This is a guide for someone considering starting a woodworking club in your town.
For many years I helped lead a woodworking club in Austin, TX that met at the Woodcraft store. We had a monthly presentation. That club folded during the pandemic.
Two years ago I started the Austin Hand Tool Club, which has been successful. Once a month we email each other what we are working on. Occasionally we meet in person.
I have also led small groups at church for over 15 years.
Many of the ideas below come from the book The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. It’s a great resource for this kind of work. Her suggestions match my experience.
First try to join an existing club
Start by looking for an existing club. There may be an existing group in your area that could really use an enthusiastic member like you. Places to look:
- local woodworking stores
- social media
- ask friends
When you find one, show up at least three times.
Showing up at a club can be exceptionally awkward. The people in the club have absolutely no idea who you are and you have no idea who they are. In my experience, it is nearly impossible to determine the quality of work someone produces by outward appearances. You might be talking to an absolute master, even if they are unkempt and unable to describe what they build. Don’t assume anything.
You are going to be uncomfortable. It takes years to get to know the characters in the club, but for now, go at least three times to try to get past some of the awkwardness.
If the group you found is not ideal, but you can tolerate it, then join. All clubs need participants and you will meet people there. If you decide to start a club, then the new club will need motivated participants like you, so it helps to learn what it is like to show up as a motivated participant yourself.
Before starting something new, really try to participate in an existing club.
Define your niche
If you decide to start a new club, define the club around your interests and schedule. If it excites you and you can attend, then it’s very likely other people can, also.
If in doubt, be more specific. Imagine you were really passionate about making chopsticks. You go to your local lumberyard and see a notice for “Woodworkers of Albuquerque.” The club would contain people who could understand what you do, but they won’t share your passion. Now imagine you saw a notice for “Chopstick Makers of Albuquerque.” You found your people!
Define the group so there is no question that you would attend.
Design it to be sustainable
A common misconception is that clubs die because members stop coming. Clubs die when the leaders are no longer able to keep injecting the energy to keep it going and no one else will lead.
The easiest way to make the club sustainable is to define the leadership role around something you want to do, even if nobody shows up. For example, there is a carving club in Austin that meets once a week at a city recreation center. If you want to start a carving club, all you have to say is, “I’m going to carve every Thursday night from 7-9pm at this location.” Then you show up every week whether you expect anyone or not. If nobody shows up, you get two good hours of carving in. If a few show up, then you get to carve together. Even if nobody shows up the first few times, if you keep at it, the carvers will start appearing. The attitude of, “I’m doing this whether anybody shows up for not,” really helps people feel comfortable engaging in the club.
I started the Austin Hand Tool Club because I like talking about hand tools and I wanted to share what I was working on as motivation to get out in the shop more. It’s an email list, so on the first of each month I send out an email that says, “Time to send updates.” And everybody sends updates of what they have been working on. To meet in person, I’ll schedule a meeting with one other person and announce, “Bob and I are going to be at this restaurant at this time, come join us.” I think this group has low enough overhead that it can continue indefinitely.
The counterexample is the Fine Woodworkers of Austin. When I led that, the expectation was that the president come up with presenters for each monthly meeting. This was a huge chore. Everybody liked sitting for presentations, but nobody wanted the job of arranging the presentations, so the club folded.
Keep administration and planning to a bare minimum. Design the club around something you want to do even if nobody shows up.
From the very first day of the club, expect the members to participate. If you don’t do that, then the DNA of the club will be that the leaders do everything and the members just show up to be entertained. It is very, very easy to fall in this trap, so expect participation from the beginning.
With the Austin Hand Tool Club, each member is expected to provide a monthly update. If they haven’t been working in the shop, then they can say what they have been watching, reading, or thinking about, which may not even be related to woodworking. Without the updates, we don’t have a club.
With in-person meetings, you can have a sign up list to bringing snacks or provide a venue. If nobody offers a venue, then you don’t meet.
Another way to handle this is to define all the dates you will meet for the year and require members to take a date and be responsible for that meeting.
The leaders cannot do it all. Most of the work of the club needs to be done by the members. If you do all the work for them for free, then there is no reason for the members to participate. If you define the club so it will fail without participation, then they either participate or the club folds.
I was at a lunch for the Austin Hand Tool Club where six people showed up out of 36 on the email list. Someone said we needed to work to get more people there. I pointed out that six was a really great size to have a good conversation. You don’t need 100 people at your meeting to be successful. You can share and make meaningful connections with as few as three people.
Money really complicates things. As soon as you start collecting dues, then you really need by-laws, a corporate entity, a bank account, and someone to file taxes. It’s much more sustainable to have no money and then ask for donations to cover expenses as they come up.
If the club really gets going, then you can create all the financial infrastructure. For now just try to get people to show up to a format you can maintain over a long period of time.
Consider the alternatives
When designing the club, consider what members would use as a substitute for attending the club.
If your members are driving across town to watch an average woodworker give an average presentation, then why wouldn’t they just stay home and watch the zillions of experts giving well-crafted presentations on YouTube?
If your members want expert information on what equipment to buy, then why wouldn’t they ask their question on an online forum? The forum probably contains many more people who have used the the tool in question.
Usually this comes down to three things, the fact your club is local, in-person, and can offer friends. You might have outings to find the perfect chopstick trees or share local wood and tools. You can also see work in person because furniture often looks different in person than in pictures. And, if you make an environment that encourages people to get to know each other and be friendly and generous, then you can provide friends.
