A New Generation Takes On Traditional Woodworking Trades

A New Generation Takes On Traditional Woodworking Trades

Carrying the Torch: The Resurgence of Hands-On Work

As I stood in the workshops of seasoned chairmakers, watching their skilled hands shape the wood with practiced ease, I couldn’t help but wonder if the next generation would carry on these time-honored traditions. The world had changed so much, with the rise of automation and the push for college degrees over vocational training. But what I discovered was a heartening story of a new wave of young artisans reclaiming the joy and fulfillment of working with their hands.

Employers have struggled to find young workers to take on skilled trade jobs, a trend that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. However, as I delved deeper, I met individuals like Justin Mwandjalulu, a 20-year-old carpentry apprentice in Iowa who had found his calling in the skilled trades. “Man, it was hard,” he told NPR, recounting his struggles with traditional academics. “I’m not the type of guy that likes being in the same spot all day long, dealing with papers and stuff.”

Mwandjalulu’s story is a testament to the growing number of young people who are bucking the norm and embracing the hands-on work that was once the backbone of our communities. These are the trailblazers who are reclaiming the joy of craftsmanship and challenging the narrative that college is the only path to success.

Rediscovering the Allure of Tradition

As I traversed the backroads of Appalachia, visiting the workshops of seasoned chairmakers, I was struck by the sheer passion and dedication that radiated from these individuals. Mary Yang, a writer for the Lost Art Press blog, captured the essence of this movement perfectly: “Chairmaking is not anachronistic, but the pursuit of something different. It is a considered and deliberate way of life. A life lived intentionally.”

Take Randy Ogle, for example, a third-generation chairmaker whose family had been shaping wood for decades. “I had mixed emotions while pulling away from Terry Ratliff’s place for the last time,” he reflected. “The day had been filled with laughter and insight… Yet in returning his photo album, I’d removed the necessity for another visit.”

Ogle’s words spoke to the deep bonds that these makers had forged, not just with the craft itself, but with the community that surrounded it. It was a way of life that had been passed down through the generations, a connection to a bygone era that refused to be extinguished.

Embracing the Challenges, Celebrating the Rewards

As I delved deeper into the world of traditional woodworking, I was struck by the sheer physicality of the work. These artisans were not just shaping wood with their hands, but with their entire bodies. The rhythmic thump of the adze, the steady cadence of the spokeshave – these were the sounds of a labor-intensive craft that demanded both skill and endurance.

Chris Williams, a renowned chairmaker and author, described the process of teaching a Welsh stick chair class, where he convinced his students to try his preferred method for rough stock removal: the adze. “We caught some of it on video for your viewing pleasure and instruction,” he wrote, capturing the essence of the hands-on experience.

But for these makers, the physical challenge was part of the allure. As Terry Ratliff told Mary Yang, “You get isolated. People talk about the Covid being in isolation, well I’ve been in isolation before that. Working for myself, working here in the home studio and staying home. It was great to go to shows, to be around sort of peers, people who live similar lifestyles or totally different ones, but they’ve chosen an art form that they want to pursue.”

It was this sense of community, this deliberate choice to pursue a life of hands-on work, that drove these individuals forward. And as I watched the next generation of chairmakers take up the tools, I couldn’t help but feel a spark of hope for the future of this timeless craft.

Forging a New Path, One Chair at a Time

As I wandered through the workshops, I couldn’t help but notice the diversity of the makers I encountered. There were the third-generation artisans, like Randy Ogle, who had grown up immersed in the traditions of chairmaking. But there were also those who had chosen this path later in life, like Terry Ratliff, who had found solace and fulfillment in the solitude of his home studio.

And then there were the young upstarts, the Justin Mwandjalulus of the world, who were breaking the mold and forging their own paths. As NPR reported, Mwandjalulu found himself struggling in traditional academic settings, only to discover his true calling in the skilled trades. “I didn’t want to look like them,” he said, referring to his college-bound friends who were saddled with student debt. “I didn’t want to just spend money and have a lot of loans and not use my papers.”

It was a sentiment that echoed across the generations. Whether it was the desire to work with their hands, the allure of a self-directed life, or the thrill of creating something tangible, these makers were united in their rejection of the conventional path.

And as I spoke with them, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of optimism for the future of traditional woodworking. These were the trailblazers, the ones who were willing to swim against the tide of automation and industrialization. They were the ones who were reclaiming the art of craftsmanship, one chair at a time.

The Future is Bright, One Chair at a Time

As I reflect on my journey through the workshops of these dedicated chairmakers, I can’t help but feel a renewed sense of hope for the future of traditional woodworking. The path may not be an easy one, but the passion and determination I witnessed are a testament to the enduring allure of hands-on work.

Whether it’s the seasoned veterans like Randy Ogle, who have dedicated their lives to this craft, or the young upstarts like Justin Mwandjalulu, who are forging their own paths, there is a palpable sense of purpose and pride in the work they do. And as the world continues to change, I can’t help but believe that this new generation of makers will be the ones to carry the torch, to breathe new life into these time-honored traditions.

So, as I step back into the timber building and woodworking world, I do so with a renewed sense of optimism. For in the rhythmic thump of the adze and the steady cadence of the spokeshave, I hear the echoes of a future where craftsmanship is celebrated, where hands-on work is revered, and where the next generation of makers is ready to take up the challenge, one chair at a time.


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