Gremlins

April 28, 2008

I am an educated person. I read books. I understand geometry and have an understanding of how the planets revolve around the sun. I can design a drawer pull and cut a dovetail joint or two. I see the value of differing points of view. But on this one point, there is no argument. On this matter, there can be no quarrel. It is too real, too palpable, too visibly real in my shop every week. The subject is gremlins.

The evidence for gremlins in the shop is overwhelming of course. Too many times I have lost something that I just held in hand. Too many times has something gone from my bench or my apron or my desk and just gone missing. Then it turns up again in that same place, that same bench some minutes later or maybe it shows up across the shop or maybe it turns up days later under a pile of papers. But I, the fool, keep looking, keep walking around the shop, lost in search, wasting time, lost and maniacal as I thunder around looking for the glasses tipped up on my forehead. Who put these here? One minute the tool is right in front of my eyes as I work at the bench and the next it is lost in a sea of shapes and objects. Hidden in plain sight by the little beasts.

Do not doubt me. These gremlins steal things. They will sometimes be charitable and give them back fairly soon. But often they can be selfish and too playful altogether. No the question is not, do they exist? The question at hand is whether or not they can be placated? Whether you can mollify them. Or if they’re such capricious little imps that nothing you do will ever stop them.

Gremlins can of course just be seen. You’ve caught them yourselves I know. They are barely visible out of the corner of your eye. I’m sure I’ve stared full on at one but have never really seen it. But in the shop they are often visible from the corner of your bifocals as your eye shifts from one focal depth to another and you can see these little shapes scamper out of sight. Do not snicker, Sir or Madam. It is true. I have seen them scamper, that fast, out of my view. Oh yes, they exist. I am not crazy. Crazy would be ignoring their presence. Crazy would be saying that I’m just forgetful or messy. Not true. Gremlins steal my things.

I struggle with them of course. I have learned not to curse them. Not to implore or beg: please give me back my calipers, please let me find that missing wedge, please oh please let me see my sliver of wood again against the brown wood floor or the wood of my bench or the wood of the project. Why is there so much wood everywhere? No I do not struggle. I do not whine. I have learned to keep my peace. To maintain some shred of dignity while I walk around the shop muttering to myself for hours seemingly on end in search of some lost thing that I must find now.

So it will be clear, it is not obsession on my part. It is not love of the hunt to be sure. It is neither a contest of wills between the gremlins and me. I merely want to go about my business. And so I have a strategy to assuage their mischievious ways. Chocolate. It seems to work. Sometimes.

Put out a piece of chocolate for them. A peace offering as it were. And let them see it and they will relax their grip on your tool or screw or wedge and you will find it again. Then you eat the chocolate, triumphant! I do not believe this upsets the gremlins much. I of course have no evidence of this.

I do however have continuing evidence that the gremlins live in my shop as things continue to leave and then return. Now where did my glasses go?

Published in: on April 28, 2008 at 8:12 am  Comments (2)  
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Shameless Commerce

April 23, 2008

It’s what we do of course. Try to make a living out of this stuff. So, to work:

I want to alert you to some of classes both for Spring and Summer that we have coming up on Finishing.

Now I understand how furniture makers feel about the subject. Open the can, oh right, read the can, close the can up first, read the instructions, re-open the can, put on the finish, complain about how that’s not what you wanted, and then try to fix it, and then give up. All the while making up new excuses for that color or shine when you show the piece to people. I know how this works for furniture makers. You love finishes; you hate finishing.

First, there is my lecture on 3 Simple Finishes come this May 27th. In it I hope to demystify some of the confusion about oils and varnishes and shellacs that the finish manufacturers love to manufacture. Just so you’ll open a can and it can start to gel over. There will be lots of useful and practical information on hand applied finishes. It is a 3 hour session, and it is only about hand applied finishes. I’ll lecture in Portland May 27th and then in Seattle at the Woodcraft Supply Store on May 31st.

