Trusting your Eye

We don’t trust ourselves. It’s a lamentable fact. We go into the shop and face a design problem and freeze up. We ask: what would Maloof do here? What would Wegner do here? What would Herter or Greene & Greene & Greene & Greene do here? What would anyone but us do here? Anyone with half a brain, not my own, which is barely half a brain on a good day, and I can’t trust it anyway when it comes to how something looks. What would they do instead of me?

Why is that? By what authority do you have it that your eye is somehow lacking?

You know of course that your eye is capable of seeing differences of less than a thousandth of an inch. Put two try squares up on the bench butted up to each other and a light source behind them. Notice the tiny difference between blades that you can see. It’s amazing what your eye can detect.

Some years ago I started a little game with myself where I would try to judge everything just by eye. No tape measure, no folding rule, no Starrett 604 RE, without which life in the shop is barely possible. None of that. Just my eye to measure to center or to measure out in thirds. And you know what? My eye is pretty darn good. I would get very close just by looking carefully. I would check things later of course with the highest calibrated standard I could find, but my eye was usually very good. It was capable of detecting the smallest amount of “off”. You know, you look at something, and it doesn’t look quite right,
it’s not centered. You know that it looks off or feels off. Well I’d check my eye with a rule and I’d be right, it was off.

So this has led me to trust my eyes more. To depend on them and use them for measuring. Sure I still use a tape and a ruler. But my eye is good. I just have to trust it.

Now the same is true when designing something. Your eye tells you things right off the bat as soon as you look at a piece. The problem is understanding what it’s saying. Figuring out how to decipher that little feeling in your gut when you look at a piece that you’ve been working on for weeks and weeks. You feel that something’s wrong. Well your eye is telling you what. You just have to figure out what it’s saying.

My approach is to look at the thing, the piece, the detail, the post or the rail, whatever it is, and check in with my gut. I may leave it at the bench for a night and walk away and then come back the next day to check again on it. If it still feels wrong, then it’s wrong. I try out new options, new lines or details. I trust my instincts on this, not what some book has said is good design. Sometimes, I turn the piece upside down on my bench to look at it in a different way and then right it again. But I’m constantly checking in with my eye and asking: does that feel right?

People write in a lot and ask what are the rules for such and such. Folks, there are no rules. The only rule is that you make up your own rules. The true artists among us do this from the beginning making it up as they go. They steal from the best sources of course but they make each design their own. Something in their gut tells them: this is right.

It’s not a simple matter, but it is simply by listening to yourself that you learn to trust what you know to be right. Quit looking to the books for the answer. Learn to trust your

Published in: on March 31, 2008 at 9:24 am  Leave a Comment  


I know of no more important and elusive if not illusive concept as momentum. You know it when you have it. You know it even better when it goes.

Get into a project with the right kind of momentum and the work flies by. You’re smart, you’re efficient, and even the glitches don’t slow you up much. They at least don’t cause you great discomfort. Your swearing is a bit softened, the dents in the floor from a misused hammer not so deep. A simple “you idiot” and you forgive yourself and you’re back on the road again.

With momentum, you have impetus, gravity’s on your side, hope even. Momentum of course is nothing that can be seen. It can’t be tasted or can you actually put your hands on it. It’s like a perfume worn by someone that comes into the room and leaves a trace that is oh so real. You know momentum when you see it, when you feel it. You can sense when it changes. You know when it’s left the room. Maybe you don’t hear a door slam but oh yes you know when momentum has left you.

I used to play a lot of sports. In sports, you can feel the shift and the silliest things can cause that shift. A laugh during the time-out, a fahgetaboutit to a teammate, a routine but important save, sometimes just a small mistake happens and yet momentum has shifted. From that point on, you can watch your game soar or go flat on its face. No explanation. Momentum has changed and that’s it.

Momentum is as elusive it seems as inspiration, the muses. Forget what’s her name, Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. A guy named Mo is far more important for your project than anything else. Lose that drive and you lose your will. Lose that passion and you look at the project as one more pile of sticks, another frame and panel chore, another sanding job. When you have that momentum, you can’t wait to be out in the shop. Cut one panel too short and it’s easy to let another job intrude. It’s easy to say I’ll finish it later. And before you know it, a day has gone by and then two, a week next, then move that project
over there now, a month, gee has it really been a year? And the next thing you know it’s another pile waiting completion, another burden instead of a joy.

