If by chance you have stumbled upon this blog…I’m moving. You will be able to find me at The Daily Skep.
I’ve been thinking. It’s interesting how some of the information I read vanishes quickly from my thoughts and other bits stick like a tongue to a midwinter lamp post. I wonder how much of what we retain is based upon our desire to be receptive; either subconscious or conscious? Perhaps the reading itself forces our subconscious to piece together bits of information that will eventually work itself out. What goes in must come out.
A few weeks ago, I read another blog that highlighted the deficit of American woodworkers who rarely attain mastery because we do not specialize in one area. Instead, we pride ourselves on being generalists. I read it and went on about my business (as the article suggested) but what seemed to stick, at least weeks later, is the nagging question; “how should we define woodworking mastery?”
In the old guild system, a craftsman would apprentice for three to seven years before earning their ticket to become a journeyman (only after qualifying tests, rituals, and fees) which allowed them to travel and work. A master (who may or may not be a craftsman) was one who established a shop and employed other apprentices and journeymen. In this system, it was a matter of time, money, and the acceptance of your peers that made you a master. All of this was couched within a social system emphasizing the different classes; the have’s and the have-not’s. The guild system was simply another means of creating a sub-pecking order of the larger system. Did it define mastery? Possibly, but it is my understanding that those within this system were more concerned with eating. Mastery of the craft was a means of sustenance not necessarily an end in itself.
The guild system has largely been abandoned, especially in America. Instead of a guild system we have schools—both trade schools and unaccredited craft schools. They differ slightly in their program offerings but all have similar paths toward “mastery.” Ironically, they last from twelve weeks to nine months—we shaved years off that formal apprenticeship. All the programs at these schools are taught by some of the best craftspeople in the world; we would consider them masters.
Last year I had the privilege of meeting Michael Pekovich from Fine Woodworking. He was teaching a class the same week I was taking a class. Turns out he’s a normal guy who has a big heart (during a presentation he had everyone teared up over his daughter). But I caught myself hoping that by breathing the same air that he was breathing I would magically gain some of his skill. I didn’t.
Why all the fuss? I believe it was my upbringing; I was brainwashed. My childhood was shaped by some variation of the phrase, “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all.” I’m sure I could keep Freud busy. I keep hearing the Highland Woodworking Sawstop commercial featuring Steven Johnson (The down-to-earth woodworker), “I’m just an average, down to earth woodworker. On a scale of one to ten, I’m probably about a five (smiles and chuckles). But one place I score a perfect ten is right here (holds hands up). And I plan on keeping all ten…” I can relate, but I don’t want to stay a “five.” I want to move closer to a ten. (Even though I was raised to do things to the best of my ability I was also taught that perfection is unattainable in this life—seriously ripe for psychoanalysis.)
How do we move from a five to a ten? During my experience of the educational system I took many assessments, entrance exams, and personality tests. These “tests” were designed to form a baseline, giving me a conscious awareness of where I ranked and how far away I was from where I wanted to be. With this information in hand I would be able (at least theoretically) to see my areas of weakness and focus my study to come closer to the goal. I was told these were objective tests.
Woodworking in general seems to be a subjective pursuit. A matter of personal taste. Well, at least when it pertains to design. But there are elements that we can objectively assess with a simple question; “Can you?” Can you saw to a line? Can you cut a dovetail? Can you set up a router? Can you make wood flat and square? Can you sharpen a chisel, plane blade, etc.? Can you read a tape measure? (I have a funny story about this) We could ask this question about every task we perform in the shop and it would probably give us a good idea of where we are skill wise. But why?
Because we are neurotic pedants who want to know where we are in the pecking orders of the world.
While pondering this sticky question of mastery, I attended Handworks 2017. I walked past tables and tables of the most beautiful tools all crafted by individuals closer to a ten in ability. I met other outstanding woodworkers of Instagram fame. I had a specific list of things I wanted to pick up from the show and was giving it my best to stay away from “unnecessary” purchases when I stumbled upon Nancy Hiller sitting at a folding table signing books. I say stumbled because there wasn’t a line and she was in the path to the LAP booth. I had already heard about the book she had written and had previously determined that I didn’t need it. But there I was and there the book was and my inability to shun spontaneous purchases got the best of me. I bought it. And found the answer to my question on page 136.
