Stress Free Glue-ups

Who writes these headlines? Clearly it can be no one who has ever actually been in a glue-up. I know I didn’t write this banner although my name comes after it as the author of an article on gluing. It brings to mind a point I continue to make to new woodworkers. Don’t believe what you read.

I remember I was in a literature class back in college, a Victorian literature class. I was making a point in a debate about a book and I finished my brilliant summation with the phrase: “it said so in the book”.
So there.

My teacher turned to me and said: “You actually believe what you read in books?” I felt all the wind go from my sails. My debating adversary smirked at me and I shut up.

The point is that with all information, including these scribblings, you need to sift through it for the pertinent stuff and let the fluff, the advertising, the non-factual, the drivel go by. Like that headline. Too often young woodworkers want to know “the way.” Not three possible very good ways, but “the way”. As if one way is the right way. It is most certainly not. Just as there is no one version of the truth.

The beauty of the woodshop and being at your own bench is that, within roughly defined parameters of craftsmanship, if it works and you like the method, it’s the right way. If it doesn’t work and you’re just stubborn, well that can be a part of woodworking too. But if you like the method and it works for you, then it’s the right method. It may not be anyone else’s method, but yours alone. But if you get the results you want, well that’s okay then. It’s one of the reasons we like this stuff. To make up our own rules to follow. Just don’t get waylaid by what you read.

Published in: on February 28, 2008 at 1:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Put out the Fire First

It seems a simple concept really. But what appears easy to me or to you is sometimes not so easy for someone else to comprehend. This is what makes the teaching experience so endlessly rich with the variety and array of personalities.

In a class one time, the students were making mortising templates from 1/4″ Masonite. For some reason I had found the most tempered of tempered Masonite to use. This material was so hard it made the router bit scream as it cut through the board. This was hard stuff, hard hard stuff. We would cut slots in these templates on the router table with a straight bit, and most of my students had negotiated this noisy cut with no problems. Except for this one fellow. This particular student was making his groove cut through his Masonite template as the others had done, but he was moving at too slow a pace regrettably. Perhaps he was a bit too careful, a trifle more circumspect than others, more concerned with the perfect result.

Well moving slowly in a router cut can produce an array of effects. One effect is that you can burn the bit. The sawdust gets fried and coats the bit in a black gunk that sticks remarkably well to carbide. It makes it very difficult to cut. [There is an easy fix. Just take some oven cleaner and coat your bit with it for 20 minutes or so. Then clean the bit with a tooth brush. Repeat as needed until the bit is clean. This works on saw blades too.]

Another result of moving too slowly is that you can burn the wood. Particularly on end grain, you’ll find that if your feed rate is too slow, you’ll get burning. Slowing down the cut to admire your work gives you toasted wood in just seconds.

But another quite unexpected result from moving so slowly, with a burned bit, in a material so hard, with dust so fine, is that voila! the dust will be set on fire. Now when this happens, do not, as my student at the time did, just blow on the fire trying to put it out while continuing to make the cut. Put out the fire first.

There he stood at the router table blowing on the smoldering dust and probably making the flames grow higher while continuing to make his groove cut. But just as a general rule, for all of you who tend to set your work on fire as you make cuts in it, put out the fire first, and then you may continue cutting.

This may seem obvious to you and me. This may seem like good and sensible Standard Operating Procedure, an easy lesson. But not everyone gets this lesson at first. So be careful. Make certain that you understand this. Slow down here in order to speed up. It’s a good lesson for us all.

Published in: on February 26, 2008 at 1:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Becoming Proficient

I taught one summer at a high flying art/ craft school in Snowmass, Colorado called Anderson Ranch. It’s a glorious place way up high in the Rocky Mountains, about 7000′ up. When a low lander like me gets up there you feel like your head is going to explode for the first day or so, but after that it’s exhilirating. [When you come back down to sea level though, you feel like Superman because of all the extra oxygen you have in your blood. That’s good fun.]

It’s the kind of school where famous people come to teach writing and painting and photography and digital imaging and yet they still teach clay and woodworking there. It’s an exciting atmosphere with lots going on.  I was teaching the woodworking class for one week, a class in joinery or routers or something. Not high falutin’ just some basic stuff.

But next to me in the clay studio was an older gentleman from Japan. He had been a potter for 60 years or so. He was what is known in Japan as a Japanese Living Treasure. These are artists who have preserved and carried on their craft traditions and have been honored by their country for their contributions. [What a concept! To honor living artists instead of feeding on the dead artists like a Road Show.]

He had, as his apprentice there, his daughter. A pierced spiky haired punk rock girl who looked like no child of this craftsman. And yet there she was learning the craft of pottery at the hands of her father. An unlikely pair it would seem, but can’t that be said about most children and their parents?

