Classes in the “industrial arts” were first introduced to secondary schools in the 1880s, and for the next century, taking a course in woodworking, mechanics, drafting, and printing was a common educational rite of passage for young men.
Then, beginning several decades ago, shop classes began to be removed from secondary curriculums. With the decrease in educational funding, and increasing emphasis on standardized testing, schools began to cull electives, institute stricter graduation requirements, and focus more on college prep academics and the subjects necessary for passing state exams. There wasn’t money or time to maintain tools and sawdust-filled workshops, and one by one school districts dropped their shop classes, figuring that students who wished to pursue trade skills could do so later at a vocational college.
This demise of shop classes is quite unfortunate, as they were never solely about preparing students for trade employment. Rather, they taught all men manual skills that they could use and enjoy throughout their lives, whether they became a carpenter or a doctor. They were considered part of becoming a well-rounded man – one able to use both his hands and his mind.
Arguably the industrial arts class that is most missed is wood shop. Learning how to work with wood is not only handy, allowing you to make and fix things around the house, but allows you to satisfyingly connect with a long history of craftsmanship. Woodworking was one of the earliest skills mankind developed; the pre-industrial world was largely made of wood, and for thousands of years, all men had at least a rudimentary understanding of how to shape and manipulate it. Even up until the second half of the last century, tradesmen and professionals alike had the confidence to be able to build wooden shelves, cabinets, or even chairs for their family.
Today, in our age of plastic and factories, woodworking has transformed from a common necessary skill into something almost mysterious or awe-inspiring. Because most 21st-century consumers are used to driving to big box stores to pick up another mass-produced replacement when their desk falls apart or their chair breaks, any man today that can walk up to a lumber pile with saw and plane to shape a beautiful and enduring replacement is revered as a “true craftsman.”
Although this universal admiration of hand skill is appreciated, the truth is, woodworking is no mystery. And fortunately, even if you missed out on taking a thorough shop class in high school and feel ill-equipped to tackle a simple woodworking project, it’s definitely not too late to learn. Here’s a list of some basic skills you would do well to develop. None of these skills require expensive, dangerous machinery or exotic tools. They are the foundational skills every woodworker should know.