The Theoretical Woodworker

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I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.
— Douglas Adams

Years ago, I read the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  The basic premise of the book is that hundreds of years ago, real magicians roamed the Earth and performed amazing feats.  The magicians of 19th century England, however, were “theoretical magicians.”  They spent all of their time researching the “practical magicians” of the past, writing papers, attending conferences, and endlessly debating small nuanced pieces of the craft.  No actual magic was performed.  This story clawed its way out of my memories recently while I reflected on the internet’s impact on woodworkers today.

Past generations of woodworkers would be astonished at the information and community that we have at our fingertips; the internet is a powerful resource.  There are podcasts and blogs, forums and live chats, conferences and shows.  Once you’ve covered all of those for the day, you can hit Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.  It seems like time to actually go into the shop and build things these days is in short supply.  The internet has made possible the theoretical woodworker:  a hobbyist that, much like the magicians of the 19th century, spends all of his or her time participating in the online woodworking community while tools gather dust in their shop.  Unfortunately, I have some experience with this affliction.

Back in the mid-to-late 2000s, I published a weekly woodworking podcast.  It was a fun and complementary hobby to the one I already enjoyed:  working wood.  As the podcast gained more listeners, however, it started to become more demanding of my time.  Planning topics, outlining shows, recording, editing, writing up show notes, and writing blog posts started eating up all of the free time that I used to spend woodworking.  Near the end, I felt like the only reason I was doing any woodworking at all was to generate content for the podcast.  That was the breaking point, and I decided to end the podcast and focus my attention solely on furniture making.

My four-year-long experiment in self-imposed exile was rewarding, but a little lonely.  My skills improved and I built a lot of stuff, but I missed the regular interaction with other woodworkers.  During that time I learned one very important truth, however:  the work must drive involvement in the online community, not the other way around.   Now, don’t take this the wrong way; the online woodworking community is amazing, and I think all modern woodworkers should participate.  I do not advise becoming a hermit and moving to a cave in the mountains, despite the attractive tax advantages.  We just need to be careful because the internet has a way of surreptitiously stealing time. It’s sneaky like that.  

I don’t think I’m alone in this experience.  Honestly, this phenomenon isn’t even specific to woodworking.  How many times have you fired up your web browser to check the news or the score for a game and then find yourself wondering where the last hour went?  Just remember to keep everything in moderation and never forget this one simple fact: you’re not a woodworker unless you actually work wood.

So how did the novel end?  Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I can tell you this: there were exactly two modern day practical magicians, and the book is named after them.  I can’t remember the names of any of the theoretical types.