Mike Rowe goes to bat for students of axed building trades program in Ottawa IL

Mike Rowe supports Ottawa Ill.

The mikeroweWORKS Foundation is concerned with promoting hard work and supporting the skilled trades.

Mike Rowe, the former host of “Dirty Jobs” and a passionate supporter of the trades in America, has lent his celebrity and talent to back the students of the Ottawa (Ill.) Township High School building trades program who walked out of class when it was announced that the program and its teacher were being axed. In response to the students’ protest, the school administration–who received a 5-percent pay raise in the same school board session that resulted in the decision to close the program–suspended the students and banned the seniors from attending their prom.

The community has rallied behind the students and teacher, staging protests in the street and on Facebook and calling on the board to change its decision and save the building trades program. On Saturday, the Ottawa Times reported that the board says it’s not happening.

Shortly after the news broke, Rowe wrote a brief piece on his Facebook page, saying:

“I like that these kids are willing to suffer the consequences of speaking their minds. I like that the local trade unions are supporting them. I like that the press is covering it. But mostly, I like that somebody is standing up for the skilled trades. Finally. In a place where it really matters.”

Then he surprised the community by releasing the video below on his website in support of the students. Because of Rowe, it looks like the trade students of Ottawa and the scrapping of building trades programs throughout America are getting national attention.

 

A thousand cuts

students protest building trades cuts in Ottawa IL

Downtown Ottawa, Ill. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Ottawa, Ill. is a small town about 90 miles southwest of Chicago. Perched at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers, Ottawa is a historic, blue collar community of about 18,000 residents. It has a beautiful downtown and central park, boundless civic pride and a deep heritage in river and railroad transportation, agriculture and the trades. Its tourist brochures hail the city as the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate. But to the people who grow up there, the success of its industrial arts and building trades program means more. This world-class  program, which had survived even as the trades have been stripped from the public curricula throughout the United States, is going dark.

LIke everything else Ottawa and similar small communities have lost through the decades, from its once thriving downtown retail base to its position as a major waterway transportation hub, Ottawa is now being stripped of a source of education, empowerment and pride that has kept young people engaged in its economy and civic life. It’s another example of the slow death by a thousand cuts of America’s small cities and towns. The local economy cannot provide the tax revenue required to support its services. In response, programs like the high school building trades program, which provides a pathway for students to find and create jobs and become tax payers, get cut.

I used to live in Ottawa. I was the editor of a small newspaper there. In that role, I got to know the city’s residents and its business and civic leaders. I always found Ottawa residents and leaders to be be passionate in their desire to see their community succeed and innovative in their plans to to make that success reality. That’s why it’s so saddening to see this program shut down.

Among the wonderful people and great potential in Ottawa, I also saw a huge problem: the continuing flight of the city’s young adults after they graduated high school and faced limited local opportunities for careers, fellowship and entertainment. Of those who wanted to stay, the skilled trades offered a solid path to a decent living. As Rowe said, in Ottawa, the trades matter.

In Ottawa, I know tradesmen who are single handedly rejuvenating historic downtown structures through hard work and innovative thinking. They are putting their own sweat and money into repurposing these tired buildings into dynamic new businesses. I know others who raise money for local programs to enrich Ottawa’s cultural life and promote civic pride. It is because of these tradesmen that Ottawa throws the best 4th of July celebration and fireworks display in its county, entirely funded through donations.

And I know many who make a good living in the trades.

Work is not something to escape

Many of us who read woodworking blogs, watch woodworking videos, chat on woodworking forums and spend our disposable income on woodworking tools are not tradesmen. We are white collar professionals who pursue woodworking as a hobby and avocation. Many of us daydream about making a living at “the craft.” Our romanticism can seem pretty condescending to real carpenters who have to work as hard getting the next job as they do on the job. They work fast to build things other people need, while we suffer over every joint while building what we want.

As a nation, we have devalued the trades, and we are paying a price for it. “Professionals” have always looked down on people who did Rowe’s dirty jobs. But starting in the 1950s, when marketers sold our parents and grandparents on the story that success equalled convenience and leisure, this trend has accelerated and the trades have declined. From a country of makers, we became a culture in which “making it” meant not having to know how to make things at all.

Or fix things.

We actually turned ineptitude into a badge of honor.

I was raised in a blue-collar family. My father was a mechanic and a carpenter and there was nothing romantic about it. The man washed his hands with gasoline. I was fascinated by what he did and wanted nothing more than to help him work. But I was told from childhood that I would be the one to “escape” that life. I would be the first to attend college and “make something of myself.” I did. Now I am a white collar professional who works with ideas. I like what I do, and it provides a good life for my family. But what do I to relax? I leave my desk and go to the basement and work with my hands.

As part of my grooming to “escape” the trades, I was sent to a college-prep high school. I didn’t have the opportunity to take shop class. It took me until my forties, when I decided to build a table because I couldn’t afford to buy one, to reconnect with my heritage of making things, and now I love it. Not everyone who attends a building trades program goes on to do the work professionally. But these programs teach valuable skills regardless, even if only to teach budding consumers to recognize quality and understand value in the made things they buy.

In Ottawa, it did more. It provided a way of life. It provided workers for Habitat for Humanity projects. It provided a sense of pride. Now Ottawa will have one less reason to be proud.

My training as a journalist has taught me that few stories have a right side and a wrong side. There are economic realities at work here. If a school district is $3 million in the hole, then something has to go. Federal education policy doles out funding to schools based on academic scores, not the dedication of its teachers, students’ facility in a trade, their happiness or the quality of life they attain. Federal funding is not based on local needs. It is a formula, and schools go against that formula at their peril.

So I don’t believe this is a simple story where the students are heroes and the school board is evil. I believe we live in a complex society that shows what it values by where it puts its money and what it teaches its children.

And what it doesn’t.

>> The mikeroweWORKS Foundation promotes hard work and supports the skilled trades. Visit the organization’s website to learn more. 

>> Sow your support for the Ottawa Township High School Industrial Arts Program by liking their Facebook page

>> Contact the Ottawa High School Board here.

 

 

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The benefits and challenges of the reclaimed and primitive furniture trend for woodworkers

The current craze for reclaimed furniture, or primitive furniture, means unique opportunities and challenges for woodworkers.

The main benefit is that interest in reclaimed is tied to a desire for handmade furniture, and that’s good for woodworkers. People are tired of prefab, off-the-shelf design and they are yearning for more authentic and unique expressions in their design. We’re seeing major market furniture makers from West Elm to Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware rolling out “reclaimed” and “handmade” lines of furniture, and they’re charging a pretty penny for them.

But if people are yearning for handmade and unique, why wouldn’t they seek out items that are actually handmade and unique. For most woodworkers, a project like this nightstand from West Elm would take a couple of hours to make. Its simple construction is actually a desired design element by people who are looking for this type of furniture.

making reclaimed furniture

This “reclaimed” nightstand from West Elm is $349. How long would it take you to make it?

West Elm charges $349 for this piece, which contains about $12 worth of materials. You can get the materials for free if you use pallet wood, which is all the rage.

But that simplicity is also the challenge for most woodworkers who have spent time, energy and money learning to make fine furniture. Is it insulting to our craft to make work like this? How many woodworkers who have logged hundreds of hours learning to cut perfect half-blind dovetails are even willing to nail together a drawer?

To me, creating simple furniture that people want to buy is an easy way to make money to fund our passion. That seems like a win-win.

But there’s another challenge. For those of us who enjoy working with reclaimed wood, the reclaimed craze has driven prices for pre-used timber to crazy heights. Wood that you used to be able to get for free is now fetching premium prices. Farmers who used to pay people to take down old barns are now besieged by salvage companies paying top dollar to deconstruct their old buildings. The salvagers sell the wood to millworks who charge premium prices for antique flooring, beams, etc.

I’m lucky to live in the Chicago area and have access to the Rebuilding Exchange, a non-profit whose mission is to keep building materials out of landfills. They accept donations of deconstructed material and sell it at a great price. Even if you’re not into building projects that look reclaimed, a lot of what they sell is old-growth timber that is beautiful re-milled and blows away modern, harvested wood. I’ve found gorgeous old-growth pine, fir and redwood timbers for bargain prices, all the while supporting a nonprofit with a great mission instead of a big box retailer.

I’m curious to hear about similar organizations in other areas, so if you have one near you please let me know. And let me know your thoughts on the whole reclaimed thing. Do you think interest in reclaimed and primitive furniture is good for the handcraft movement, or is it a negative? Have you made any reclaimed pieces? Feel free to share them here.

 

 

 

 

Guide to the best woodworking videos on YouTube

reclaimed wood

Whatever style of woodworking you want to learn, you can find it on YouTube, if you know where to look.

