Can Woodworking Save Our Economy?

As I read through this post after writing it, I realize it is ever so slightly political in nature. I’m not a political person (I hate politics) and really intended to focus mostly on the woodworking aspect of my thought, but I let my mind ramble on a bit. So the woodworking is in here, but there’s a lot more than just woodworking going on. So if you came here for woodworking and woodworking only, you can stop reading now. Otherwise, for a bunch of random drivel that has spilled out of my head, read on.

I’m not a politician or an economist, nor do I ever desire to become one. However, it doesn’t take a degree in political science or economics to know that the American economy is in crisis. In all honesty, I don’t think that the politicians are the real source of the problem though. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t believe that they’re interested in helping anyone but themselves. But, I also don’t think it’s really their fault that we’re in the economic position that we are. Most were elected or appointed into an office already overflowing with problems they didn’t create.

In my day job, like many of you I’m sure, much of what I do is fight the daily fires that inevitably arise on an hourly basis. When we do get to spend some time working on bigger issues, the ultimate goal is not to put in a quick Bandaid fix, but instead to get to the true root cause of the problem, and implement a long term, permanent solution. In my opinion, that’s what is missing from most of the solutions being proposed by the politicians. The parties blame each others’ laws and bills, while we blame the politicians, the bankers, and the large greedy corporations sending their jobs overseas.

The truth of the matter is that these people really aren’t the ones who created our problems. We are. We did it to ourselves. Like it or not, it was our own greedy, irresponsible, consumeristic ways that got us into this economic mess. As consumers, we have continued to demand low price over quality domestic production. And let’s face it folks, money talks. How we spend our money is the most important factor in determining how the big corporations are going to invest their capital. If we demand low price, they’re going to do whatever is necssary to lower operating costs in order to increase profits and deliver on customer demand. This includes higher output, lower quality and offshore production. They’re just giving us what we asked for.

As Americans, we consume everything. Electronics, clothing, fossil fuels, processed foods, and yes, furniture. We simply use things up and throw them out. We don’t repair things anymore, because our demands and spending habits have driven the prices on goods so low that it costs less to just buy a new widget than it does to repair the old one. We have become a disposable society, demanding disposable goods, at disposable prices.

The truth is often times painful, but really, the only true solution to our problems is to take a good look at our own habits. If we want things to change, we have to start with ourselves. If we want quality, we have to demand quality, not with our mouths, but with our wallets. If we want domestically produced goods, we have to demand domestically produced goods, not with our mouths, but with our wallets. It is up to us to tell producers of goods what is important to us, not with our mouths, but with our wallets. As I said before, money talks. This doesn’t mean spending more of our money, it just means spending our money more wisely.

What’s this got to do with woodworking? I’m getting to the point. Really. Just bear with me a little longer.

We just finished the holiday season. I don’t care how much you spent, or didn’t spend. The dollar value is unimportant. Instead, I’d like you to take a look at the gifts you gave and received. Where are they made? How well made are they? Did you focus your shopping more on quality, or quantity. Is anyone guilty of buying low cost, low quality items made in offshore countries so they could put more stuff under the tree instead of fewer, higher quality, domestically made alternatives?

Believe me, I’m not judging. I do it too. I’m part of the problem. I need to be part of the solution.

The sad part is that while I am a woodworker, not one of the gifts I gave came out of my shop. Looking back on this fact, I’m somewhat ashamed of myself. Such a simple solution to the holiday frenzy, yet so many of us will still fight the crowds at the mall to spend our hard earned American money on overpriced imported crap that will be broken, worn out or out dated in six months.

As woodworkers, we can play a big role in changing things though. Our creations make great gifts that will last for generations. Plus, most people are much more appreciative and will cherish an item much more and for much longer when they know the care and thought that went into making it special just for them. There are lot’s of things that can be made from wood. It just takes a little imagination.

