Religion, Politics, and Woodworking

23 January, 2009

Now that Obama has been inaugurated, I figure it’s safe to say that we might have a new president.  I’ve perceived that he’s rather controversial despite the fact that I’ve tried really hard to ignore current events these last few months.  I think I’m to where I care a lot more about a thin, wispy shaving coming off of a well-tuned vintage Stanley plane than what people are predicting about the future of our country.  My country, dagnabit, sweet land of liberty!  So far, I still have the liberty to behave that way, too, and to use my energy blogging, podcasting, writing, woodworking, EMT’ing and firefighting, all while being a father to my children.  So that’s the politics end of things.  And then there is the religious…

In a former, not-too-distant past I was, shall we say, a religious leader.  I stopped doing that as a vocation for a variety of reasons, but one thing still sticks: I never quite got over how many people’s behavior would change toward me when they found out what I was.  I’m a shy person, and when someone would suddenly start treating me like I was waiting and watching, hoping they would make a boo-boo so that I could pounce on them, rebuke them and correct them, I get even more shy.  So my relief valve always came in the form of thin, wispy shavings.  That was the religious part.

So, in the midst of a virtual rolling sea of pundits with opinions as firm as said rolling sea, there lies around my ankles batches of shavings, and life is good.  Knowing that the woodworking community is remarkably free of chest-pounding and sabre-rattling (with the notable exception of those of us that are Galoots enjoying the ironic humor in identifying ourselves as part of a subversive woodworking movement.)  Knowing that when it comes down to it, when I meet a fellow woodworker online or in person, the odds are that they are going to have certain characteristics in common with me: an appreciation for a quick wit, an insatiable curiosity about our common activity, probably an interest in history, the desire to exchange concepts, techniques, and lore with others of like mind, and usually the desire to remain focused on this beautiful medium we are blessed to work in, leaving politics and religion out of it.

So, I predict that 2009 is going to be the best woodworking year we have ever experienced together!

On This Medium

10 December, 2008

I’ve been knee-deep in a project building something I neither have the tools for the skills for.  The wood I’m using is mesquite, which is also an unfamiliar wood to a person used to eastern hardwoods – walnut, oak, maple, cherry.  The thing is, I am awed by the spectrum of colors and variety, even in one species of timber, let alone the variety of species and sub-species!  Ruminate on this with me a minute.

I recently had a long conversation with a Native American friend of mine.  Now, before you think Dan is a kook, let me say that I would definitely not characterize him as being militant, nor anti-American (he has served his country in Vietnam, for example,) nor anti-social (he is a fellow volunteer firefighter.)  He has received honors from his tribal council, and I believe is viewed among them as being a spiritual leader.  Dan spent time explaining to this Methodist how “his people” view the spiritual world – or perhaps, the world spiritually.  In other words, he believes that there is an overarching supreme being (God the Creator), who has created this world and all that live in it to have spirits of their own.  Therefore the trees that you and I work as wood are spiritual beings and are to be respected as such.

While there is a ring of plausibility to this view (I’m not sure that we are going to be able to resolve our boundary issues on things like this in our lifetime here on earth,) the danger, of course, is in personifying inanimate objects such as trees into having “feelings” and consciousness.

The value of this point of view comes when you apply your first coat of oil to the wood you are working on, and its grain, its unique color shouts back at you!  Although I don’t understand the system that apparently is entanglement of branches and roots, I have to believe now that the paper mulberry tree out my window is not simply chaos, but that there is organization to each individual bud and tip.

Even thought I’m not prepared to embrace the religion of the Native American, since my conversation with Dan I have found myself able to enter a deeper reverence for the medium that I’m permitted to work in!  At the very least, how fortunate I am to call myself a worker of wood!  The upside to this is it gives me a spiritual excuse for exercising my Scottish heritage in saving every little offcut… I might need it for another use some day!