“Nothing banishes self-doubt more effectively than objective proof of skill.”
Or rather, let the sum of your work do the talking.
In ten words, it became clear that the path to mastery begins with letting go of the desire for mastery. But I’ve discovered a new freedom too. The freedom to be content with the work. The freedom to be content with myself. Freedom to be content with where I am in the pecking orders of the world. And the freedom to get back to work.
I hope this sticks.
I am a self proclaimed bibliophile. Especially when it involves woodworking. At my desk I am surrounded by shelves of books and magazines. Stacks of magazines, magazines on my computer. Out of print magazines. Old woodworking magazines purchased on eBay that smell like mothballs and old spice. Do I have a problem? Well, yes as a matter of fact I do. But it isn’t the magazine collection.
The problem? All the years that I have been a subscriber I have never built a single project from one of those magazines. Why? It could be the time and money equation but that is a lousy excuse (even if it is partially true). It could be that I merely enjoy living vicariously through the skilled hands of others; you know, learning for the sake of knowing how it is done even if I don’t plan on doing it (this at least allows one to talk the talk). It could be that I was intimidated. Nearly all of the projects in the “fine furniture” magazines just seem beyond my skill level. That’s my excuse anyway.
I was reclined in my office chair staring off into space when my eyes let upon that grand collection of periodical woodworking bliss when this revelation ran through my mind like a fat lady at a bake sale. What was I going to do about it?
Nothing. I went to bed.
The next day however I received the post (British influences, AKA Furniture and Cabinetmaking) and lo and behold another woodworking magazine to add to my collection. My previous guilt returned and on the way from the box to the house I determined that I would make the cover project (because I’d not had the time to read anything else). It just so happened to be a modern lounge chair by Caleb James. What the hell is a modern lounge chair?
And here is my second grand revelation. I should have heard about it. A little research confirmed my suspicion; all of the titles in my collection include some form of modern furniture and many of them have articles on various forms of woven seat material. I felt a lot like a man who looks at himself in a mirror and then walks away forgetting what he looks like. What good is it to read it and not do it?Clearly I had not understood that the true value of the magazines wasn’t merely knowledge transfer but action transfer. To truly understand it you have to do it even if it seems beyond your grasp.
I ordered all of the bits to make the hardware from McMaster-Carr. I drove to the local lumber yard and overplayed for the timber (Australian influences; AKA Steve Hay). I have read and reread the article so many times I can almost quote it. And as I progress through the project I’m gaining confidence in my ability.
Now I’m looking at all of those magazines in a different light. And looking forward to what I will learn when the theory moves into practice.
What project from a magazine or book would you most like to build?
I prepared to start the challenge by picking up some cheap pine at a big box store and cutting it into 2’ lengths. I took my sector and used it to divide the board into equal parts with a pair of dividers. With the dividers set I can use this setting for all the pieces. It isn’t necessary but I figured that if I’m going to practice I might as well practice everything.
The next step was to set up my marking gauge to scribe the base lines. Then I attached my Moxon vise to the bench and set up my work light. I can’t underestimate how important good light is. In fact I’m thinking seriously about other options for lighting. The truth is that if you can’t see the line you can’t cut to the line.
Once I had things in place, I started laying out my straight cuts. I don’t have a straight guide so I used a small square. This was more time consuming and I seemed to have trouble keeping the end and face marks aligned—even when setting the blade of my knife into the line and moving the square to it.
Finally getting things laid out I began cutting. Kind of. I found that the first hurdle to get across was just getting the saw started. The problem was that I was squeezing the life out of the saw. Not only does this make you tired it also makes it near impossible to get the thing going. Holding the saw loosely and barely making contact with the tips of the saw teeth are the way to go. I even went so far as to use the thumb on my left hand against the saw back to hold it off the material.