As individual craftsmen, it’s also our responsibility to promote quality, local goods and services, not just by our own work, but by our own spending habits as well. When shopping for clothes, it just takes a look at the label before shelling out that $50 for a pair of jeans. The local mall may not have US made jeans, but they are out there, and they aren’t really any more expensive than the imported stuff.

Our food choices are similar. Sure, the supermarket has apples imported from Chile for $0.99 per pound. But think about the satisfaction of supporting the local orchard or farmer by paying the extra $0.50 per pound for local produce, and knowing where it came from. A trip to the local farmer’s market is all it takes. At a minimum, only buy the stuff from the big grocer that is from a US grower. Heck, start a garden right in the backyard. Grow what is needed and preserve the extra instead of buying the commercial jars full of chemical preservatives and imported from all over the globe. Gardening is a natural extension of craft. It’s another way we can “make stuff” for ourselves, and others, and promote quality, local products.

We can’t change things alone just through the items we make, but the movement has to start somewhere. We can simplify our lives and demand quality in everything we buy. We can develop relationships with local farmers and other local caftsmen. We can trade services with them. We can buy from them. We can sell to them. We can learn how to make and do as much as we can for ourselves. If we can’t find a local, or at least a domestically produced alternative to what it is we are looking to purchase, we need to ask ourselves if we really need that item. If we absolutely have to buy imported, we should make sure it’s a quality item and not a piece of junk made overseas just to cut costs and undercut a similar, quality, domestically made item.

Most of all, we need to pass it on. Woodworking is far too often a solitary hobby. Keeping what we know to ourselves doesn’t help anyone. We should be teaching these skills to our kids, our grandkids, the neighborhood kids, and anyone else who will listen. We need to instill the value of home grown quality into those around us. Grow a garden (something my family is getting back to this year after a two year hiatus). Support the local Mom & Pop shops (if there are any left) instead of the big box importers. Promote quality, local products, not just to benefit our craft and our own agenda as woodworkers, but for the sake of craftsmanship as a whole.

At one time, communities knew each other by face and name. By striving to once again build those relationships, and support our local communities not just with our words, but with our dollars, we can begin to make a change.

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21 thoughts on “Can Woodworking Save Our Economy?

  1. Bob, My family and I have been living with this approach for several years now. For my whole life (50 years) society has dictated that cheaper and more is better. As woodworkers we know that not to be true, better is better. It’s hard to simplify, not in human nature I think, but rewarding to know much more of the money we do spend stays local. If you look at the big picture it can get pretty bleak, so we decided to change what we could control, our small corner of the world. This year almost 80% of the food we ate was locally produced (not an easy trick in Alaska)and when we really need something, we try to buy from a local small retailer. It’s nice to see others are thinking along the same lines and spreading the word. Thanks

  2. Bob well written and heard. I myself grow a lot of my own food. And the sad thing is when the kids are served the home grown green beans they tell me ” these taste funny”. They are so used to the store bought stuff, they have no idea what natural is. Real butter milk is wonderful. I can still get it and it does not taste like the stuff in the supermarket. They make there’s with enzymes and skim milk, yuck. The point is people don’t know what quality is. We are stuck in a rut.
    Now that I am wood working again. If anything needs to be bought or breaks. I build it. I just built my grandson a bed. I bet his children will use it.
    Thanks and you have my vote!

  3. Bob, I totally agree with everything you just said. Another thing that really needs to change for this to even have any possibility is to change the mindset of americans. Many people just don’t care about anyone but themselves. Until Americans think of there fellow man and whats good for the whole nothing will change. I think we could change much of this we just need a spark and the right fuse.

  4. Great post, Bob. Support your local craftsmen whether you live in New Jersey, Georgia, or Chile. Keep your dollars local as much as you can and you’ll make a difference in your local community. If you don’t, you’ll only have big box stores and chain restaurants to choose from. Small business have always been the lifeblood of community no matter where you live.