Pre-game Jitters

11 November, 2008

Today my wife and I will be packing, double checking reservations, double checking what we’ve packed, getting folks lined up to feed the critters while we are gone, and making sure everything is lined out for our trip to Berea, Kentucky.  There I will be attending the Woodworking in America conference, a kind of a dream-come-true for Galoots and aspiring Galoots.logo

In case you haven’t already heard, this conference is an opportunity to learn woodworking tips and techniques from the likes of Adam Cherubini, Mike Dunbar, Frank Klausz, Christopher “The Schwartz,” Roy “St. Roy” Underhill, and to rub elbows with esteemed toolmakers such as Thomas Lie-Nielsen, John Economaki, Robin Lee, and Mike Wenzloff (I’ve left many other names off because you can click on the link faster than I can type.)  You can see why I would be excited… and anxious because I want to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything I need to take!

BUT THERE’S MORE!  Yes, as I’ve contended in previous blogs, woodworking is a hobby or a profession, but it is also a community.  Berea is an opportunity to get together with the extremely cool people that have become fast friends via the web, podcasts, and Twitter.  Since I seem to be in a name-dropping posture this morning, I’m looking forward to seeing Marc Spagnuolo (The Wood Whisperer), Matt Vanderlist (Matt’s Basement Workshop), Shannon Rogers (The Renaissance Woodworker/Rogers Fine Woodworking), Kari Hultman (The Village Carpenter Blog), and about 320 potential new Galoot-type friends.  This promises to be the coolest event of 2008, and I’m hopeing we can get signed up for 2009 while we are there.

AND EVEN MORE!  A decade ago, over the protests of the more insightfull professors, I was released from a an intensive study program with a Masters of Divinity degree taken at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.  As in, roughly an hour’s drive north of Berea.  This is like going home!  So, here’s my perspective: going home to somewhere I haven’t been in 10 years, meeting old friends I’ve never seen before, making new friends I don’t know yet, and rubbing elbows with people I’ve seen on TV and in print.

I can’t wait for tomorrow!

A lesson in business from an 11 year old…

1 November, 2008

I’m trying to keep it all in the family, and it seems to make sense, at least to a degree.  You see, in an effort to take a part of my woodworking business to the internet, I decided to pick up a pen turning lathe, a bunch of kits, and some padauk and rosewood.  Good start, then I could get a feel for it, and perhaps hone my business skills.  I shared all this great thinking with my bride, who thought it was great thinking and was therefore intrigued by the whole idea.  Little did I know…

I turned about 8 pens, and then she came out to the shop and said, “Teach me.”  Okay, sounds very cool.  Pen turning is great fun, but I really enjoy case work which I could get back to if she were turning.  So, I gave her a crash course, and before long her pens looked as good as mine.  Or, at least as good as mine.  Okay, I can handle this, I must be a pretty good teacher.  Soon, my lathe was our lathe, and once in awhile I get to use it.  While she is at work, that is.

This afternoon she brought my 11 year old son out and taught him how to turn pens while I was working on another project.  He learns very quickly, and he got to finish his first pen and pencil set, made out of padauk with “rhodesium” hardware.  Since he’s left handed, I teased him about making the set upside-down.

As I’m merrily banging away on this casework, my son starts asking my bride why we are doing so many.  One of the reasons I love my wife so much is because she’s easily able to expound on the inner workings of capitalism and supply-side economics, which my son got a working lesson in as the chips flew.

After he was finished with his set, he brought them over to show me.  “If I sell some of these for you, can I get a commission?”  I like the way he thinks, at such a young and tender age.  “Sure, of course you would.”  “Well, Dad, how much?”  “Well, Son, it would have to be a percentage of the net.  Do you know what the net is?”  “Is that the total profit?”  I don’t know where he got his grasp of things.  Not from me — I still don’t have all this figured out.  “Exactly.  How does 30% of the profit sound?”  “How does 50% sound, since I am helping make the pens?”  “Okay.”  He dickered, I lost.  Go figure.

