Archive for July, 2008

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 www.galootcentral.com.)

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.

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The Woodworking Afterburners

19 July, 2008

After reading Chris Schwarz’s blog entitled “Yesterday’s Shame (and Tomorrow’s,” I began to ponder some of the woodworking projects I had made in my younger days.  Some were so embarrassing I won’t even pass the details of them along to you.  Some were not that embarrassing, but they were almost.  Certainly I’ve come a long way.  Pondering these projects, I began to think about an Oldtools listserv post from a few years ago.

It’s a truism that woodworkers as a lot tend to be their own worst critics.  We will see every flaw, every boo-boo, every place in a piece that we wish we had done something differently.  We will seek out our long-suffering spouses’ opinion, the opinions of our family, friends, significant others, and even the in-laws, and they will openly admire your craftsmanship, and you will still stare at the “glaring imperfections” of your work and think, “Chris Schwarz would never have done anything this bad.”

Our forum settled on an ugly project criteria: if you can take the piece you have just built and toss it in the fire, then it needs to be there.  If you cannot burn your work, then you cannot threaten to.  Fencing sitting doesn’t work; you must accept your work silently and resolve to try harder next time.  I’ve decided to call this effect “Woodworking afterburners.”  If you can burn the piece after you’ve built it… well, you get it.

I’ve been able to recycle the wood from an old project, but I’ve never been able to toss one on the burn pile.  I guess that’s because the Scotsman in me sees the raw material and echoes my dad’s words, “I might use that for something some day.”  You know what?  Even those afterburners still have something to teach me.  I wonder what I’m going to learn from the pieces I turn out today.