So. What can I tell you that you don’t already know about this? Nothing. But I can remind you, as I must remind myself, that mistakes happen. You will screw up something important in a project, and you will absolutely want to quit and set your tools down because of it. Fahgetaboutit, happens to everyone. Bring yourself back to the bench. Don’t let your attention wander. Finish what you start. Fix your mistakes.

And then lobby your congressman for an 8 day week so you’ll have more time for those unfinished projects.

Published in: on March 26, 2008 at 8:17 am  Comments (2)  


Magnetism in the shop comes in several forms, as I will relate. Hear me out and see if your experiences do not match my own.

Wood is not supposed to be magnetic. Wood is of course organic, lovely, warm to the touch, capable of fiery beauty and unimaginable pattern. It is remarkably alive even when cut and slabbed into table tops. It continues to warm us with its beauty long after it has been felled, cut, dried, stacked, sanded, and finished. It is as natural to us as water or air. Familiar, comforting, dependable, resilient. So many words have I to describe wood. So why must I also use the word magnetic?

Magnetic. Or so it seems, for it can be the only explanation for its willingness to impale me at every turn. Why am I magnetic to wood or is it versa vice? It’s constant. I run my hand across a table top, bang, I am nailed with a splinter. I set my garden rake down, worn smooth by years of work and weather, let it slide out of my grip and bang, I am nailed with a splinter. I walk down my steps in the morning to eat a sleepy eyed cup of coffee and drink my breakfast cereal and bang, I am nailed with a splinter on the 50 year old hand rail! This is no way to awaken and I am tired of this attraction. Why must it be so?

Am I truly magnetic to wood I wonder? Is it a kind of attraction that makes wood peel off in needle-like sections, like the tools of a torturer to impale itself gleefully into my skin? I scream in anguish with each new barb wondering again what part of this is pay back for my life’s work or is it just plain stupidity? Because I see a wood surface and I want to run my hand over it. Experience be damned, I want to run my hand over it because I love the feel of wood and bang, well, you know the rest.

Now I have known for years of another kind of magnetism in the shop. I have known that concrete has a magnetic attraction to tool steel. You’ve seen this yourself no doubt. It’s a known fact. You work on a concrete floor and you’ll begin to see that your tools seem to have this fatal need to plunge to a cement death. This kind of magnetism must have some kind of explanation in a physics text. The requirement of sharpened tool steel or precisely milled measuring tools to leap like lemmings to their death onto the floor. What other explanation do you have? It’s not like you’re trying to push your tools off the bench. It’s not like you want to see them exhibit this sort of behavior. It’s embarrassing really to have them act this way. They should know better and yet they just can’t help themselves. It’s magnetism. It’s the only explanation I have.

Of course I have become adept at catching some tools with an outstretched foot. Note, I said some tools, not all. Some you just have to watch like Wiley Coyote all the way down to their demise. Hmm, hmm. Acme Tool Steel once again leaping to its death. And there’s nothing to be done. You can’t save it. You just have to watch.

At least with one of those magnetic wooden splinters I can pull out my loupe, set up the light, get out the tweezers and heat-blackened needle, and then start to dig like a miner for the minuscule yet potent little bit of nasty wood. It’s become second nature to me by now. Oh look, a piece of wood, let me run my hand on it, bang.

Published in: on March 24, 2008 at 10:22 am  Comments (2)  
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Class Openings

This worked so well for Chris Schwarz on his blog for his Sawing Class at the Studio this summer that I was urged, pushed, prodded, cajoled, and harangued to do the same. [Actually it was merely suggested to me to do the same and so I have.] So I want to mention a few things on the blog and skip, for today, some of the hard hitting issues that we usually take on such as gluing up. Hence:

We have five spots at the bench on April 7 or 8, the first five, no the first four after Sydney, so just four more are needed to come to a free, that’s right, free class on tuning up your dovetailing. Fine Woodworking Magazine in the person of Steve Scott will be in the Studio those days to shoot video and photos for both the FWW website and the magazine on the topic of fine tuning your hand cut dovetails.

