Woodworking education: It’s more important than ever

nesaw_kitchen“It’s possible to learn more in one week from a master woodworker than you could learn in years from your own experience.”

That’s a quote from Marc Adams, whose School of Woodworking (marcadams.com) is located just south of Indianapolis. It’s one of the largest of its kind with nearly 20,000 sq. ft. of space. There are three large bench rooms, two huge tool rooms, a multimedia room and every student has a custom-made Lie-Nielsen workbench to use. This is not your high school shop class. In these corridors, art is born and craft is honed.

The dean of career and technical education at another cornerstone of woodshop education, the College of the Redwoods (redwoods.edu), has a similar view of the value of hands-on training with a master.

“Our cabinetmaking and woodworking programs,” Marla Gleave says, “teach a range of skills from hand tools to CNC machining. One benefit to an already employed person taking courses would be to learn the art of hand tools and the role they play in creating furniture verses the mass production of cabinets using a CNC. Some businesses only do mass production and having an employee learn the art of hand tools may attract a different clientele that prefers higher-quality furniture or cabinets. Other business may not have moved to CNC machines and an employee taking our courses would learn how to operate and design and then bring that knowledge back to the company.”

In these bastions of traditional skills, there is acknowledgement that woodworking as a career is changing. For example, Adams offers courses designed specifically for women and is also running a CNC class this summer that is led by noted furniture designer Tim Celeski.

nesawIt’s hard to know how valuable formal classes are. Obviously, they appeal to dedicated hobbyists and lone professionals, but should mid-sized and larger shops send new employees to school? As automation takes over, what bench skills do woodshop workers still need to know?

The answers are as complex as the questions. Most aspects of cabinetmaking and furniture building have seen not just technological advances, but genuine revolutions during the last decade. For example, virtually all production carving is now done on CNC routers or engravers. But there are still plenty of hands-on, custom tasks that require education. And enhancing physical skills is probably not the main value of formal classes. Getting an experienced instructor’s view on different ways to design, join, assemble and finish can open a woodworker’s eyes and mind to new ways to solve problems. As Gleave noted, he or she might even come back to the shop and teach the old hands something new. And any novice will certainly gain confidence on campus and probably develop a thirst for mastering more tasks.

Every piece of knowledge is, well, another brick in the wall.

Art and craft

For the last century or so, the woodshop industry has favored a somewhat less formal version of the centuries-old apprenticeship system to train new woodworkers. The concept of pairing neophytes with experienced hands and having them stay on a station until they become proficient certainly has great value. It doesn’t always fit into modern business theory — for example, it’s not always the leanest approach — but on-the-job learning still accounts for most of the instruction taking place. However, there is a growing trend in larger population zones toward building on basic skills (including software) that were learned in vocational schools or community colleges.

The kind of classes where an employee might benefit most will depend on the level of creativity that is required to complete tasks. If a shop only builds casework, then sending somebody to a week of designing furniture might be fun for them, but perhaps not very relevant. However, sending that same employee to a course on water-based finishing or perhaps foil technologies or CAM — these can have some long-lasting and very direct benefits for a shop. From a strict profit-and-loss perspective, it’s critical that the employer identifies a specific need and addresses that directly rather than trying to mold better all-around woodworkers. But, from a philosophical point of view, almost all knowledge is useful sometime. It colors our decision making with more levels of nuance. Informed craft begins to resemble art.

Even the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics sees a strong delineation between art and craft when it comes to learning job skills. Woodworkers, it seems, are “craft artists” while designers are fine artists:

nesaw_kitchen2“Most fine artists earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in fine arts in order to improve their skills and job prospects,” the bureau states. “A formal educational credential is typically not needed for craft artists. Craft and fine artists improve their skills through practice and repetition.”

The federal agency also has this to say about general woodworking: “A high school diploma or equivalent is typically required to become a woodworker. Although some entry-level jobs can be learned in less than one year, becoming fully proficient generally takes at least three years of on-the-job training. The ability to use computer-controlled machinery is becoming increasingly important.”

The government doesn’t mention sending “craft artists” to school. It seems to think that everything can be learned in-house. But, conversely, that last sentence, the one about CNC, is gaining more weight every day and it can be difficult to train new people in-house in such fluid and constantly evolving technology. Some machine manufacturers will send technicians to the woodshop to train staff, while others provide training at a sales facility or publish extensive online courses. One problem with the latter is solitude: a lone woodworker might be sitting at a desk hundreds of miles away from the instructor as he or she tries to figure out some quirk in design or nesting software. That employee, or maybe it’s the shop owner, can spend an awful lot of time chatting or emailing with tech support, while an instructor who is physically available might be able to look over his or her shoulder and simply say, “Oh, try this …”

The problem here is that a student needs to learn everything that the instructor knows in order to reach the same level of competence. That can’t always be absorbed if he or she is just building the same casework over and over again with minor modifications. To learn something new, one must do something new. And, to do that, the best choice is often formal training outside the shop.

Peter Korn, executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship (woodschool.org) in Rockport, Maine, concurs. “On occasion,” he tells Woodshop News, “professional shops will send employees here for a couple of reasons. One is to add specific skills to an employee’s repertoire, perhaps turning, for example, or finishing. Another is to move employees with minimal skills to a more productive level without having to use valuable shop time training them.”

Another aspect of training is a little less palatable. Many larger shops are now hiring “woodworkers” who never actually pick up a drill or a hand plane: they design and build using CAD and CAM software and their products are produced, assembled and even finished almost entirely by machines. These technicians comprise a growing segment of the industry, but robotics is still in its infancy so most woodworkers still need to know how to chuck tools in a router. Plus, shop-floor experience enhances the sterile world of electronics and delivers a more capable and well-rounded employee.

nesaw_larsonThe trend toward separating the two (hands-on woodworkers and those who control the robots) might just eventually manage to remove the word “custom” from what we do. But keep this in mind: a machine can only do what its operator envisions. If we lose traditional skills, then growth is stymied. A CNC can’t imagine.

Finding classes

nesaw_sinkSo how does a woodshop owner decide where to send new hires for basic instruction?

Much of the education available in North America falls into one of two classifications. It can be from a formal academic institution, such as an accredited two-year college where the focus is on underscoring industry-wide standards, methods and practices. The other option is classes that are held in the relatively informal workshops or studios of celebrated or accomplished furniture designers in which case the emphasis is usually on joinery, aesthetics (such as grain and color matching), and perhaps custom or period-specific design such as Shaker, Arts & Crafts or contemporary furniture.

Formal education is further divided into traditional classes (such as wood movement, materials, veneer patterns, adhesives and finishes), and technical classes that address CAD and CAM. And, to be frank, the better choice there might well be the machine or software supplier, rather than a local college. Commercial seminars, while replicating the atmosphere of institutions, are far more likely to address the specific needs of a shop than general courses will. College instructors must plan for everything, while commercial instructors can zone in on a single machine or program.

The woodworking industry does have some online courses available, but building custom casework or furniture is such a hands-on process that most of the knowledge available on the Internet is more guidance than instruction. However, computers can be used to find hands-on instruction. For example, WoodEzine (woodezine.com) has one of the most comprehensive lists of education resources online. It includes some 125 institutions, individual craftsmen and professional shops that offer various forms of instruction. Located under “schools” on the site’s homepage, the options are listed by state or country.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.

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