Crafting morality

I’ve always been interested in the morality of craft. It’s obvious that we are helping to build and support the community around us, but is there more to the craftsperson’s role in society? Does our value extend beyond the function and enjoyment of our work? I believe that practicing a craft like woodworking cultivates inner characteristics that make us better citizens.

I’ve always liked Toshio Odate’s argument that the professional craftsperson, or shokunin, carries the weight of social responsibility: ‘shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness… The shokunin has a social obligation to work his [or her] best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, if society requires it, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.’ Work is to be accomplished in service to society, and nothing extraneous may be added to satisfy the craftsperson’s ego. Similarly, Lu Ban, the Chinese patron saint of woodworkers, emphasizes an apprenticeship based on proper action in the world before proper tool use. There’s even a Biblical quote on my Fine Woodworking certificate that reads: ‘but they keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.’ Creating the built environment is tied to social wellbeing; it provides the framework that protects and fosters the values that underpin our communal wellbeing.

In The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi also expresses this social utility: ‘The extent to which [they] contribute to society determines [their] value. He goes on to describe a Buddhist conception of beauty as an experience that liberates us from the dualities that cause our suffering. The role of the artist-craftsperson is not to create beauty alone, but rather to point others toward their own capacity to create and experience beauty. It is to awaken the larger community’s potential for freedom from suffering, by ‘resting in the protecting hand of nature.’

I am motivated by these traditions to help others: I hope my work provides both a material benefit, and engages the public to fulfill their own need to create. I also wonder if practicing woodworking makes me a better citizen.

The practice of woodworking cultivates patience, sensitivity and acceptance. In other words, practice requires a discipline and commitment to put ourself in the state of mind to create works that reflect our deepest values and serve the greatest social need.

The sculptor Constantin Brânçusi said: ‘simplicity is not an end in art, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense of things. Things aren’t difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state to make them.’

Our inherited craft traditions teach us that mastery is actually about a deep knowledge of our inner selves. Toshio Odate uses the concept of presence to explore the inner accomplishment of mastery: ‘utility and appearance must be enhanced by a tool’s presence, that is its refinement and dignity. this quality is not written about in books, not contained in words or numbers or scientific data. presence is what the toolmaker – the blacksmith – imbues his creation with as a result of his commitment to his craft; it is the spirit of the tool that records the blacksmith’s ability through the years to face the uncertainties of life, to overcome them, and to master the art of living.’

Perhaps craft’s most important social function is the commitment to put ourselves in the state of mind to create – which in turn allows us to make our best work and support society’s greatest needs.


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.

Starting over

Setting up my woodworking practice over the last three years has been a slow and silent affair. I wish it were as a biographer once noted of their subject: ‘the pages of his diary for the subsequent period are more or less blank, and this is usually a sign of happiness.’ Silence in this diary, however, has had more to do with an autoimmune arthritis that slows and stiffens and guides me deeper and deeper into myself – my Virgil into the hell of stagnation!

I have no doubt my body is manifesting inner anxieties – most notably an overwhelming sense of stuckness. Perhaps, like Clément Cadou, I subconsciously wanted to become a piece of furniture! But where does it all stem from? Didn’t I choose woodworking for the freedom and independence it affords? Unfortunately, the reality of balancing a creative practice with practical financial considerations has been exhausting and overwhelming. I often question the goals, motivations, and values that led me down this path. Is this really the life I want? Is the self-doubt worth the reward? Or is that what pushes me to be proud of my work? I don’t know… 

In any event, a new regimen of animal locomotion exercises has slowly brought the movement back into my limbs, as well as a renewed desire to bore the internet with the porridge of feelings that flood my mind!

In the meantime, here are some drafts from my time as a student that were never published:

[From February 4th, 2014] Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, expresses something akin to the psychological state of flow in the buddhist concepts of mindfulness and interbeing. Interbeing is when you look so deeply, ‘with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears.’ He says, ‘when we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it.’

It reminds me of the first lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour…

 Nhat Hanh furthers this idea in his book, The Heart of Understanding: ‘you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either.’

Occasionally, I catch myself looking at the piece of wood David has prepared for our exercises and left at my bench. In the pattern of its grain, I imagine him dimensioning it in the machine room, or about an eighteen wheeler full of timbers handling tight curves along the California coast. I imagine the high school student working in the lumberyard and the logger holding his breathe as it crashes to the forest floor. I think of leaves shuddering in a warm breeze or boughs weighed down by heavy snows.

[After this it falls apart… Something about diversity and David Pye and who knows what else…]

[From December 19th, 2014] In the event that I became incapable of blogging, I had – cleverly,  I might add – planned to post a single quote from Soren Kierkegaard’s biography:

“The pages of his diary for the subsequent period are more or less blank, and this is usually a sign of happiness.”
-Joakim Garff 

I wish it were as simple as that;

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: