Home Icons Starter Table Saw

Tracing the bourgeois idealism of woodworking

Full-text audio version of this essay.

This essay is part of Home Icons, a series about the cultural and material histories of domestic objects. Read the others here.

One sunny day last September, I stood on my deck with a pile of tools — some birthday gifts, some borrowed from friends — and tried to build something for the first time in my life. It was the first of seven projects included in The Weekend Woodworker, an online class my wife bought for me after years of listening to my idle musing about making furniture. For the next few weekends I would drag my new workbench out of my crawlspace into the yard and work on the California Casual Side Table and the Harmony Garden Bench. But it was the Extra Fancy Office Paper Tray when things got serious.

That project was only possible with a table saw, which is, or at least seemed, like the tool that makes you a real woodworker. It’s substantial. It’s pleasantly dangerous. The circular saw blade rises up out of a table, its teeth whirring toward you. Instead of bringing the saw to the wood, you bring the wood to the saw, which means you can accurately cut longways — following the grain of the wood — or fashion the grooves and dados (a word I had just learned, for grooves cut crosswise in a piece of wood) that are integral to the construction of boxes, drawers, cabinets, and bookshelves.

This was supposed to be about practicing a craft, an experiment in hands-on, artisan labor. And yet, I found myself more and more on a computer

Craigslist had nothing of value. Just a handful of old industrial-sized table saws — not the kind of thing you drag into a yard on the weekend. So eventually I did what every good Millennial DIYer does: bought the Ryobi version. For $269 I picked up a foldable table saw with a 10-inch blade and a 5,000-rpm motor. That sounded good enough, I reasoned, not really knowing what either meant on a practical level. I had grown accustomed to the neon green color from the other Ryobi stuff I bought or borrowed from friends because it was always the cheapest decent option available.

I was wrong. It’s not a good saw. The table flexes too much, so my dados aren’t an even height. The miter gauge, which allows you to make cross cuts at precise angles, wobbles in its slot, and there’s only one of those slots — most table saws have two, one on either side of the blade. The Home Depot description didn’t mention that. I went looking for specialized dado blades, which would require a separate, specialized plate. It was only during my fourth phone call with a Ryobi parts distributor that I was struck by the irony of how much stuff I was buying so I wouldn’t have to buy other stuff.

I didn’t even need an Extra Fancy Office Paper Tray. I didn’t need a California Casual Side Table or a Harmony Garden Bench, for that matter. Why did I care if there were gaps in my miter joints, and why was I suddenly ogling $1,000 professional saws? This was supposed to be about practicing a craft, an experiment in hands-on, artisan labor that would help me escape the laptop life I had grown so accustomed to. And yet, I found myself more and more on a computer: watching instructional YouTube videos and finding new woodworkers to follow on Instagram and reading Reddit comments on other people’s pictures of their Harmony Garden Benches and listening to 60-year-old men tell me what I really needed was a set of hand-made Japanese chisels.

I bought a table saw because I wanted a reprieve from everyday capitalist drudgery. Why did it feel like the only way to make something for myself was to sink even deeper into it?

Woodworking, like most crafts, is full of idealism. On Reddit, Instagram, Etsy, and any of the dozens of woodworking forums across the internet (not to mention in actual stores), woodworkers celebrate the qualities that set their creations apart from factory-made equivalents: the rich hardwoods, the hand-picked grain patterns, the methods of joining pieces of wood together, and the ancient, mythic tradition from which woodworking itself descends.

Even this modern glorification of woodworking history has a long history. It goes back to at least to the late 19th century, when a group of Englishmen surrounding the writer and designer William Morris launched the Arts and Crafts movement. Spanning furniture making, architecture, textiles, stained glass, and other decorative arts, the movement celebrated handmade goods and traditional styles. It became known for the same durable, practical, yet showy joinery today’s woodworking communities still value for the same reasons.

