If one has skill…….

If one has skill was an interview of so long ago with George Nakashima the late great Nakashima may he rest in peace,  a craftsman in every sense of the word.  For those who don’t know him he was a leader in furniture design some even call him the father of the American Craft movement.  He was born May 24, 1905 in Spokane, Washington and passed away June 15, 1990, many of the modern tables you see made of slabs today has been inspiration for many that try to replicate his work.


If your interested in his biography there is much information on the net, no need for me to repeat it here but what I do want is to emphasise on some very valid points he made in his interview.

He was asked about young people wanting to become woodworkers and the response he gave was so powerful, so direct, so much at home with what Paul Sellers has been saying all along.  Please take the time to read this and contemplate on these words

Interviewer: What do you say to a young person who wants to become
a woodworker?

Nakashima : “That happens so often, we have a waiting list
of maybe 300, and I say to them we aren’t taking on anybody
. . . . It cost me maybe $500 a month to break in a new
man, I’m out of pocket that, and then if he goes in two years
I’m out maybe five or ten thousand dollars, and very often he
doesn’t even say thank you . I’m not in that kind of position,
so I tell them the thing to do is go to some craft school like
Rhode Island, or the best is to go to Germany or Japan where
they have real apprenticeship programs, and several people
have taken me up on that . . . . There’s so many of the young
wanting to do that, but it’s almost all completely romantic,
they have no idea of what is involved, what they’re getting
into and actually what they want . . . . Skills are maybe the
finest resources any nation can have, and we don’t have that
in this country and that’s why things are getting so bad . This
country prides itself on automobiles and can’ t even make a
decent automobile, a sad situation. Whereas if one has skills,
one could make the slums bloom with no money at all,
simply by work and skills.”

He made mention some very true points

  • Lack of gratitude
  • Lack of quality apprenticeships
  • Romanticism

Let’s briefly look at each point, the first point in the list goes straight to the heart. An apprentice spends 4 years in modern times but 200 years ago they spent 7 years learning the trade.  The costs involved are huge as Paul Sellers has also mentioned on many occasions, each apprentice needs nurturing and constant guidance.  You reveal to this apprentice many of the trade secrets and he learns your designs and eventually builds them successfully.  At the end of the apprenticeship program he packs his belongings and heads on his own working, making furniture and sometimes copying your style being in direct competition against you rather than staying and becoming an asset for the man who taught him and gave him the skill sets he now possesses. His apprenticeship is finished and has become a journeyman in the craft and does what every employer fears, he leaves and takes all the knowledge and secrets with him.

The second point if you read Paul’s blogs on this he will go into much more depths on this issue than I will care to do here.  I still have a full day ahead of me and I’m on my lunch break but this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed but sadly will never be addressed as hand tools in a woodworking factory and even in small shops are a rarity.    I sometimes ask myself even those who do offer apprenticeships if they themselves have any skills to pass on to their students.  The thing is you just don’t know anymore, the reliance on machinery  and the extensive use of chipboard’s and plywood materials relieve the need for any hand tools in the workshop.  The master of the shop may or may not have skills of any worth to pass onto his apprentice and it would make great sense that the apprentice rather than being interviewed should interview the interviewer.

The last third point should strike many hearts.  Ask yourselves what woodworking means to you, ponder on this question and be honest with yourselves.  Many out there associate working with hand tools as a romanticism with the past.  Many picture themselves working in their shops in a serene peaceful environment with the only sounds they hear is of the tools making contact with the wood.  I can tell you now that working with hand tools is definitely not for everyone.  There is a lot personal satisfaction when a piece of furniture or clock in my case finally comes together and every joint is tight and seated nicely with no visible gaps.  Yes there is personal satisfaction that your hands are working accurately you feel on top of the world but reality is that working with hand tools and trying to make a living as if you still live in the 18th century is not for the faint hearted nor for the person who is broke.  It is back breaking work, physically demanding and slow even at the best of times.  Take it as you will but we don’t know exactly how they used to work and at what speeds they did it at but we do know that they worked hard and fast and for 12 hours a day and were very efficient.  I work mostly 14 hours a day and I suffer with severe arthritic pains in both my neck and back yet I love working the way I do and would not change my methods.  Forget the financial side of it if money is your only motivation then look at something else or buy machinery and get yourself a lot of contracts prior, do your homework or find some little old rich lady who will commission you to make a lot of things for her that she will be willing to pay from 5 to $15,000 a piece on a regular basis.  Unless you have a grand name you will struggle like the rest of humanity, you will work your butt off and your supper will be at 10 o’clock most nights.  Most of the time your family time will be compromised unless you cut your hours down or simply start at 4 am.  Just this blog post has taken precious time that I will have to compensate for by working much later into the night than I would of had to.

