Surely we've all noticed that it's impossible to attend a cocktail party these days without getting into another conversation about lathes. So what gives?
Woodworking is a mighty popular hobby, if for no other reason than it's becoming a less-viable occupation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' "Occupational Outlook Handbook" (http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocoitz.htm#W), which forecasts job growth and earnings for a host of vocations, overall employment in the woodworking industry will grow more slowly than the average. Despite the fact that precision woodworking-that is, customized wood products and renovations-is still in great demand, the production side has been slammed by automation and computerization. It may have taken Geppetto a lot of time and care to carve Pinocchio, but these days, Disney's replicas of the little liar are cranked out by machine. Production woodworkers would be advised to learn how to master the CNC (computer numeric control) technology that is making them obsolete while creating an increased demand for programmers and designers.
In the meantime, the same technology that's putting a lot of machinists on the unemployment line has opened the doors for others to take up woodworking as a hobby. Tools these days are smaller, handier, and more reasonably priced than their bulky counterparts of days gone by, allowing relative novices to master mortising, fine cutting, and finishing without the threat of exhaustion and/or dismemberment. (Traditionalists, of course, will continue to maintain that grotesque shop scars are as essential to the craft as sawdust.)
According to Susan Brandt of the Hobby Industry Association (http://www. hobby.org), woodworking ranks second only to apparel sewing in terms of consumer expenditures on hobbies. The HIA's biannual industry survey, last conducted in 1997, asked consumers what they spent in the first six months of that year, as well as what they expected to lay out in the coming half year. (The survey also tracks retail and manufacturer sales.) The HIA found that consumers expected to spend a total of $833 million on woodworking, up from $727 million in '96. (The sewing hobbyists spent twice that amount.) Given that woodworking comprises not just cabinetry and furniture building, but woodturning, refinishing, scroll sawing, and pig carving (yes, pig carving-check out the National Pig Carvers Association at http://www.tfb.com/ ~rharper/npca.html), it's not surprising that the hobby ranks as high as it does.
And it should continue to grow, both in expenditures and number of devotees, as more people move into their 50s. The median age of Wood magazine's 600,000 subscribers (the vast majority of whom are amateurs, reports managing editor Jim Harrold) is 57. In addition, the 55-to-64 age group, according to the BLS's "Consumer Expenditure Survey" (http:// www.bls.gov/csxhome.htm), spends more on "toys, games, hobbies, and tricycles" than any other group. At The Cutting Edge, a woodturning shop in Houston, owner Stephen LeGrue points to early boomers reaching retirement age as the spark for the recent uptick in sales-including growing numbers of women (a trend also confirmed by Harrold). According to LeGrue, many women cross over from sewing to sawdust because of the scroll saw's similarity to the sewing machine. (Note to Singer: Want to draw men into sewing? Design an overlock machine that works like a television remote.)
Technology-specifically, the digital revolution-is also enabling enthusiasts to get to work quicker, as project plans have been made available online. Wood celebrates the third anniversary of its Web site this month. Reporting 10 million monthly hits, WoodOnline (http:// www.woodmagazine.com/) offers downloadable plans for purchase-an option that not only keeps a 15-year archive in play, but increases the profit margin on each by eliminating printing and mailing costs. Similar online plans are offered by Woodsmith (http:// www.augusthome.com/woodsmth.htm) and Popular Woodworking (http://www. popularwoodworking.com). WoodOnline also hosts regular "virtual trade shows" during which woodworkers can communicate with vendors without having to take the finishing nails out of their mouths.
Perhaps the best use of digital technology in the interests of the hobby is the Woodworking Accident Survey at the Woodworker's Website Association site (http:// www.woodworking.org). To date it has more than 150 accident reports, searchable by tool, user experience, accident level (Close Call, Hurt But OK, or Needed Medical Attention), or keyword. It's a fitting testament to the old adage: "Better to have a ring finger and not need it, than to need it and not have it."