April 4, 2022
My formal woodworking education began in the first grade in a Los Angeles elementary school in the early 1960s. At the time, somebody decided to introduce woodworking as part of the curriculum at the earliest grades. All classrooms were equipped with metal lockers that held a variety of woodworking hand tools such as crosscut saws, coping saws, hammers, squares, rulers and the like.
It was all quite primitive and taught by the regular classroom teacher as a fully integrated part of the curriculum. We were doing a unit on transportation. You took a pine board and nailed it crosswise on another board to make a wing for an airplane. You took a board and cut two 45-degree cuts at one end to make the prow of a boat. Maybe a rounded cut at the opposite end with a coping saw for the stern. If it was to be an ocean liner, you stacked up steadily decreasing size boards for the superstructure and cut dowels for the smokestacks. For trucks and cars, you nailed on hobby store wooden wheels.
Always being different, I wanted a helicopter. So, I used a coping saw to cut a shape out of a board, made some propellers with popsicle sticks and had a very rough facsimile of a Chinook twin-prop chopper. I painted it with blue tempera paint.
Many years later, I ran into a longtime woodshop teacher in the Los Angeles area and asked him about the program. He remembered it and said it was widespread in the system for a number of years but had been dropped at some point. Probably a budget cut or some kid was spectacularly injured. I don’t know.
All I do know is it awakened in me the concept that I didn’t have to buy everything or beg my parents for it. I could make it myself. And wood was a marvelous medium to do that. It also taught me practical measuring skills and how to make one part fit another. These days, too many kids go all the way through a dozen years of schooling without learning those basics. (Don’t ask me about all the stories I’ve done over the years about high school graduates who couldn’t read a tape measure!)
Learning of all types tends to open the door to more learning. OK, I know what to do with a hammer, nails, and a saw; what about other tools? If I can make simple wooden toys, can I make something else, like furniture, or a cabinet? What happens if I can use power tools? It also opens the door to understanding. If you take woodworking classes and go to buy a woodworking product, no matter how bad or good you were in the class, no matter how basic or advanced the class, you won’t be able to buy that product without exploring how it was made.
And in some cases, such an early acquaintance with woodworking skills might open your mind to the opportunity that eventually becomes your career. But that can’t happen if you don’t know the opportunity exists. All these years of more and more schools closing their woodworking programs have made the demise of woodworking as a career a self-fulfilling prophesy that we have to work hard to reverse.