Visiting Fine Woodworking

This past friday, a group from the Modern Woodworkers Association (MWA) had the privilege of spending some time with Fine Woodworking Magazine’s (FWW) Senior Editor Matt Kenney and Art Director Mike Pekovich touring the Connecticut headquarters of Taunton Press, home of Fine Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, Fine Cooking, Fine Gardening (just to name those I subscribe to!) as well as several other periodicals and books.

You know a bit about the making of the magazine, because by now, you’ve read Steve’s account of the visit on Closegrain.com, and Dyami’s Modern Woodworkers account of it.

As an added benefit of the trip to CT, we were able to visit the home shops of both Matt and Mike, and you’ll soon be able to tour those, as well as the FWW shop, with video posts from Dyami Plotke (coming soon) in the Penultimate Woodshop blog, and on the Modern Woodworkers Association Blog.

Since these other blogs have the details of the visit covered, I’d simply like to share some interesting things I learned, both facts about Fine Woodworking, some general comments I found thought provoking, and my own thoughts about woodworking, the culture, the community, and my own work.

  • I was surprised that the largest demographic in FWW’s circulation is 60+.  It makes sense, in a way, since woodworking is often a post-retirement endeavor, or at least, a hobby that grows substantially in retirement.  Nevertheless, I was surprised because the vast majority of the woodworkers I interact with are late-20’s to early-40’s, primarily since my network of woodworkers are in the online woodworking communities (#woodchat, twitter, Google+, MWA). In the group that toured, 8 of 9 were significantly younger than FWW’s primary demographic.

  • A key question I had for the FWW folks: Given they are a respected authority in the field, how do they see the role of the online woodworking community; more specifically do they plan on engaging and leveraging this growing network to help in growing the craft, and how…or does the free sharing of information via social networks, and the real-life networks they help create somehow compete with them. The short answer: they have access to a large network of authoritative sources, authors of such high-caliber as to be virtually uncontested as experts in the field, and they don’t consider online woodworking community a competitor; they are interested in finding ways of engaging the communities and doing what they can, and are looking for ways of helping and participating. (Given that they invited Modern Wooodworkers to the shop, I think this engagement is underway, planned or not)
  • The key to being productive isn’t so much getting lots of time in the shop, it’s maximizing the quality of the time you have. The FWW guys live lives similar to mine in many ways, as do most of the other MWA guys who made the trip. We face similar challenges, and all manage to make nice things in wood, share our knowledge online, and care for our families. (Sounds obvious now that I’ve written it, but it helps to see it first hand; getting together and chat about wood and life helps remind us)
  • Stop collecting tools. There are few tools beyond the basics that will make you a better woodworker. Don’t wait until you have the ‘next’ tool before starting to build. It’s just an excuse, you don’t really need it, just go build.  Why this thought?: Seeing the FWW shop, as well as Matt and Mike’s shops underlined the point that these guys make great work with shops smaller and possibly even less well-equipped than mine (so, with few exceptions, it’s not the tools…)
  • People online (bloggers, tweeters, etc) tend to write about successes, and accomplishments. Those are great to see. However, (again, with a few notable exceptions) nobody uses these great resources to ask questions, talk about problems they are facing, have faced, how they overcame it, lessons-learned.  There’s a side-effect: consumers of the content see this and think they’re the only ones facing challenges. It can be discouraging. I, for one, have no shame about seeking counsel from the wisdom of the online woodworking community. If nobody knows the answer, they often know who will. I also screw up alot, so many future woodworkers can learn from my mistakes. If you write, write about the bad stuff too. (You know there’s more than you’ve let on…
  • It was proposed that the next generation of communication (after forums, for instance) will be conversations directly in the comments of a blog or G+ post (both?) Once searchable in Google, what used to be found (with difficulty) in a forum thread, becomes a thread attached to the source document, with pictures, links, and little or no barriers to participation. What do you think?

There’s likely much more I’ll find on further reflection, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’m interested in your thoughts on these things (remember, you’re contributing to a thread to be read far into the future, say your piece!)

