Essay on Wood by James Richardson

Essay on Wood by James Richardson

At dawn when rowboats drum on the dock
and every door in the breathing house bumps softly
as if someone were leaving quietly, I wonder
if something in us is made of wood,
maybe not quite the heart, knocking softly,
or maybe not made of it, but made for its call.

Of all the elements, it is happiest in our houses.
It will sit with us, eat with us, lie down
and hold our books (themselves a rustling woods),
bearing our floors and roofs without weariness,
for unlike us it does not resent its faithfulness
or question why, for what, how long?

Its branchings have slowed the invisible feelings of light
into vortices smooth for our hands,
so that every fine-grained handle and page and beam
is a wood-word, a standing wave:
years that never pass, vastness never empty,
speed so great it cannot be told from peace.

Steam bending

I had the opportunity to steam bend the curved back legs for a chair – part of my next project! It was a lot of work to set up but bending really made my year because of how much help and support I got throughout the process. With the guidance of instructors and classmates bending two inch square blanks of white oak was really successful. Here are some photos from several bends:


My medieval setup: the steam school’s steam generator was being repaired so I used their old equipment. A pressure cooker full of boiling water pumps steam directly into the steam box for nearly two hours. The surrounding mock-ups and sheet metal help to block the wind, while the blanket insulates the steam box, hopefully making the process more efficient.


Action shot: getting the oak blank out of the steam box and onto the form as quickly as possible.


Sliding the straight blank into the boot of the form.


All the amazing help I received to bend the two inch blank over the form.




Some shots of the finished product… almost!


video screens

I remember our first discussion group back in August; we watched a video of James Krenov teaching a class from the mid-1990’s. On screen, beyond the heads of bygone students, he stood at the front of the bench room where our lectures still take place. The screen hung where Krenov had been filmed standing, making a curious comparison between past and present at the College of the Redwoods woodshop.

Krenov spoke on screen about the students who are drawn to the intensive nine-month program and how they are each part technician and part dreamer. He told his students that their work is the balance of an idea, its structure and execution. This balance is achieved when you learn to work with sensitivity, finding a personal harmony. He continues, that through skill and sensitivity you gain freedom as a craftsman.


The view from the audience…

We sometimes wonder what it must have been like to study here under Krenov; it carries a certain cachet. But new layers are being added, making for a rich, more diverse learning environment. I have often found that what makes a place interesting is its accretion of layers over time, rather than embodying a single cohesive idea. Recently Ejler said of Danish modern design that there is no innovation without tradition, and no tradition without innovation. I think his words ring true for this whole place. You get all the good stuff from the past, filtered through instructors who trained here with Krenov. But you also get new perspectives and an openness to change that feels healthy and inspiring.


The holidays have come and gone and we are back in the wood shop six days a week. Recalibrating my sensitivity and patience to the demands of the program has been challenging but I’m starting to feel capable again. It’s probably important to learn to work through the hard days. The time off provided an opportunity to reflect on what I have experienced and accomplished in four short months, the skills I’ve learned and projects completed that I am truly proud of.

Most of us have finished and presented our first major project to the class, before our winter show next week. Presentations are a nice way to make sense of what you’ve been working on for so long, and into which you’ve invested so much of yourself. The second years and even the faculty present projects they’ve recently completed – providing inspiration and reminding us that even they continue to face and overcome challenges.


Showing off my mistakes to the class…

Many of us presenting for the first time felt compelled to confess our mistakes before they were discovered by the discerning eyes of our classmates – though any shortcomings always seem to disappear in the beauty of the whole. It can be hard to have perspective so soon after the first project is completed but the encouraging tone of supportive comments and questions from classmates make the rawness and vulnerability of the moment easy to get through. The second year students, in their role as mentors, ask insightful questions and reassure the presenter; they seem so at ease emphasizing what we have succeeded in accomplishing. I suppose being in our shoes is still fresh in their minds. We’re very lucky to have them around for woodworking help, but more importantly, to absorb and be influenced by their personal strengths. They are each mature, responsible and compassionate – a pleasure to learn from. And for myself, who has a hard time fitting in and expressing my thoughts, I hope to one day connect with people the way they are able to.