It should be an interesting class as we will be trying to do much more than just introduce the topic. I will assume everyone has made a stab at the 15 minute dovetail. So we will be pushing each of you to do your very best work and helping you along the way in this endeavor by looking at your techniques for sawing, chiseling, and marking out. It should be great fun.

Did I mention that this was a free class? Well it is and you’re welcome to come on by. Drop us a note first to reserve your bench space.
But that brings me to the next topic which is about one of our other Summer classes on Building the Rogowski Stool, Sept. 22-26. This class was so popular last summer that we had to do a second class. But I don’t think that will be possible for this year. So we still have some spots left for this intermediate level class. It is a very challenging class mixing geometry, planning, routing mortises, fitting tenons, making precise wedges and
grinding out oak seats. Lots of hand tool work, lots of routing work, fuming white oak. It’s a great class. It’s a great project.

I’ve been making this stool since 1978 and every one of my friends or clients who has one is happy and living a fulfilled life. It’s true. It’s really that simple. So come on, quit stalling, make a commitment. I know you woodworkers are the worst procrastinators and I absolutely include myself in this group. [I will show you my 20 year old unfinished project sometime.]

Published in: on March 21, 2008 at 6:24 am  Comments (1)  

Warning the Innocents

The importance, the perils, the sheer panic inducing anxieties of a simple glue up cannot be understood by innocent bystanders. An innocent will walk into your shop at the moment of your gluing and think, how wonderful, how serene. Oh, to be a woodworker and calmly enjoying the fruits of one’s labors. They wave a jaunty hello as they step in. Then they look at your face. They receive the terse hello if not a more shortened grunt of recognition, they see the tight lines drawn around your mouth, the beady eyes of concentration, the quick movements. What have they walked into they wonder?

Well it is a test they’ve stepped into. A trial by fire and polyvinyl acetate. An activity that can reduce a calm and normal person to a bug eyed monster screaming at inanimate objects and loved ones alike. They’ve wandered into the shop of some kind of madman off his medication and stung by a hundred wasps all at once.

You know this, those of you who have felt the tightening grip of a glue-up. You who have been tested by an adhesive drying before your very eyes. It’s no trivial matter. If you’re the one driving the ship that day, you alone will live with the consequence of not turning the wheel soon enough, not cutting the motor before plowing into the dock. Watching your weeks of work turn into a shattered puzzle that needs extracting from a pool of quickening adhesive.

Gluing up is a time in the shop that is a culmination, it is a celebration really of all that you’ve done, all the hours of effort, the days of patience, the weeks of preparation to get your parts to this spot. These pieces are ready, gleaming, sanded to within an inch of their lives, carved and polished, shaped and faired, poked and mortised with an Egyptian sense of perfection. Not a gap to be seen in any joint. Perfect. You are ready to glue. It has finally come to this.

But this is where sometimes you lose sight of your goal. Your goal is completion, ease, a sense of sliding right into that dock perfectly with just a slight bump as you settle into place. But you sense it too keenly, you smell it too well and perhaps this is the problem. It’s right there, you can almost see it from here, your goal seems so blue and serene or it’s lying in a green meadow with the sounds of tiny clouds whisking by or there’s a brook babbling somewhere in the background or maybe the whole scene is just floating in beer. Whatever your goal looks like, it’s so close. It’s right in front of you. You can almost taste it and it’s at this time that some people just grab the glue bottle and begin, happy, calm.

Well, it’s a sad day sometimes is glue-up day. It’s a sad day when you rush to that glue bottle, when you say I can do this, I’m ready, and no, no you’re not. You’re not ready. You’re not ready to begin, you haven’t filled the bottle with all the glue you’ll need. And when the time comes and you need more, the glue sits at the bottom of the bottle and will take an impossibly slow time to reach the spout. It’s as if Gravity has taken on more of an attitude today. “Yeah, I’ll have the glue flow when I’m good and ready,” Gravity cheekily says to you. “No worries, chaka man, no worries, what’s the hurry,” Gravity yawns. Meanwhile your hair is turning grey as your fingers are turning white.

