Spend some time with wood and you come to know it like you know your best friends—its quirks and personality, its failings and its strengths. I just completed a kitchen cabinet for Cousin Loretta that was made from hickory. Over the course of weeks I got to know Ol’ Hickory pretty well. Hickory is a beautiful, hard, wood. It is considerably harder than white oak or maple (Janka 1820 vs 1350-1400). Did I mention it is hard? I think people discovered fire when they tried to drill a hole in a piece of hickory. Router bits, drill bits, saw blades—hickory laughs at them and spits them out in a thin cloud of acrid smoke. This may also be where people learned to smoke meat with hickory—after running boards through the planer the shop smelled like a barbecue. Hickory’s stiffness and hardness lead to tearout if you even look at the grain backwards. This may all sound like criticism but it is simply the facts. You learn the facts about your friends so you can get along with them and enjoy the relationship. This cabinet is never going to fail, the wood won’t scratch or dent or wear with daily use, and the character of the grain (even with a bit of tearout around the knots) will whisper to Wayne and Loretta about the Midwestern forest where the tree grew.
Today I was joining some boards together into large panels with dowels. Although I had about 40 holes to drill, my 3/8" electric drill made the job easy--just squeeze the trigger and hang on. Mark, line up the jig, drill the hole, clear the hole, move on to the next one. A repetitive task that made me think about ... covered bridges.
Ithiel Town patented the lattice truss design for bridges back in 1820. The great innovation of his design was that a strong bridge could be constructed from planks (instead of timbers) using only a drill and a saw. This was a dramatic contrast to previous bridge designs that required skilled timber framers, mortise and tenon joints, and heavy timbers. While Town's design simplified construction it came with a price--one estimate is that a 100-ft bridge required about 2500, 2" holes. Wow. I pulled out a barn auger today and tried my hand at one hole and that was enough.
I am always in awe of the physical effort that craftspeople put into building things. I can't imagine being on hole 100 and thinking, "Only 2400 to go." It also makes me appreciate their patience and fortitude. How many times do I get hurried and antsy because the task is going to take another 30 minutes? "Hey Bob, why don't you go drill another 50 holes by hand?" Do I have what it takes to be a craftsman? Is there some character trait that we lose when we plug in the tool?
Fundamentally, woodworking is about creating something for others. Sure sometimes we make things for ourselves, but by and large, woodworking is focused on somebody else. We make furniture for someone else to enjoy, we build picture frames to highlight somebody else's special memories, we make cabinets and bookcases to fit that particular space in someone else's hallway. A lot of woodworkers find that this element of woodworking--meeting other's needs--is a primary motivating factor.
I just had the great opportunity to work on a special project for a local family. Their uncle, the family woodworker, had been in the process of making walnut jewelry boxes for nieces and relations when he passed away last summer at age 76. I took on the job of completing his project for the family. It was a bit tricky to pick up in the middle of parts and pieces but today I finished off the set of six.
The build was challenging and there were woodworking details to attend to and problems to solve, but there was always the overwhelming sense of the underlying motivation of the project. Woodworking was intended to provide beautiful objects for his family and now those objects will embody a precious memory of a beloved uncle. It was an honor to be able to contribute to finishing the project.
George Nakashima wrote, "Every tree, every part of a tree, has only one perfect use." His philosophy is both enlightening (search deeply for the potential in everything) and paralyzing (don't use it yet, there must be a better use in the future). My woodpile covers one end of the shop. It includes oak (white and red), walnut, cherry, maple, pine, cedar (aromatic and western red), douglas fir and odds and ends of beech, basswood, hickory, pecan, and 20 other species. Some are ordinary store-bought pieces, others are one-of-a-kind boards. The white-painted piece in the middle is a roughsawn walnut rafter from a 100-year-old house in town. The 8/4 vertical grain doug fir on the bottom were door jambs from our home in Alabama. The 4" rock maple was a pin block in a grand piano.
This woodpile is like the new year in front of us--so much potential in all the different days that lie ahead. What "project" will we make of each day? Can we discern the "perfect use" of every day and bring out its beauty through careful work? Or will we turn a special one-of-a-kind day into an ordinary sort of thing because we didn't see the potential?
My wish for your New Year is the inspired vision to see the potential in the days you are given, the skill and wisdom to make the most of them, and the peace to enjoy the blessings of the day.
