I Remember when I First Started or Standards of Craftsmanship

When I first started woodworking, I was so completely in the dark about it. How to build things, how to design the stuff you were supposed to build, which tools to use. Which tools to even buy!

I used to go to the Sears store in town to stare at the wall of tools trying to decipher their meaning. What does a scribe do? It has nothing to do with scrivening, of this I was fairly certain. And what is a backsaw? Sawing which back? Or a butt chisel? How dare you sir. Odd terms. Particularly for a student of Russian literature as I was. I understood angst, I understood concepts of sin and redemption and nothingness and being.

All these tools were so much Greek. And the fact that the actual world which was filled with tools and things and reality, well this was sort of a difficult thing to comprehend. I really thought that most stuff just came out of a factory. I mean when you think of it from a completely uninformed position like my own why not have the telephone pole and the wires and the connectors and oh yeah the electrical current or currency whatever it was, all come from the same factory. It would be a telephonic factory. And they would deliver and voila, you would have a telephone and telephone line connected to your telephone pole and at the other end very much like a can and a string would be whoever you wanted to talk with.

Getting a glimmer of this world that actually was made up of stuff that was made up somewhere else was a revelation. It meant a great deal to me on many levels. Because on a purely spiritual existential plane it was all bunk anyway but if you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurt. If a tree falls on you in the forest, somebody, if only yourself, hears it fall. And again it hurts. [regrettably I speak from personal experience in this tree falling matter. Another story.]

Understanding that the world was made up of stuff that you could be a part of making was the kind of thing that makes you smile very slowly at first and then you realize that you have just, for example, discovered how to make hot chocolate or Scotch. What a trip!

I was self-taught in all this or more accurately self-led. Therefore I think I was a bit self-delusional. I was woefully lacking in knowledge with no mentor to guide me or even steer me wrong. I was rudderless and adrift on my own sea. Go… that way.

As a result I had to develop my own standards of craftsmanship. They were crude.

My one rule, my only rule at the time for everything that I built, my rule of craftsmanship as it were, was that anything that I built I had to be able to stand on. If I could get up on it, then it was good. Resist collapsing underneath me o work of mine and you were considered good. A goodly effort. Jump up and down on it. Ah, that’s good work. [So much for my understanding of wood compression along the end grain.]

My standards have changed some throughout my 34 years of working wood. I don’t climb up on top of pieces so much any longer. Perhaps it’s the old knees or maybe it’s that I have a new yardstick for measuring success. But my standards are decidedly different.

There are times in the shop when my years help me see things clearly, effortlessly. And I wonder why I didn’t see things that way from the beginning. I remember being stumped by techniques that appear so simple now. It of course takes that many years to start to see things this way. It’s no accident. It’s not a mistake. It is just that it takes years of countless mistakes, years of hitting your thumb with a hammer to finally teach yourself.

I know that my students can often find, what are now to me simple concepts, quite difficult. I remember those days when they were difficult too. I remember not being able to figure things out. I can only say that it will change. Practice hard, give it time. It will change. And what a world, with hot chocolate and Scotch in it now.

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Published in: on March 1, 2008 at 2:32 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. So…if a woodworker were to stroll into a bar in Chicago, and order a Scotch and hot chocolate…would the bartender reply, “Pal, in this place, just order a Rogowski, will ya?”

    Seriously: another great column. It’s a comfort to know that, even for the second-in-command at NWS, some things took time. Maybe there is hope, after all.

  2. This must have been one of the good pieces –


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