Wood Movement

David and goliath

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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.

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