Amateur hour

We’re all called to a lot of things in life. As humans we find ourselves in an interconnected web of relationships and responsibilities that vie for our attention on a daily basis. These competing narratives about who we are, what we do and what we want from life can sometimes feel disconnected from one another. When this happens in real time and in real life, conflict seems inevitable.

In my experience, this tension is nowhere more apparent than in the life and work of the amateur. The very root of the word “amateur” suggests one that does what they do not for financial benefit, but because of some deeper need and those of us who enjoy working with wood around the edges of our everyday lives already understand this. We know full well that what we are doing is more than of a passion than a hobby, but what happens when our passions collide? What happens when other responsibilities pull us away from the bench? If our daily lives sometimes leaves our chisels sitting idle and our spokeshaves collecting dust, how do we weave the threads of life together into something more satisfying?

For most amateurs, woodworking is very often a way to maintain balance and sanity. We find peace in the work. We do it for simple reasons. We love of the sound of a freshly sharpened plane leveling a mahogany table top or the joy of smelling freshly sawn pine and knowing that soon it will become a bookcase or end table. We rarely, if ever, make enough money from our work to cover our expenses. We do it because we value the craft, and we seek to participate in a tradition that is much older far more expansive than ourselves.

The amateur craftsperson works elsewhere to put food on the table, but works wood because the desire to create is written deep in the marrow of our bones. We wake up early or stay up late in our workshops seeking perfection in our craft because we sense that life is about more than sustenance. The question is, do these things have to be in conflict with one another or is there is some way to tie the threads together? How can we reconcile all of the (apparently) competing needs and responsibilities in our lives? Where might we begin to find continuity that brings balance?

I want to make three imminently practical suggestions that I believe can help bring equilibrium to the amateur woodworking life and these revolve around concepts that we should be familiar with as craftspeople: Intentionality, passion, and design.

Practice Intentionality

For me, integration has always been a common sense answer to conflict. Rather than sectioning off parts of myself and hoping there’s enough of me to go around, I have always found it more helpful to connect the dots. If it is true that I am the same person whether I am at the workbench, at my place of work or reading bedtime stories to my children, it just makes sense that I need to find ways to live a fully integrated and authentic life, but such a life does not often happen by accident. It requires openness, honesty and more than a little humility. Above all it requires intentionality.

Over the past year I have followed the trend of  transitioning from using machines to working wood primarily with hand tools. This was an intentional choice that has helped me focus more acutely on developing traditional skills and avoid a lot of health and safety concerns (like dust and noise), but even more importantly it has allowed me to integrate other aspects of my life. I can now invite my daughters into the shop to play alongside me as I work which almost always means they’re standing right by my side watching, asking questions, trying tools and absorbing more information than I can even imagine. Suddenly, instead of a place of isolation, my workbench is a place to pursue my own interests but gives me the opportunity to share my knowledge and passion with my children.

I understand that such a shop environment would not be ideal for everyone, and it would certainly be impractical for some, but it serves as a good example of what becomes possible when we examine what is important to us and choose to connect those parts of our lives in imaginative ways. Are there parts of our craft that we can share with those closest to us? Are there ways it might crossover with our day jobs? Amateurs can find continuity and integration by asking themselves how the things that are really important in each of our lives can augment one another instead of competing for our time.

But that begs another question: What is really important?

Identify Your Passion

The second suggestion I would offer to any amateur craftsperson struggling to find balance is to truly take the time to identify your passions. Assuming that family and work are important, but setting them aside for a moment, what really lights your fire? Is it making chairs? Is it building bookcases? Is it making the tools to build those chairs and bookcases?

I’m going to go ahead and say the words that no craftsperson ever wants to hear: “There is never enough (fill in the blank) to do it all.” Your blank might be filled in with “time,” “money” or any number of things, because no matter how well you integrate all the parts of your life, at some point you will have to choose how to allocate whatever precious resources you can devote to your craft, and it doesn’t make sense to waste them on things that you’re not passionate about. When you take the time to honestly identify your own passions It suddenly becomes clear what is essential and what is not, but it also becomes clear that you are not alone.

We are each passionate about different things and when you learn to find and follow your own passion, you will soon find others who are doing the same. Doing this can enable you to reach out beyond yourself in surprising ways and to collaborate with others who can help you, challenge you, instruct you, inspire you and fill in those blank spaces. You are surrounded by toolmakers, luthiers, instructors, writers and fellow artisans all looking for ways to share their particular passions as well. Collaboration supports this ecosystem of artistry by reminding us that we’re not in this alone and we certainly aren’t in this to compete with one another. We all have passions and when we collaborate with one another, we master, preserve and advance the craft of woodworking in ways that we could never do alone. There is joy to be found in such community that helps us find continuity between the otherwise competing motivations in our lives.

Design Around the Disruptions

And finally, it should go without saying that as integrated, passionate and collaborative craftspeople we are only limited by our imaginations. Life is full of disruptions, both large and small that threaten to derail our best efforts, but this is a place where we can put our passion for problem solving to work. We can choose to allow unplanned interruptions to impede our pursuits or we can see them as opportunities for reflection, learning and personal growth. We can choose to design around the disruptions.

Embracing chaos in this way can be an intimidating prospect to those of us who pursue a craft because we value process and method, but if life is going to be full of disruptions anyway, why not use that to our advantage?  When problems in the shop present themselves, having the resourcefulness to solve them on your own may reveal that what you thought was a disruption was really just a diversion allowing you to develop parallel skills that can be applied to the larger work before you. When other concerns take us away from our workshops, having the presence of mind to pay attention to lessons learned in everyday life can shed new light on our work at the bench. As amateurs, most of us have the luxury of not working to a deadline or bottom line. We attend to such things, but we are bound only by our own passions and goals. There is freedom in this that allows any disruption to become an opportunity to advance our craft.

In the end, I am confident that those of us who find ways to live more intentionally integrated lives by following our passions and designing around our disruptions will also find a way to pursue not just woodworking but indeed all of life with more honesty and authenticity than we may have thought possible. It’s a tall order, but when we find ways to bring together the work we do with the people we love and the craft about which we are passionate, we begin to tell a bigger story about ourselves and live into a narrative that brings continuity instead of conflict and inspiration rather than frustration.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Really thought provoking piece, Jim. There is a lot in here, and I for one am going to have to unpack your suggestions and see how I can apply them to my life and workshop.

    Thanks for the “parallel skills” link!


    1. Thanks Kieran, there’s probably more in this than needs be, but I wanted to get all of my thoughts in one place. I intend to unpack the suggestions a bit in more conversational and anecdotal entries as I watch how they play out in my shop and practice.

      I wrote it primarily because when I started woodworking in earnest, I was envious of those who do it full time and constantly frustrated about all of the things that seem to “hold back” those of us who are amateurs, but over time I’ve started to see some of those things as opportunities rather than roadblocks.


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