You need a clamp and you can’t remember if your neighbor returned those clamps he borrowed, ach I’m getting glue all over my table saw or criminy why don’t these rails go in like before, where’s my hammer? Or didn’t they line up before and now I can’t move them and your hammer blows leave only dents and torn fibers. It’s no longer a glad day with the end in sight, the end is slowly being torn up and shattered like you’re plowing into that dock. You’re still on that boat and you just want to get off.

Gluing up is one of those false promise things really, like push-up bras and socks in the pants. It’s a promise of delight and ease that just won’t deliver. You’d think the glue would make things slide easier. But it only acts as a wonderful lubricant for about 5 seconds, then it starts to work. Fear not. We have all been there. You’re not alone and you’ll live through it again. Just try, next time, to plan a bit before beginning your work. Find all your clamps first and clamp pads and extra clamps. Practice the sequence, figure out your steps before beginning, before squeezing out that glue. The job can be done with a little less quickening of the pulse. You just need to plan a little better, learn to think ahead a bit more. Just always warn the innocents before they enter on glue up day.

Published in: on March 19, 2008 at 9:03 am  Comments (5)  
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Right in your own Back Yard

It was Fall, 2007 and the Beagle was taking me on a sniff and lift walk in the park. How 23 pounds of dog can have that much bladder inside him is a miracle. So we were strolling, leaving messages here and there, when I saw that new bleachers had been installed by the ball diamonds. Brand new shiny aluminum bleachers and a sign nearby proclaiming that this was the result of a 2002 Parks Levy.

Well, you can’t say enough good things about the alacrity of a Parks Division that moves at that kind of installation speed. But I did wonder, given that this was Portland, in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, why the bleachers weren’t made of wood. What time of year can you sit on aluminum? Not winter, as aluminum’s coefficient of heat is well known. It’ll chill you to the bone in winter. It just feels too cold and too wet. In the summertime, the bleachers will be burning hot. You won’t be able to sit on them at all then. So I wondered who thought that aluminum was a good idea for bleachers? Didn’t they have wooden bleachers here for decades? Didn’t they sit well and last a long time?

It also happened that day that I came across a large group of bureaucrats wandering about the park looking up at the trees. This struck me as a useful activity for bureaucrats given their wont for other enterprises like taking trips to see if Hawaii is still there or visiting exotic hotels to meet with their nieces. There was also a lone worker nearby with some ropes and a chainsaw working on a tree. Curious about this whole scenario, I went up to the city worker and asked him what would happen to the wood that he was taking down? What happened to the trees taken down in city parks?
“Oh,” he said, “we take em and stack em up.”
“You don’t use them?” I asked. “You could make bleachers out of them.”
“Yeah I know. Nope, they’re afraid someone will get hurt cutting them up. They just sit in the yard.”
Then I asked pointing to the group of 25 or so milling about under the trees, “Who are those folks?” He told me that it was Urban Forestry Council.

Well I couldn’t help myself. I walked up to the group and introduced myself breathless with anticipation. Here would be a group who would clearly see that a valuable resource, an opportunity for recycling on a small but perfect scale, was being lost. There were many people capable, even anxious, to cut this lumber up for just a few sticks of the same wood as payment. I asked them why they weren’t using the trees that came out of their parks to build new wooden bleachers instead of the stunning aluminum ones.

Most of the group looked at me as if they thought I had starting drinking a little too early in the day. The others merely interpreted my speech as something said in a Martian tongue and turned away. The one man who did speak to me said that they were concerned about running into nails and things, liability issues in other words. In the end, the group just looked at this lunatic and shook their collective heads.

Now this is the Pacific Northwest, where trees grow at a prodigious rate and every year, dozens of trees come down in storms or are cut down in the parks. Oaks, maples, walnuts, firs, hemlocks. A seemingly unending supply of bleacher material right in our back yard and the City that Works goes out and buys aluminum bleachers.