Cutting across the boards wasn’t so bad. Apparently, I’m capable of keeping the saw 90 degrees to the work. It also helps that I have a shiny saw plate to watch the reflection in. Sawing down the line proved to be a different problem. The cut kept going to the right. I finally figured that it was because I was putting too much pressure against the saw with my pointing finger. The solution was to put equal pressure against the saw plate with my left thumb.
After the fifth set I really couldn’t see that much improvement. I was cutting down the line and the bottom third was always to the right slightly. I started to blame the saw. But really it wasn’t the saws fault. Then something interesting happened. I quit thinking.
I wasn’t making a conscious effort to not think about cutting. But my mind drifted into other things and my cuts started to look a lot better. The ironic thing to me was that I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t thinking about cutting until after I had made about 10 cuts. That’s when I knew I had some muscle memory established. Just like driving a car.
I finished off day 1 with 100 straight cuts. And a lot of knowledge of what I want to change about my gear, how I should stand, what it takes to get the saw going (and keep it going). The time spent was worth every minute.
The second day was about the same with one caveat, I had to cut on the left side of the line which is harder to see. I was having trouble with the first set and then my wife interrupted me on her way out to work. As she left, she accidentally shut the lights out (hopefully out of habit and not anger) and it was awesome. With just my work light on the work and no overhead lights I was able to see the lines much better. I don’t know if this means I will be working in the dark from now on or if I just need a brighter work light.
Something else I noticed was that on the second day I was cutting angled cuts to the left and straight down, just like you would for the left side of a pin. The cut was so similar to the previous days cuts that my mind began to wonder more quickly allowing my subconscious to take over my hands. Reaching this stage quicker allowed me to get through the exercise in about half the time of day 1 with better results.
Now it’s off to day 3!
This morning I cut a practice joint to give myself a baseline to measure my progress. The joint didn’t turn out too bad. It was a little tight and I split one of the corners off a tail.
It took me about a half hour to make the joint (27 min to be exact). So I’m hoping that the practice will not only allow me to be more accurate but also faster.
Stay tuned for the first Night of 100 Cuts…and if you haven’t read the blog about it, here is the link
After reading through Pierre Ramond’s book Marquetry my interest has grown even more so I went to my local library to see what else I could find on the subject. I am honestly impressed by the what the Indianapolis Marion County Library (IMCPL) has to offer. In fact, I had to limit myself to only a few. So what did I choose?
The first book is entitled A Marquetry Odyssey: Historical Objects and Personal Work by Silas Kopf.
As soon as I opened the book I instantly recognized some of Kopf’s work. I’m guessing that I have seen it in one of the numerous woodworking magazines I subscribe to but seeing all of the work compiled together is stunning. If you are unfamiliar with Silas Kopf you can check his work out here. While the book is certainly inspiring, and one I would like to add to my personal library, it isn’t exactly a how to manual. Maybe I’m just intimidated by the level of work he does. However, there is a great picture of a marquetry “donkey” on page 206 that is certainly helpful.
So being intimidated by Kopf’s work I also picked up The Marquetry Course by Jack Metcalfe & John Apps.
This book is exactly what I was looking for. It is a step-by-step guide into marquetry complete with exercises designed to introduce you to the craft. One of the things you find here that you don’t get with Roubo is a modern approach to marquetry. I am certainly interested in the historical methods; after all that is what first attracted me to marquetry in the first place. But I want to be able to do marquetry with what I have available first as an exercise in prudence and second as a way to gain confidence in the art.
So now that I have filled my brain with marquetry theory I will have to take the leap into practice. In my former post I ended with the ambition to build a “donkey” but I think a more appropriate approach would be to start cutting wood. Stay tuned.
If you haven’t heard, Joshua Klein is launching a new magazine dedicated to the world of working wood with hand tools. I’ve been following @mortise_and_tenon_mag on Instagram for a while and the teasers Joshua have given about the magazine are impressive. The photo quality is outstanding and he has a really great lineup of people for articles and interviews. Here is his teaser video. Check him out.