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Mr. U-Bild

The Lasting Appeal of Woodworking

If you like to make things out of wood, then you’re one of an estimated 10 to 17 million Americans (depending on the source) who spend some $7 billion annually on things like ripping fences, router bits and combination squares.

Of course, there is a long and proud tradition of woodworking in America. A long line of American woodworkers has produced classic schools of style that have become part of our national heritage and famous throughout the world.

Almost everyone recognizes the elegant simplicity of the Shaker style, created by woodworkers using common tools and materials to fashion everyday objects. The distinctive Mission style is a purely American spin on the English Arts and Crafts movement. More than a few backyards, patios and decks are furnished in the classic Adirondack style, named for the resort area in upstate New York where it originated. Professional craftsmen have been building an American woodworking identity from the beginning.

Craftsman Bookcase (No. 863)
U-Bild's Craftsman Bookcase (No. 863) is based on classic Craftsman Style.

But the numbers reveal that the real driving force behind woodworking is the rank-and-file amateur. People who like to unwind with a bandsaw and a nice piece of walnut stock. People whose homes are filled with unique and (hopefully) handsome pieces of hand-crafted furniture. And people for whom the traveling woodworking show is like Christmas and the circus all rolled into one.

And those numbers are growing. Today, according to “Woodworking in America,” professionals account for just eight percent of all woodworkers. A number of factors have contributed to the growth of woodworking as a hobby.

U-Bild Adirondack Chair (Plan No. 55)
The Adirondack Chair (Plan No. 55), one of Ellingson's first designs, remains popular today.

More and more of the so-called “baby boomers” are retiring with both the time and discretionary income available to pursue a hobby. For many, the sensual appeal and satisfaction of working with wood, as well as the allure of state-of-the-art power tools, finely crafted hand tools and a seemingly endless array of supplies and accessories, grows too strong to resist.

Another major area of growth shatters the long-held image of woodworking as a masculine pursuit. Today, some 15 percent of the 17 million amateur woodworkers are women.

Woodworking as a hobby started gathering momentum after the Second World War. Postwar prosperity, the growth of the suburbs and thousands of new homeowners combined to create an unprecedented demand for lumber (including then-new plywood), tools and something to do with them.

U-Bild founder Steve Ellingson (second from left) with friends and some mail
U-Bild founder Steve Ellingson (second from left) with friends and some mail.

During that postwar boom, Steve Ellingson—radio and television’s “Philosophizin’ Carpenter” and long-time woodworker—became intrigued by his wife’s paper sewing patterns. With patterns, you simply cut the paper pieces out and pinned them to the fabric to be cut, eliminating most of the measuring and all of the guesswork. Once the pieces were cut out, step-by-step instructions guided assembly and you had a garment. Why not a woodworking project plan that incorporated full-size traceable patterns and step-by-step assembly instructions?

U-Bild “Slivers” (No. 56)
“Slivers” (No. 56) is made from just 17 traceable pieces.

The result was “Slivers,” a rocking horse project made from just 17 pieces, all cut using full-size traceable patterns. Even beginning woodworkers could achieve great results using the patterns, and no one could resist Slivers’ friendly smile, especially children.

Ellingson founded U-Bild Woodworking Plans in 1948 and began selling his plans through a mail-order catalog. As demand grew, he recognized that others were benefiting from his idea and began to work on a way to get the word out to larger numbers of potential woodworkers.

Drawing from his background in broadcasting and journalism, he formed U-Bild Features, a newspaper syndicate, to promote “the growth and development of the great ‘Do-It-Yourself’ movement . . . with the cooperation of the progressive press of the nation.” The new syndicate’s premier column was named “Project of the Week” and featured a new “trace, cut and assemble” design each week.

Roy Rogers
Roy Rogers was among the celebrities who helped promote U-Bild in the early days.

“The Philosophizin’ Carpenter” recruited many of his friends from his days in broadcasting to help him promote woodworking and “Project of the Week.” Roy Rogers, Steve Allen, Jimmy Durante, Robert Young and Lawrence Welk are just a few of the celebrities who gave public support to Ellingson’s effort throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Jimmy Durante with a few “trace, saw and assemble” projects.

In 1994 “Project of the Week” was taken over by Don and Dave Runyan. The identical twin brothers, who currently design about 90 percent of U-Bild’s new projects, came on board in 1975 with a plan for a classic roll-top desk that remains popular after more than 30 years.

The Runyans echo Steve Ellingson’s sentiment that it’s good for people to work with their hands. Don Runyan, a drafting and design teacher at Cleveland High School in Los Angeles, sees it as a way to make a real difference in people’s lives. “A lot of people say you can’t change the world, but I strongly believe you can,” he told Editor & Publisher magazine.

Roll-Top Desk (No. 571)
The Roll-Top Desk (No. 571) was Don and Dave Runyan’s first design.

Dave Runyan, who teaches woodshop and production technology, added that he’s seen “high-risk students change their attitudes remarkably” as they learn to work with their hands. Active in continuing education, both brothers have served as advisors for the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America.

While the continuing success of U-Bild’s “trace, saw and assemble” plans clearly points to the fact that woodworking is a thriving pastime, perhaps the best indicator of its current popularity is the hobby’s presence on the internet. According to the New York Times, “the Web has blossomed into a rich collection of how-to articles, how-not-to articles and advertisements and commentary on all manner of tools, schools, techniques, hardware and accessories.”

But whether you're sitting at the computer trying to find out the best way to refinish your latest flea market find or building the next family heirloom in your state-of-the-art workshop, one thing is clear. As Steve Ellingson wrote more than 60 years ago, there’s a real joy and satisfaction in creating things with one’s own hands.

U-Bild - America's Favorite Woodworking Plans
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Updated: 15-Nov-09