I’m a woodworker of course and so seeing a resource wasted like this appalls me. It bothers me every time I see a tree cut down and taken to the dump. It’s a stupendous waste of years of growth and a waste of the potential hidden inside every tree. But lawsuits loom say the office holders. Well I think we should have the bureaucrats do a cost analysis of what shortsightedness costs. How much does it cost us when we throw away resources in our own back yard to avoid the risks of litigation? How much do we pay for not doing something right and something smart? Call me crazy but if a city really wanted to work, it would let fewer bureaucrats buy aluminum bleachers and put more workers to work right here building the things we need.

Published in: on March 17, 2008 at 8:28 am  Comments (1)  
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Trust. It’s not a concept. It’s more palpable than that. You can see it in action. You know it when you have it. It’s like nothing else when you can base decisions on it. You had it when you were young: Catch me! you would cry out to your trusty and fling yourself into their arms. Lose your trust and you sadly know this just as strongly, just as completely.

Trust in the woodshop is something else again. Oh sure, you trust yourself not to stumble and fall into your bench when you walk in. You trust that your tools will be right where you put them. Mmm hmm. You trust yourself that you won’t cut off your finger. [perhaps that’s why anyone who’s had an accident goes into such shock. It’s not just the physical shock of amputation or a deep cut. It’s the cut of betraying your own trust. Why, oh why, did I do that to myself? It’s the shock of losing trust. Your inner child or your inner woodworker is so stunned: I trusted you! Look what you did.]
No, trust in the shop is something you need to develop and practice. It does not come quickly. It comes with time and effort. It comes with making hundreds of wrong cuts, hundreds! This recalls Henry Petroski’s new dictum on design: Form doesn’t follow Function, it follows Failure. Hundreds of wrong cuts later you learn to trust your sawing. You learn to trust your chisel work.

Someone in class recently said to me I don’t like hand cutting dovetails and that’s just fine. It’s a reasonable assertion given the time and technique it takes up. But cutting dovetails is about much more than cutting these most perfect of joints [oops, bias creeping in]. It’s about more than lay-out and sharpening techniques and how to hold your chisel or your saw. Sawing dovetails is about learning to trust yourself. It’s about learning to trust that your lines are right where you want them. That your saw will cut where you need it to. And, failing that, that your chisel will pare just so. Just in the place required and no other place.

It’s about, and this is the key, learning to trust your eyes and your hands. And this trust you can take to the table saw or to the router jig or to any other job in the shop. Because you can trust yourself to be patient, to be careful, to be precise, and to do good work.

Published in: on March 14, 2008 at 7:38 am  Comments (2)  

Dodging the Bullet

We live in parlous times. Capitalism has ascended and taken its place as the new religion. We, as a society, taken as a group, as one giant mindless consuming pack, value nothing more permanent than the latest model, the quickest chip, the coolest beat, and the hippest phone. Our collective tongue hangs out in constant anticipation. Fashion has taken the place of quality. This is not a complaint. It’s sort of pointless to wail against the tide. When the water comes up, they ain’t nothing you can do about it.

So why bang on the obvious? I think to point out the simple fact that rather than complain or write ineffectual graffiti on the traffic signs like STOP the Monopoly, it is far better to go out and do something for yourself that makes a difference. If only for yourself, if only as one voice, if only as one mind trying to find some clarity amidst all this noise.

Many woodworkers come to this craft out of this sense of discontent. They come to this woodworking perhaps out of a reaction to the world they previously chose. It’s a response to the life they had once mapped out but now seems barren or perilous.

I commented to Brendan, my Resident Mastery student, this past week about how lucky we were to be woodworkers. How fortunate that our boss couldn’t one day decide to fire us and have us escorted from the building without being able to retrieve our files. No execution orders waiting in the wings for us. No, we have skills in our hands far too valuable to be out of favor.

I once was part of a Career Day at a grade school in North Portland. It was a blue collar school then. This was before the area became so hip. And I told the 1st graders about what I did and what my day was like and one kid came up to me at the Question/ Answer session and asked me, “What happens when you get laid off?” What a stunning question. That a 1st grader could ask me that, this history being his no doubt. But secondly I realized that well I can’t be laid off. I will always, as long as I am physically able, have my skills to use and builders will always have some value in this world. Even in this world, we will have value.

