Many people take great pleasure in making things by hand that will later become family heirlooms. Throughout history, wood has been used for this purpose. Regardless of the period, people not only pursued woodworking for utilitarian purposes but also as a leisure activity because it provided a sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment.
In colonial America, most settlers were farmers, and wood was abundant. Although their homes were simple, these farmers used a variety of carved woodenware, including knife boxes and spoon racks, to help cooks organize their kitchens. Wallace Nutting stated that woodenware such as bowls, trenchers, and tankards were important home supplies, as well as other kitchen utensils, including ladles and baskets. These kitchen items combined form and function with regional flair. Mary Norwak suggested that homeowners made these utilitarian pieces to also serve as decorations, replacing pictures on the wall. According to Drew Langsner, creating utensils was an excellent way to train for the fundamentals of woodworking. Making wooden dough troughs, for example, would improve a person's carving and hatching ability.
In the southern Appalachians and Ozark Mountains baskets were crafted from white oak and were useful for storing yarn and fishing equipment, as well as carrying garden products and wood for the stove. Basketry combined many skills: harvesting timber, carving basket pegs, and tapering and weaving the oak splits. Unlike many wood projects that were crafted primarily by males, both males and females created basketry.
Carl Bridenbaugh suggested furniture such as tables, chairs, hutches, and dressers generally were made by hand. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, 40 percent of Americans worked either in small shops or in their homes to produce their own furniture.
Woodworking trades encompassed a range of skilled workers. Joiners specialized in making stools, peg boards, shelves, and other items that required wood to be connected. Turners worked on lathes, creating cylindrical objects such as legs for tables and chairs. Cabinetmakers made finer products, often requiring dovetail joints, veneers and inlayed wood (Wallace). Tradesmen produced many of the finer homes and furnishings belonging to wealthier Americans.
With the dawn of the industrial age, the use of power-driven machinery to produce wood products replaced the work of tradesmen because the tradesmen could not compete with the mass production brought on by the industries (Russell). Brooke Hindle suggested high-speed woodworking tools were modified and special attention was given to lubrication and blade balancing, thus reducing wood waste. The circular saw had to compete with the band saw, which cut larger pieces of wood more efficiently and provided a continuous rather intermittent cutting action. Planing, mortising, and tenoning machines were created as early as 1830. Each machine was specialized and developed in new directions to accommodate specific needs.
The Metabo Company in Germany created the first electric handheld tool in 1934. Later companies such as Sears and Roebuck, Dewalt, and Porter Cable became leaders in power tool production in the United States. The availability of precision power tools has enhanced the abilities of both the hobbyist and the professional trades person. Faster saw-blade revolutions remove wood more evenly, lighter tool-casing materials reduce fatigue, and ergonomic grips make woodworking more comfortable.
How-to-books from Reader's Digest, Sunset Publishers, Popular Mechanics, and Time Life have had a large impact on the number of people who engage in woodworking as a leisure pursuit. These books made woodworking easier to understand because they provided step-by step instructions, detailed explanations, photographs, shop drawings, and measurements, thus making projects almost foolproof. Projects outlined in these books range from simple birdhouses and footstools to complex storage buildings, patios, and decks. Later, television shows such as This Old House and New Yankee Workshop encouraged woodworkers and further increased their participation and spending. It is estimated that 14.5 million viewers watch these television shows each week.
Modern woodworkers are upscale, work in fine woods, and are eager to find quality tools. In 1997, woodworkers spent $315 million on hand tools and another $1.5 billion on power tools. In 1998, the New York Times reported woodworking purchases have created a $14 billion industry. The article also indicated approximately 19 million people participated in woodworking, with the average hobbyist being a forty-five-year-old male (84 percent) with sixteen years of experience and an average household income of $100,000.
Bridenbaugh, Carl. The Colonial Craftsman. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.
Hindle, Brooke. America's Wooden Age: Aspects of Its Early Technology. Tarrytown, New York: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1975.
Langsner, Drew. Country Woodcraft. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1978.
Norwak, Mary. Kitchen Antiques. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1975.
Nutting, Wallace. Furniture of the Pilgrim Century. New York: Dover Publications, 1965.
Russell, Ruth. Pastimes: The Context of Contemporary Leisure. Dubuque, Iowa: Brown and Benchmark, 1996.
"Woodworking Unplugged." New York Times, 23 July 1998.