I also highly recommend Roland Johnson’s Restoration Class this September 8th and then his Finishes Class September 15. Rollie is a spray guy, a lacquer and varnish guy, a restorer with 25 years of experience tearing things apart and then rebuilding and refinishing them so that they act and look as good as new. This class wowed me last year when we just did the Restoration class because there was so much to be learned. Not just learning about how to knock things apart which is fun of course, but also how old things got built. Figuring out how the makers 50 or 100 years ago put something together. One thing I learned is that finishers aren’t afraid to start over which is what restoration is all about.

Restoration will be the first week: taking an old piece of yours, examining it, figuring out how it went together, what needs fixing, tearing it apart, stripping it, and then putting it back together. Learning about strippers, hide glues, joinery, patching mistakes, fixing broken pieces, veneers, hardware, fabric and leather treatments. It’s great stuff.

The second week will be about finishes, and I can tell you that one week barely scratches the surface of finishes, pun intended. First there is surface prep including sanding, planing, and scraping. A week alone could be spent on colors, glazing, stains, tints, and dyes. The differences between mordants and chemical dyes. How to darken wood, how to lighten it, how to show things, how to hide things. Oh, I forgot filling, grain filling, filling with color added, leveling and detailing. Surface treatments will include oils, varnishes, special mixtures of oils and varnishes including Rollie’s hot mix varnish, lacquers: both brushing and spray lacquers. It’s a huge amount of stuff but it only gets us to the application of a finish.

The killer, what everyone forgets about, [perhaps it’s not forgetting but a willingness to overlook] is that once a finish is put down, then the real work starts, rubbing it out. Giving it the look you’re after from a matte and restrained oil finish to the high gloss of a piano finish and everything in between.

A ton of stuff to cover in these two classes and it’s finishing which is regrettably not like furniture making. It really bears little resemblance to furniture making. Their only point of commonality is that they both use wood. So these classes I recommend highly. Come and learn about the stuff that people will see and touch first, the finish.

Published in: on April 23, 2008 at 9:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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Getting Back on the Pony

April 21, 2008

When you have your accident in the shop, it will be an important day for you. Notice I say when and not if. Accidents happen of course. This is a given in the shop. Your accident will occur. It may be with a hand tool, maybe a power tool. But one day you will do something unintended. It will be an important day for a variety of reasons. Of course how badly you may or may not get hurt will be the first issue. But I think that learning from this moment is another equally important issue.

Now stupidity follows certain people around the shop like a faithful dog. They do such stupid things in the shop you wonder how they manage to get to work without harming themselves. They’re constantly cutting themselves or dropping things or forgetting to tighten the blade in the saw. I had an apprentice once who could not keep a sanding disc on a dual action sander to save his life. I was constantly ducking these 5″ discs as they came flying by.

There are other folks who are plenty aware and cautious and just have an off day. I had a friend once come over to use my table saw one time. He was a good carpenter. He used to build houses from the ground up, from the foundation to the trim work and cabinets. The whole job. Well he was using my saw one day trimming the edges of some plywood and wing wang the piece went flying and hit the floor behind the saw and bounced up into the sheetrock in the wall about 12′ away. Where I kept it as a momento, a reminder, a holy cow moment.

You see, if you’re lucky enough to miss getting hit by your mistake, the very next thing you need to do, after your heart rate comes down, is to figure out what just happened. It’s the most important thing to do next. Because you’re right there. You have all the evidence. You need to understand what happened [because it’s usually you that causes the incident]. You need to understand what happened so that you can prevent it the next time. That’s the key. Learning from your mistakes.

The common reaction is to breathe a sigh of relief and leave the shop. But you’ve just lived through a really bad 3 seconds of your life as you pause before looking to see if you’re bleeding. You figure if you just dodged a bullet that it’s time for a beer or a lottery ticket. You figure that if the saw just tried to bite you that it’s better to walk away scared and live to fight another day. But you’re quite wrong. It is the perfect time to walk back through everything that happened to figure out what occurred, why it occurred, and how to prevent it from happening again.