Morris would be disheartened to learn that Arts and Crafts has been relegated to a style. The movement began as a response to industrialization, with its bleak, dehumanizing working conditions and, of particular concern to the bourgeoisie, dismal aesthetics. Morris’s craftsman vision was a full social critique. “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things,” he said, “the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

Morris launched his firm in 1861, aiming to build a kind of craft guild for the modern world, “concerned with the manner of work in the Middle Ages, with the handling of materials by the medieval builder and craftsman,” E. P. Thompson wrote in William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. The movement’s founders hoped to empower workers, giving back the fulfilling, creative labor that industrialization had reduced to mere mechanics. Morris purposefully hired untrained workers to his firm, giving them a chance to learn the craft and offer input on design, rather than just producing someone else’s products. He even instituted profit-sharing, albeit in a limited form. Other Arts and Crafts backers launched schools and training programs for the poor and working classes.

The movement that began as a response to industrialization, with its bleak, dehumanizing working conditions and dismal aesthetics, has since been relegated to a style

Not only did these methods fail to stop capitalism, they were ultimately subsumed by it. Industrial enterprise continued to accelerate, and by the 1880s Morris and his companions’ attempted revolt “had been absorbed by fashionable and wealthy circles.” Their goods had always been too expensive for working people anyway. From the start, the movement was not a laborer’s revolt, but the product of bourgeois disgust. Morris’s father was one of the 250 richest men in Victorian England, and his wealth came from that most detested of industrial occupations: mining. As Morris told the socialist Andreas Scheu later in his life, “[I hung] along with my creative work on to the apron-strings of the idle privileged classes.” Feeling the limits of aesthetic resistance, Morris devoted an increasing amount of time toward radical politics in addition to his aesthetic experiments. He joined England’s first socialist party in 1883 before launching the Socialist League the following year.

The Arts and Crafts movement grew beyond him, with a less utopian bent. Imported to America by well-to-do professors inspired by Morris’s ideas, the new world iteration shed Morris’s socialism and labor critique, tending toward an individualist, self-help ideology that was still conceived as a social good. The country’s most famous furniture maker to this day, Gustav Stickley, was inspired after a trip to England in the 1890s and began to directly target middle-class consumers “whom he encouraged to view their homes as ethical platforms,” craft historian Glenn Adamson wrote in Craft: An American History. It wasn’t labor that would resist modernity’s basest elements, but the crafts themselves. Eventually, Stickley launched a school that focused not on creative labor or even vocational training, but simply “character building.” Morris’s social critique devolved into something without political content at all: the problems of capitalist development would be solved not by empowering workers, but ensuring the consumption of better products. (The final twist is a most American one, showing how corruptible a mere aesthetic can be: Stickley’s brothers copied his designs for their own company, which eschewed craft labor and instituted modern industrial production methods instead.)

By the end of the 1950s, the “hatred of modern civilization” that had inspired Morris had morphed into a critique of midcentury consumerism. The artisans of the American studio crafts movement, while as devoted to handcrafted ideals as their Arts and Crafts predecessors, dropped the Morrisian commitment to beautiful everyday objects, tending more toward sculpture than the decorative arts. The aim was to enter the museum, not ordinary homes. The studio craftspeople, mostly middle-class white artists with university ties, dropped the guild notion that formed the early Arts and Crafts ideal, lauding, instead, the unalienated labor of the exceptional, independent artist. “They felt strongly that America needed them,” Adamson wrote. “Craft was an alternative to bland suburban conformity, to impersonal mass production, to a world where all objects looked the same.”

The contemporary woodworking industry finds its origins in Arts and Crafts, but also in the modern concept of a hobby, which took shape around the same time. Until the early 1880s, the word hobby meant “a dangerous obsession,” historian Stephen Gelber explains in Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. “After that date it became a productive use of free time,” prototypically centered around handicrafts like woodworking.

“Free time” is the key term here, a consequence of the very industrialization Morris so loathed: once the majority of laborers moved from farms to factories, it became possible to conceive of a split between working time and leisure time, and to consider the question of what to do with “time off.” Workers sought relief from the back-breaking, mind-numbing drudgery of their workplaces — and the cities around them — in the form of enlivening things to do at home. Home journals, women’s magazines, and other periodicals began recommending pastimes like crafts and collecting as options for children, workers, and retirees, supported by nascent industries that catered to these new habits. Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round published an article about hobbies in 1890 claiming they were “antidotes to ennui.”

The idle classes worried about what workers would do if they were idle. Part welfare concern and part condescending social control, hobbies, Gelbert wrote, “were a Trojan horse that brought the ideology of the factory and office into the parlor.” That role only grew as the Western world hurtled into the 20th century’s catastrophes. “The specter of idleness, problematic in the best of times, became deeply threatening in a nation with bonus marchers, Hoovervilles, and radical politics,” Gelber wrote. “Hobbies provided a safe way to absorb the sudden surplus of leisure.” Throughout those decades, hobbies helped expand the values of the industrial world, training workers in a productivity mindset.

Once the majority of laborers moved to factories, it became possible to consider what to do with “time off.” The idle classes worried about what workers would do if they were idle

By World War II, hobby culture had become fully enmeshed in capitalist life, and emerged as a full-blown market in its own right, catering more heavily to white collar workers in the process. Ensconced in their new suburban tract homes, the traditional white, middle-class heterosexual family was expected to be self-reliant — fixing creaky doors and mending torn clothes. A DIY movement was born, updating traditional hobbies for the new consumer economy (while of course ignoring the working people who’d been frugally making their own goods the whole time).

For the new hobbyists, doing it yourself didn’t mean doing it alone — the trend “was shaped by commercial interests from the beginning,” Adamson wrote in Craft. To be handy, productive husbands first needed woodworking supplies, magazines to stay up to date. They relied on a commercial economy that could provide standardized parts to make all their new consumer goods work seamlessly together — hence the growth of the modern power tool industry. Power tools sales boomed from a mere $6 million in 1946 to $95 million in 1953. The types of power tools available quadrupled in a similar timeframe. Ryobi, the maker of my table saw, was founded in 1943 to make die cast products for Japan’s military; after the war, it transitioned to civilian products, launching its power tool line in 1968, along with lines for fishing and golf equipment. It’s now a global brand, the go-to tool for homeowners and crafters looking to cheaply outfit a basic workshop or recreate the latest Pinterest fad.

Covid and a roaring housing market are spurring another power tool boom today. Market research firm Technavio estimated the global DIY market to be worth over $601 billion in 2019, rising to nearly $745 billion in the next five years. “Emphasis on DIY home improvement projects for personalized interior designing is a major trend driving the market,” the report stated, while also listing Home Depot — the exclusive carrier of Ryobi tools in the United States — as one of the top players. The manager at my local craft woodworking store told me their sales were up 90 percent this year.

Suburban husbands once built out garage workshops to make up for deadening desk work; now, household crafts soothe those of us deskbound at home. Crafting still holds appeal as something outside of the everyday experience of capitalism, and this thinking places us in a long tradition that has always become more concerned with middle-class discontents than the material conditions of workers.

The rise of affordable power tools bifurcated the craft industry, woodworking included. On the one hand, there were the hobbyist “wood butchers” like me, toiling away in the garages with ready-made kits. On the other, the true craftsmen carrying the art forward — according to them, anyway. The famed cabinetmaker James Krenov — the most influential woodworker for today’s generation of craftsmen — bridged both camps by way of shared ideals, expanding and complicating the self-help themes established by Gustav Stickley for the post-war counterculture. Trained in Sweden under Carl Malmsten (called the “father of Scandinavian furniture design” by the New York Times), Krenov launched a cabinetmaking school at California’s College of the Redwoods in 1981. It is still one of the leading woodworking programs in the country.

Though plenty of Krenov’s pieces made it into museums, he was far more attuned to everyday life, and to the labor of the woodworker. Critical of both showy high-art furniture and “folksy crafts” that are “pressed into a monotony of sorts,” he instead championed woodworking not as “a way of making a living” but as “being a way of living,” as he wrote in his 1979 book The Impractical Cabinetmaker. The book was a defense of the amateur hobbyist — not quite a political critique, but steeped in countercultural ideals of self-actualization — from a man who referred to himself as a “pre-Kerouac hippie.” Krenov’s craft ideals have been easily subsumed by today’s woodworking industries, which retain the idea that to better oneself is to make the world better. “Nothing else matters,” Krenov wrote, except finding “the kind of people who do not make us unhappy at our work or about our work.” It’s easy to idealize the workshop’s “authentic” physical labor in a digitized world, where manufacturing is outsourced to factories in the global South.

