Rags and (saw)dust

Confession time: I subscribe to a glut of woodworking magazines. Five, in fact, plus one that’s only available on newsstands. Don’t tell the environmentalists, but that’s a lot of paper.

I know, I really should consider reducing my ecological impact here, maybe make some more judicious choices. It’s almost unfair to compare these magazines directly, though, since they’re written for such completely different communities.

  • In the United States, Wood magazine (Meredith Publishing) and American Woodworker (acquired from Rodale in 1998 by Reader’s Digest) represent the entry-level publications of the field. Editorially they are focused on the hobbyist community, with relatively simple projects and step-by-step instructions. I stopped saving my American Woodworker issues, opting instead to cut out specific articles and file them in file folders for future reference. (Yes, I recycle the rest.) My Wood magazine collection may someday undergo the same purge.
  • Popular Woodworking (P+W Publications) and its sister publication, Woodworking Magazine, bridge the gap between the entry-level community and the second-tier community, in which skill and technique are of greater concern. Under the stewardship of publisher Steve Shannesy and Executive Editor Chris Schwarz, the strength of these two publications lies in Schwarz’s commitment to scholarship and technique. They make room for the reader who’s new to the craft, but they also provide a roadmap to long-term growth for readers of intermediate skill. Of the two, Woodworking Magazine has become my prefered title. There is a cohesive quality to it. Each issue is organized around a feature project, with additional technique-focused articles that tie in to the feature. It’s risky, since the entire issue could potentially leave a reader cold, but the reward is worth it: Even if you aren’t interested in building the feature project, there are things to be learned from the content.
  • Fine Woodworking (Taunton Press) sits firmly as a second-tier publication, with more complex and sophisticated projects, plus occasional profiles of studio crafts-people and a “Reader’s Gallery” featuring photos of high-quality work. With a cadre of writers and editors, Fine Woodworking represents “the establishment” in the craft today. I gladly subscribe to their website’s premium content, which provides much (but not all) of their back catalog of articles, plus an increasing number of videos.

While I appreciate Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking for their various strengths, they each suffer from an overabundance of tool reviews: too many, too often. They also have their repertoire of topics, and I’ve reached a point of mild frustration with the redundant and cyclical nature of content: the tool reviews, the same card scraper articles and arts-and-crafts finish recipes recycled year after year. Woodworking Magazine isn’t afflicted by the huge tool review obligation that the others are, since it accepts no advertising – and the reviews it does publish are more candid because of it.

Lately, however, I find myself won over by Woodwork, a more art-oriented magazine. Woodwork’s decidedly descriptive editorial voice is a welcome antidote to Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking’s sometimes overly-prescriptive tone. Focusing on the work of real craftspeople, Woodwork opens up the discourse to explore what’s possible in the medium of wood, and what creative and talented people are doing today. Here, authenticity is defined by a faithfulness to the maker’s imagination and creative process, not the faithful reproduction of existing patterns of design vocabulary.

So here are a few thoughts I’ll throw out to the publishers:

  • Consider a more descriptive editorial voice. Tell me how you hold your teeth, and why you think it helps you plane to do it that way, but don’t tell me I should hold my teeth a certain way when I plane.
  • Save the tool reviews for the web site. That way, those readers who are in the market for a new saw can do their research, and those of us who are happy with their tools (I use a thirty-year-old table saw and a fifty-year-old radial arm saw and have no intention of changing) can get on to the good stuff. When I chose my new 18″ bandsaw, I looked at Fine Woodworking’s reviews online. It’s content that’s ideal for the web: timely and there when you need it.
  • Your web site provides the ultimate context for the ongoing dialogue you share with your readers in print. You don’t start over in print without disrupting that context. Instead of publishing another card scraper article every eighteen months, reference one or more online versions from a sidebar in the print version. If you’re tempted to recycle an article, do it online. As I’ve already confessed above, I’ll pay for quality online content.
  • Now that you’ve made so much room in the magazine by not recycling the same tired articles, let’s broaden the discourse. Let’s talk more about design, about where we get ideas, whether they’re good or not. Let’s look back at where the craft has been, where it is today, and where it’s going. Let’s discover what people are doing, what interests them, what they’re passionate about, whether they’re professionals or not. Let’s talk about how to market your work, who’s buying, and how to find them.
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