Interview with a woodworker: Paul Sellers
This week, International Timber sat down with world-famous woodworker Paul Sellers to discuss the craft and highlights of his decades-long career.
From his workshop and woodworking school based in north Wales, Paul produces masterfully crafted furniture using traditional hand tools, runs regular woodworking courses for craftsmen of all skill levels and shares his tips with the world at large via his prolific online presence.
How did you get into lifestyle woodworking?
I apprenticed in joinery and shop fitting nearly 50 years ago, then I went into furniture making and I've been doing that for 45 years.
How has the field progressed during your lifetime?
I think it's declined in some ways. I think we went through a 30 year negative history with the advent of machinery-only woodworking, which changed the dimension considerably to kind of negate the creative aspect of it.
If you're only going to use a machine, it's very limited. Whereas when you use a machine for what they're really good at, which is dimensioning the wood, then use hand tools you - can be far more creative and you can do so much more with hand tools.
We've seen a [recent] resurgence through people like myself who write about hand tool woodworking and that has changed it wonderfully really. Now we've gone back to carving and inlaying and things like that and it has changed quite a lot. Handmade joinery and those kind of things that have seen a resurgence.
In professional woodworking, that’s less the case – in professional woodworking circles, everything comes off the rotary cuffs, but in amateurs circles most amateurs I'd say probably far exceed the work of the professionals in terms of quality and creativity.
You're a prolific blogger and your instructional woodworking videos are particularly popular. How did you get into the multimedia aspect of woodworking?
Well I'm 65 in January and I've blogged for a long time and I've always kept a journal for decades. I have this wealth of knowledge – everything I ever do I write down or keep a record of. So I was able to see the transition that I had gone through in wanting to be a master furniture maker, then I started teaching and training.
About 25 years ago, I was in the US and started a woodworking school and we trained about 5,500 woodworkers throughout the programme. That started with the burden that people kept asking me if I would teach them how to make furniture and I'd say 'no I'm not going to do that - I'm really too busy as a maker' and then one day I did a one-day class and it just snowballed from there.
I started a school and it grew and it grew, and I think I saw how I could continue as a maker and spend some of my time passing on my skills. And really, in the last five-to-ten years, I've felt it's been more important than ever to make sure that my craft doesn't die.
So the best way to preserve the seed is to plant it and I believe that. So I plant the seeds of traditional handwork, even though I'm not necessarily a traditionalist. In the new generations that are coming [to my] classes, I have classes with students where probably two thirds of them are older men - 40 and up - but then there's always a gathering of younger people who are about 19 or 20 in there. So that's how we got involved in it and really, using the internet has been incredible in the ways that we can pass on our craft now. And I don't think most woodworkers my age are doing that I think they just want to get out of it but I've always loved it.
You've created pieces of furniture for use in the White House, can you tell us how that came about?
As far as I know I'm the only living furniture maker that's designed pieces for the White House in the last 70 years - quite an accolade really.
It was my last year in the US and I was asked if I would design a few pieces for the White House cabinet room, so I did the designs and they liked them and then they said 'when can you deliver?' I didn’t expect them to ask me to make them, which was quite a surprise.
So I gathered eight furniture makers - two of them my own sons - and gathered them all together and said 'we've got 30 days to make three months' worth of furniture'. These were guys that I'd trained over the last 20 years, so we all worked well together and we all worked through the night until we made them and we delivered them into the White House on the eve of President Obama's inauguration.
What advice would you give newcomers looking to get into woodworking as a profession?
There are opportunities more and more for young people if they're prepared to do as I've done and become lifestyle woodworkers, not pursue it in the sense that most people pursue a career. Some days you're going to work twice as long for half as much, but at the end of the day, you're going to look at what you've made and someone else is going to buy it and you're going to feel this totally immersive satisfaction - and that’s something you can never get from just watching TV.
There's just something about doing it yourself that never dies. We had that mass movement in the 50s and 60s - DIY shops were all over the country now they've gone and been dumbed down to B&Q – but the old DIY shops really had a vibrancy about them. People were going out there and doing it and I think in some measure, that's what's returning.
What does the future hold for the woodworking profession?
I think lifestyle woodworking is going to be the way forward – people more and more are looking for sustainability and real wood. They're sick and tired of Ikea, they're sick and tired of the mass market invasion that's happened through the big box stores and people are genuinely looking for realness - they're looking for the vibrancy that you get from doing it yourself. It's like gardening and home cooking and home maintenance and those kinds of things - think they're going to come back.
I think some of the difficulties we've had with world finances and globalisation is going to be a good thing, because I think it's going to bring things to more local levels and I think people will be looking for sustainability in whatever they do and that can't do anything but good.
We're always interested in trying to make sure the trade is passed on, that it doesn’t die like it did in the old days. When somebody died they always kept a lot of things a secret and that's a negative. They still don’t know all the secrets of Stradivarius' violins, because he kept them a secret and gave them to this two sons and gave them the opportunity [to pass them on]. He said 'if you want to give what I've given you to the general violin-making population, you can' and they decided not to and his secrets died with them.
I don’t want it to die with me, so I've trained my children, I've trained 5,500 woodworkers [through teaching] and we're actually reaching about half a million people a month just through our internet presence, which is amazing for me. These are people in Thailand, Australia, mainland Europe and America. It's been amazing to see the support that we've had through the past five years.
Many thanks to Paul for his fascinating insights into a remarkable career. If you'd like to learn more, be sure to check out his woodworking school, or take a look at some of his brilliant videos on YouTube.
Image used courtesy of Paul Sellers