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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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Gary, I know it’s hard work and that it takes time and experience, I just need to work on that patience thing. I wanna do it right and I wanna do it right now (wink).

  2. Thank. I have wondered at times why I keep making things out of wood. With my meager tool set and inadequate teacher (myself); I often question the point because my rent has yet to be paid by the things I’ve made. You distilled and expanded so eloquently on the thoughts I’ve had during my few idle moments; that I had to comment and say Thank You. I feel more content as an anachronism now.

  3. Dear Gary:
    When I knew you back in college I thought you would become a writer, actor, or teacher. Certainly not a woodworker. But wait …I see you have fulfilled my belief in you as a good communicator by being able to write about what you do in such a deeply heartfelt way. And you are sharing yourself by teaching your passion and no doubt a little of the showman comes out in your classes. Hmmm. So how are ya?

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