Interview with a woodworker: The Wood Whisperer
This week, International Timber had the pleasure of sitting down with world-renowned woodworker Marc Spagnuolo – better known as the Wood Whisperer – to discuss his fantastic YouTube series of the same name.
After leaving the biotechnology industry and starting up his own woodworking business and later, began keeping a video log of his efforts. Now, the Wood Whisperer boasts nearly 240,000 subscribers and his videos have attracted more than 25 million views.
He featured in our post on top woodworking vloggers, so it was an absolute pleasure to get the chance to find out more about his fascinating rise to fame.
How did you first get into woodworking?
When we bought our first house - my wife and I - it was a fixer-upper, so with all the things we had to repair, it was on me to either pay someone else to do it, or figure out how to do it myself.
So I immediately went into research mode picked up a couple of tools here and there and eventually, wound up with a basic set of the simplest stuff just to cut floorboards down to cut baseboard and moulding down. I was able to do a lot of those odd jobs round the house and what happened was, I eventually finished most of those jobs and found myself sitting around with some tools - not knowing what to do with them. And I found a couple of episodes of shows I'd just kind of watched as a spectator for a long time like the New Yankee Workshop on PBS and Woodworks with David Marks and I thought it was really interesting watching these dudes build actual furniture.
And I was like, 'well, I've got a couple of tools, maybe I could start to build something and that's what I did. I found a plan online for a little nightstand table and another one for a bookcase went and bought materials, and from there just kind of fell in love with the craft and got more into fine furniture building and less into DIY home repair stuff, I still do a lot of that, but obviously, my attentions have turned a lot more to fine furniture.
How did the Wood Whisperer come about?
Making a living as a custom furniture maker is very, very difficult and I got to a point where I had to go back to work. I eventually did leave [the biotech industry,] got into my own business as a furniture maker, moved to the Phoenix area and the jobs I was getting were more really cabinet building, not really interesting stuff.
Everyone wants the bottom dollar price and I'm competing with places that have CNC (computer numerical control) machines and multiple employees, so it's hard for me to compete on price, but one thing I can always compete on is quality. The problem is not everyone's willing to pay for that quality.
So that got really frustrating and I was searching for ways to improve exposure for the business and there was really no one making much content online, other than stuff on forums and individual websites. People would post little postage stamp-sized videos that were really very difficult to watch.
So we decided to give it a shot. There were now these new publication platforms, YouTube had just started up - this is back in 2006 - and we were like let's just see what happens if I put these projects up online. Yes some woodworkers would see it but my hope was this would instruct and educate our potential clients, who can see what goes into building a piece of furniture and the journey it takes from raw wood to a finished piece and maybe that will make other people understand why it costs so much for me to do what I do. So the whole intention was to bolster my woodworking business, but what turned out to happen is that it was way more fun, interesting and profitable to simply teach other woodworkers how to build furniture, rather than convince people to buy my furniture with that content.
Where we ended up was I won't say accidental, but wasn't my original purpose, it was just something that came out of that and just observing what was going on it made sense for us to change direction and go with this whole Wood Whisperer thing.
Have you had any particularly interesting feedback from your viewers?
We get lots of interesting feedback every single day, that's the thing – it's the internet. So comments range from 'your video changed my life' to 'you're a moron, you have no idea what you're doing' and so you have to take it all with a grain of salt.
The bottom line with feedback is it really depends on your personality, and for me, I'm very self-critical and a lot of this stuff does hit me personally, but what I find is the weight of one bad comment is equal to 10 or 15 good comments. So all it takes is one troll to give me a bad day. I probably shouldn't say that publically, because it gives people a bit of ammunition if they want to mess with me but you have to have a thick skin about this stuff and make sure you understand that's the environment we're producing content in. It's online and this is just the way it is, people say stuff. I've had crazy feedback, like anyone who produces content online, so I can't complain.
But one of the great things about [vlogging] is it's international, this platform allows us to connect overseas and I hear from people in other countries where woodworking is not seen the way it is here. It can be a profession there, but it's no different than other utilitarian professions - people don't do it as a pastime.
So there's always this difficulty in communication in materials and terminology of this stuff because the US and Canada tend to be the places where this hobby, this interest in woodworking as a pastime has exploded and it's huge, whereas in other countries, it's just not seen that way. So feedback from people from other countries tends to be incredibly interesting to me as I'm trying to translate products and ideas to them where they don't have as supportive a community of woodworkers.
What's your favourite project that you've worked on?
The most recent one I did that really hit home with me was a sculpted rocker. It's a Maloof inspired rocker. Sam Maloof made just some incredibly comfortable, beautiful sculpted rockers that are some of the most beautiful chairs you've ever seen before. And from day one when I started woodworking and I came across that, I was like one day, I'm going to build one of those and it was a bucket list project.
This past springtime we started on it in our guild – that's our paid membership part of our website. So we embarked on that journey and I used a set of plans from a gentleman named Charles Brock and he does his own interpretation, there's no way around it its Maloof-inspired, but it's his version, but the fact he had the templates ready to go made it easy for me to jump in and teach my guild members how to build it as I was building it at the same time. And man, this was one of the most gratifying complicated - that's part of why it was gratifying - projects that I've ever done. It's absolutely the most comfortable chair I've ever made, it sits in my living room every day and we get to enjoy it.
What advice would you offer newcomers to woodworking?
You've got a lot of content to watch these days, it's not like it was when I started in 2006 - I was the only game in town, plus a couple of other people, now there's just so much information. [For example,] if you do a search for a cross-cut sled on YouTube and see how many videos you come across for it. There used to be trouble finding the information, now it's inundation with so much information and you have to sort through it, because not all of it is as good as some of the other stuff.
So you can almost have that paralysis by analysis situation and I think one of the best things you can do is get a few pointers. Don't sit on the computer all day watching videos on this stuff. Maybe watch a video or two, but then go into the shop and execute something, do something, because the mistakes you make when you're in the shop, those are the ones that are the most valuable to you. Those are the lessons you're going to remember forever.
You can listen to someone tell you something online, but it really is the practical application of this stuff in your shop that's going to teach you. So for me, I would say the best thing to do is just get a basic set of tools - don't drop tons of money - get used tools, tools from family members, whatever it takes, just get a nice complement of tools that lets you build a variety of things - you're not building the sculpted rocker right off the bat, you're going to build simpler items and don't be discouraged by how much stuff you find online. We'd like to think that this is all super encouraging to new woodworkers, but that flood of information can actually set people back instead of pushing them forward.
So it's a matter of practicing your own restraint and putting on a little bit of a filter with all of this online content to make sure you just let it trickle in and don't flood yourself with it. I think if you're working a day job and you're in an office, sometimes you're captive and if you've got a little bit of extra time to kill at work, that's fine – it's not taking time away from the shop, but when you get home and it's time to actually do something, I'd rather you spent your time practicing woodworking than online consuming too much content. Obviously as someone who produces content, I want you to watch my videos, but I don't want that to come at the expense of your actual practical learning of the craft of woodworking.
Many thanks to Marc for a fantastic insight into the world of one of the internet's most famous woodworkers. You can check out his YouTube channel right here, or head over to his website for free plans, in-depth resources and more.
Marc is also taking part in Woodworkers Fighting Cancer, a charity event that seeks to harness the efforts of woodworkers to raise money for the Cancer Research institute. Anyone can get involved by building along and this year's project is a fantastic table and chair set for kids. Head over to Marc's website to find out more.
Images used courtesy of Marc Spagnuolo