  5. One point of correction – corporations are not greedy. Corporations have no motives or feelings. People do. Some corporations have good leadership some have bad. Let’s just place blame where it belongs – with all of us. 🙂

  6. You make some very good points. I only wish I could afford to buy more locally-produced, high-quality products, though my teacher’s salary limits my efforts in that direction. However, there are other things I can do to resist our wasteful, consumption-driven economy. I did manage to hand-make two or three Christmas gifts this year, plus some ornaments for the kids. That was fun and rewarding. I have also been able to make and repair small-scale stuff, and my workshop is turning into something of a cottage industry. Not only is it beginning to contribute to the household economy, but I’m contributing in my own small way to the local economy as well. One of the keys to changing our current economic structure, I think, is to make the household an economic asset rather than a liability.

    Another way I’ve been able to resist wastefulness is through repair. For example, I can’t afford to buy a new rocking chair from somebody who makes them here in town, much as I would like to. But I can pick up an old one that’s broken, fix it up, and give it new life in my house. The more I’ve been able to repair old things, the less I have to buy new things.

  7. Well put Bob. I owned and operated a small cabinet shop for a short period in the 80’s and I know firsthand how most people will choose lower price over quality. Some do see value in well-crafted furniture and respect the craftsman who made them, and you are right to point out that we have to be that type of person as we consider our purchases. I would only add that buying local can be extended beyond the people making things and growing things, it should also extend to retail. One of the things I try to do is to support the local hardware store and the local woodworking supply store. I know I can get things cheaper on-line, but I also want those stores to remain in business. The one think I can’t stand, are people who go to those stores to touch and feel a tool, and then buy it on-line to save a few dollars.

    My last comment is on what I feel is your best point, we do need to pass this craft on. My daughter has been working to learn more about woodworking, and it is very rewarding to help her. She’s in her 20’s, and often has to draw arbitrary lines on cost, but she appreciates quality and is willing to work to produce it, even if she can’t afford to buy it. Woodworking gives us all that opportunity.

  8. Bob,
    It always begins with ourselves, as you said. Changing ourselves, our own habits, our own thinking and perspectives is the best way to change and improve the world. Mark

  9. Bob – Greatly appreciated not only this post but all the teaching you do through the web site. I’m a regular reader. I would like to make one additional point regarding the “greedy corporations” (one of which I work for) – as stated earlier, it’s not the corporation, it’s the demands of the leadership, which is in turn influenced by two things: 1. The demands for cheap prices as you pointed out, and 2. The demands of investors if it is a publicly traded company. We all demand a return on our investment, and generally the higher return the better. By investing our dollars in corporate stock and demanding a high return on that investment, we are all partly responsible for sending jobs over seas, lower quality, and the loss of jobs as companies try to stay competitive and profitable.

  10. Bob I totally 100% agree with your philosophy and try to follow a lot of what you are talking about. I don’t have a Garden as I physically could not maintain one, but would like to and my Father all way’s had one. However I do frequent the open Market’s at our Flea Market.

    I live an old community just a little South West of Orlando which we do have a neat down town with Mom and Pop shops. We have a great Hardware Store and I only go to the Borg to buy wood, as they have everything and competes with the Borg. We have a Meat Market where they sell only meat and poultry from the local ranches.

    Now that I am retired we have to watch how and what we spend. I am working with my 5 year old Grandson and building him a tool collection and showing him how to safely use tools, he enjoy’s being out in the shop to “working wood” as he calls it.

    I am hoping to make some nice gifts for family and friends this year as I so enjoy working and learning more about my Hand Tools.

    I am not going to get into this Political scene other than to say we need to get rid of all the “Career Politicians” and have have limited terms.

    Steve

  11. Bob,

    This is a great post Bob. A big problem is that we are all, to a degree, captive to the choices made by others, choices of politicians and choices of products and services. If more people buy fresh, local produce more will be available etc. We can’t change the world, but we can change ourselves.

