Are Woodworkers Abnormally Fearful?

And should editors of woodworking magazines practice psychology?


Way back in 2006 I built a reproduction of the Byrdcliffe Sassafras Linen Press. The original lives in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there are a few other versions of linen presses in existence that were built in the Byrdcliffe colony in Woodstock, New York in the early years of the 20th century. I’m hooked on the designs from Byrdcliffe as well of the history of the place, and the people who created those designs. For the past few years I’ve been doing my homework on these pieces but I’m not quite ready to spill the beans about what I’m up to with that.

I will say that this is an important part of our design heritage, and as an author I feel a responsibility to get the details (both for the furniture and the history) as accurate as I can. As with my work on Craftsman furniture there is a lot of misinformation, idle speculation and general nonsense to wade through to get to the good stuff. I’ve never understood why people want to take something unique, interesting and challenging and make an “easy” version that misses the point of the original.

There isn’t any fun in that and it leaves behind a mess for future woodworkers to sort through. If we don’t tell the story of the things we value in an appropriate way, those coming behind us won’t understand the very things that create the value. Things that have lasting value aren’t supposed to be easy.

The other day I was searching online for fresh images and I discovered that another woodworking magazine had recently published a version of the same linen press. This isn’t the first time that my work has been knocked off and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’ve always looked to publish things that no one else has done, but I’m in the minority among authors. I guess the motivation is laziness – why do all of that work when you can repeat what someone else has done? I haven’t been a regular reader of any woodworking magazines since I left Pop Wood in 2014. I bought the back issue and confirmed to myself that I’ve saved myself time and money, and I haven’t missed much.

Of course there wasn’t any mention of the previous article as a source, and only the slightest mention of the piece’s history. For reasons never explained the entire piece was scaled down to about two-thirds of the original size, a plywood box was substituted for the original casework and in typical woodworking magazine fashion out came the scroll saw to avoid any carving and a paint-by-number chart was provided for the panel coloring.

The part that bothered me the most however was the editor’s note at the beginning of the issue where fear of new techniques was discussed in a progression that went from challenging to daunting to intimidating to frightening. Doing things you haven’t done before is a challenge, even when someone else has laid out the path for you to follow. If you want to improve your skills and make something you can be proud of don’t listen to those who suggest that the “easy” way (in this case a $500 scroll saw vs. a few carving chisels and a bit of practice time) is the best way. Accept the challenge, learn to carve when the piece you’re reproducing was carved, and if it’s supposed to be green, make it green.

— Bob Lang



Are Woodworkers Abnormally Fearful? — 4 Comments

  1. I saw that magazine and actually bought it to see how they built it. I have your example in “Popular Woodworking’s Arts & Crafts Furniture Projects.” Your techniques are better resulting in a better looking piece.

  2. Some woodworking writers feel compelled to improve the past, but that’s a disservice to the reader. Especially when there is no mention of what was changed or why it was changed.