‘Kids never using saws is a national tragedy’ - Social worker Greg Miller on the community benefits of woodworking

Timbecon

“I was so proud to receive this saw at age 10, my mate and I couldn't wait to get home from school that day. Down the back there was this huge hunk of Jarrah, in my memory about 12-feet long. Of course, we didn't just cut a bit off the end, we cut it smack in the middle.

“Dad wasn't very happy about that but I remember that interaction through this saw…”

If there is a stereotypical woodworker, Greg Miller fits the bill nicely. Perched upon a workbench, a century-old saw in hand, he plays the role of the archetypal Aussie bloke; shaggy grey hair, a wispy beard, pastel shirt and a worker’s apron.

He even speaks in an unassuming low drawl, but still commands incredible authority, reminding us all of a generous uncle or our favourite teacher at school. It’s no surprise that beneath the robust exterior earned from a lifetime of physical labour, Miller’s true passion - teaching his craft to children and the mentally and physically disabled - shines through.

“When I'm working with people with mental health struggles, acquired brain injuries and all sorts of different issues in their lives, hand woodworking is a fantastic practical occupational therapy,” he says.

“You don't have to just squeeze this or poke that you can actually learn to get your body moving, establishing new neural pathways, learning new things.

“Very often the system - the school system, whatever they're in – isn’t going to work for young people who have behavioural issues. But here, in a workshop environment, we can tailor what we're doing so they come out of it feeling good about themselves and learning some life skills as well.”

There are two basic types of woodworking. That you engage with machinery, which many industry stalwarts refer to disparagingly as “robotic” and the traditional hand-tool variety.

Miller is a proponent of the latter school, his soft, patient demeanour the result of dual-careers as a social worker and hand-tool woodworker, which he says, allows him to relish the calming yet social aspect of his work.

“There are no earmuffs, you can chat and laugh and converse,” he muses, recounting the effect that hours spent carving furniture with his father had on their relationship.

“He had retired early because his partnership had dissolved, so he came and he worked with me every day,” Miller said.

“I was about 30 and I was finally ready to listen to him, he wasn't just an old fuddy-duddy anymore, now I saw his amazing resource of skill and talent and I just couldn't get enough of it.

“I’d been in cabinet-making, so I was really pleased to move from a world of nail guns and melamine chipboard specials to working with real timber, doing staircases, doors, windows and other sorts of joinery.

“After a while I felt the need to get back into working with young people again and I discovered that I could keep working with people but use woodwork as the medium.”

Miller believes that well-rounded, selfless individuals aren’t created in the schools, universities and offices of modern Australia. They were built on sweat and tears, hammers and nails, roaming paddocks and bicycles along dirt roads.

“Sociologists talk about the concept ‘radius of play’,” he says.

“When I was a child our radius of play was huge, a bunch of us would ride a 20-mile roundtrip just to get an ice-cream. Just for the heck of it. It was fantastic.

“We were learning so much about ourselves, the world and how it worked because we were in the outdoors. We know it’s important these days because we've lost it.

“What is a modern kid’s radius of play? They don't even use the local park because the myth of stranger danger has been drummed into people.”

It’s here that Miller’s true yearning emerges. He devotedly explains his craft to some of Australia’s most challenged youth on a weekly basis, and sees first-hand the impact it can have.

All he wants is for Australia’s current generation to have the same opportunities he had.

“They don't even step outside into their yards because they live in a fence-to-fence McMansion,” he continues, his voice croaking in exasperation. “Brick paving, no trees. You can't climb a tree, it's too dangerous, you can't climb a tree because there isn't one there.

“So what do you do? You're inside, you're watching telly, on a screen poking a computer with your finger or playing some sort of shoot-'em-up game…”

Miller’s own upbringing epitomised what he believes kids lack today; there is more than just a generation of impractical, “robotic” individuals at stake. He believes we’re losing one of the fundamental aspects Australia was built on: community.

“My father and his mate bought two blocks of land side-by-side when they finished their apprenticeship, then went to the council said we'd like to build a joinery shop across the back of our blocks,” he breaks up laughing, “they looked at us and said ‘Do whatever you like out there.’

“So I grew up with machines and timber in my backyard. That was just a normal part of life for me, as a kid I was always messing around.

“I learned through osmosis. Dad and his brothers and sisters were all building extensions on their houses to make room for kids and they did it all themselves. I was a gopher on site, helping stump and lay. I wasn't being taught but I learned an amazing amount.”

In Miller’s position, it would be easy to accept that modern society has all-but destroyed the concept of an idyllic youth, but as with any woodworking project, Miller remains steadfast in his goals.

At least, “when the solar flares knock out all the electronics on the planet, people like me will actually have an important place,” he grins.

He’s only half joking.

“I'm not worried about the future because I'm one of the many people keeping these old skills and traditions alive,” he says.

“There's a lot of it happening if you head for places like the UK and US, there’s a massive move to keep traditional skills alive.

“We do a lot of work with primary school kids here and it’s amazing, it’s the first time these kids have ever seen a hammer and they've ever used a saw. That's a national tragedy.

“It's so empowering to learn to make things and fix things. I'm on a mission to bring back hand skills as life skills.

“It's not just good for the body, we all know that physical activity is good for mental health. It’s about that wonderful feeling of empowerment and value and worth. Being able to make something or fix something is fantastic, but when we do it together we're building a community.”

At heart, Miller is just one of the many unheralded local heroes attempting to drive a sense of community in an otherwise fragmented world. But it doesn’t seem that complicated to the woodworker, as his gaze returns to the simple mixture of wood and steel that his father gave to him when he was 10-years-old.

“This saw has served me well all these years and there's no reason why my great-great grandchildren can't be still it,” he says.

“It’s well over 100-years-old, probably 130, maybe more. It's an ancient Spear and Jackson saw,” he venerates. “So it’s very British, with a very, very heavy saw plate and a very heavy brass back.

"The handle is delightfully ornate because this saw was made to be used all day long, so when you sit it in your hand, it hangs nicely.

“It's just so lovely, it's got a nice small handle because it's made to be held properly,” he gestures knowingly, the teacher bursting to come out, “on only three fingers, pointing finger here, which keeps the wrist straight.

“It's delightful to use. But when I put my hand in there and I'm working with it my perspiration is mingling with the perspiration of all the people and the entire generations before me who have used it.

“There's something really privileged about that.”