    I’ve noticed a major trend in hand tool woodworking these days toward having fewer, but high quality tools that are well cared for. I think that is a very good thing.

  12. Nice post, Bob. I live in a place where supporting local business, as well as local craftsman and artists, is taken seriously. People really do make an effort, and it’s one of the reasons we decided to move here. In others places I’ve lived it’s just been given lip service.

    -Eric, whose still working on that spice rack and storage box that a certain plump, jolly man from up north should have delivered to my girlfriend a few weeks back.

  13. I found this from a posting on the oldtools listserv (http://swingleydev.com/archive/faq.html). An interesting grassroots “what can I do?” is the local 3/50 movement described at http://www.the350project.net/home.html which I found recently from a side comment on a local garden center website. Basically pick 3 _local_ businesses to make a point of trying to spend $50/month at. They exclude locally owned franchises of chains, and I find myself surprised at how few non-restaurants (I can cook from scratch thank you very much) that are local I am even aware of. Gardening, sewing, and cooking cuts down my external expenses, and if I started spending $50/month at the local sewing and knitting stores my stash would become even worse than it is now.

  14. Good read.

    Of course you’re preaching to the choir here, as I would venture all of the readers of your Blog appreciate and crave quality. I know that I do.

    Unfortunately, most people (so it seems) don’t know what quality is. They think IKEA is the good stuff. I’m hesitant to make anything for friends or family because there is no appreciation. Sure, they appreciate the gift for what it is, but there’s no understanding of the hours that might have gone into such a gift.

    I’m pulling this number out of my butt, but I would venture 90%+ of the population doesn’t know what quality is and therefore can’t appreciate or demand it. It’s rather depressing, and I don’t see any easy solutions. I can do my part when I get the opportunity, of espousing the virtues of quality ‘things’, but it’s somewhat like pissing into the ocean (pardon my French).

  15. Bob. Well written and thoughtful. This should really be read beyond the confines of a woodworking blog by a much wider audience. To echo some of the comments posted previously, real change begins at the bottom, no the top. The Vietnam War and it’s expansion was not ended by Washington or by the Paris Peace Talks but but by kids who protested and parents who were tired of seeing their sons go off to a war that seemed without purpose. The Women’s Movement was started at the grass roots level as was the Civil Rights Movement. I know some are critical of the outcome of some of these “popular uprisings” of the past but taken in the context of the times, they were so necessary. What is common to these and others is there historic place in the past and a lack of comparative movements in recent history. I think that this is largely due to complacency that originates in the same place as our demand for cheap goods and higher returns on investment, as you’ve pointed out. There’s also far too much divisiveness among our ranks which, if you think about it, benefits only those whose interests lie in controlling us as a whole. After all, how can change be effected if we can’t even agree what change we want? Can woodworking change the world? It’s a simplification but yes, I believe it can. That is to say that the attitudes most us, your readers and others in our community, have about craftsmanship, value, durability etc., if brought into daily life in all we do, and others take up our example, then yes, in time things can change from the ground up. We need to remember that it won’t be quick and that what we sow often takes many seasons to bear fruit. A previous post mentioned that making holiday gifts often goes unappreciated. I know that feeling well but I say do it anyway. Do your best work and if you can, talk to the recipient about what went into it. I think that the various crafts, as a whole, share this philosophy. One thing that modern movements like the Tea Party and the OWS movement seem to lack is clear focus. I don’t think it needs to be that hard. Perhaps all that is needed is a clearly written manifesto of principles. People seem to like a document they can point to and say, “I believe this”. For my part, I’m determined that the 2012 holiday season will see nothing but gifts from me that come from my shop and that come hell or high water, I will find one person this year who wants to learn how to hand cut a mortise or dovetail.

  16. Well said Bob.

    We could all use more quality in our lives. Bring back the Arts and Crafts movement.

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