Taking a Class

June 30, 2008

We have just finished up two weeks of Joinery Concentration classes. We being 12 students and me, my two assistants, Virginia, and the beagle Jimmy. The only casualty I think was my ham sandwich the last day of class. Jimmy got that. My fault, it was my fault of course. I didn’t take him for that lunch time walk and then left the temptation too close to him. Still and all, Jim leaving me just the cucumber and one half chewed piece of bread seemed a bit cold.

Class at the Studio is an amazing slice of life. You come there, master of your own world, fluent in its nuance, trained by years of practice, and then you decide to try something completely different and take a class. Or maybe not you’re not quite new but you’re untrained. It doesn’t matter how much time you have spent in your own shop. It is odd being in someone else’s shop surrounded by new people, trying at the same time to deepen your knowledge of this woodworking stuff.

It’s hard to do. This I understand. You work side by side with folks you have never met. Working on projects or techniques, trying to remember that class like this is not a sprint but a marathon. And that keeping up with anyone else is always a losing battle. You have to remain true to your own beacon, true to your own pace. Trying to remember the important issues for you and what you really want to leave with. Of course, Mom or your sweetie at home will want to see the lovely trivet or Philadelphia Highboy you made in one week of class. But it’s the information, the practice, the techniques, and the shared experience that really make it worthwhile.

I took a class once in pewter work. At that point in time, the extent of my metal working knowledge consisted of knowing how to put a hacksaw blade on a saw. ‘Bout it. I had never worked bronze or copper and knew even less about pewter. Well we got into class about 14 of us and the teacher had us talk about our experiences and this one guy pulls out this pewter tea set he had done and everyone’s jaw just dropped and here he was in class with us and then too soon it was my turn to talk.

You know those naked on the stage dreams you get sometimes. Where you forget your lines, or forget your pants, or forget where to stand or something awful like that and you feel tiny and small? Well this would have felt good compared to how I felt when it was my turn to talk about my experience as a pewter smith. All I could say was, “ I like playing with the big kids. I have no experience at all with pewter.” That was it. I like learning new stuff. And I had fun melting giant holes in that incredibly soft tin. I also liked watching someone else teach because it’s always so instructive to see someone else leading and how they do it.

I told my students the story about one of my Mastery students who ran a flooring business. He was running at the time a big crew of about 20 guys or so. And invariably he would get someone who came in and talked a good game but didn’t know squat. Then this guy would work for a year or so and pretty soon he knew everything. Or he would talk like he knew everything. And then, if he stuck around, if he stayed with it for another five or ten years, he would finally come to the realization that he didn’t really know that much. That there was still a bunch to be learned. Always something to be learned. That’s the fun part.

Anyways, we had a good week doing joinery. We covered a lot of ground and left a lot more that needed covering. But that’s how it is. It’s a long long race. All I can say is thanks to my students, it was fun again.

Published in: on June 30, 2008 at 5:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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June 21, 2008

It is one of the marvelous days. The day the earth pivots. I imagine it as a some kind of teetering top or a ballerina on one toe, just angling back. On a rock so big, you can’t see it become round. And with a precision so breathtaking we can measure years on it. We tip back away from the sun. A marvel. The days grow short.

It is also the time for teachers to rejoice. School’s out for summer. Teachers seen to run wild in the street. Time to drink from the waters of rejuvenation. They need it. They certainly deserve it.

But for us, it is not the break, it’s just the breaks. We hit our summer class schedule running hard. For us it is a summer of education. Visiting teachers, students from around the world and from right down the street. For us, it is also the time to rejoice. Twelve hour days, learning gone wild with eager students. What a treat to have grateful students!

What do we give them? Education, lots of bench time, a time of respite from their world, a time of hard work that they wear proud like a new set of clothes. You see some folks sweating like they never do in their day job and that’s good work they’re doing. It’s hard some days planing a board flat, but it’s real. The results are immediate, both good and bad. You know right away whether you’re succeeding or failing at the bench. That’s called feedback.

