Swiss army knife

To whittle not Wii!

Israeli-born luthier Boaz Elkayam was once asked by Victorinox to build a guitar using only a Swiss army knife. It was a publicity stunt, of course, but when you consider that traditional Mexican luthiers build guitars using few tools other than the long, curved carving knife that they call a cuchillo, it doesn’t seem like such a tall order.

Mind you, the Mexicans do know a thing or two about making guitars. The town of Paracho, which is situated some 7000ft above sea level and surrounded by volcanic mountains, is known as the acoustic guitar capital of the world. Despite the altitude, where you might expect humidity to make life difficult for instrumentmakers, the population of 16,500 includes around 1200 guitar makers, and every year the town hosts la Feria Nacional de la Guitarra, which as you’ve probably guessed is the National Guitar Festival.

Denmark school
▲ A school in Denmark, 1931: the slöjd system
differed from the one chosen in Britain, in that
here it has long been about fitting the trainee
out for industrial rather than personal needs.
What’s particularly interesting about Paracho’s guitar-making reputation, is that it’s essentially a cottage industry based upon hand tools and small father-and-son workshops. Of course, only a few of the instruments produced become the fine guitars that grace the world’s stages or recording studios. It’s impressive, nonetheless, that such workshops can turn out two or three workaday instruments every day using the most basic of tools. What sets the finer instruments apart from these lesser ones is not the fact that makers have access to more or better tools, but their greater understanding of materials and how they are affected by factors such as humidity. As I say, these are father-and-son businesses, so the culture and the skills are preserved within the family and are passed on from generation to generation.
 
Child woodworking
▲ With a little supervision, children can be
encouraged into independent creativity. By
learning and rediscovering skills with wood,
we can equip ourselves for the future
 

Old skills; new needs

At this point you’re probably thinking, “That’s all very well Mike, but what exactly is your point?” Well, by now you’re probably pretty familiar with the romantic fool in me that is captivated by the notion of handiwork, and all that’s entailed in applying oneself to a craft in this way. So, the rather offbeat idea that I’ve been developing over recent months involves putting together a programme of woodworking not unlike the system in Paracho.

It starts with little more than a pile of wood and the most basic of essential tools, and ends with a couple of sticks of furniture. Along the way we, the woodworking explorers, would devise new skills and rediscover old ones, and hopefully revive a moribund culture. The intention is not to simply re-enact history in the way that, say, Ironbridge does (though Victorian dress might add a touch of style), but to re-purpose old skills to create a new future in a world of increasingly rare and precious resources. It would also reawaken an awareness of the pleasure that can be derived from creative effort, rather than from passively received instant gratification, and nurture a culture that perceives the process as equally, if not more rewarding, than the finished object.

1894, not Orwell's 1984

> To instill a taste for and an appreciation of work in general
> To create a respect for hard, honest, physical labour
> To develop independence and self-reliance
> To provide training in the habits of order, accuracy, cleanliness and neatness
> To train the eye to see accurately and to appreciate the sense of beauty in form
> To develop a sense of touch and to give general dexterity to the hand
> To inculcate the habits of attention, industry, perseverance and patience
> To promote the development of the body’s physical powers> To acquire dexterity in the use of tools
> To execute precise work and to produce useful products

To be more specific, my idea is to facilitate a kind of green woodworking both at the bench and in the forest, and for the young and old; a green woodworking that would equip us suitably for the perils of the future. I envisage a bootstrap workshop where tools are made as they’re required and where each item made leads to another; a course of creative action that begins with adults but, most importantly, involves children working alongside them.