I’ll leave you with a some images from the trip to browse through :

Matt Kenney's Tool Cabinet/Chest

Picture 1 of 14

Matt Kenney's Tool Cabinet/Chest

About Nick

Nick Roulleau is founder, craftsman, designer, joiner, finisher, floor-sweep and all of the other roles at Mansfield Fine Furniture. A woodworker for more than a decade, Nick started the company with the goal of filling the need for heirloom-quality furniture hand-made from premium woods. Every piece is designed to suit the customer's needs and desires, hand-picking each piece of wood, and built one piece at a time, using both modern and centuries-old traditional methods to yield furniture to last for generations.
  • Dang! Wish I could have joined you guys for the tours! 

    Billings, MT is a long way from CT but maybe someday…

  • Neat trip. Thanks for taking the time to recap it. I always find these kind of site visit to be incredibly educational: Seeing *where* people operate, how they set up their shop, and how they talk about their jobs *in person* is very valuable information. I’m jealous.

    One part really stuck out: Their response to your question about working with the online community is shocking, although maybe not entirely surprising: “…they have access to a large network of authoritative sources, authors of
    such high-caliber as to be virtually uncontested as experts in the
    field, and they don’t consider online woodworking community a
    competitor;” It is my [very passionate] opinion that this is absolutely wrong. Not seeing the online community as a competitor is a recipe for disaster. Not only are they defining two separate camps unnecessarily, but they’re not leading. Which means they’re being reactive, which ultimately leads to becoming disrupted, undercut, and inundated with competitors very quickly. Of course I’m making a lot of assumptions here based on one statement, so I might be off track. But this kind of statement sounds all too familiar — told in countless stories of how “the best” had epic failures.

    I don’t mean to disrespect these guys; far from it; I look up to them. But there’s no such thing as an “authoritative source” (in any field, for that matter). They must engage proactively and not just a little bit; all the way or they’ll become irrelevant. “The Innovator’s Dilemma” & “The Innovator’s Solution” by Christensen are filled with stories just like this. I hope, for their sake (and for our sake), that they figure this out and change course.

    This reminded me of this fun infographic on ‘failed predictions’ (http://goo.gl/DhQto), although admittedly it is over-simplified. For example, Edison didn’t simply predict AC wouldn’t work — he didn’t want it to work so people would use his DC; it was propaganda. And to some degree, anyone who is considered an authority has a tendency to behave the same way to preserve their status. This doesn’t have to be malicious or sign of a flawed individual; people who are constantly learning can be at the top of the pyramid too; they’ll just stay there a bit longer.

    Clearly my position on this subject is far from objective. In fact, the very basis for my business is that blending traditional woodworking techniques with technology IS the future. (And I use “technology” to mean all things attached to technology, especially including people!)

  • Great points Tim, 
    I tend to agree with your points, and I fear I may have paraphrased their position ineloquently, if not inaccurately.  They clearly have access to alot of top talent, folks like Lowe, Breed, Becksvoort, etc whose 40+ years of making and teaching clearly make them experts.  What these guys don’t seem to offer is the broad access to their knowledge in the digital realm. In a sense, FWW gives voice to these guys to a broader audience, and arguably, at least in small measure, to the online learner/sharers, etc. 
    BUT, and it’s a big one, in 15-20 years, you and I might be the Lowe’s and Becksvoort of the world, so FWW would do well to engage those of us who leverage technology in sharing knowledge, marketing, conversing, networking, and all the other things we ‘modern woodworkers’ do, so that they are not obsolete as the non-digital woodworker-authors begin to retire and pass into history.  
    I’m certain they are talking about just HOW to engage, because you’re right, if they don’t, online will eventually be victor (not just competitor). I think FWW wants to be there along side us, its just a matter of figuring out how.  
    I’m eager to see if this conversation draws Matt or Mike into commenting, or perhaps Asa, to clarify, contribute, collaborate…

  • Nick & Tim

    I have to agree in a sense. Over the past few years I have developed the impression that the big name publications out there have been absolutely lacking in their social media and online presence. While the Taunton family is definitely doing more than a number of others; it’s tough to take at times. I honestly believe that they’re already on the losing side. Much of what is being put out feels very very reactionary lately. I would wager that unless something drastically changes in how they currently approach the online community in the next 18-24 months that they’re going to find themselves in a tight situation at the end of the day.

  • Jfitz

    Nick – Nice writeup.  It’s interesting that FWW’s primary demographic is the 60+ crowd, and I agree that they are missing the mark on the 20-40 age range.  The younger group tends to favor digital/online interaction and access to information, and I think FWW needs to embrace it.  The flip side is that the 60+ crowd – if my father is any indication – is releuctant (at best) to leveraging online information.

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