As Your Stomach Turns (over)

21 October, 2008

I’m supposed to be all busted up, worried, angry, frustrated, and all five stages of grief all at once.  About two weeks ago the stable owner of the stable company I was working for called a bunch of us together and told us that we could come in the next day and get our stuff, or we could take it with us as we left, along with our barely adequate severance packages.  No surprise, and in a large company (from my parochial perspective), knowing that I was one of at least half of the company that was finally succumbing to the sub-prime loan debacle was just news that I was expecting.  Still, I have all kinds of sympathy for the owner as he performed one of his hardest duties with decorum and integrity.  I even told him that.

The thing is, I’m not all busted up.

I’ve been wanting to launch out as a woodworker and luthier for a while, and my wife and I always received just one more medical bill in the mail, or… you know.  Well, a year of listening to Dan Miller ( has come home with me; I’m an entrepreneur.  I’m free to flame out, and just as free to make my first million.  Nobody can “downsize” me (why can’t we call it a “lay-off” anymore, or even just “termination?”)  By the same token, I cannot ride anyone else’s coat-tails into the sunset of mediocrate.  It’s all out there, for all the world to see.

How does it feel?  I’ll tell you.  It feels GREAT!

So What’s Wrong With Luddites, Anyway?

29 September, 2008

Once again the literary blog of Chris Schwartz has stimulated my own (somewhat cranked) chain of consciousness toward the philosophical side of woodworking.  “The Schwartz” recently offered a very positive review of Roy Underhill’s newest book (the link is here), which wasn’t fair because I can’t go out and buy it yet, and pre-ordering it only makes me feel like I’m 8 years old and it’s three weeks before Christmas.  Dang.  I’m pre-ordering it anyway, and I had a good Christmas when I was 8.


One of the commentators on the blog mentioned that some view St. Roy in particular, and from that I assume the Galooterati in general, as being Luddite.  I pondered that for a little bit, checked Wikipedia to make sure the commentator was talking about the Luddite movement of England in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and then concluded that such a thrown stone packed all the wallop of being called a “Neanderthal Woodworker” or a “Galoot.”  Hit me again, please!


Now, to be a Luddite in the purest sense of the word, I would need to be militantly against the use of power tools.  Personally, I’m not that way; I really don’t have the time to spend felling a maple tree (the hardest part is FINDING a maple tree in central Texas), hewing it, pit sawing it, stickering the flitches, ripping them with a hand saw, scrub planning them to near thickness, well, you get the idea.  If I had to rely on those methods, it would be a very long time before anything would ever come out of my shop, with the possible exception of me in a pine box.


On the other hand, I fully concur with Chris that it is essential that we never, ever lose the techniques that correspond with the old tools that we celebrate.  We venerate St. Roy because he takes such joy in passing along that knowledge (in his own inimitable style.)  In an earlier blog, I expounded on how I feel that passing on the knowledge of those who have gone before us honors them and connects us to them.  If that’s Luddite, bring it!

The Fate of Old Tools

23 September, 2008

One of my favorite blogs to follow (and do my best to be a nuscance on) is Chris Schwartz’s Woodworking Magazine blog.  I was reading today’s post about hand saw rehabillitation,  and that started my creative juices flowing.  You can see Chris’ blog by clicking the link here.  I admire Chris and find much wisdom (and considerable wit) in what he writes.  If you aren’t reading his blog regularly, get off this one and go pick that one up now!

Somewhere in the midst of his shill for a great-sounding hand saw sharpening service, I was confronted by two thoughts.  The first thought is that one can not really call oneself a Galoot unless one knows how to sharpen one’s own saws.  I don’t.  Yet.  So, after I dried myself off from my self-recrimination immersion, I went on to the next big thought of the day, which occurred to me when Chris referenced a shelf of “damned tools.”  Said another way, Chris referred to a particular saw residing on a “Shelf of Hopeless Tools.”  It evoked images of some childhood Christmas claymation reference “The Island of Misfit Toys.”  I immediately had images of choo-choos with square wheels and polka-dotted dollies with alligator tears all singing around a campfire on Christmas eve… you know what I mean.  The concept of Hopless Tools is just to provocative for me.  So I became provoked, and Chris will probably justifiably delete my reply.