This week we were hard at work learning joinery for building carcases. Next week we put frames together with the most basic of joints, the mortise and tenon. Good fun, lots of hand work and routers routing. We’ll build through wedged mallets and a saber leg foot stool. If there’s time, we’ll be onto the shave horse for some work with a draw knife as we make legs for a milking stool. Much to be learned while having some fun this summer. At the end of a day, it’s a good kind of tired to feel. Come join us at the Studio even just to sneak a peek at what we’re doing.

As we enter this period of hard work for the Studio, I have to beg any faithful readers’ indulgence. I’ll be hard at the teaching end of things for several months so the blogging will diminish some. Please check back as I’ll keep things going on a bi-weekly basis and resume a full schedule of musings come the autumn. Do good work.

Published in: on June 21, 2008 at 9:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Everybody is a Star

June 11, 2008

Everybody is a star. Sly Stone said it best, years ago of course. I used to be convinced of quite the opposite. Certain people had artistic talent, certain people could draw, certain people could design and I could not. I came from the land of potato farmers and vodka. Oh sure, a talent or two rose up from the plains but mostly it was hard work and sacrifice for my ancestors. I surely could not have gotten any of the leavings of the few Polish geniuses.

Why was everyone else capable of building such cool stuff and I could only build pine bookcases with dado joints? Others made great dovetail joints in fabulous pieces and then inlaid pictures into their projects of the sinking of the Spanish Armada and I could make a bookend nailed together. Why did everyone else have all this talent and I was laden with none? It was such a burden really to carry around so little.

But something occurred to me years ago as I was teaching myself how to build furniture. I realized that I wasn’t teaching myself how to design work at the same time. I was learning how to use a band saw and a jointer but completely missing out on how to make stuff that was peculiarly my own. Now I know that there are plenty of folk out there who think that design began and ended with someone named Chippendale. [Doesn’t he dance in a club somewhere out in the suburbs?] But I felt that I needed to start learning about designing my own work. Work done in my style, whatever that turned out to be. Designers I figured learn a vocabulary just like everyone else. Why couldn’t I?

Now some folks of course are gifted. They’re genius right from the start. I used to have a girlfriend like this. We would go to this one restaurant where they had those paper tablecloths and a glass full of crayons. I would spend 20 minutes, frowning and making faces as I carefully put stroke after careful stroke down on the paper. After about 15 minutes into one of these drawings, when I realized that realism was not my schtick, I would turn the portrait into something more arty and edgy, you know, an impression of her face as she sat across from me. She would then grab a crayon and in five minutes draw my face onto the paper that looked like a photograph of me, look at it and throw it away. She had talent, but never wanted to use it. More’s the pity. Here I was desperately trying hard to draw well and feeling like I was paddling uphill with my crayon.

But I kept after it. I read Betty Edward’s wonderful book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and recognized the ability that I had, the ability that everyone has, to produce art. It’s in us. It’s well buried of course. We have a school system dedicated to turning us into mindless clones of one another and forgetting that art is the best thing to teach anyone interested into going into business. It opens up a part of the brain that goes dormant and for many, stays that way. But when you learn how to access it, you too can design and draw and can be artistic.

We try now at the Studio to teach some of these skills. Designing is a teachable and learnable skill like any other. It is not just the privilege of the wealthy or the unfocused. It is within us all. The key of course is learning how to look at things carefully, how to see things carefully. And then borrowing from the best sources, from a variety of sources, to design something that you can call your own.

But you, you are trying to design your way out of a paper bag, need to know that you can do it

Published in: on June 12, 2008 at 11:55 am  Comments (3)  
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Please Step Away From the Project

June 2, 2008

I was in Seattle recently giving some seminars on simple finishes and hand tools. There were wonderful students in attendance, and a good time was had by me if not by all. Our Sunday session was a cornucopia of ideas and topics. We talked about laying out and cutting dovetails. I cut dovetails while talking about dovetails, which is not easy. We talked honing jointer knives, which tools to buy, which to avoid, proper hand plane technique, chopping mortises, precision, attitude, a whole slew of ideas.

