No one would ever accuse me of being an extrovert, but occasionally I run into a fellow woodworker at a social gathering. This is usually a great experience, but I recently had a conversation that had me looking for the exit.
“So, what kind of woodworking do you do?” The man didn’t look at me when he asked the question. Instead, he kept his eyes fixed on his drink, which he swirled causing the ice cubes to clink.
“Flatwork. I’ve been building a lot of furniture in a modern shaker style, lately. How about you?”
“Oh!” he said, his eyes growing wide, almost as if he just realized I was standing next to him. “I’m a Norm-anderthal with an occasional Mayan-breakdancer mixed in.”
I blinked. He was saying English words, but they were not connected in any way that I recognized. “I’m sorry… did you say, ‘Norm-anderthal?’”
“Oh, yeah! That means I’m strictly a power tool user, but I’ll only work with vintage machines.”
“Is that a real term? I’ve never heard that before.”
“Of course. Everyone is using that term lately.”
“Who is ‘everyone?’”
“You know… the forums.”
I sighed. “Fine, fine. What’s a ‘Mayan-breakdancer?’”
He snorted and a few drops of his drink dripped on my shoes from his incessant swirling. “Boy, you must be a real newbie! A Mayan-breakdancer is a small project that I build using only vintage hand tools from the ancient Mayan empire while wearing clothing from the 1980’s.”
“Heh heh. Yeah. I must be a real ‘newbie.’”
“Any way, it sounds like you like to use both hand tools and power tools. Would you say you’re more of a hybrid woodworker or a blended woodworker?"
“Errr… are those different?”
“Oh, definitely! A hybrid woodworker is someone who primarily uses power tools, but mixes in hand tools sometimes. A blended woodworker is someone who uses hand tools primarily, but mixes in power tools sometimes.”
“Huh. I guess this is more complicated than I thought. What do you call someone that uses power tools and hand tools equally with no real preference?”
“What?” He rolled his eyes. “Nobody does that.” His phone rang, and he held up a finger at me as he turned around to take the call. While his back was turned, I slipped away.
I don’t like to assign labels to woodworkers. Sure, sometimes there’s no choice; if you want to discuss a particular topic, it’s best to name it so everyone has the proper frame of reference. When you step back and look at the overall population, however, woodworkers are a very small percentage. We’re a tiny niche group that insists on sub-dividing itself into even smaller niche groups. These small groups then become cliques that either close themselves off from the greater community or outright go to war with other cliques on the internet. This might be human nature since it’s common in all social groups, but that doesn’t mean it’s positive.
I rarely improve my skills by limiting my interactions to a small group of people that do things exactly the same way that I do. Every breakthrough that I’ve ever experienced came after talking with or reading about someone that approaches the craft from a different direction. I need to surround myself with unfamiliar ideas and methods to spark my own creativity. The Norm-anderthals could learn a thing or two from the blended woodworkers. And I’m sure the hybrid woodworkers could find some great sparks by talking with the Mayan-breakdancers. Well, maybe not… unless they’re looking for a good deal on parachute pants.
The online debates over which group represents the more “traditional” woodworkers or the more “skilled” woodworkers or whatever people are arguing over these days need to stop. It doesn’t matter what tool you use to accomplish a task. The fact that you’re building things made out of wood is enough. So put the label maker away and get back to work.
Oh, and I guess it’s entirely possible that I made up that entire conversation. Then again, maybe not.