What I tried to point out was that the Path of the Galoot includes the pride of bottom-feeding.  Our greatest scores come when we can report back to other Galooterati on a great estate sale score or better yet — a bona fide flea market “Neener!”  As illustration, I pointed out the crispy No.-4 that looked like a University of Texas football jersey when I got it, and after TLC is my daily go-to smoother.

It is my particular thesis that there is no such thing as a hopeless tool.  So your saw blade winds up with a 90 degree bend in it: use it to saw dovetails in three mintues like Frank Klaus, or salvage the usable parts and rehab an ailing saw.  You find a plane that has bounced off concrete one too many times and has a broken mouth?  It can’t sing anymore, but like the young boy who gives up his heart in death in order to let a young girl across the country live, there are parts and pieces to be used in the rehab of a needy plane.

No hope?  Never give up hope in old tools, I say.  Send them to me.

The Master

18 September, 2008
     Recently there has been a video floating around of Frank Klaus cutting dovetails (using bow saws) in three minutes.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the link, but please note: all safety precautions need to be taken.  Please fasten your seatbelt, look around you and find the nearest exit, double check your parachute, and make sure your helmet and protective eyewear are in place.
      A very long time ago, before there was something called the “New Testament,” God used to show up to the Old Testament folk in strange and unexpected manners.  He might show up in a burning bush, or on a mountaintop, or as a soft, gentle breeze, or in a valley of dry, dusty bones.  In whatever manner God chose His current self-revelation, the ancient Hebrews knew they were in for something big, as in Charlton Heston and Cecile B. DeMille; something that they had no control over, something that would change their lives for the better and would last forever, and something that kind of set them apart from the other tribes of the Ancient Near East.  But they also knew it was something they could only watch, because the Being they were watching was actually DOING things (rather than just talking, like a lot of the other gods,) and because they knew what was happening was just so far beyond themselves.  Sometimes you have to watch stuff and spend the rest of your life processing it in order to understand it.  Sometimes you never understand it.
     I had a similar epiphany watching Mr. Klaus cut his dovetails.  Just every now and then you realize you are in the presence of someone who early on discerned what he or she had been born to do, and acted upon it.  I want to be that way when I grow up.




The Wall, with apologies to Pink Floyd

8 September, 2008

In keeping with this whole “Community of Believers” thing that seems to be happening in my woodworking life right now, I’ve come to note that woodworkers are among the funniest people on the internet.  I’m not talking about some mindless physical three-stooges comedy (a good reason NOT to have a webcam in my shop, btw…) but people who can look at life and truly enjoy it.  And each other.

Have you ever noticed how many woodworking terms have emerged from podcasts, blogs, and listservs?  The OldTools listserv even has a glossary for “jargon” reference.  I mean, of course, the list jargon, not what separates a breast drill from a post drill.  An individual becomes passionate about something, whips out a term and throws it against the wall, and it sticks.

To wit: Somewhere between Marc and Matt, the term “The Schwartz” has found it’s place in woodworking nomenclature.  “Galoot” and “Neanderthal” go way back as badges of honor.  I see now that “Scary Sharp” has become a commonplace method.  It looks like “shwag” is taking off, too (I had to look that one up.  Drug culture?  Really!)

This is a very small cross-sampling observed by an admitted wordsmith.  It might be worth putting together a living, breathing lexicon of some of these newer terms.  Throw some of your favorite terms against my wall!

A Community of Believers

30 July, 2008

One of the glorious things about being a woodworker today is our ability to be served by the Internet. Through this amazing channel of funneled electrons, we can blog and Twitter and post websites full of our projects and join together with others in songs of praise over the latest Veritas or Lie-Nielsen acquisition, or remind one another to be wary of the dangers of spinning carbide tips.

