“…Who will pick up the flag?”

One of my favorite movies of all time is Edward Zwick’s 1989 work Glory.  It is the retelling of the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the US Civil War.  The 54th was the first all black regiment to take the field in battle, and they proved themselves brave warriors as they attempted – and failed – to take Fort Wagner which guarded the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

One of the most poignant moments in the film was when Col. Robert Shaw (Played by Matthew Broderick) stood by the flag bearer at the head of the column of soldiers just before the climactic battle and asked, “Should this man fall, who will pick up the flag?”

Why was this so important?  Sure, the flag is the symbol of a nation, and as such, it shouldn’t touch the ground as a sign of respect.  But, that’s not the main reason why Shaw asked for a volunteer.

Back in the days before field radios and instant satellite communications, it was a difficult job commanding men in battle.  So, the commanders for different units had to rely on two tools.  The first was the bugle’s call.  By having a bugler sound a different tune, the soldiers on the field were able to tell if they had to retreat or advance.  The second – and probably even more  important – tool the commanders used was the standard bearer.  By hoisting the unit’s colors high in the air, the soldiers were able to tell where their unit was headed, and if they were still in formation during the attack. That flag guided their movements and helped them stay on track.

Knowing that importance, opposing forces were quick to locate the standard bearer and gun him down.  By doing this, they could easily thrown their opponents into disarray, possibly turning the tide in battle. Being the standard bearer was a very dangerous occupation.

2009 has been a tough year for woodworkers.  We have seen the passing of two woodworking legends, and the end of an era on television.

Sam Maloof was a truly inspired genius when it came to the craft.  From his California workshop, Sam let his vision guide his work for more than 60 years.  Even until his final days, Sam’s skill and  love for wood poured out into the creations he planned and assembled.  Primarily known for the sinuous curves of his rocking chairs, his designs graced the White House as both presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Regan each owned one.  He was described by the Smithsonian Institution as “America’s most renowned contemporary furniture craftsman” and People magazine dubbed him “The Hemingway of Hardwood.” But his business card always said “woodworker.” “I like the word,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter, his eyes brightening behind large, owl-eyed glass frames. “It’s an honest word.”

A few months later, we bid farewell to James Krenov. This Siberian-born woodworker started woodworking back in the mid 1920’s, when an airplane dropped supplies for his town in his family’s new  new Alaskan home.  In this package, he found a jack knife and began carving toys for himself and other children.  As the handmade aesthetic had nearly died out in the 1950’s, James was one of the standard bearers for a return to the honest, well-built projects turned out by talented woodworkers today.  His seminal 1976 work A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook helped to light the fire and bring woodworking back to the fore.  It remains one of his most popular works.  He helped establish the woodworking program at the College of the Redwoods, which instructed a new generation of notable woodworkers.

While not a death, last week’s announcement that the New Yankee Workshop will cease production proved to be the talk of woodworking forums across the Internet.  Norm Abram and Russ Morash broke ground the first time in 1979 with This Old House, and in again when they launched the New Yankee Workshop in 1988.  Sure, there were the questions.. who would watch one guy build furniture in his shop for half an hour?  Apparently, lots of folks.  Norm’s easy-going attitude and communication ability gave woodworkers the inside look at how furniture is made.  Always dressed in his plaid with tool belt strapped around his waist, Norm exhorted woodworkers to get out and build safely.  There is little doubt that many woodworkers today got their start in the craft while sitting in their easy chair watching the show.

We now enter into a new era in woodworking.  Many of the old masters who brought the craft out of the sterile 1950’s are getting up there in age.  Sam Maloof, James Krenov, George Nakashima, Tage Frid… they are passing on, leaving memories and their written – and spoken – words for future generations to learn from.  Speculation is that the 21-year run of the New Yankee Workshop was halted by the current economic conditions and a lack of sponsorship money.

These two men and this one show carried the banner for woodworkers, showing them that yes, you can do this and yes, you will improve if you stick with it and invest the time to work at it.

Who now will pick up  the flag?

After reacting to the shock of the two passings and show cancellation, the next post typically asked the most logical next question – who will take their places?

Of course the answer is no one… Krenov and Maloof were pioneers and visionaries.  Their styles are as famous and imitated as those from the Shakers and the Arts and Crafts movement.  The New Yankee Workshop broke ground and laid the path for televised craftsmen such as David Marks and Scott Phillips.

However, the same question also has a logical answer – it’s right under your nose.  The computer you are working on right now is a doorway to the rich online woodworking world.  Woodworking blogs, written by many gifted craftsmen and women, have sprung up across the net.  This is where the next woodworking standard bearer will be discovered.

In many ways, the Internet is far superior to TV programming.  For instance:

  • The cost to get started in blogging and podcasting is insanely cheap.. when compared to the cost of equipping a full-blown TV production set.
  • You can dial in your interests precisely. If you love the router, you will find websites that deal with that tool.  Turning?  Yep. Hand tools?  You betcha.
  • The content is available 24 hours a day.  You can subscribe to the RSS feeds from several different sites and review the new content as it is posted.  This beats watching the same TiVo’d show over and over for a week until the next program comes along.
  • And, most importantly, regardless of the economic conditions, web woodworking contributors can continue to post, where TV programming needs the infusion of cash to keep the show on the air.

With the changes in technology, the arrival of High-Def visual programming has arrived. Today’s powerful computers and high-bandwidth Internet connections make the fast and easy access of programming a piece of cake. And, as woodworking web contributors continue to target their audiences and hone their video and audio production skills, the quality of the programming will only rise.

Maloof and Krenov carried the banner through some of the roughest times for woodworkers, and their contributions will never be forgotten.  And, even though the New Yankee Workshop will no longer be producing new shows, the 21 year long body of work will exist in perpetuity on DVD’s and through the ‘measured drahhings.’

But, you have to remember that while these losses seem major, there are hundreds – thousands of woodworkers out there  who are willing to step to the front and answer the question by saying, “I will.”

7 thoughts on ““…Who will pick up the flag?””

  1. Hey great, thought provoking post Tom. I think you’re spot on with the wealth and richness of woodworking education and literature that’s around at the moment. Who will be the future replacements of these great stalwarts of our beloved woodworking? Man that’s hard. There’s so many great young (i.e under 60) woodworkers at the moment. I’d love to see David Marks doing more in the public eye. Perhaps the ‘scene’ is a little diluted for idols like Krenov and Maloof to really shine. It’s easy to see at least one obvious replacement for Norm and there’s space for more like him on the Internet. I think the advertisers have seen that the future is on the web. Never before have they been able to so directly target their market.

    Interesting times bro, interesting time.

  2. Wonderful post, Tom! It will be interesting to see who will step up to the plate. I just hope to live long enough to find out :0)

    —– Al Navas

  3. Inspiring, superbly researched and written Tom.
    My hat’s off to you for such a thought-provoking article.

  4. Tom,
    What a great post. We’re all behind you in your carrying of the flag and many of us have flags ourselves to back you up.

  5. None of the flag bearers we’ve come to known actually sought out the job. They were guys who did what they did well enough that others took notice. They stood out because of dogged determination and a uniqueness to their crafting voice.

    Who will the next flag bearers be? Look around. Who’s doing excellent work with tenacity? Who’s creating a body of work that’s just a little different from everyone else around them? Who’s taking the craft past where people like Krenov, Carpenter, Frid and Nakashima left it?

    Those are the people who are likely candidates.

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