Teaching Tradition
December 20, 2016

John Wilson began teaching woodworking classes to community college students in 1977, and now teaches one- and two-day workshops in his own shop and around the world. Since 1983, he's taught 15 to 20 classes per year, with 10-20 students each session – passing along his knowledge to nearly 10,000 box makers. His story and life's work have been a big inspiration to us.

How did you become involved in teaching others to make Shaker boxes?

I first heard about Shaker craftsmanship as a new teacher in the woodworking program at Lansing Community College. I have taught many different projects, and in addition to being a historical tradition in our country and a very satisfying finished product for the maker, I found that box making includes a wide range of skills and experience, while requiring few tools and a modest budget.

How did you learn to make the boxes?

I first read about them in 1977, but didn’t make my first one until 1980. My first try was unsuccessful because I didn't know about preparing limber bending stock, nor did I have a source for the tiny copper tacks. I sought out the experience of other craftsmen locally and traveling to New England, and eventually was able to improve the quality of my work and production process well enough to sell them in craft shows.

Why is teaching important to you?

I feel that students really respond to creating with their hands – for some, it may be one of the most significant avenues of accomplishment in their educational growth. For all students, it can be an opportunity to connect art, science and technology. Understanding the big picture has to start somewhere.

What is the hardest thing for beginners to pick up? What advice do you give them to help?

A box is made in two stages – bending the bands, and fitting the oval top and bottom boards. Whatever the size, the process is always the same, and students can progress at their own pace. My theory is that mistakes when learning are part of the lesson – they're easy to spot and rarely major, and repetition will engender a sense of mastery.

 What does it mean to you, to be a craftsman working on a traditional and timeless kind of craft?

I believe that, like a loaf of bread, the Shaker box holds qualities of simplicity, usefulness, and universal appeal. Simple things can be significant. I was never quite the same after my first experience baking bread.

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