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Rob's Tip: Save our Woodworking Shows

Jake and I just attended the 32th annual Woodstock Wood Show held in Woodstock, Ontario.  Before I elaborate let me reminisce of days past. 
I attended this show for the first time back in 2000, wow!  More than 30,000 people attended over three days, the small town of less that 30k was buzzing.  Restaurants were packed, hotel vacancy was miles away and the venue was jammed with everything wood!  Four arena sized buildings were full of vendors, large tents were set up outside to house additional vendors and the available grounds had everything from lumberjack competitions to modern portable saw mills to an antique steam powered shingle mill all in operation all day.  The place was a woodworkers slice of heaven on Earth. 
I remember the long, wide  leather belts that powered the shingle mill from the steam engine.  The belt had to be 60 feet long and was twisted to reverse the direction.  It was loud and scary and while appropriately roped off, you knew back in the day such safety precautions had not been considered.  The operator arrived at the show very early each morning to build up the needed steam to run the mill.  The sawn shingles as well as the sawn lumber were all available for sale.  Lots of large walnut and maple logs slabbed out, if only I had brought a truck!
Inside one building was Ontario’s largest Woodworking competition, multiple categories, wildlife  carving, relief carving turning, intarsia, furniture making and most had both amateur and professional classes.  Master carvers like Neil Cox would  be there demonstrating all three days.  Master turners like Dale Nish did rotating seminars to huge audiences.  Two or three seminar stages were hosted on the hour by well know woodworking personality’s.
At the show you could see up close just about every tool currently available .  All the major brands were well represented with knowledgeable staff, the latter seemed to be a show must!  It was the opportunity some waited for all year before laying down their hard earned cash on the saw or planer they had coveted for months.  There was excitement in the air, hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands and thousands went home eager to hook up their new tools and mill wood! 
I bought my first "new" band saw at one of these shows, I knew buying one off the show floor would mean it had been gone over well to ensure it not only worked but there would not have been any defects or blemishes, not always the case when ordering sight unseen.
I entered this frenzy as one of the few vendors espousing hand tools.  At my first Woodstock show Mario Rodriquez came with me compliments of Tom Lie-Nielsen, we each manned a bench in my booth.  He was well recognized from his writing for Fine Woodworking magazine, a real fan favorite!  I was demonstrating hand cut dovetails for the first time at a wood show and it was the first time at that wood show that dovetails were demonstrated.  The gig was a big hit and folks would be ten people deep trying to get a peek. Three days shot by in a flash and while exhausted at the end, the whole event was a thrill! 
Even though I was there as a vendor with expectations of big sales, I felt just as energized by the atmosphere as any of the patrons.  My biggest lament was always not having the time to check it all out, walk the isles and talk to the vendors I wanted to visit with.  I often told my friends how I would love to be able to go as a patron at least for a day.
This wood carnival was repeated to the same or nearly the same degree in ten other cities over the fall and winter months, Woodstock was always the first of the season.  We would set up on Thursday, run the show Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  Pack up Sunday night (my least favorite) so all the gear could get on its way Monday morning to the next venue.  This usually meant flying home Monday morning and flying to the next city Thursday morning.  The schedule was rugged but with Friends in each city it was a great time.  At their invitation I often stayed with these customer/ friends instead of a hotel.  The opportunity to get to know people in their home is rare, I got to do this all across this huge country. 
Yes, I was there to sell tools and earn money but the big pay day was the friendships that I still have today.  Permit me to wax philosophical for a moment,  I met Tim Harmon at a show in Ottawa in 2001.  Since then I have stayed in Tim's home more times than I can remember, I have golfed with Tim more than anyone else.  He has worked countless shows with me, he has been my assistant in numerous workshops from Ontario to Alberta, he and his family have come to New Brunswick several times and have stayed in our home.  I could tell similar stories of Peter in Victoria, Barry in Edmonton, Mike in Welland, Roy on Vancouver Island, Dave in Seaschelt, Duncan in Cochrane, Mark in Calgary, Lee in Toronto, Bob (RIP) in Sudbury, Claire in Markham, Charles and Mark in Halifax.  These are all good friends I found by attending woodshows. 
They (woodshows) are like a magnetic that attracts some of the best people in the community.  I have always said this craft has the finest, perhaps it is because it requires patience to do good woodwork and patience is a great character trait.  My life, especially the woodworking side, has been so enriched by meeting great people through this woodshow venue that I cant imagine it any other way.  
By my calculations the wood show fever peaked in 2006, you could tell shows we’re doing well when the promoters would host all the vendors to a lovely sit down meal after the show closing.  There would be awards for best booth, best seminar, best new vendor.  The industry was booming and work was fun and exciting,  These promoters were making good money and were eager to keep the vendors happy.  
To summarize my experience, here is why I so enjoyed the wood show circuit;
  • I got to put a face to the customers voice and name, some I had spoken to on so many occasions that when we finally me it was a hug not just a handshake!