And every day, he would have her throw the same pot. The exact same pot and it takes very little time for someone who is skilled to throw a pot. She would throw the pot and then when it was finished, when it was perfect, she would crush it. And start again. This was her job. To learn to throw this pot so well that it became a part of her, a part of her fingers, her mind, her breathe. This was her task. To become so immersed in this technique that she was one with it. What a concept! To practice one’s craft until you became so proficient that you could move on to actually making something. Until that point, you were only making yourself into a potter.

It is a very difficult thing to do to become proficient at something. It takes time. It takes patience. And yet when the time is spent well, it offers something back that is so unexpected. No corner of a wall ever gets turned. What one realizes is that the wall is curved. You just keep going. But one day, one day, you’ll be working and you’ll throw that pot so well or handle that chisel so well so as to make just the right cut, and you’ll look up and say oh, I’m here. And then you’ll say, but I have so much further to go.

I have a Mastery Student who lays floors. He is, appropriately enough for a floor layer, a down to earth kind of guy. He works on multi-million dollar homes but he’s just a straight shooter. Anyways, we were talking one day about having employees and the headaches and he used to run a big crew of dozens and there were always problems to be solved. He said that everyone pretty much came in to his crew pretty raw but in a year they were acting like they knew everything. Everything there was to know about wood and floors they acted like they knew it inside of a year. But if they stuck it out, if they stayed around for five or ten years or so, they finally got to the point where they could say, I know a lot, but there’s a whole lot more I don’t know. That’s when you are on the road to becoming proficient. When you can say that.

Published in: on February 23, 2008 at 7:55 am  Comments (1)  
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19th Century Values

It is with some trepidation that I enter this sphere of the constantly self-conscious, the diligently self-referential. But if wide receivers can point to their heart and then to the sky for performing their job, why then can’t I?

We at the Studio are firmly entrenched in values once held dear in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is so far afield from what passes as important today that it seems almost laughable to be engaged in this activity. Those interested in the work of the Studio should know this from me, the fearful leader: that we are swimming upstream against a mighty current. A current of the ephemeral, of the transient, the quick buck and the quick turnover.

Where art is good only if it will appreciate in value to the buyer, where craft is relegated to a sorry weak sister position in a society that values nothing like honest effort or good design, but seemingly only a quick return on investment. Where loyalty is a commodity like mineral rights in the corporate world, easy to mine, and easy to throw away. Where skills are assumed to be gotten by pressing a button, getting more memory, or buying a new tool. A society that believes that Mastery comes easily and in a short time if you just have money enough.

Consider this. I have to remind myself of it. It takes years to prepare oneself to do the work. Years of effort, day in and day out. Sun rise and sun set. Working at the bench, making mistakes, taking your time, throwing your hammer, smiling in gratitude for a job that goes well, cursing in new tongues the practiced tasks that fail. It takes time for you to one day be able to just pick up the tool, the pencil, the chisel, the paint brush and with no more effort than brushing a hair from your face, make a mark that is precise, elegant, and just what you wanted. It is a revelation in need of constant revealing to us all that this instant takes years of preparation.

So you want to learn woodworking? You want to master this craft? Go study it for 20 years. You’ll start to get the hang of it. But isn’t that a wonderful thing to be doing with your time? Instead of waiting to buy the next Xbox?

Published in: on February 20, 2008 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Time Spent in the Shop

My time in the shop has a value far beyond it being my place of business. I recognized this long ago when I found that my best moments there were those when I was making something for the shop. It could have been a tool cabinet or a work table if it were grand or a door pull or a tool rack for some new chisels if it were smaller. But even the little things that I made for the shop were great sources of joy.

So it is only a small curiosity that after days in the shop, listening to motors roaring, dealing with piles of sawdust, handling a hundred student questions, or just running around in the frenzy of a day where so much happens and nothing seems to get done, that after days spent in the combined din of the shop space, I find that I want to take my day off, where else? but in the shop. It is the one place to go to recharge my batteries, replenish my spirit, fill my water bottle of hope for the next week’s fray.

And why not there? It’s one of the reasons I became a woodworker I think, to have that place to call home, to have that rough but comfortable space where I can [usually] find my tools and get to work. It’s where I get to make things too. It’s not back at the computer dealing with the curse of e-mail, [sorry to all my correspondents, but I believe it to be true, all of our time saving measures and inventions and devices eat up our time rather than save it] [and while it may be true that we are now connected in a way that is inclusive and with each new entry becomes more powerful, it moves us farther away from real human strengths].

No the shop provides me with a kind of comfort that I find nowhere else. I am not alone in this. I think we all, men and women need that quiet place where we can work. And what happens there isn’t measured by units produced or pages written. The work there isn’t always about getting something done.
At least something that someone else could measure. But to you, it has value beyond any measure, beyond any tape rule or scale of merit. Because it’s that time you need to be yourself and to let your own voice be heard quietly. It’s about getting something right inside you so you can then go back out, back out into the noise.

Published in: on February 15, 2008 at 12:27 am  Comments (1)  
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