Things happen quickly in the shop. One minute you’re running something through the saw, the next it’s a missile and it’s stuck in the back wall of the shop. Quivering. Figure out why. Figure out how to be smarter next time. If something bad happens in the shop, and you’re not headed for the emergency room, don’t leave for the day. Don’t close the door and walk away. Get right back on that pony and figure out what just happened. So it will be the last time it happens.

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 9:37 am  Comments (1)  

Do You See It?

April 18, 2008

I used to work in a large old furniture factory that had been converted into a dozen smaller woodworking shops. We occupied the second floor of this behemoth building and it was a great old space if a bit difficult to find. Across the hall from me was a friend of mine, Michael, and he built custom made furniture like I did. Over the years we would always help each other glue up, or talk about designs, shoot the breeze, lift many heavy objects together.

The interesting thing about our relationship was how we relied upon each other. For myself, I needed Michael to bounce ideas off. He would come in and I would say what do you think about such and such a leg shape versus another leg shape. And he would tell me what he liked and I would always pick the opposite shape. I needed this conversation as much as he did, I’m sure. Just someone to push against, to test out ideas.

One of the curious things about us though was when something had gone wrong in a piece. This plague, unlike the seventeen year locusts, was more frequent. More reliably frequent, mistakes being a part of the woodworking game. So something would go awry in a new project, something that to my eye looked terrible and I needed confirmation of this fact. It could be a dent somewhere, or a screw tip poked through a door, the misplacement of a hinge, or any number of things in a list so long I hate to think of it. The mistake would occur and then I had to decide was it obvious? Was it just me or did I need to launch into the costly fix? First I needed another set of eyes to confirm what I saw.

I would call Michael over and ask, “Do you see it?”

And he’d say, “What?”

“You don’t see it?” I would ask incredulously.

“What?” he would respond.

“I can’t show you. Don’t you see it?”

“No, what?”

“It’s right there.”

“What?” Michael growing more impatient with his cuckoo neighbor.

“Well I… I can’t…I’ll show it to you, but are you sure you don’t see anything there? It’s so obvious”, growing more impatient with my cuckoo neighbor.

“No not unless you show me where.”

“It’s right there.”

“Oh that, oh yeah I saw that. So what?”

Next came my grimace, the gnashing of teeth, the inevitable question in my mind: is the man blind? Does he not see this neon sign of a mistake pulsing out HERE LOOK HERE! But no, he wasn’t blind and it was always true. He never saw the mistake like I did. Never.

Nor would I see his mistakes like he did. It was never as big a deal for the observer, the neighbor, the client even, as it was for the maker. The maker whose ten thumbed approach, whose blindness and incompetence, whose woeful lapse of concentration again, had caused this flagrant violation of all design and construction principles. That maker, that idiot. No one saw it like him. No one was as hard on his work.

It is a sad constant for us woodworkers that I, for one, work on minimizing. Our focus is so small, our constraints on our obsession so meager that we think everyone can see all the mistakes that we make. I laugh when I think about the old saying of not offending god by making a perfect piece, by including one mistake so as to not offend. God must be plenty satisfied and not offended by now with how many mistakes land on my work. But few others even notice.

Bear that in mind. Step away sir. Put down the hammer and step away from the project. Try to see it with someone else’s eyes. It’s not so bad. You do pretty good work.

Published in: on April 18, 2008 at 7:27 am  Comments (1)  

Small Victories

April 16, 2008

There is something about completion. Something about finishing a job and bringing it to a close. It feels good. There is satisfaction. I like this feeling. I’d like to feel it more. The problem is that I have chosen one of the more labor intensive crafts in which to work. Taking hours, days, weeks, months to finish a project is a bit hard on my need for gratification.

Now I am not in need of constant indulgence. I have no requirements for besting my latest Game boy score of the day. I don’t need to win at the races every day. But I would like to feel like I’m moving forward, like I’m pushing ahead, making progress.

