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.

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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.

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Cardboard mock-up.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

We are what we make

A month into the fine woodworking program at College of the Redwoods seems like a good starting place to reflect on some of the ideas and feelings that have been entering my mind. I’ve been buried at my bench since day one, awed and overwhelmed with everything we’ve been introduced to, meditating on my relationship with woodworking and what I hope to experience here.

I have always thought of the objects we surround ourselves with as being imbued with meaning. Their design, function and use reflect our innermost values and tell our stories. On one hand they betray us to posterity, evidence of our advancements, shortcomings and biases, as well as how and where we place our priorities. The objects we are surrounded with reveal how we understand ourselves and the world we live in. After all, we are what we make. In another way, our most treasured things can connect us with lost time and lost loved ones, keep memories alive and spur our imagination. They are symbols for what can be too subtle or difficult to express with words. My own curiosity with woodworking began with old tools that belonged to my father and grandfather. They were handles graced by hands I wanted to understand, in hopes of better understanding myself. By coming to California, though, I’m trying to cultivate my own relationship with wood.

My first wood hand plane.

My first wood hand plane.

The program strikes a nice balance between individual and group work. We’ve started off with exercises to heighten our sensitivity, refine our skills and gain confidence with our abilities, our tools and machines.

We’ve learned to sharpen our tools, dimension and square lumber, make a variety wooden hand planes, practice joinery and dovetails, and have started our first panelled and dowelled cabinet. Yet, from this shared starting place come unique creations that fulfill our respective aesthetic biases and accommodate our materials as well as the ‘golden’ mistakes we invariably make.

I heard a graduate emphasize that this program is truly what you make of it – that you get out what you are able to put in. And I’ve started to see first hand the commitment and diverse directions we’re each headed in. It starts with the staff, the second year students and trickles down to the novices, like myself.

Kari's coopering plane - the famous swoosh David Welter described as being 'built for speed.' Click the photo to check out Kari's blog.

Kari’s coopering plane – the famous swoosh David Welter described as being ‘built for speed.’ Click the photo to check out Kari’s blog.

Fellow Canadian Andy's smoothing plane - brings to mind a mythical sea serpent, like the Loch Ness monster or Okanagan lake's Ogopogo. Click the photo to check out Andy's blog.

Fellow Canadian Andy’s smoothing plane – brings to mind a mythical sea serpent, like the Loch Ness monster or Okanagan lake’s Ogopogo. Click the photo to check out Andy’s blog.