YouTube is a valuable resource for beginners looking for a simple way to learn woodworking for free. But finding the good stuff can require hunting through a lot of bad videos. During my journey as a beginning woodworker, I’ve burned a lot of hours watching woodworking videos on YouTube. In this post, I will point the way to what I believe are the best free woodworking videos. I’ll also let you know which paid woodworking videos are worth investing in.

YouTube is the new master

Most woodworkers I know credit tool makers like Lee Valley and Lie-Nielsen for driving the new woodworking renaissance. Others say it’s because magazines like FIne Woodworking and Popular Woodworking have put a new emphasis on hand tool woodworking.

I think YouTube is a stronger driving force. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for YouTube woodworking pioneers like Marc Spagnuolo, Steve Ramsey, Paul Sellers, Jon Peters, Shannon Rogers and others who regularly turn out excellent woodworking videos. These guys have been my virtual mentors and cheerleaders. They have provided inspiration simply by allowing me to watch them work.

Woodworking is a skill that I believe anyone with interest, patience and discipline can learn. But it’s difficult to learn from a book. You really need to see someone perform the work. YouTube provides a simple way to learn woodworking that is an alternative to expensive seminars, furniture making programs in art-and-design colleges and boutique mastership programs. This education is free, on-demand, and—if you do a little work find the best videos—you can structure a workable curriculum to learn the basics of woodworking.

There are hundreds of woodworking content producers on YouTube, but only some are worth your time. Over the past few months, I have spent many, many hours watching woodworking videos on YouTube, so I feel competent to share my list of what I believe are the best.

Paul Sellers

Paul Sellers is a world-class furniture maker with 50 years of experience. He bills himself as the last of the joiners turned out by the traditional English apprenticeship system before industrialization took over furniture making. He is an excellent craftsman and teacher, and he was one of the first to discover the power of Internet video to increase his educational reach beyond the few people who had the time and means to study with him personally in his U.K. and U.S. schools.

Sellers’ focus is on real skills: not ideal, rarified techniques but the real stuff used by real, working joiners. Following Sellers’ instruction has taught me that the beauty of hand-tool woodworking is not esoteric: It is more efficient, safer, quieter and more enjoyable than machining wood. Watch Sellers with a chisel and you will immediately know why learning to read grain is a fundamental skill that will save you time, energy and frustration in the long run. Watch his videos on sharpening and on using a limited collection of flea-market tools, and you will be convinced that you do not have to spend a lot to begin working wood. He’s no-bullshit, real woodworking.

Sellers teaches through several channels. His website, PaulSellers.com features several free high-quality videos. He also has an excellent educational site, woodworkingmasterclasses.com. Here you can view several free instructional project videos. He also offers a paid subscription program for $15 a month. But his free YouTube videos are an excellent place to start learning the basics of tool and timber selection, reading grain, working with a core set of tools, and sharpening.

Steve Ramsey: Wood Working for Mere Mortals

Steve Ramsey is a dude in his garage shop who is a passionate promoter, teacher and cheerleader for beginning woodworkers. Ramsey has released a new video almost every Friday for the past five years on his site and his YouTube channel. And on his MereMinutes channel, he puts out an additional video blog episode every weekend. Ramsey is a power tool guy. His projects are simple and his energy is infectious, and I believe he sincerely wants everyone to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with learning a new skill and producing things with your own hands. (Here’s an excellent playlist of his beginner’s projects.).

I have never corresponded with the man, but after watching his videos for months, I honestly feel like he is a buddy of mine, and I look forward to his updates every weekend. A lot of other people must feel that way, because he has more than 125,000 subscribers for his YouTube channel. A key aspect of Ramsey’s approach is that he is committed to free woodworking content. He doesn’t charge for anything; and he frequently lambasts those who do. If you want to support his efforts, you can do so through a voluntary donation or subscription or by buying his stuff. (But not his wood working projects: He auctions those on Ebay and donates the money to charity.)

Which brings us to the whole issue of charging money for access to videos. As someone who works in the media industry—and who values education—I have no issue with people charging for high-quality content, and there are several virtual wood working teachers who are worth the investment. At various times I have paid to access content by Paul Sellers and Rob Cossman, and I think I have gotten good value from both (though Cossman’s videos can sometimes seem like infomercials for his tools and other products.) And I will probably pay to join Marc Spagnolo’s Wood Whisperer Guild.

These guys invest a lot of time and money into producing this content. There are hundreds of guys making woodworking videos with their iPhones. The few who invest in the equipment and skills required to produce quality content deserve some form of compensation, whether it comes from selling project plans, promoting their woodworking businesses to gain commissions and sell their work, promoting their tools, receiving sponsorship and advertising money from companies that want to reach their hard-won audiences, or simply charging for access.

