one thing that is essential is to raise customer awareness of the potential beauty of wood. This may seem like a tall order, but there are some encouraging circumstances to explore.

Due to the fact that the hardwood lumber industry has suffered dramatically in recent years, a proposition has been put forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the “Hardwood Lumber and Hardwood Plywood Promotion, Research and Information Order”1. It’s an example of what’s called a “checkoff program.” Checkoff programs are funded by an industry and administered by the USDA for the purpose of promoting a type of product. Successful programs in other industries have come up with slogans like “Got Milk” and “Cotton, the Fabric of our Lives”. These efforts have been enormously successful. If the “Hardwood Checkoff”, as it is called, passes, and if it effectively promotes the beauty of hardwoods, it can help tremendously in raising public awareness.

Other industries have been transformed by grass roots efforts that have gone viral, to use a social media term. Just look at the beer industry. Microbreweries were almost unheard of twenty years ago and now they’re popping up everywhere. They’ve all but taken over the industry.

The furniture industry already has this type of niche market. In some areas of the country, consumers seek out furniture of high quality that showcases the potential beauty of wood.

One example is Vermont Woods Studios. Customers can browse existing products and purchase them directly or they can order a piece of furniture built to their specifications. Online photos simulate the grain characteristics of the woods shown but can’t show the depth and gem-like quality that these woods exhibit. Still, enough customers get the idea so that the website is very successful. If customers are local or want to take a trip, they can visit the showroom or perhaps even visit the local craftsmen to see the possibilities first hand.

I believe that this market niche has tremendous potential for growth. Once consumers are made aware of the potential beauty of wood, they will look at furniture as more than just filling a need. They’ll learn to appreciate wood products in a whole new light (or perhaps it’s an old light) as in the Golden Age of Furniture.

A greater appreciation of wood means a greater appreciation of woodworking as a craft. This appreciation translates into greater potential profits for woodworkers since the focus will turn from low pricing to high quality. It will be harder for overseas competition if customers are looking for local hardwoods. Greater skills will be needed to create products of higher quality. Woodworking itself will be elevated back up to the status it deserves and will again attract craftsmen who derive satisfaction from creating wood products they can be proud of.

Achieving this goal will require more than a few changes in our industry, many of which will need to be done by cooperation amongst woodworkers. I’m going to be writing articles that address these changes in the coming months and appreciate any input you may have.


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