Ever since the publication of my book about building custom hardwood toilet seats, people have been sending me private messages on social media asking for related advice. Private messages on social media! A lot of these questions involve so many variables that it would take me an hour to answer even one of them adequately. For example:
“I have a magnificent offcut of pomelé mahogany and desire to craft a seat with no joints, simply cutting the outer shape from the 16 inch by 24 inch blank, on my bandsaw, then removing the center portion with the scroll saw. I assume the grain should be oriented longitudinally. Hence my question: Should I be concerned about short grain breakage at the ends, especially given the stress from being screwed (to the hinges) at the rear?”
“Yo. Thinkin bout makin a lil end grain butcher block seat outta ebony. With hand cut dovetails natch.”
The writer apparently got distracted here and sent the rest in another message.
“With so many joints on the surface do you think the epoxy might make my butt break out even after the glue cures. LOL. Thoughts?”
By the way, I’m fairly certain these inquiries were sincere, not jokes from friends.
I’ve lost track of how many snarky replies I’ve painstakingly pecked out with one finger on my phone, only to delete them before sending (well, most of them; a couple of times I pressed send and then regretted it). Do these people honestly think I have nothing to do all day but sit around and give out free advice? Just about every article or blog post I write makes clear that my livelihood depends on building these handcrafted, personally fitted pieces (and other commissions) for a living. How do people not get that my time is valuable!!! It’s especially obnoxious when most of the stuff people ask about is covered in the book. I don’t want to insult anyone, but I’m at my wits’ end as to how I should reply, other than with “BUY THE DAMN BOOK.” Can you help?
We live in interesting times. It has become commonplace for many in the “sharing economy” not to blink an eye as, on the one hand, they balk at paying for a subscription to a newspaper or trade journal written by experienced professionals and edited to ensure clear, factual content, and on the other, expect to be paid well for their own work.
Rarely does a day go by without me seeing a loving testimonial to the great community of woodworkers on Instagram, in particular, where many of us post information about processes, etc., that we want to share freely. I give away tons of information there and elsewhere, along with advice to many who request it; I also appreciate as much as anyone the camaraderie and inspiration to be gained through this contact with fellow woodworkers, gardeners, and artists. But I throw up a little in my mouth when expressions of gratitude to so-and-so for generously consulting on a finish that has already been detailed in several articles I’m aware of, or to such-and-such for recommending their plans for a cross-cut sled (ditto), come from people who routinely post images of their spacious, well-equipped workshops and international vacations. Dammit, what about books and magazines?! They’re troves of information and insight. The readiness to ask questions via direct message instead of taking the time to look things up irks me all the more because I know how diligently, and often selflessly, the editors and writers at many paywall-protected publications work. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the value of personal experience in weighing pros and cons when there’s a variety of solutions to a given problem. But the increasingly automatic jump to ask a social media contact for advice before even doing an internet search on the topic is getting out of hand.
Still, this is where we find ourselves…at a moment in which social media, and the internet more generally, have magically made the economic connections between “creating content” (barf) and “consuming” it (barfing again!) disappear – poof! – leaving many of our fellow woodworkers feeling like saps for shelling out the price of two lattes a month for enough information to train themselves from rank beginners to skilled furniture makers.
I fear the “sharing economy” that many consider an antidote to the evils of private property and a market that runs on money is too often simply a disruptor of small business as it has long been done – and not one that delivers us from the less benign effects of entrenched economic realities in any meaningful way. Rather, it strikes me as a sort of leech on the thigh of the family-owned hardware store, small-town cab company, or code-compliant hotelkeeper (all of whom some acquaintances of mine dismiss as benighted members of the “petty bourgeoisie,” even as their own salaries are delivered to their bank accounts via institutions funded in good part by taxes paid by these proletarians); it promises to help those of little means, yet still depends on – and sometimes generates – concentrations of wealth. I’m looking at you, Uber! And don’t get me started on Airbnb, which is transforming affordable neighborhoods and luxury mountaintop retreats alike into short-term digs for one-step-up-from-#vanlife adventurers.
In the meantime, this culture of friends who have never met, few of whom really know anything about each other beyond the illusory world of edited images shared on-screen, encourages some to imagine themselves entitled to the benefits of friendship as historically understood. A longtime friend whose wedding I attended, who showed up years later for my stepson’s memorial, might want my thoughts on whether to salvage her 1920s windows, so we get together and check them out over coffee. I ask another friend, who’s now retired, if he’d be willing to help install the slider on my tablesaw; I offer to pay him, but he says no, so I take him out for lunch instead. In these friendships, reciprocity is central. But have you noticed how often, when you do take the time to provide detailed information in response to a private request on social media, the person who made it doesn’t even have the courtesy to reply with so much as “Thanks”? Who are their parents?!
Forgive my digression. Here’s a suggestion for how you might answer those requests: “With only so many hours in each day, I am unable to answer individual requests for advice. I cover the topic you’ve asked about (and much more) in my book, which is available here.
Thanks to Lee and Eric Sandweiss for providing the vintage mid-century toilet seat and to Chris Schwarz for making me aware of LMGTFY.
You can find more examples of exasperating experiences from the world of professional woodworking in Making Things Work.