Watching someone’s career path can be like watching a stone roll downhill, banging into things, flying over smooth patches, slamming into rocks, ending up in the most unlikely of places. Trying to predict one is fruitless. And then you choose to do something that appeals to you, something that works your brain as hard as it does your hands, and you look up 34 years later and realize that you dodged a bullet. It’s not a good living, it’s a good life.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 9:47 am  Comments (5)  
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Education Works!

It was my 25th college reunion and I ran into one of my former professors, Jim Webb, Professor of Literature. I had taken a class from him years ago in Victorian Literature, studying Ruskin and Morris, Blake, Rossetti, the whole crowd of dreamers and believers in the value of nature, the work of the hand.

Webb was the iconoclast, the maverick professor. He presided over his class, smoking his cigarettes and wearing his shades. He held sessions in his own home, the walls covered in dark fabric, the windows drawn against the light. It was extremely hip. He was extremely hip. Smart, intense, cool.

I didn’t remember much about the class but a few things stuck. One was that time in a debate I cited a book we were reading as proof of my cause. I said it was in the book. Webb said to me, “you believe what you read in books?” The student I was arguing with scoffed. Ouch.

Another was the time he wanted our class to get lathes and put them on his porch so we could start turning wooden bowls and things, like Morris wanted folks to do. This would be a step away from the Industrial Revolution, a step toward mingling literature and the crafts, melding mind and body. At the time, I scoffed at the idea.

When I saw him at the reunion, he was selling beads and things on a carpet spread under one of the grand beech trees there on campus. He made or traded for these things on his New Mexico hideaway where he raised goats, and who knows, peyote, probably. Still weird, still hip, still the voice in the wilderness, the self-proclaimed outcast.

I went up to him and said, ” I took your Victorian Literature class years ago and when you said you wanted to put lathes on the porch so we could turn bowls I thought it was the most fucked up idea I had ever heard…
I’m a woodworker now. ”

He jumped up into the air and yelled, “Education works!”

Nice moment.

Who can say where our influences may come from?

Published in: on March 7, 2008 at 8:55 am  Comments (2)  

Note by Note

One of my Distance Mastery students, Dan up in Seattle, sent me a note recently about a documentary film he had seen. It is called Note by Note The Making of Steinway 1037.
It is currently showing at Portland’s Historic Hollywood Theater

This is the story of building a Steinway concert Grand Piano. I went to see the movie last week with some of my Mastery students. Fascinating stuff. I have only one complaint with the film. It is far too short.

It was of course a great effort to get as much into those 90 minutes as they did. So many steps, so many processes, so many people to include, and then to get it into the hands of musicians who could make the behemoth sing! An incredible journey touched by so many hands.

There was so much great information but also hints, glimpses, teases of so many of the processes. As a woodworker I was of course fascinated by the tools you saw or saw in the back ground. The great and powerful horizontal saw for truing up the rim, the little 36″ band saw [very much like our Yates] sitting in the machine room, the clamps. The Clamps! And jigs for clamping up the rim! Now we’re talking a bent lamination here! How many were there? Five or six men to pull it all together with block and tackle. A fascinating process to watch.

There were just so many questions that I had about the steps involved. Yes you could play the beast too and that was lovely but I wanted to know more about the woods involved. Was there only spruce in it or did I see poplar in that bend? And the front curves near the keyboard, was that a veneer or shaped in the solid? Did they use ivory for the keys still or what was used now? Why did the rim sit for six months after gluing? How many rims did they have curing in that room? How much stress did those strings take on? And how did they make the metal plate that fit inside? Did that cabinetmaker drill all those holes at an angle, three in a row down the entire soundboard without a jig, without a template, and perfectly? ? Or so it seemed.

One of the shop foreman was lamenting the fact that cabinet makers were a dying breed. That you couldn’t go out on the street and find these kinds of workers any longer. I lament the fact that only the rich or the lucky would get to touch such an instrument. That the kind of work these craftspeople put into each piano would only be touched by a few. Heard, yes heard by many, perhaps. But touched. Well only the few get to touch. And that’s a lament of this age. That too few of us get to touch what others have really made true with their hearts and hands.

Lamentations aside. Those of you in Portland have two nights left to see this film. Then it goes away. It’s a treat. Go see it.

Published in: on March 6, 2008 at 2:10 am  Comments (3)