“To do something we enjoy is to begin to know ourselves,” James Krenov wrote. “Philosophical talk and all kinds of uneasy moving around won’t by themselves give us wholeness. We need to work in a way that is satisfying.” What makes work satisfying, it turns out, is the next tool you need to buy. It’s the “cordless lithium-ion technology” of the “RYOBI 18V ONE+ System”’ that saves you the hassle of plugging stuff in. Or it’s upgrading from Ryobi to Rigid (another Home Depot exclusive, of course), or from Rigid to SawStop, if you’re in the luxury market demographic. Or maybe realizing that the true woodworker only uses hand tools, so you should get a chisel set and a three varieties of bench plane and a spokeshave — all luxury versions, because there’s no point in not having the best.

It’s easy to idealize the workshop’s “authentic” physical labor in a digitized world, where manufacturing is outsourced to factories in the global South

This is about spirituality, so there’s an emotional element that needs attention. That’s why you can join Ryobi Nation, because “what you build is worth sharing, worth celebrating.” And once you prove your chops you can move on to one of the higher end communities, say the Fine Woodworking forum, or dozens of others. Then there are plans to buy, for projects and for business: for the handcrafted furniture you’ll give as Christmas presents, and for monetizing your hobby, pricing your work, photographing it, learning what sells. There are classes to take and workshops to sign up for. And there are self-help books like Krenov’s; memoirs, inspirational personalities, pop psychologists, and armchair philosophers to help you apply the lessons of the shop to the rest of your life.

None of which is to say the woodworkers producing all of that content are hucksters, nor the communities vapid. On the contrary, I’ve found them to be genuinely kind and welcoming, dedicated not just to the craft but to every self-help theory they espouse. The forums and Instagram feeds are filled with seasoned woodworkers giving free advice and recommending cheaper tools and helping refine an amateur’s iffy scaled drawings.

Today’s woodworkers, in all their lifestyle guises, are just trying to make a living doing a kind of work they love — which, it turns out, is very hard to do as a woodworker. Even the most visible, most acclaimed of them tend to have disclaimers on their websites explaining that, actually, it’s the YouTube revenue they live on, or the class revenue, or the industry writing. It’s rarely the commissions. After all, as the guide to selling things I received with the class I took makes clear, to sell you need to “know what’s hot,” which is more often “anything made from pallet wood” and “inspirational messages hand painted on rustic boards” than the delicately dovetailed custom cabinets I spend time studying in Krenov’s books.

The hope that craft can offer a better future — that capitalism could be subverted through aesthetic choices, and their attendant philosophies — has proven hardy. Adamson even ends Craft with an argument that “craft can save America” because “its connection to livelihood, pride, and everyday experience” could “help us cross ideological boundaries that otherwise seem impregnable.” However, as Sophie Haigney argues in her review of Adamson’s book, “If we are looking for transformation or lessons, we lose something by prioritizing methods of making, rather than the social and political conditions of the people who are doing that making.”

“A variety of studies have shown that from the participants’ points of view the single most important element in defining leisure activity is not what they are doing but how freely they have chosen to do it,” Gelber writes in Hobbies. I make furniture because I choose to. There is no boss tracking the time I spend, no consequences if I abandon a project. But at no time do I feel more like a conditioned middle-class male consumer than while I wander the aisles of the local home improvement store with my brethren, trying to spend money so I can make productive use of my free time. “In this sense,” Gelber wrote, “hobbies are among the most conservative possible pastimes.”

Still, I spent my lunch breaks from my day job this week — the ones I didn’t spend writing this essay — wheeling a subpar saw made by a Japanese brand owned by a subsidiary of a multinational Chinese manufacturer out of my crawlspace. I used it to fashion an accessory I hope will mitigate the worst of the tool’s flaws so I can build the Arts and Crafts inspired side tables I designed. In spite of everything, it was joyous. Fleetingly, but genuine nonetheless. I loved every minute of it, and I’ll do it again next week.

The idea of buying the opportunity for fulfillment is horrifying. Worse is that it works. Until we end capitalism, that might be the best we can do.

Matt Hartman is a freelance writer and journalist from Durham, North Carolina.