This is why I am instituting a new plan for myself. I encourage you to do the same. I call it Small Victories. I call it this because I need this encouragement. I need to feel at the end of a day, when I am incredibly busy and nothing seems to get done, I need to feel that something is getting accomplished.
So I look into the future and say to myself, what would make me feel good about today? Not what do I want to get done today?

Because if I were to answer that question I would say, Well today, I’d like to finish building that cabinet from 17 years ago, I want to paint that door sign, fix the plumbing in the other bathroom, design more railing for the mezzanine space, get that flashing installed outside, practice carving, finish the dovetails on that drawer, organize my drawings, clean out the storage room, fix the planer, and get a work-out in. It can’t be done in one day.

But what I can do is pick one project and work on it like a madman for an hour, letting nothing interrupt me. Nothing will deter me. I will work, you can talk at me, I will not stop. I will work on this and all I hope for is one hour. If I get that hour in, I will be happy.

And you know what? I think I can usually do that. It’s a small victory. But it gets me down the road. And that’s where I want to be moving. Not doing the usual dance in my shop where I walk in, [place those cartoon dashes after my footsteps], go to my bench to start on the drawer but see the mess, start to clean it, walk to the plane cabinet to put something away, oh that’s not finished yet, flatten the back of that plane for a bit, dang water stones are dried out, get water for that, boy I should find those hinges, did I put them in here above the sharpening stuff, oh look I found that template guide I had been looking for, I should see if the other one is in the Hitachi router, when did these screws get knocked over, better fix that, clean as you go, that’s my motto, oh the beam still needs scraping, go sharpen that scraper, why is this bench so cluttered with drawer stuff, put that aside. STOP.

So all I’m hoping for today is an hour of focused work. Two or three would be nice. But progress will be made however small. I will take this small victory with me at the end of the day. And every time I waver I must bring myself back on task like those meditation kittens that keep leaving your lap when you’re trying to learn how to meditate but never can. Put it back on my lap for one hour and get some work done. Good. Now I can keep going but I hope, at least to get in one small victory today.

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 8:15 am  Comments (1)  
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Guilt

April 14, 2008

I am a teacher. I know some things about woodworking and I teach it to any and all interested students. It is what feels right for me. It feels good too. I take satisfaction from this job. It also has allowed me after 25 years of building furniture to keep my bench, keep my machines, keep the jigs and patterns, tools and wood, keep these things close at hand, ready at hand. I can continue to work, I can continue to build, when there’s time. It is a great joy. I feel lucky to have chosen a profession 34 years ago that is now esoteric enough to be slightly in demand.

It is an odd profession when considered in the light of today’s world. It is a profession in distinct opposition to the world’s view that the next new thing is the next best thing. It entails skills that have no demonstrable use to most people in the world today. You cannot text with woodworking tools, you cannot make a phone call with our machines, you cannot play games with our information. There is little money to be made in mastering the art of it.

But once upon a time, woodworking was not just valued; it was essential. Primal perhaps. But certainly essential for life on the farm where 90% of us lived. Then the world industrialized, we sped up our lives, we learned to grow super crops and no one put a stopper in population growth. So here we are.

And yet I find this woodworking stuff to be more than an historic trip. I find that it is something different from being an Abe Lincoln impersonator, however valuable you may find one to be. It is also more than helping to man the workbench at a historic re-enactment. It somehow taps into something more valuable in myself than can be fully explained. It is an unconscious result, it is certainly unplanned. But something happens at the bench that informs my life on many different levels. Partially it’s that I get to make things. Part of it is the pace. Some of it comes from having to know so many different things. And learning to think my way out of problems. It is also the result of being responsible for what happens at the bench. For not being able to blame anyone but myself for the results.

This responsibility is a golden burden. It gives my efforts meaning at the same time as it puts a load on my patience, my endurance, and my skills. This responsibility impacts my life in a very real way and yet it feels very much like a gift. A gift to be able to spend time at the bench. A gift to be able to build things.