  • I got to teach my customers some of the basics about sharpening, sawing and planing which for many was liberating 

  • I got to share my excitement of new tools live and in person, I was as much a customer of these tools as I was a merchant!

  • I got first hand feedback on tools and techniques from those that had been buying my tools and using my techniques, so much so that it led to many improvements.  Our saw tooth blade for the dovetail marking knife came from a customer suggestion.

  • I made a ton of acquaintances that became good friends, friends I would call on when I was in the area, friends I would golf with during long flight layovers and many that would come work future shows and workshops with me!

    The advantages of these wood shows to the hobby woodworker were enormous, they could:
    • See procedures demonstrated by experts live and in person.  This is where you pick up the small nuances that are often missed on video

    • Get hands-on advice on tools and techniques from real pros

    • Meet other woodworkers in the area and benefit from local guilds and organisations even buying clubs who would collectively purchase large lots of wood for better discounts

    • Find obscure sources for wood and supplies from “off line” vendors, this can be a gold mine!

    • Be exposed to creative work from fellow craftsman

    • Be excited and energized from a throng of like minded folks

    • Find out how things like logs are milled, green lumber is dried, where certain species are sourced

    • Be educated on different finishes and finishing techniques , things that bear a huge expense when learned by trial and error

    • Attend numerous free seminars covering a host of topics

    • Talk to knowledgeable tool reps and in some cases the actual company founder/owner

      In a nut shell, you can get the equivalent of a years worth of solo learning in three days.
      That is a taste of what it was like while it lasted, what had taken 20 years to build, peaking in 2006, was decimated by 2010.  One show after another stumbled and crashed.  There had been an entire industry built around the show circuit, we had a designated trucking company that would haul our gear from show to show. 
      Pallets were limited to 8 feet high and if yours was only 6 feet it was customary to offer the extra space to anyone who could use it.  Everyone shared the shrink wrap!  We were all friends and everyone seemed to realize things worked best when all did well.  We dined together, shared set-up tools, gave a hand when needed and generally respected everyone’s need to do well.  
      The former show circuit I speak of has been reduced to just two shows and they are a skeleton of their former selves.  This past show now barely occupies two buildings and a lot of the booths are non-wood related.  Mops, financial services, jams and jellies and several empty booths with nothing but chairs for the tired!  Many hours of each day the vendors out numbered the patrons.  The mood has changed, the level of excitement is not enough to measure.  What is most disappointing is the resource that threatens to disappear. 
      With wood shop in public schools a distant memory, the only place the younger generation has to be exposed to this calming craft is the annual hobby based wood show.  I’m writing this with the hope of stimulating an interest in revitalizing the local wood show and wood craft exhibit.  If you are lucky enough to still have one nearby, mark your calendar and save the date.  Better yet, drag along a friend and do what you can to encourage some young folk to attend. 
      If 10% of the folks that lived in a time when woodworking was part of the school curriculum, enjoyed it enough pick it up as a hobby later in life, that statistic should still be valid.  What I mean is there are a percentage of the population that would be interested if they were exposed to it. 
      The latter might just be up to us, who do you know that likes to tinker?  A great way to find these budding craftspeople is to show your wares.  Find a way to display your work, to the uninitiated five boards arranged to form a box can be fascinating.  Give some of your work away, word of mouth from a gracious recipient goes miles.  If you’re the type, organize a show in a local mall or hospital lobby.  Don’t be afraid to show it off, a lot of folks can’t imagine how something is built so for them seeing local craft is a thrill.  
      What ever you know, pass it on.  We can’t let this great craft wither and die.  The peace and joy of woodworking can change lives for the better, I have witnessed it first hand!
      Sincerely 
      Rob