Marc Spagnuolo: The Wood Whisperer

Of the paid-subscription producers, Marc Spagnuolo and Rob Cossman produce the best videos I have seen, and they are the best at structuring their videos into true curricula that allow you to build skill upon skill in a natural progression. In the video above, Spagnuolo even shows beginning woodworkers how to buy wood and what to expect on your first visit to a lumberyard. This may seem basic, but it’s the type of instruction I needed as a beginning woodworker.

Spagnuolo is the Wood Whisperer. His site and YouTube channel feature plenty of excellent free content. He and Sellers have been my go-to teachers. He is not only a great woodworker but an engaging host who entertains as he teaches, without being (too) cheesy. His approach (and his book) is hybrid woodworking, meaning he is not an evangelist for power tools or hand tools, but rather a craftsman who recognizes the sense in using the right tool for the job. Sometimes that tool has a cord; sometimes it doesn’t. The Wood Whisperer’s Guild is Spagnuolo’s paid site. Here you can subscribe to specific projects or purchase an annual subscription for around a $125. I would prefer to see a monthly subscription option, but based on his free videos, I am convinced the $125 would be a good investment.

Rob Cossman

Rob Cossman is an excellent teacher but also the most aggressively self-promotional woodworking teacher on YouTube. Paying to access his educational videos was definitely worth it. But even after you’ve paid, you’ll still see pitches to buy his products. It gets tiresome. Most of his YouTube videos are promotions for his tools or his paid site. On his paid site, Cossman teaches power tool skills and hand-tool skills, but in separate tracks. $20 a month gets you access to his hand-tool content; $25 for the power tool track; or $40 for both. Cossman is an excellent teacher with challenging projects that any woodworker would want to build.

Jon Peters

Jon Peters is an artist and cabinet maker who produces excellent YouTube instructional videos on both topics. Video instruction is not a business for him, but it is a good way for him to build his name recognition in both of his areas of expertise. I found Peters when I was looking for my first project: Installing wainscoting. His wainscoting video led me to his cabinet videos, and those convinced me that I could do more than just build utility bookshelves. For this I am grateful, and one of my early projects was making a frame for one of Peters’ prints, which sits on the standing desk I made, which is where I am writing this post.

Shannon Rogers

Shannon Rogers produces videos as The Renaissance Woodworker. He has great blog, and a paid online video program called The Hand Tool School. On YouTube, Rogers presents detailed project videos and he has several long series, including this one on building a Roubo bench. His paid program promises a detailed curriculum approach, but at $200 for the first “semester” and an extensive list of required tools, it’s a little pricey for my budget right now. I’d love to hear from anyone who has gone through this program.

The teachers above are my go-to guys, but there are a few others whose work I enjoy immensely. The Drunken Woodworker is a hip newcomer who produces a weekly video guide to the best woodworking videos and also some way cool project videos. Matthias Wandel is the crazy genius of YouTube woodworking, shooting videos of mind-bending jigs and mechanical contraptions made of wood. Frank Howarth is YouTube woodworking’s resident artiste, producing videos that are lessons in film making and stop-motion animation in addition to beautiful woodworking projects. And Stumpy Nubs is the class clown of woodworking videos. All are entertaining, inspiring and educational. I have a lot of respect for David at The Drunken Worker, Howarth and Stumpy for experimenting with different formats and raising the bar on what a YouTube video can be.

How to learn woodworking from YouTube

Here’s the key to learning woodworking on YouTube: You have to think like an apprentice.

People used to learn woodworking from people who knew how to do it. Boys learned enough from their fathers to build and fix the necessities. Professional joiners learned through apprenticeship, in which the fledgling craftsman performed the drudge work of his master’s shop—sweeping floors, heating animal hide for glue, sharpening and cleaning tools, performing rough milling—practicing each step until the master deemed the apprentice’s skill suitable to begin the work required to start learning the next skill. The apprentice performed this work in exchange for the education that would provide him with his livelihood.

To learn from YouTube teachers, you have to follow the same path. Start with the videos that teach basic skills like sharpening, planing, milling, and how to cut to a line. Practice these skills until you feel confident in them, then move to the next skill. This is how I’ve learned. I spent months making nothing but sawdust and scrap wood as I practiced cutting to a line. Then I spent months practicing dovetails before I got one that worked. It’s taken a level of patience and discipline I never knew I had in me, and I still have a long way to go. But I love the process.