I believe that there are no insurmountable problems to letting children work wood, at least not in the guise that I perceive it. My own nearly five-year old loves sitting at the bench and mashing with a mallet, shaping with rasps, and generally joining odd bits of wood together. It’s helped him to learn that fingers are more easily mashed and rasped than wood, and with supervision he has already built toy aeroplanes, rockets, boats and the like. Supervision is only required to teach and ensure safety – hands staying behind the cutting edge, say, and the cutting edge moving away from the body – rather than to influence the production of the final object. Although he’s made some fun things to play with, the real reward lies in the creative process, which is all his own; as he gets older, of course, he’ll not only realise the benefits of producing something useful, but the wider aims of the programme

Inspiration vs industrialisation

If the goals listed below sound a little old fashioned, that’s because it is. And if you’ve come across it before, I take my hat off to you! The lofty set of goals is lifted directly from the pages of The teacher’s handbook of slöjd, as practised and taught at Nääs, containing explanations and details of each exercise (1894) by the Swedish educationalist, Otto Salomon. This book describes an educational system based on woodworking exercises that start with simple things and lead to the production of useful items. Salomon thought that teaching woodworking in a particular way was formative and that a range of prescribed and closely supervised progressive exercises would be beneficial to the mind and body, not to mention building character.

Sepia photo

Salomon was drawing on the educational philosophies of Froebel and Rousseau. Froebel is best known, perhaps, for his formulation of the kindergarten system, with its emphasis on play and activities. Rousseau, meanwhile, wrote in Emile: or, On Education (1762): ‘Put a young man in a workshop, his hands will work to the benefit of his brain, he will become a philosopher while thinking himself only a craftsman’.

This educational slöjd system continued in Scandinavian countries, and its effects can still be seen there today. But in America and Britain, the system lost the struggle for dominance, despite enthusiastic support from particular sections of the educational community. It was the Russian system, as the Americans called it (known in Britain as Manual Training), that won the day. It was based on instruction, led by craftsmen, which embedded into students skills that were perceived as being of practical value, rather than encouraging creative exploration and problem solving, as with the slöjd system.

We need to repurpose old skills for a new future, in a world of increasingly rare and precious resources J.A Green, Professor of Education at Sheffield University, complained of work, “conducted in centres the control of which is not in the hands of the ordinary teaching staff. In such a position it is apt to remain a mere training in certain manual dexterities, selected from the standpoint of industry.” But in America, Woodrow Wilson in what, to my mind, is a moment of fantastical egoism, told the New York City Teacher’s Association in 1909: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” How Wilson later became president is unclear to me, but what this shows is that the values of the educational slöjd were out of step with the industrial imperative in both countries.

The state of things

Woodworking isn’t much taught at schools today, and apprenticeships seem hard to come by. In fact, the only woodworking teachers I come across are, well, ex-woodworking teachers. It also seems that the concept of allowing children to get creative with sharps is too terrifying for most people to contemplate. After all, they might cut themselves free of all that cotton wool.

Woodworking didn’t feature in any official capacity whatsoever at my school, although I did elect to build a wooden model ship from plans in an art class in the fifth form. Unfortunately, my ship was never finished, and my friend put me to shame by building a serviceable, fretless electric bass guitar (though perhaps the art teacher jumping about on Top of the Pops around that time with a reasonably raucous hit had something to do with our relative achievements). It isn’t all doom and gloom, mind. There is a host of skilled cabinetmakers who supplement their workshop revenues by running courses, and thanks to these teachers there is an appreciation for high-level work, which is in fact being turned out by people across the country. There are many schools like Cornwall College (GW197) that offer a range of great courses, and so in some ways, this craft of ours is still intensely vibrant.

Further reading

Doug Stowe's blog – Wisdom of the hands

The teacher’s handbook of slöjd, as practised and taught at Nääs, containing explanations and details of each exercise (1894) by Otto Salomon, was republished by Kessinger Publishing in October 2007.

Emile: or, On Education (1762) by Jean Jacques Rousseau is available online via Columbia University in USA: Click here

The History and Philosophy of Art Education (2004) by Stuart Macdonald is published by James Clarke & Co, and is available from www.amazon.co.uk, as is Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.

What I’m proposing, though, is the opportunity for children and parents to play together with wood and tools, all under the umbrella of an easily accessed, low-cost programme. Maybe I’m the only one who sees value in this, or maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t invent invisible obstacles to otherwise achievable goals. Whatever, I’m looking into it, and so time will tell.

What I’m proposing, though, is the opportunity for children and parents to play together with wood and tools, all under the umbrella of an easily accessed, low-cost programme. Maybe I’m the only one who sees value in this, or maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t invent invisible obstacles to otherwise achievable goals. Whatever, I’m looking into it, and so time will tell.