Also a gift to be able to ruin a workpiece with an errant glue-up, or to be able to sand for 4 days straight. A gift to be spending 10 minutes of every hour in a day sharpening so that I can continue to pull off ribbons of wood in feathery shavings. A gift to drop a clamp because I went brain dead and tightened the upper clamp and let the lower drop ever so quickly down onto my cabinet. These are gifts. I must remind myself that these are gifts. But some days they are burdens as well.

It was for this reason that I started to write this piece. That as much as I extol the virtues of working at the bench, it does come with a price. And this price is what I feel guilty about. I feel guilty for what I must do to my students. I can’t tell them right off that it’s real hard work or that some days are pure drudgery. I can’t say right off that this stuff won’t come easy. Some days it will feel like pulling teeth to learn these skills. That on some days just getting through the work is the toughest part. It will be hard. It takes so long to build furniture. I feel bad about this.

I can’t tell them that they won’t make a bonehead mistake just after making a real bonehead mistake. This takes a toll on one’s self-image I have to tell you. It’s hard being that stupid some times. It’s hard. But I can’t tell them that right off. I have to let them learn for themselves. I have to let them discover this burden for themselves.

And so I apologize to you, my students. Woodworking is hard stuff. It is hard to learn to do well, it takes time to learn, it doesn’t come without sacrifice and for this I apologize for ever making it seem easy. It is not. I know it is not. It is a life’s work but it’s good work.

The story goes that when the master was asked how long it took to make that carving or draw the sketch, the answer was 20 minutes and 20 years. And so it does take that long. It takes time. But one day you will look up from your bench and say to yourself, hmm, I do know some stuff. It just took awhile to get here. Try to enjoy yourself along the way. It’s a gift.

Published in: on April 14, 2008 at 12:47 pm  Comments (3)  
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A Lot of Hats to Wear

April 11, 2008
I was talking one day with Phil Lowe, the world’s finest furniture maker, about how many hats you had to wear in the shop. As a furniture maker there were so many different jobs you had to face for each project. It amazed us both how many jobs you had to pull off to be a furniture maker.

There was your design hat of course, deciding from whom you were stealing this day [the subject of many a discussion later]. You spent hours figuring how to make a piece look, its style, which details to include, which to let loose. Form, shape, proportion, symmetry, surprise, wood choices, inlay, hardware. A multitude of decisions just at the outset and all of them crucial to the success of your piece. Learning to think with a pencil here and notebook. A tight fitting hat but first on.

But tear it off soon enough to put on your baseball cap and head over to the lumber yard to sweet talk the yard man: “Got anything hid away? Seen any walnut with good figure?” Looking through piles of wood, hoping for a strike of gold, those figured and flitch sawn boards all from the same tree. Got your lumber finally after looking through a thousand board feet of wood? Well buster, put on your gloves and your lifting hat because that wood ain’t getting up or down or out to your shop all by itself. Lift with your legs, hoist to your shoulder, balance it like you could hold it up there all day, but a few minutes is enough. Carry all that wood to your shop. Find a place for it, let it settle in a bit, and start thinking again.

Because it’s back to the drawing board for more work. The working drawings, the working drawings! The cut list is the thing! Where does this piece fit and how does it fit into that? How big to make that mortise if that other mortise fits like so? And how to fit the shelf around the posts or do I make the drawers bigger as they descend or will it be Hambidge again rearing his dynamic head? So many things to consider and these are the bones, this is the skeleton of the piece, drawing out each joint full scale, looking, considering, weighing, deciding. Sometimes rushing over to the band saw to make up a full scale piece and setting it on the floor to look at it, hmm at it. This is an important engineering hat.

I’ll make the templates now, grab the templating hat. I need to see my shapes drawn onto the wood. Head over to the sheet good pile and grab something flat and start to draw, fair those curves, mark the start of the straight line, cut on the band saw, smooth with the spokeshave. Mark them, write their importance on them for posterity, drill a hole and hang them for later.

