Revitalizing the Woodshop

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This article is from Issue 1 of Woodcraft Magazine.

To understand why woodworking education is important, go back to its roots. 

WOODWORKING EDUCATION PROGRAMS date back to the 1800s, when they were first developed by Sweden’s Otto Salomon and dubbed “Educational Sloyd.” 

“It is usual [for Sloyd] to bring forward: pleasure in bodily labor, and respect for it, habits of independence, order, accuracy, attention and industry, increase of physical strength, development of the power of observation in the eye and of execution in the hand,” Salomon wrote.

Over time, Sloyd (a Scandinavian word for “handicraft”) became known simply as “manual training,” and later developed into what we call technology education, or vocational classes. Although the terminology may have changed, most woodworking instructors will tell you the unseen benefits of studying woodworking are the same today as when they were laid forth by Salomon more than a century ago.

Unfortunately, as Fox News reported Sept. 22, 2004, “In high schools around the country vocational classes – auto shop, woodshop, metal shop – are being phased out.”

The news report further states that “as the number of vocational education classes has gone down, the high school dropout rate across the country has gone up. Experts don’t yet know if there’s a correlation, but they do know schools today are geared more for the college-bound than the blue collar-bound.”

This condition is particularly troubling to past and present woodworking educators who have devoted their careers to promoting shop curricula that are rich in biology, mathematical practice, botanical origins, community involvement and the basics of business.

Doug Stowe, in the Aug. 2004 issue of Woodwork, wrote, “At the present time, with woodworking programs being phased out in many public schools, it may be useful to look back at Sloyd to gain an understanding of how we have missed our course.”

Begin at the beginning

To understand the benefits of the Sloyd approach, it might be helpful to reflect upon the goals and benefits of a vocational program such as woodworking, most of which haven’t changed for many years. Between 1880 and 1907, Salomon founded a training college for Swedish Educational Sloyd, which focused on the following aims:

• To instill a taste for, and an appreciation of, work in general

• To create a respect for hard, honest, physical labor

• To develop independence and self-reliance

• To provide training in the habits of order, accuracy, cleanliness and neatness

• To train the eye to see accurately and to appreciate the sense of beauty in form

• To develop a sense of touch and to give general dexterity to the hand

• To inculcate the habits of attention, industry, perseverance and patience

• To promote the development of the body’s physical powers

• To acquire dexterity in the use of tools

• To execute precise work and to produce useful products

In an effort to turn these aims into revitalized concepts, Woodcraft Supply Corp. and the New England Association of Woodworking Teachers (NEAWT) have jointly developed a program for woodworking educators. This initiative consists of workshops designed to link educators and align curricula, develop and share related lesson plans, incorporate subsidy projects, and create an instructors’ Web site to coordinate and enhance lesson-plan models. As you’ll see in a moment, it is this last portion of the initiative – an instructors’ Web site – that has the potential to be most outreaching.

The initial pilot workshops were conducted by Jack Grube, who founded NEAWT in 2001 and presented “Developing Woodworking Lesson Plans” at the Technology Education Association of Massachusetts conference in 2004. 

“Through this partnership with Woodcraft, we hope to reintroduce America to the importance that hands-on classes like woodworking have in preparing students for the personal and academic challenges they will confront in their lives,” Grube said. “The aims that Otto Salomon listed over 100 years ago are needed more now than ever before.” Our mutual intent is to reverse the nationwide trend toward waning support of, and participation in, woodworking classes. 

Delivering under an ultimatum

In 1987, Craig Conrad, a woodworking instructor at Moffat County High School in Craig, Colo., was given an ultimatum by the superintendent of school district: Make the school’s woodworking program successful in one year, or witness its demise. 

“My situation back then was not much different from the reality of many woodworking programs right now,” Conrad said. “All across the country in junior and senior high schools and colleges, woodworking programs are going by the way of the dinosaurs. Back then, it was sink or swim; I really didn’t have a choice. Not only did [my students and I] swim, we brought the dinosaur roaring back to life! I give the credit to my students and a concept I call ‘Unstoppable Shops,’ which has poured over $300,000 into my program through the years and has earned our woodshop class international recognition.” 

Bob Spencer, Woodcraft Supply Corp.’s director of education, is pleased to be part of this initiative with Grube, Conrad and a growing number of willing participants. 

“I’ve learned so much from individuals in the woodworking community across this country,” Spencer said. “For many woodshop teachers, scratch the surface of the current mentality to push for ‘academics only,’ and you’ll find a craftsman bursting with inspiration, devotion and skill. These instructors are standing in line to tout the benefits of a time-honored tradition of learning and to share their programs in pursuit of helping others.” 

If there was ever a time to step in, take action and grasp an opportunity to make a difference, this is it. It will require the assistance of individual woodworkers, woodworking associations, supportive formal educational programs and corporate sponsorships to devise a successful plan to revitalize the future of wood craftsmanship. We must focus on increasing awareness and promoting woodworking education through working together and sharing ideas.

Most of us learned the lessons of Salomon in a much less formal setting. Perhaps your first woodshop experience was as a child, playing in the wood shavings pile while your grandfather worked skillfully to finish the turned bowl and candlesticks destined to be gifts for your grandmother. The fact that, years later, those items are proudly displayed heirlooms your family will forever cherish is a testament not only to the craftsman, but to the craft as well. Maybe that experience led you to teach your own children and grandchildren the same skills in pursuit of new treasures. Whatever your experience, skill set, association or foundation in woodworking, you can help preserve and grow the time-honored institution.

If you’re currently a woodworking instructor, start preparing your thoughts, lesson plans and subsidy ideas to post on the instructors’ Web site, which goes live on Jan. 1, 2005. If you’re a retired woodworking educator, we consider you a valuable resource of experience and perspective. Get ready to log on and share your talents.

If you’re a woodworker who wants to help in your community and contribute information, we need you, too.

We’re also looking for help from members of woodworking associations, employees and executives of companies interested in furthering educational pursuits, and individuals who want to contribute.

In the next few months, we plan to develop both the Workshop for Educators and the Woodworking Teacher’s Network. Interested readers near Woburn, Mass., can enroll in the 10-class workshop series by contacting the local Woodcraft store at (781) 935-6414 or

Anyone else may contact Woodcraft’s Education Department by e-mail at

Mary Ann Moberg

For the past year, Mary Ann Moberg has served as Education Coordinator at Woodcraft Supply Corp. She is a novice woodworker and looks forward to taking full advantage of all of the expertise and encouragement that her coworkers offer.


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