The modern classification of woodworkery

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Blog entry by giser3546 posted 08-01-2014 06:00 PM 1876 reads 1 time favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I follow a few of the popular woodworking you tube channels and I’m a little disappointed in the general direction of their work. I don’t mean to put down anyone else’s process or style, I admire anyone who takes it upon themselves to make something rather than using the run of the mill particle board disposable junk you assemble yourself with an allen wrench. However, and it’s a big however, I seem to have drawn a line in the sand delineating the difference between what have become a few different kinds of woodworking.

1. Paper as wood, Sheet goods and veneer.

Recently I came across two different walk-throughs dealing with two completely different pieces of furniture that peaked my interest. The first was an amazing shaker chest. The chest was close to 8’ tall and I started to get high hopes while the host walked me through the joined solid wood back and the hand beveled raised panels making the bottom of each drawer. Not 20 seconds later the host started going through his plans for the rebuild and mentioned he would be using plywood instead of solid stock to replace just about every part of the chest that made it the centuries old work of art that it was.

The second was a piece I became interested in while looking into methods of cutting perfectly complimentary curved joints. The small end table was composed of an upper part and a lower part that joined at a curved and almost fluid like joint that matched up perfectly with highly contrasting colors. Once again I clicked on the build instructions with the high hopes that it would walk me through such impressive craftsmanship. Right off the bat the maker starts cutting MDF and my hopes were dashed. I scroll through the instructions and realize it was nothing but MDF covered in paper thin exotic veneer.

My question on both fronts is this: Why would both of these men, who were master woodworkers by any standard definition, do this? They both have the industrial scale shop capable of anything they could dream up, and yet they take shortcuts. Why spend so much time appreciating the fine craftsmanship of a 200 year old shaker chest just to use plywood when you have the time, the expertise, and the tools to do it with its original outstanding qualities. Why use toxic paper quality MDF that is more indicative of Ikea than fine furniture? I think the late Hunter Thompson had it right when he said “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”

2. The Difference between assembling, and building.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a process for every level of expertise. However, there seems to be a resurgence of kit building among otherwise experienced craftsman. The whole concept of going to a store, buying a kit of pre-cut wood packaged with included metal hardware and screws, putting it together, and finishing with something that is practically a purchased product confuses me. Again, don’t get me wrong I respect the need to build in itself, but why build someone else’s creation? You have the need to create, so create. Create something uniquely yours. The only way to build on your skills is to do, and building from kits only breeds knowledge of how to build from kits. Build from scratch and build your knowledge on how to do so.

3. All the pretty colors, straight from the third world to your doorstep.

I agree that bubinga, mahogany, purple heart, and so on are downright beautiful but at what cost. With the skills of woodworking you have the ability to go from one of the rawest materials offered to man and create a finished combination of art and function. Having researched the inspiration for the bed that will be my next project I found that the similar projects required $2,000 in rough cut bubinga alone. My mind boggles at concept of spending more on raw materials for one project, than I have on any of my shop machines. It is my opinion that any project of equal or greater aesthetic appeal can be created from locally grown species acquired through sustainable methods. Contrary to what the previous statement would insinuate, I am not a bleeding heart environmentalist I seem to be. My environmental concerns usually only go far enough to conceal how cheap I am, leaving me to wonder why I should be working with the outrageously expensive spoils of rain forest pillaging instead of the local cherry tree that was knocked down by a storm?

Having read my complaints and quite possibly become angry at me for what may very well be a misclassification of your efforts, you’re probably wondering what high and mighty methods I deem to be worthy of my pretentious shop. Starting with my materials, every bit of wood I work with has either been reclaimed from other sources, or milled from storm damaged trees. Similarly, the metal hardware I use such as drawer pulls and hinges are either made by me from wood or found attached to disused and discarded furniture no longer in need of them. Whether it is weathered barn wood, old fencing, old decking, the red oak and cherry aging in my garage, or the brass hinges and window handles found in the trash, it all is uniquely mine and will become projects that are also uniquely mine through the experience of finding, acquiring, and personally revitalizing those materials. Regardless of the wood, I avoid using metal fasteners of any sort when possible. I recognize the strength and simplicity of a pocket holes but also vastly prefer to integrate the function of strong joints with the uniqueness of wood joinery rarely seen today.

While my processes may be simple to define they are quite obviously difficult in execution. Yes there is a large pile of failed projects in my shop that would be completed had I just use pocket holes. Yes, I also spend a staggering amount of time finding, milling, drying, and shaping wood. I also spend days resawing, planing, jointing, gluing, and beveling panels when plywood would work, but isn’t that the point? It’s the experience of it that makes us woodworkers. It’s the extra time and effort that make me proud of a project at completion. It’s the pride in pointing out the hand sawn dovetails, or the dowels I cut myself, and doing it in an age where most people don’t care, that makes my work unique… at least unique to me.

-- "If you wait for it to rain, It will"

7 comments so far

View Texcaster's profile


1286 posts in 2126 days

#1 posted 08-01-2014 07:22 PM

Some people like Fords, others like Chevys. It’s just not important.

-- Mama calls me Texcaster but my real name is Mr. Earl.

View Ocelot's profile


2317 posts in 3091 days

#2 posted 08-01-2014 07:48 PM

A couple of comments…

MDF has the virtue of stability. I don’t do vaneer (and can’t even spell it), but vaneered MDF is much more dimensionally stable than solid wood. That is clear. For some things, it’s (functionally) better. The “old ways” were once new ways. 100 years from now, (high quality) vaneered MDF furniture may be treasured antiques. (I still won’t be building any of it.)