But once satisfied you have another hat to wear. Get out your wood sawyer hat and your crayon or piece of chalk. This was a crucial job. Where to cut, where to cut first, which board for which section? Do the legs come out of this section or this? Reading the wood to figure out where to slice to yield the best figure and grain. Lay these boards out here, or lay those over there. Stand those up for later, up tall and out of the way.

I rough mill all my stock and then let it sit. So I grab the noisy milling hat and my ear muffs and start up the jointer and the band saw and start making some noise. Ripping off slightly larger sections than what I’ll finally need, watching for boards that twist or boards that cup or boards that simply go boing. Hoping for no surprises but ready, always ready for the sign of the impatient kiln. Rough it all out, sticker it, got to sticker it and let it sit while I work on the drawer parts and the web frames. Fret over the drawings some more.

Then after a week or two of work, the day to begin is finally here. Or that’s how it feels. I can finally begin. Put on your ready hat and get going. Start milling up lumber like the micrometer was born in your back pocket. Get that stuff straight, square, and parallel, and cut to within a hair’s hair of right on the money. Stack my parts, shut off the noisy machines, and grab that precise hat, that joinery hat. Because now I’m focused on smaller parts, smaller numbers, smaller details. Precise measurements, mortises where they ought to be, parts numbered, parts renumbered, parts forgotten, parts remembered. Left is odd, right is even, I keep counting even when the numbers get impossibly large.

Then I’m fitting and trying and fitting and trying, shaping and planing. Stop to sharpen, god I hate to sharpen, god I love the results. The sharpening hat should be fast on and off. Back to work, sand a little with the sanding block. Read the grain right and this tear-out won’t happen. Sanding, my life spent sanding. The sanding hat is heavy. Feeling the curves, transforming the wildness of the tree into straight boards so you can turn them again into curves, luscious curves.

All ready then for the day of gluing. No problems here, no stress here. Practice once, practice twice, practice again and get all the clamps out this time. I am ready for the glue-up and then everything changes. Everything goes awry that went well before and the ticking of the glue clock is loud and ominous. Louder as the time grows longer, but you sweat and strain, break some tentative glue bonds, [god I hope that holds] press on. Time is tight when you’re gluing. This gluing hat fits too tightly. It has always fit too tightly. It’s good to take it off. Clean up the excess glue.

Next there’s hardware that’s like inlay. Inlay that’s like peanut brittle. Pulls to put on. Perfectly! The precise hat is out, checked thrice in the mirror. DO NOT SCREW THIS UP! The pulls to put on. Is there finishing still to do? Get out the painter’s cap, the mask, the gloves, the surgeon general’s report on how I’m killing brain cells here so I can feel the wood which actually is the resins which lay down like glass after it’s been broken and run over by a semi. So rubbing, I have to rub, I love to rub, I wear the rubbing hat and wear off my arms rubbing down the finish which rubs out a year of my life, rubbing to look like its passable as finish and I’m ready to stop.

But wait. You’re a furniture mover too. Get out the furniture moving hat. The one you wear when you look in the mirror and back up without banging into things or dropping the piece off the gate or hitting the doorway as you turn through a 270 degree door, who put this here? Who didn’t measure this? No problem, no problem at all. Just another hat. Pull off that hat and wipe your brow. Been a long couple of days or weeks or months. Lot of hats to wear in that time.

But that’s the thing. We have to know a hundred skills and wear many hats and you don’t get paid near enough for it and the time it takes is enormous, but the pay-off is that we get to do all these jobs. We get to wear all these hats. And that’s the fun of it.

Published in: on April 11, 2008 at 9:48 am  Comments (1)  

Learning from our Mistakes

I was teaching a class once for the Triangle Woodworkers Association in North Carolina. This was early in my traveling/ teaching career and I had made a simple mistake. I was living as I do now in Oregon, on the West Coast, and I had not started to practice for East Coast time. On the day of my flight, I got up at my normal time and traveled. I flew out from the West and got out to North Carolina later that evening. No problems yet.