Quiet objects in unquiet times – part I

A few days ago I caught a show at the Dancing Dog studio in Fort Bragg. The choreographer and performer spoke of life as variations on a few major themes; her themes, and those of her pieces, were breath, death and dance. She described herself as being in the ‘autumn’ of life, and how her aging body dictated – and enhanced – her choreographed movements. Her meditations on mortality, as well as the wintry weather, remind me of St. Bede and some of the spirits that animate my life here.

Bede described life as the swift flight of a sparrow through a warm hall in winter. Inside a fire blazes while out in the cold darkness wind howls around the falling snow. A sparrow sneaks in through a crack in the door and casts a moving shadow in the flickering light. As quickly as it appeared, it disappears through another crack, back out into wintry night. Bede concludes of life: ‘of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.’

Feel free to get sidetracked: this video shows the power of dance to move us through life.

About two months ago an old graduate of the fine woodworking program passed away, donating his entire workshop back to the school. What the school couldn’t use was auctioned off, raising money to help keep the program going. Before the shopping spree David gave an informal eulogy, telling us a bit about a man who so generously gave back to a place he valued. It seems to me that acts like these reveal so much about what the program means to those involved.


My newest addition to the fleet – the lump of cocobolo, courtesy of Mr. Schooley’s workshop, produced two small hand planes.

The big spirit in these parts, however, belongs to James Krenov, the American-ish woodworker who wrote several books for the amateur craftsman before being ‘kidnapped’ to start the fine woodworking program in 1981. He taught until his retirement in 2002 and passed away in 2010. Yet, his presence remains – he is spread out over the landscape here. His attitude and writings on woodworking loosely define the program’s curriculum. Some of the tools he used hang on the wall like relics. Even the local tennis court’s lights were partly his doing.

I’ve learned that Krenov’s approach emphasizes the emotional, personal side of craftsmanship – the intimacy of working with your heart, hands and mind. The afterword of Worker in Wood suggests he was “concerned with the way the work is being done – not the how of technique, but the why of attitude. The feelings, presence, and spirit of the maker are paramount.” It continues: “a lingering search for the best wood, the best control, the best proportion and the best relationship should be recognized as more important than lower price, faster delivery, or fresher design.” And, “emotional, spiritual or ethical involvement is a personal attitude that increases the value of the activity, at least to the maker, and may also be recognizable as inherent in the object made with generosity and/or humility.”

Krenov wrote about getting older with his slabs of wood: “A half a year to get here, three years to dry… and time is passing. I am sad, not at the thought of getting old, but because I might miss so much lovely wood. Four years. Statistics predict I will still be around: instinct wags a warning finger. How strong will my back be then, how steady my hands and eye?” On another page he quotes from his favourite book: “Like Mermoz on those icy cliffs in the Andes (in St.-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars): “Hands, don’t fail me now.”” Krenov seemed intrigued with the idea that our bodies eventually restrict our dance moves, so to speak, and compel us to give up what we love doing, before we rush back out into wintry night.

Here’s Krenov at 87, still making hand planes:


David and goliath

As a foreigner studying in America, I couldn’t be more pleased that my first project has evolved into an interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s writing box or lap desk – upon which he penned the Declaration of Independence and many of his other twenty-seven thousand letters and documents now archived in the Library of Congress. Jefferson designed the desk and had it constructed by a Philadelphia cabinetmaker named Benjamin Randolph in 1776. He carried it through his life, gifting it to his niece a year before his death.


We began the fine woodworking program by making wooden hand planes – tools to refine our skills while working wood into pieces of beauty. My lap desk will open into a small architectural drafting table that will support my future creativity: what I later make with the skills I’ve been taught here will first take shape on this drafting slope.


Cardboard mock-up.


Mock-up with rudimentary t-square.

Greg mentioned that for some of us this may be our only opportunity to make something that doesn’t depend on money or time – a chance to do our best work every step of the way. It is a reassuring and daunting gift.

Woodworking has always been hard for me because it requires patience and sensitivity – some of the most challenging and under valued qualities to cultivate. There is no perfection, only your own standards of what is good enough. It is a continuing practice of growth, moving closer to or further from satisfaction with your work – a satisfaction which depends on being sensitively calibrated and focused in each moment.