The woodworker is engaged in a craft that draws on the head as well as the hands. You imagine the final form of the work, you imagine the shape of the carving, before you ever pick up a tool. The chisel is guided by physical strength and coordination, but is also guided by your head.
John Ruskin was a 19th-century writer and social thinker who captured some of the foundational concepts of the Arts and Crafts movement. In "The Stones of Venice", he wrote “. . . no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art. . . . no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution"
You can always imagine a finer finish, a tighter joint, more perfect proportions, and thus we are never fully satisfied with the final outcome. The psychological theory of "flow" proposes that there is a tension between skill and challenge that affects our state of mind. If a task is too easy, we get bored and distracted. Too hard and we get frustrated and give up. If however, the task at hand challenges our physical skill while still being potentially doable--we can experience the "flow state." Also called "being in the zone", you can be hyperfocused on the project, lose track of time, and experience a rush of self-efficacy--"Look at this, I CAN build it!"
The Joy of Woodworking--head and hand working in finely balanced harmony.
I came across this great quote from Steve Jobs about craftsmanship, “When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”
This is the basic challenge of craftsmanship--is the standard perfection all the way through, or is the standard some measure of "good enough and done."? I have a project right now where the client has asked me to complete some unfinished woodworking left behind by a beloved uncle. They want to match his standard of craftsmanship. Does anyone's woodworking stand up to being examined with a magnifying glass? I have been looking closely at the fit of miter joints, pin nail holes, veneer bedding, and many other fine points of craft.
In the end I think the point is that quality and care should go all through a piece. The bottom of the box should be finished with as much attention to detail as the showy veneer panel on top. This element of craftsmanship is not a question of skill--you showed you can do it on the show face--it is a question of heart, the willingness to put a little extra in to the work.
There are two well-worn shopcoats hanging on coat hooks behind my office door. The names, picked out in red thread, read “Walt” and “Red.” My grandpas. Just looking at their coats easily brings to mind a clear picture of smiling faces topped by shiny bald heads, and round wire-rimmed glasses. They were both woodworkers who loved to be in the shop making sawdust and projects. I can’t point to a specific skill that I learned from them, their lessons were more basic. “You can make anything you want.” "Imagine it and draw it." "Work with precision and care." Laugh. "Bring out the beauty of the wood."
They both encouraged my shopwork. Many of my Christmas presents for Grandpas were things I made in the shop—bookends, desk caddies—that have come back to me in the end. Grandpa gave me my first ratcheting brace after I expressed amazement that people still used such antiques. Grandpa gave me my first router.
So why keep their old shop coats around? I have found that a deep, meaningful part of woodworking is doing something that is bigger than me. My hands are holding the same tools that my grandfathers and great-grandfather held. I am cutting joints for a piece of furniture just like they did. I am experiencing the same sights and sounds and smells of sawdust and turpentine. And in the end I am creating something that someone will be able to sit on, hold, use, enjoy for generations beyond me just like they did. When I work in the shop I am not alone, my grandpas are with me, my father is with me, looking over my shoulder, giving advice and encouragement. Grandpa’s shopcoat on the hook says he has just stepped away from the bench for awhile.
When people look at a beautiful piece of wood with highly figured grain the response is often "Wow, look at that." A fine finish acts like a clear lens that reveals grain structure some depth into the wood. With changing light or position the grain can have a "shimmer" effect called chatoyance. Woodworkers can enhance the figure using dyes to highlight deeper grain patterns--a process called "popping the grain." But all this is the simple visual effect. When you look at this stool seat, do you see the tree? Do you recognize the twisted pattern is from the crotch of a catalpa? The unusual grain pattern is the reaction of the tree to the forces of the wind blowing the branches, the snow weighing it down in winter. Do you see the kids that used the rope swing tied high in the branches? Part of appreciating fine woodwork is truly appreciating the amazing material that it comes from.
Woodworking is a skill that involves a carefully choreographed interaction between the craftsman, the tool, and the material. The material communicates through sound, smell, and reaction force. The skilled craftsman is always adjusting position, force, direction to achieve a precise result. In planing, for example, you start out pushing down on the toe of the plane with your left hand and applying a horizontal push with your right. As the cut progresses you try to maintain a steady speed even through changing grain. At the end of the cut you lift off with the left hand while your right hand pushes the plane all the way through the end of the cut. With practice these moves become more fluid and instinctive.