Cabinetmaker, furniture maker, woodworker, period furniture maker, what am I? There are a lot of terms in this business that all amount to the same thing but in this day and age you need to use the “proper” term.
So, what am I? From my perspective I’m a woodworking dinosaur. I prefer the traditional nomenclature. I’m a cabinetmaker, chairmaker and joiner which means I work with both hardwoods and softwoods. Historically these terms were seldom used together. Cabinetmakers, and chairmakers, made furniture and goods from hardwoods…trees that lose their leaves annually. Joiners made building structures and/or furniture from soft woods…trees that retain their leaves year round. But I like making furniture from each kind of wood. I guess technically I’m more of a cabinetmaker than a joiner since the vast majority of my pieces are primarily hardwoods but the occasional pine cupboard just keeps things fresh and fun.
Another term I just can’t grasp today is “craftsman”. I always considered it to be gender neutral but now I see people using the term “craftswoman” and “craftsperson”. I didn’t realize that when one achieved the level of proficiency in their craft that being called a “craftsman” would be insulting because that person is female. Hester Bateman was a craftsman (look her up guys…and I use the term “guys” in the most gender neutral sense). In fact she was one of the best silversmiths in our country. I’m pretty sure she aspired to be called a “craftsman”.
What brought all of this to the fore is my consideration of how I teach classes and seminars and how I refer to the students who come to my school. I refer to them as “guys” even though women have attended both my classes and seminars. I get self-conscious when I’m presenting a seminar to a group of thirty or forty people and I say something like “Ok, guys this is our next step”. It’s usually at that point I look out into the audience and make contact with every woman in the place.
This line of thought, in my warped woodworker kind of process, got me to thinking about my job title (for lack of a better term). Today the term “cabinetmaker” usually refers to someone building kitchen cabinets. This is not necessarily a skilled position in this age of production line woodworking. Furniture makers all over the country are incensed if you call them “cabinetmakers” because they don’t build kitchen cabinets. I haven’t even dealt with the term “chairmaker” which is something akin to being a whitesmith (a refined version of a blacksmith, neither of which is a racial term).
I’ve heard people like my master, Werner Duerr, and Frank Klausz use the term “mechanic” but they were referring to someone who works with wood not on cars (here are the findings). It seems to me that the term “mechanic” once carried the same level of respect as “craftsman”. I just can’t figure out how to determine the gender of the word. I’m pretty sure it equates to the term “journeyman” which I believe is also gender neutral.
In the last paragraph I used the term “master”. Is it politically incorrect to use that term today? Werner is certainly a “master” of his craft and so is Frank. Is it wrong to honor them by using a term that once carried such great respect? Today the word has been distorted so much that it only has a negative connotation.
Our words have been parsed and examined in so many ways that they’ve become narrow in scope. Our language has become cold and calculated and lacks the true expression of the grand realities we discover each day. So guys (and gals) I plan to continue calling myself a cabinetmaker even though I’ve made very few kitchens in my life. I also plan to keep referring to my students and seminar attendees as “guys” even though a fair number of them are female. If you’re offended by my choice, I apologize in advance for being sensible and conservative with my verbiage. You are free to translate my offending remarks into modern day PC if you wish. It is certainly not my intention to offend anyone.
So, to all you hobbyist (translated as amateur) cabinetmakers (woodworkers/furnituremakers) out there, keep practicing and expanding your skills so that one day you too can call yourself a master craftsman (highly proficient craftsperson).