Starting this project, I felt as though I couldn’t do anything right and had forgotten much of what I had learned here. I spent days holding on too tightly, pushing too hard, deaf to the cries for help coming from my tools, the wood and myself. I stopped breathing through plane passes, I stood too tensely at my bench. Unsatisfied with the results, my thoughts raced from disappointment to frustration and doubt.

I tried to work through these negative thoughts, contriving a sense of accomplishment by glueing my first two pieces of wood together. Ignoring sloppy work has a way of compounding itself later on in the building process, but I needed to escape the problems I couldn’t solve and the feelings they caused. David walked by as I was test clamping my pieces before glue-up, and asked to see how the joint looked. He pointed out the faint lines of light and shadow we both knew were there and gently said ‘you’re only deceiving yourself.’

It was a solemn reminder of what this approach to woodworking demands. My greatest challenge is to slow down and stop before things go awry, to act thoughtfully and with intention. I’m trying to isolate and correct all the relevant variables – to do my best with what is in my power to control. I think that is the basis for finding satisfaction in my work.

Lao Tzu wrote:

the muddiest water clears
as it’s stilled,
and out of the stillness
life rises.

My thoughts are like feet trampling through a soft river bed, stirring up emotions, memories and insecurities. I’m reminded everyday how hard it is to let my thoughts settle, to gain perspective and allow the water to become clear. My hope is that woodworking can be used as a tool to slow down and reconnect with ourselves in a meaningful way amidst the tumult of daily life.

My time in the woodshop still feels like balancing on the edge of a sword – or one of the Hock plane blades I’ve learned to sharpen: without focus, there is greater potential to make mistakes. But, as my sharpening skills improve, I’m trying to stay balanced and move closer to not deceiving myself.

The journeyman’s waltz

Beyond our class lessons, one of the objectives of the program is to learn from other students. We’re encouraged to communicate, share ideas, observe the way particular problems are approached and how work is gone about successfully.

Having instructors and students as sounding boards creates a diverse body of knowledge to draw upon. In a way it’s like the journeyman tradition in Europe. Since the middle ages formally trained apprentices left their masters to wander and work their trade for three years and a day. Staying at least fifty kilometres from home, journeymen wandered from town to town working three months at a time under different masters. These years gained an apprentice the title of master craftsman and the right to open their own shop. The compagnon itinérant set out on the tour de France, while the wandergesellen set out auf der walz on the wanderjahre in Germany – to cultivate technical and moral aptitude, to learn about work and life.

Perhaps the most important reason for the emergence of this system was the dissemination of ideas and the transmission of knowledge, best practices and new technologies. Contact between regions meant exposure to new and different tools, construction ideas and assembly forms – allowing each journeyman to return home, assimilating his experiences abroad to better serve his community.

Melancholia by Durer: Notice the hand plane by her feet. Perhaps her disposition is caused by a society that prevents her from becoming a woodworker.

Durer’s Melancholia I: does the hand plane at her feet reflect a sadness that we use such gender biased language? Thankfully we now have journeywomen.

We’re all on the journeyman’s waltz, so to speak, having travelled far to learn together and from one another. The bench room is a bit like the dining room in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – which takes place at a pre-WWI lung sanatorium in the Swiss alps. The dining room is where patients mostly confined to the solitude of their suites congregate and socialize – and is laid out like a map of Europe: The Russians eat in the north-east corner, sandwiching the Germans between Mediterranean patients tabled at the southern end of the room. Attitudes of characters from different regions loosely mirror those of belle époque Europe – and their interactions plant the seeds of self-reflection that unfold the story’s narrative. Similarly, our experiences and attitudes are slowly circulating around the redwoods bench room, helping us learn from one another.

Maybe the most memorable lesson I’ve learned came from my bench mate, Chen, who travelled to the program from Israel. He commented nicely on something I had done, and I responded awkwardly by admitting all the faults in my work – where the glue lines were visible or how the shellac didn’t take evenly: my natural reaction to supportive conversation was to deprecate, to undervalue my work and myself. Chen replied, in accented english, ‘hey, it’s beautiful,’ reminding me how much I have yet to learn, about woodworking and life.