The next day I started my workshop at a reasonable 8AM start time. But it was 5AM my time and I was a wreck at first. Eventually the caffeine kicked in, the guys in the front row kept me awake with comments, and all seemed well. I did okay I thought. I felt reasonably lucid and coherent and everyone there seemed to think the same or else the people in North Carolina are always extremely nice. The assembled were all very polite throughout the morning and lunch hour as I lectured and demonstrated.

I felt coherent until the afternoon. It was around 3pm when my brain started to fade. I was routing some grooves in a mitered box so I could insert some keys. I had made a cut and turned the box, and made a cut and turned the box, and made a cut and turned the box the wrong way and before everyone assembled I made the wrong cut. Everyone saw it, everyone sat in silence as the guest of honor made the cut in the wrong direction on the box. I called a time-out right then and took a break.

The people there were so sympathetic to me. They came up and said, “Boy I saw you were gonna do that, but I didn’t know why.” or “You know I’ve done the same thing in my shop.” Or “Man, when you screwed up, I thought I was looking at me.” All sorts of lovely and kind comments, no doubt meant to make me feel good.

But what ended up happening was that everyone felt relieved. Instead of seeing something go together perfectly each time or hearing how it took the craftsman 20 years to learn how to do that right, here was somebody, who just like you and your buddy and everyone else, knew how to screw up. The chagrined look on my face was the tip-off that this was no set-up. It was real. It was a mistake. We had a laugh about it and then moved on. What else can you do?

The thing I learned that day, besides getting to the East Coast one day earlier to acclimate, was that the mistake meant more to these folks than anything. It made everyone there feel less alone, less like they were the only ones who screwed up. Everyone makes these bonehead moves it turns out. The real difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional is so used to making mistakes that he recovers more quickly. It happens, walk outside, shake your fist at the sky, forgive yourself, get over it, move on and get back to work.

Now I haven’t made that same mistake ever again. I learned from it and that’s the point. We learn from our mistakes, and then get back to work.

Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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Failure Required

We’ve been lying to you. The books, the magazines, the bloggers, the woodworking shows, the TV woodworkers, the tool companies, especially the tool companies. We’ve all been lying to you. Sorry. Put it under the heading of marketing and you’ll forgive us right? We had to. No other way to keep selling you this stuff.

Look at it from our side. We’re working in a craft that’s been around in some form or another for a good 3000 years, give or take a couple of years. What can you keep selling people for gosh sake? Hammers? Once you have a hammer, how many more do you need? There’s a tool that’s been around for all those 3000 years of woodworking. It’s hard to improve on a hammer. [Although I did see a new framing hammer recently, hmm.]

What we’ve been selling you is “Mastery”. Master the dovetail, master any glue-up situation, master your table saw, master your sharpening. As if all it takes is reading one article or buying one video or attending one class or seminar and you’ll be proficient. As if one tool will make all the difference to your work and not the accumulation of knowledge, not the growth of your patience or the keenness of your eye. I hate to say it, but we’ve been lying to you about this mastery thing.

Because what is required is failure. Failure, as Thomas Edison I believe said, is the opportunity to try something again and get it right. He should know. It took him hundreds of tries before he got the right gas in a glass bulb to make a light bulb. The inventor of Formula 409 had 408 tries to get it wrong before getting it right. But failure is a hard sell. Failure is tough to get people to buy into. It’s as if by failing that they have let themselves down somehow. They have failed in more than just building a box or chair. But failure is required if you’re going to get good at something or get something right.

Failure is required because it’s the best teacher. Henry Petroski in his wonderful book: The Evolution of Useful Things talks about the the dictum “Form follows Function”. He makes a convincing argument that form doesn’t follow function at all. It follows failure. It comes through the littered battlefield of botched attempts, wrong moves, inspired failures that always precede hitting on something close to what you’re looking for. Until then it’s all missed attempts. Well-intentioned but short of the mark.