Included in this discussion was the idea of perspective. I have mentioned this before in writing but it bears repeating. For we woodworkers, if you have not noticed, are an obsessive bunch. Tuned in to a frequency few other people can hear. Looking for things few other people care to notice. We get so involved, so wrapped up in a project that it’s not only difficult to stand back, but dang near impossible to see the forest for the wood in a project.

Why is this, you casual observer of the woodworking animal might ask. You who sit in front of your own hobby or book or obsession. Why obsess over building something? A most apt question. Why indeed? Few people know or care about the difference between a half blind or through dovetail. Or why one would look sloppy and another pristine.

We are too close of course. After several weeks or months of work on a piece, it becomes a part of our landscape. Our eyes can see nothing else. So it is very difficult to look past our mistakes. It is very difficult to look past our failures or perceived failures and see how lovely a thing we have wrought. We,instead, focus our attentions on what we missed. What we failed at. What we could have done so much better.

I took a walk before class one morning on the beach at Alki. Elliott Bay was spread out before me. It was a grey day but not raining. I did not have the Jim Guy, my beagle, with me so I walked alone with no stops for leaving messages. As I walked, I became fascinated by how quickly the ferry moved across the Bay. I wondered how it would stop in time to dock.

But distance plays tricks and after walking another 5 minutes, I could barely see the ferry pulling into its berth. I had to squint to see it move ever so slowly against the backdrop of some dock or shoreline. But slowly it did move. Other ferries sat and moved about the Bay. They were of momentary interest to me, like looking out at the birds, the mud flats, the scuba divers, the people on skates with dogs running by their sides with their paws in little leather booties to protect their pads.

There is of course always much to see on a walk. Bad architecture aplenty, cheek by jowl, lined by the bayside. I walked out along the Bay and then turned back. As I walked round the slow bend of the road, there was this monstrosity from the 70’s, the Space Needle, plunked down on the horizon. However did I miss seeing that I thought. Oh well, it was probably round a hill or something. But no, as I walked, I realized that the Space Needle was always visible to me, but I never saw it. I never saw it. And it’s big! What I saw were ferries and mud flats and herons and all sorts of other things but never once did I spy the needle.

An astonishment! Here was exactly the kind of myopia walking along with me, side by side, that I have told my students about. Looking so hard at something that you don’t see what else is around it.

Years and years ago, a local craft school here in Portland held a get together for woodworkers. Many of us emerged from the gloom of our 1970’s shops to blink and peer out at each other. Our bearded countenances looked back and we managed to speak and say: “you too?”

There was also a showing of work and one of the exhibitors was a guy from Montana name of Steve Voorheis. I had spent some time talking with him as he knew my brother up in Montana. I was raving to him about his fabulous piece in the show, a wonderfully shaped and sculpted mahogany armoire. In a conspiratorial tone, Steve told me to come with him and we went down to the gallery. He took me up to the 6′ tall piece and he said, “Look at those dovetails. I cut them all on the wrong side of the line. There are patches for each joint.”

I was astonished. Here he was admitting his mistakes, here he was showing me his skillful fix of these mistakes, and here I was a supposed critically eyed woodworker and I never saw them. I was so busy drinking in the rest of the piece that I didn’t see and now didn’t care that he had screwed up. I was more impressed by his ability to recover and to fix and to move on.

Few people have the skill you woodworkers have, to build things with your hands and with your machines. Few people have the patience, the knowledge, the determination, and the obsession to build the furniture of quality, the furniture of precision, to build furniture filled with mistakes that you do. When you goof up, when you make a mistake, just step away from the project Sir or Madam. Step away and no one will get hurt. It’s never that bad that it cannot be fixed. And few will notice what you see as a mistake.

Published in: on June 3, 2008 at 8:50 am  Comments (4)  
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