As for the “rain forest” etc. If we don’t buy the wood, much of it will simply be bulldozed and burned to clear the land. A friend of mine – old NASA guy – was telling me about early satalite photos of South America at night. There were thousands of bright dots – which weren’t cities or towns – but just places where forest was being cleared and burned. The definition of “exotic” is “something from somewhere far away”. For the locals, their trees are not exotic. They are only (economicly) valuable because we create a market for them. That being said, I’m too cheap to buy imported wood. Cherry and Walnut and Oak and (even) Poplar are good enough for me.


View giser3546's profile


179 posts in 1925 days

#3 posted 08-01-2014 08:14 PM

I’m not knocking the stability of MDF, just as woodworker, I would rather work with wood. You make a valid point per using an economically viable product instead of just destroying it, but much like you I wont be buying it any time soon. Partially because of cost and I find that to be a part of the process. Just as a quick explanation I was raised by and antique dealing and have spent more than a few weekends at barn auctions. I actually began woodworking with the understanding that the only way I would be able to have the furniture that I find to be high quality would be to make it myself.

-- "If you wait for it to rain, It will"

View leafherder's profile


1828 posts in 2405 days

#4 posted 08-01-2014 08:59 PM

I cannot speak to points 1 and 2 – my skills are not yet that advanced although I certainly understand the advantage of teaching techniques by using less expensive raw materials to demonstrate.

As for point number 3 – I agree completely – which is why I only use raw materials that are locally grown – including two species that are usually overlooked: Honeysuckle and Mulberry. I have found the fast growing invasive honeysuckle to be a beautiful wood – very hard with tight grain that takes a very high polish and resists scratches with a beautiful natural golden color. Mulberry – also fast growing – is lightweight but strong with a beautiful satin-like luster when varnished and provides delicious fruit, while the bark is easy to strip and makes great paper.

Just my two cents and you could probably guess my opinion from my screen-name. :)

Have a great weekend.

-- Leafherder

View Grumpymike's profile


2410 posts in 2768 days

#5 posted 08-01-2014 10:24 PM

Well, that’s quite a manifesto.
As I read your writing, I noticed that you answered a lot of your own questions concerning prices and quality vs: style.
I see that your tastes run ward the traditional woodworking, and good for you, but you also have to realize that wood is not as plentiful as it was in the 40’s and 50’s, so other mediums have been developed.
Remember also that in 1944 there was no such thing as plastic … Bakelite yes, but no plastic (so lets see you go through one week with out using anything made of plastic.)
As woods became harder to get, loggers went back into the woods and reclaimed the old logs that were not fit for the mill back in the day. If they would hold together while being loaded onto trucks, the went to the new chipper mills or grinders to become particle board and MDF. So, like plastics PB and MDF are the new materials of the modern day.
Human nature is to oppose change, and you have set a fine example of that in your writings.

I like to make case carcass’ out of a good quality plywood, because it is stable, and I use solid wood for the face frames, cope and stick as well as the raised panel doors.
There have been times when the door panel was to be painted while the cope and stick were finished wood, so why make the panel out of expensive lumber when I can use MDF or even plywood for a flat panel??

Like Bill said, some folks like Fords and some like Chevys.

I’m not trying to diss you, but I am trying to get you to look at the fact that we have a new world of materials and craftsmen … and then there are us old timers who remember how it was … back in the day.

-- Grumpy old guy, and lookin' good Doin' it. ... Surprise Az.

View Woodbutchery's profile


424 posts in 4038 days

#6 posted 08-02-2014 07:59 PM

The Ford and Chevy line is probably the most accurate.

I have found that this same type of question comes up in almost every hobby of mine (cooking, early historic music, Irish traditional music, working, somebody stop me!), and what it really comes down to is preference.

You want to work with wood. Wood! Gol dang it!, Not that chewed-up-mulchified-pressed-into-units-and-baked-like-an-adobe-brick MDF! (I exagerate, but only for humor’s sake) Wood. I got it. I use plywood a lot in my cabinetry – makes sense for me to do so because of what I’m trying to accomplish, and I KNOW you understand that. I do.

And I understand your line analogy – here are people that are master craftsmen, capable of making this whole thing from the wood they veneered with (It’s with an “e”, Ocelot ;-) ), and that might have been your expectation of what you were hoping to see vs. what they were trying to convey. It can be disappointing, but that’s it.

So I get your question, and the short and simple, “It’s just not important”, is a valid point. This is my hobby. Most things I do I do with passion. It’s how I’m wired. I am less passionate in making it to whatever stage would be considered “master” of a craft, whether it’s woodworking or music or cooking. I try to do the best job I can, and enjoy that act of creation, whether a shelf or a song or a tune or a meal.

I know you do your work with passion; otherwise you wouldn’t have written such a long piece. I wish you luck in finding inspiration. I find mine almost daily, just on this board alone. Keep enjoying the hobby, I’ll keep enjoying mine, but the guy with the Ford … I don’t know, man. I just don’t know.


-- Making scrap with zen-like precision - Woodbutchery

View Ger21's profile


1087 posts in 3583 days

#7 posted 08-03-2014 03:36 PM

Veneered fine furniture has been handmade for hundreds of years. If they had sheet goods in the 1700’s, they’d have veneered over that rather than solid wood. It’s a better material.
High quality veneer work can take just as much skill as making hand cut dovetails. they’re both woodworking, just different disciplines.

-- Gerry,

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