Now, I am not suggesting that you go to search out failure. Fear not, it will find you soon enough. I mean only to point out that getting it right is not something that comes easily or quickly. You will fail many times but it is through a swing and a miss that you learn how to see more clearly, plan more carefully, and to anticipate, to continue the analogy: the pitch.

Understand that we must continue to sell you this idea of Mastery. It sounds a good deal better than the Failure Program, but failure is a necessary part of it. A required course as it were and not to be missed if you want to be truly good at something.

Published in: on April 7, 2008 at 8:59 am  Comments (2)  

The Studio’s Demise

I’d like to thank everyone for logging on today and checking in. This will be the start of the last of my blogs I fear. I knew this day would come. That the pressures that have come to bear on me would prove too great. The demands of the Studio, my teaching, the regrettably small amount of work that comes off my bench, my writing. It’s all too much for one person. It has become too much for me.

I also have finally found the calling that suits my temperament and bearing. So yes, I will regrettably be shutting off this word stream in a few months and closing the Studio this Fall and embarking on my pursuit started so many years ago.

It is with no small measure of sadness that I will bid adieu to all the wonderful friends and students that I have met over the years. It is a constant reminder to me that this was a blessed journey. One that took me from my solitary bench and a hermit’s life to one of camaraderie, sharing, education, and friendship.

These are happy days then. Not sad ones. I will be letting the Shop Monitor take over for me until such time as I might actually return. But return I will someday. I can only hope I return someday. I cannot say when that day might be. Oh yes, I will return, perhaps a little wearied by my work, perhaps thinner for the exertion required, yes wiser for the continued effort. But happier, far happier. For what man can say that he has found his life’s true calling if he ignore it? If he says, it is not for him, it is for someone else to live that life. It’s not my life, it’s his or hers. They be the lucky ones. Not you.

Who can say this and feel complete? Not I. I have finally learned this. And so I will move on. Even at this time in my life. No longer young, but fit for what comes next. No longer spry, but ready to take on the challenges that lie ahead. I will go to complete my journey in life.

It’s a double role really. Quite like a major and a minor in college. So thank you to you all. I hope your best wishes travel with me.

I soon will begin my quest as a Beagle Hunter and Gatherer. This fall I hope to travel the world in pursuit of these elusive creatures in their native habitat. This will mean much time spent under blankets or comforters, or in the arms of couches recumbent. I will spend time in sleeping bags and with pillows properly propped. But I will search them out. Fear not. Where e’er they live, I will search for them. Hunting the elusive Beagle and Gathering all I can.

Armed with pepperoni sticks and wet food in hand, I will search for them. I will not rest until the Beagles are once again united as the proud herd we once knew that roamed over these lands. Hunting will be arduous. Searching out their track, trying to uncover their lairs, their snores the only hint of their presence. But like a mighty gaggle of geese when they arise from the waters of the lakes, a thunderous snrrking will be the beckoning sign of the snoring beagle band.

It is stirring! It is triumphant! I go to search them out and then to Gather. Gathering will be difficult as well. Herding cats is easier than herding the proud Beagle. In fact keeping the mighty Beagle in line is one of the unknown labors of Hercules. Never mentioned in myth or fable because he failed so abjectly.

But I will not give up. I will try to herd the mighty Beagle and bring them back. Back to their rightful place at the top of the valley, at the peaks of the summits, at the tops of the couches. The Westminster Kennel Club victory was only the first recognizable sign of their comeback. The Beagle is back! And I hope, as a humble servant of one, to aid and abet in this return in every way that I can. It is a noble calling. I hope you will wish me well. I go now to warm the Beagle blankets in the hope of Hunting and Gathering my first.

Wish me good fortune. Few come back from the Beagle Hunt unscathed.

Yours truly, Jimmy’s April foolin’ helper

Published in: on April 1, 2008 at 8:31 am  Comments (3)