Senior Developer, Will Thomson, recently took a day out each week for 4 months to learn the craft of woodworking. The results are impressive.
I took a break from being a full-time Potato, and worked for a day a week with a friend, Mike, who makes high end hand-crafted furniture and bespoke joinery. I had no experience beyond DIY home improvement skills and an enthusiasm harking back to my school days. During my 16 weeks there, I helped make smaller products, and also assisted in some of his client work.
I love making stuff; problem solving and seeing that the end product is useful. That's why I got into web development, but I find it quite transient. My work often doesn't stick around for more than a couple of years. I wanted to make things that satisfy that urge to solve problems and are useful, but are also tangible and long-lasting. Woodworking is perfect for this.
Mike had a number of designs for small items he wants to sell both on his website and at craft fairs. They were ideal projects for a novice like me, made mostly from offcuts from other jobs and not being time critical. Mike always had a prototype for me to look at. At each stage he’d help me set up whatever tools I needed, talk me through it, including any safety considerations. He’d demonstrate once or twice, before observing me. When he was happy, he’d leave me to repeat the task for as many items as I was making (for instance, I made 12 small mallets, pictured below). When I completed each step, Mike would show me the next part of the process. As time went by, and my knowledge of the tools improved, Mike gave me more freedom to set up tools, and even decide on the best approach to achieve the end result.
This experience gave me a huge appreciation of the craft. There’s a common misconception that woodworking is manual labour and should therefore be cheap. Consumers often don't consider the time it takes to design and plan, source quality materials and solve problems, let alone the time taken to produce something of great quality. With bespoke items, there is a lot of work to be done for every item created.
This perception is changing, but it has a long way to go. This can sometimes be comparable to creating bespoke websites and applications to the standard that Potato does. You could compare furniture from IKEA or Habitat to a website on Squarespace or Wix. A huge amount of R&D to produce something to fit the needs of most people at a great price. Moving beyond that requires a lot more effort per item.
Unlike building websites, woodworking is physically demanding and potentially dangerous. While both require a lot of concentration, there’s no risk of losing your fingers if your mind wanders while coding! Respecting the tools and maintaining absolute focus is essential.
I greatly enjoyed my time working with Mike. Being in a real-world workshop made the experience far more valuable than attending an evening class. I kept some of the items that I made and I use them, or see them at home regularly. To have something useful, made with high quality materials and built to last with my own hands is really rewarding. Woodworking definitely fulfils that desire to make more tangible things than my day job allows, and is definitely something I’ll continue with.