I have been in leadership meetings where we ask these questions about alternatives and they can be very uncomfortable and unsettling. It is uncomfortable to think that somebody would rather stay at home and watch videos of some random guy making chopsticks rather than come to your club and meet you. It can feel like rejection. One of the reasons I encouraged you to attend another club is that I wanted you to experience that from the other side. There are many alternatives competing for your time and attention.
Don’t blame the members
When the club is not going as you expected, it is very, very easy to blame the members. Here are some that I have heard:
- “Nobody will help me.”
- “We don’t have enough people to make this worth it.”
- “These guys just buy tools, but don’t make anything, so I can’t learn from them.”
- “I generously offer help, but nobody will accept my help.”
If the club is not turning out the way you expected, then it may be a problem in the structure or format of the club. If you could show up to a meeting, see an excellent presentation, and then go home without doing any other work, then you would do that. If you want people to help, then that has to be built into the structure of the club, preferably in a way that if nobody participates, then the club folds. Don’t carry it by yourself.
If you are spending hours and hours preparing for club meetings and only two people show up and that’s not worth it to you, then don’t blame the people who didn’t show up. It’s very irritating to put a lot of work in and have almost nobody show up, but remember there are many, many competing alternatives. In a situation like this, focus on what you can control. Maybe you decide that you get enough out of a meeting that you will have them anyway. Maybe you decide you will continue having meetings for X months and see if interest grows. Maybe you decide it’s not worth your time. Find a format that works for you.
If the people showing up to the club are not “your people,” then define the club differently. If you only want to talk to people who are very prolific, then make that a requirement to join. This is the club that you are starting. Make it into what you want. It is possible to be very friendly and welcoming and have a high bar for participation. If you find the bar is excluding people you would like to hang out with, then lower that bar.
If you offer to show people how to make chopsticks in your shop, then you should expect that almost nobody accepts. I don’t completely understand why this is so common, but it is pervasive in my experience. I have two antidotes. First, if someone does accept an invitation, treat it as a very precious thing. Make sure you are available on time and communicate clearly the when, where, and how. Second, try to accept every invitation you receive, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
Not knowing someone’s name seriously hinders connection. When people talk, make them say their name. Use name badges. Offer “name amnesty” where you encourage people to ask the name of the person they have been sitting next to for months.
Vulnerability and shame
This comes from the excellent work of Brené Brown.
Making something, even if you don’t show it to someone, is a very vulnerable experience. You have probably experienced this before with a fear that it won’t turn out right.
A related topic is shame. Guilt is, “I did something wrong,” which is an uncomfortable feeling that helps prevent us from making the same mistake again. Guilt is only a problem if you didn’t actually do anything wrong. Shame is, “I am a bad person,” which is always a problem because you are not intrinsically bad. You might have made unfortunate choices, but that does not mean you are unworthy through and through.
The most common shame triggers I have seen with woodworkers are:
- “I don’t build enough to justify the tools I own.”
- “In my career I am an expert, but I am a terrible woodworker.”
The problem with shame is that once it enters the picture, everything else shuts down.
As the leader of this new club, you can be sensitive to how vulnerable it is to make something. They have had to face the possibility that their project would fail entirely.
You can also not exacerbate the shame triggers. Definitely don’t berate members for not making enough or for just buying tools instead of making something. If their hobby is assembling a museum of woodworking tools in their shop, then just let it be.
An attitude that can help is to think of the work as an experiment. In a good experiment, you don’t know the outcome, so if you think of, “I’m going to try an experiment of making these mortises by hand,” then if they turn out poorly, that’s okay because it was an experiment.
You can also model vulnerability yourself. That means accepting the pain of getting smashed in the face. By starting this club, you have a perfect forum to model that.
For example, you can show up to gatherings even if you don’t know anyone else will be there. I started a Bible Study in which for several weeks nobody showed up. But I kept showing up and it is now a thriving group.
When you are meeting, be aware of shame and vulnerability in the room.
The traditional format is to meet monthly and have a presentation. There are some large, existing clubs that can sustain this format, but I don’t think that format works well in the modern age for all the reasons listed above. Here are some alternatives to get you thinking.
Open your shop every Thursday night to your friends. They come over and you work on a project together. One group I know made 18th-century chisels and other tools together.
Meet at the same restaurant, same time every week. No planning, no reservations, just show up. You could do this monthly, but for a group that is focused mostly on social connection, it is hard to get to know each other monthly.
Monthly sharing. Meet once a month and show what you have made in the last month. It is important to emphasize you are not showing just completed work, but what you have been working on. If somebody hasn’t been working on something, then they can share what else is going on. They could also bring what they have been thinking about, reading or watching. For the Austin Hand Tool Club we do this via email, but it could also work well in person.
Once a year, travel to an event or conference together.
Charitable work. Form a team that meets regularly at Habitat for Humanity. Build handicap accessible ramps with something like the Texas Ramp Build. I have also heard of groups building special keepsake boxes for the parents of still born children or flag boxes for fallen soldiers.
Hybrid online and in-person club. If you live somewhere traffic is bad and real estate is expensive, meeting in person can be a challenge. For the Austin Hand Tool Club, our monthly emails have provided a continuous form of connection between our infrequent in-person meetings. That is an option to consider for your town.
Go for it
If you are inspired to start a group, then do it! Humans are wired for connection to other humans and your club can build life-long friendships.
If you want to talk over your club with me, feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to discuss.