It’s upto you believe me or not it makes no difference to me, I’ve been doing this for the last 18 years so my body is conditioned to it and my family is used to seeing me sporadically for a bit here and there and I’m only a door away from them but, I was much more at ease when it was just a hobby prior.  Nothing in life comes easy you have to work hard for everything not only do you need to work hard but you need to work fast and maintain accuracy and that’s bloody hard.  So think about this word “romanticism” that George Nakashima used and ask yourself are you trying to live a fantasy or make a living. You need to ask yourselves this because you can’t have both.



5 thoughts on “If one has skill…….

  1. Woodworking skills, metalworking skills, shoe making skills…. and so on ARE indeed essential to our living around the world – although a big majority of young people thinks that life is around thumbs in a screen….
    So… every one needs to change a light bulb, or sew a shirt button. That doesn’t mean that everybody will be electrician or tailor.. right?
    The same goes to woodworking – at least in my case.
    Will I be a pro-woodworker? I don’t know.
    But I’m doing my own furniture (trying at least) and spend less money then if I buy it on Ikea…. 🙂

    But I can get your point Salko.
    I think this post is very interesting and have a LOT going on.


    1. Thanks old friend understanding ones own purpose in life is a life long journey but to get the answer one must be honest with themselves. To live a fantasy life why not if I could afford to do it, if I had the financial means to live out the rest of my life living that fantasy working in a shop with wooden floors flooded with natural light over looking a pristine natural environment of luscious green grass and beautiful elongated trees and never have to worry about can I sell this or not, how long did it take me to build it, did I get my hourly rate can I get what it’s worth I would. Who wouldn’t. I would give everything away to charity. Reality however is different and it takes a lot of hard work which I’m sure you understand that as we all work hard everyday of our lives and what little we get in return for it is never enough to full fill this fantasy.

      Btw some items costs less to buy in Ikea than it does to make.


  2. There is a huge discrepancy between what most people believe the “dream” to be and what the true reality is. I’m not sure where this romantic idea came from. I think television and the Internet have created some of misconceptions. Somehow we have forgotten that this was and remains a blue-collar career. Difficult to make a living even in the best of times. Historically, it was almost impossible for the loan furniture maker to make it. Fully staffed shops with both apprentices and journeymen working at full capacity just to make a go of it.

    I for one consider myself lucky that I do not depend on woodworking for my living. This means I’m free to woodwork as much or as little as I want and I can make whatever my heart desires. If I sell a few pieces at some point, that would be great. Not so much for the money, but the validation. There is a big difference in people telling you nice work and people willing to pay good money to possess it.

    Nice post on the reality of woodworking for a living.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I used a stop watch this morning on a single piece as I was curious how long does it take me to re-saw, plane, rip and plane again. I first planed the timber flat on all sides then resawn it from 1 5/8″ down to 1″ then planed flat the resawn side and trued it, then I ripped it down from 2 3/4″ down to 1 1/2″ and then planed the edge square. The total length is only 12 1/2″, the whole operation took 30mins. The only machine I used was a bandsaw for resawing which only saved me 5-10 mins max.

      If I had of used machinery to perform the same operation ready and setup to go I probably would of saved 10mins with setup probably 15mins. Maybe at the end of it all that really isn’t much of a savings on one off pieces and not even worth the effort setting up, however it’s clearly evident to me for mass production work the use of machinery is a must or as you have said Greg having multiple workers in a shop is the only way they could of finished the work in a timely fashion.


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