Tree carved poetry

Our first project has begun, parameters being: small, simple, sweet and solid wood. Composing – the resident word for making a piece of furniture – starts somewhere on the spectrum between material and design. At one extreme, we can begin by seeking out a slab of wood that excites our imagination, basing details of design on attributes of the slab itself – much like a renaissance sculptor sitting with his freshly quarried marble until he understands what story lives inside it. At the other end of the spectrum, we can start with an intent or design and find the right wood to match.


Slabs in the wood room – a womb of imagination.

Looking through the shop’s wood room brings to mind the words of ninth-century Chinese poet, Han Shan, who was more recently popularized in the West by beat generation writers. He left his life as a civil servant, retreating to an area known as Cold Mountain – long venerated as the home of spirits and immortals – where he inscribed poems ‘on trees and rocks or the walls of the houses and offices in the nearby village.’

Here is a tree older than the forest itself;
The years of its life defy reckoning.
Its roots have seen the upheavals of hill and valley,
Its leaves have known the changes of wind and frost.
The world laughs at its shoddy exterior
And cares nothing for the fine grain of the wood inside.
Stripped free of flesh and hide,
All that remains is the core of truth.

Slab of gum to rouse my thoughts.

Slab of gum to rouse my thoughts.

Han Shan’s words seem to ring true for composing furniture. Figuring out what to make is uncovering the core of a truth that lives within the wood and myself. I was after a slab with some straight grain, consistent and light colouring as well as some contrasting checks and knots. I wanted help expressing how our weaknesses and our wounds – the scars we bear – make us stronger or how our differences and perceived shortcomings are what make us beautiful.

I never thought I would be intrigued by something as red as this slab of gum wood. But inside the knots and straight grain, I suppose, I saw my family, the reds and browns in their hair, I heard Virginia Woolf’s words: ‘I have been knotted; I have been torn apart,’ – and I saw orangutans, limply knotted in sweet embrace. Yet, unlike Han Shan, I want to carve these stories out of, not into, a tree.

Follow your senses

In her review of dovetails a few weeks ago, Laura touched on the flow possible when working with your hands: you can move beyond yourself and become completely absorbed in your work. It reminded me of Ayrton Senna – widely considered the greatest F1 driver of all time – reflecting on his experience at the 1988 Monte Carlo Grand Prix: “That day, I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving conscious, and I was in a different dimension for me. The circuit for me was a tunnel. Which I was just going, going, going. And I realized… I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”

In positive psychology, the state of flow has three criteria:

1. Involvement in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress.

2. Clear and immediate feedback to negotiate changing demands and adjust performance.

3. Balance between perceived challenge and perceived skill.


Mental states: flow is achieved when skill is balanced with a task’s difficulty (Wikipedia).

Flow is ever present in hand-tool woodworking. You use all of your senses to deconstruct each saw stroke or plane pass and subtly change the pressure of your movements or the angle of your tools. Continuously assessing the state of your work by receiving feedback from your materials and tools – to negotiate their changing demands – heightens your sensitivity and gets you closer to your goal. The sound a tool makes and the smell of its shavings, or the feel of worked surfaces before they’re held up to raking light, all serve to direct you – your senses are your guides.

It seems paradoxical that through this absorption you move beyond yourself: consciously heightened sensitivity leads to experience outside consciousness. With patience, the repetition of constant change creates even saw strokes and gossamer shavings, and your work proceeds in harmony. Sensitivity becomes second nature and action becomes intuitive, beyond conscious understanding.

It reminds me of karma yoga, the path of consecrated action. The Bhagavad Gita tells of a serene wisdom that arises when the senses – the body and the mind – are in harmony.  It says that “in the bonds of works I am free, because in them I am free from desires. The man who can see this truth, in his work he finds his freedom” (4:14). And also, “the man who in his work finds silence, and sees that silence is work, this man in truth sees the Light and in all his works finds peace” (4:18).

The pursuit of these moments is what my woodworking journey is all about.

My first dovetails.

My dovetails.