Of course, learning and doing comprise only half of the master/apprentice relationship. The missing piece here is feedback. For that, I recommend joining a local club or getting involved in a woodworking forum like LumberJocks. There you’ll find a community of supportive woodworkers with all levels of experience who can give you feedback and answer your questions.

I hope this gives you a good start. If you begin with the resources listed here, you’ll have hours of quality videos to watch and you’ll save hours of hunting through crap. I’m sure there are many other excellent teachers on YouTube, so if you know someone I’ve missed, please let me know. Leave a comment below so other people can enjoy them too.

 

Rebuilding Exchange has barn wood in Chicago

Barn wood in Chicago

Gorgeous barn wood at Rebuilding Exchange in Chicago.

If you’re looking for barn wood in Chicago, head over to Rebuilding Exchange now. They have bays full of barn wood from Michigan. I was there last weekend, and I can confirm it is gorgeous, more affordable than anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and the money goes to a good cause: supporting an organization dedicated to keeping old-growth lumber out of landfills and available to local woodworkers and tradesmen.

If you’re not into barn wood, they also have some amazing old growth yellow pine and fir timbers from Detroit demolitions. I picked up some choice 3x10s and 4x6s, some of which I plan to keep the way they are, and others I plan to plane down and refinish.

Primitive, weathered reclaimed furniture and siding may be all the rage right now, but even if it goes out of style, these reclaimed timbers are still far superior to new lumber. Planed, they glow with a mature patina that you just cannot find in modern species.

Dutch Tool Chest Part 5: Completion and thoughts

How to build a Dutch tool chest

The Dutch tool chest is complete.

The Dutch Tool Chest build is complete. What I thought would be a two-day project took me close to three months from start to finish. In fact, I still have one problem to solve, which I’ll get to later in case you don’t immediately notice it.


Missed the rest of the Dutch tool chest build? Start here.


Overall, I’m really happy with the outcome. The chest is attractive and functional, and it provided a great learning experience. It may be my favorite thing I own, and that really is what woodworking is all about to me… building beautiful, real things. It’s an honest, analog balance to living in a disposable and increasingly digital society. As someone who makes his living with words, numbers and ideas, whose only product is persuasion, I find it exciting, challenging and healing to pick up a tool and make something real. To see and touch and use something that I built is an awesome feeling. Two months ago, this thing lived only in my mind and in a stack of lumber at Lowes. Now it is a useful product. I think that’s friggin’ awesome, and I know I am not alone in this. Throughout this project, I sought and received help and encouragement from the good people at Lumberjocks.com, and I am grateful for that support and the feeling of connection I have to a larger community of makers.

As far as the project itself, it is what I believed it would be: A great project for a beginning woodworker. It’s sufficiently challenging to build skills but simple enough that you won’t feel overwhelmed. It’s also extremely flexible, and while the project is basically just a box with a shelf in it, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the interior organization.

The interior tills and organization were the real learning experience. Almost each piece required two or three takes. And I’m still not happy with the saw till on the inside cover. As anyone with a good eye for detail will notice, the tills are open at the top, meaning the saws slip out when closed. This was the fourth attempt at a solution. The first three tries were closed, but did not have enough clearance to close the lid completely. The fact is, the chest is always open, so it’s not a problem. But I do plan on re-doing it so that it’s correct.

How to build a saw till in a Dutch tool chest

The interior lid saw tills took four tries, and they are still not correct.

As for tools, I kept my promise of building the chest exclusively with hand tools and period-correct fasteners. The only power tool I used was a drill to bore the dowel holes that connect the breadboard ends on the lid.

The surprise for me was how interested I got in hardware… something new for which to hunt. In addition to learning that vinegar is great for antiquing stainless steel, I also found that Kiwi-Strawberry Snapple is great at turning back the calendar on zinc plated hardware. (It’s the citric acid… so you can just use that.) My original intention was to find period-appropriate hardware, but everything I found was just too expensive for an inexpensive woodworking project, which this was supposed to be. I managed to locate some hand-cut nails on Ebay and slot head screws at my local Ace hardware. The handles are from Lowes. I antiqued the screws with vinegar and gave the handles a bath in the Snapple, and they look great.

All in all, a great project. I recommend it to anyone looking for a challenging but achievable beginner’s woodworking project.

Now… I have to go clean up three months worth of mess in my shop.

Read the full Dutch tool chest build here.

How to build a Dutch tool chest.

Just a small sampling of the wood shavings I created while building the Dutch tool chest. My planes got a good work out.