Recently I read a blog posted by Christopher Schwarz on the Woodworking Magazine reviewing a brand new Veritas plane coming onto the scene, which led me to a link by the Village Carpenter, a person after my own heart, pondering the “certain something” that draws those of us that are hand tool enthusiasts to prefer (to be polite) human powered woodworking over our electric counterparts.

Just so that there is no confusion: My alternative (older) online persona is Texasgaloot, a term derived from the combination of my obvious proximity along with my decade-old membership on the OldTools listserv. I joined that listerv not too long after a number of luminaries on “The Porch” found themselves refugees from the even older Rec.Woodworking. Rather than accept humiliation and defeat at being branded “Galoots” and “Neanderthals,” they accepted the terms as badges of honor, picked up their crispy Stanley No.-7’s, dovetail saws and marking gauges and formed their own group, still going strong (see

As I was permitted to lurk on The Porch and learn from folks who started out as teachers and truly came to be valued friends, I began to realize how close-knit the hand tool community really is. One old tool vendor patiently carried my debt as my first marriage collapsed leaving me destitute, despite the fact that I had his tools in my possession. I kept them carefully wrapped and separated out from my users to preserve them in case I needed to return them, but the vendor insisted that I pay him when I could, which after three or four years, I was finally able to do. Try that at your local big box store!

There is a certain peaceful, spiritual connection that exists among those of us that are members of the Neander-community. Although many of us succumb to the stresses of time commitments and wind up using our table saws and drill presses to help us along (too often, myself included,) we reserve the hallowed finishing process of our hard work for our handwork. As soon as I finally get some decent photos made of my shaker night stand, I will be posting them; it is a project I did the initial milling using electricity, but hand-fitting and hand finishing from there on. The piece is now one of those things in my house I can just look at on a bad day, and it takes the knots out of my rope.

As I move closer and closer to my goal of full-time woodworking, I have done quite a bit of research on the advantages of being in business for oneself. I’ve noticed that advocates for entrepreneur-ship communicate a certain undertone, itself with a spiritual component that links me to the Galoot lifestyle as well. Entrepreneurs talk about two things in the same breath: freedom and control, and it boils down to the ability to have the freedom to control one’s life, rather than to abdicate control to someone else. While working for someone, one doesn’t have the ability to stay connected to Twitter, for example, and may only be permitted to check on one’s friends during “breaks.” In contrast to that is the person in business for him or herself, who has the freedom to go broke or be independently wealthy, the freedom to read blogs without concern over getting fired. Such is the sense of control I seek, and I think our woodworking forefathers knew the peace that it yielded.

The parallels are obvious: With hand tools, we have the freedom to hog huge slices of wood off that $50 cherry board, or to smooth it to a polish that shows your smile. We can chop narrow dovetails or take our time finessing a mortise-and-tenon fit rather than adjusting our trunions to micrometer precision. We have the ability to tell the in-laws, “I did that,” and not mean a whirring, spinning, screaming machine manufactured to leave that too-perfect pattern in the wood.

When I was young, my grandparents kept a cottage amidst the breathtaking Finger Lakes in Center New York State. At least a few times each summer my grandfather’s brothers and sisters would all gather, each bringing beans and radishes and fresh corn from their farms. We would have a great country feast, topped off with my grandmother’s fresh-baked apple and cherry pies. I would eat until my stomach hurt, and then the men would gather in the rockers on the front porch, smoke their pipes and tell lies about one another that were so funny my stomach would hurt all over again. The fragrances of the lake air combined with the lingering smells of supper and pipe tobacco in one of my favorite places in the world formed a synergistic aroma the memory of which I would never part with for any price. That was a time when everything was just right in my world.

As a micron-thin wisp of pine shaving curls from my smoothing plane, a shaving that if tossed in the air would have measurable “hang time,” I sense the connection to other woodworkers, past and present. I come as close as I ever will again to that spiritual experience of tasting a slice of Gram’s apple pie.