Friday, April 18, 2014

Signing and finishing...

I use  fine line Uniball black pen to sign the undersides of my boxes. Where there is enough room for it, I also write the names of the woods used, and with some of my inlaid boxes, that means writing the names of 5 or 6 different woods. My hand cramps after a time, so I try not to do too many at once. The identification of species of wood is one of the things that the buyers of my boxes appreciate. It also tells that I value the diversity of woods from our local forests.

Writing with legibility is a form of craftsmanship that's endangered in this age. People used to take pride in the form of their letters and the way they would flow from left to right across the page. But writing legibly takes practice, and if a thing takes practice, it also requires effort, an will likely be abandoned by kids who are taught to DO nothing in schooling but sit still and attempt to absorb lessons.

Now that my boxes are sanded, signing comes next. This exercise provides one more opportunity to check on surface quality before the Danish oil is applied.

Yesterday, a friend, Buz Peine came to school to do a demonstration for my high school students, and several students took the opportunity to try their hands at the lathe. Buz turned a green piece of black walnut into a lovely form. This type of turning frightens me just a bit for kids because for much of the turning, there is no clear edge to work the tool against and the gouge is cutting in empty space for about half the time or more during rotation. If you get your hand in the wrong place, you can get whacked hard. So great care is required.

In the photo at bottom is the lens for a pin hole camera. It needs to be tiny. The directions called for using a tin can. I had some copper pieces the right size. The directions call for piercing the tin can with a needle. Try it and see how that works for you. Since I really don't have the strength to poke a needle through the side of a tin can, I sharpened a nail, put the copper on an anvil, and struck the nail at the center of the copper with a hammer.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Down for the count.

Sanding, music, dance, math and the power of attention...

 This morning, I am sanding boxes, and am in the third course, having gone from the stationary belt sander to 120 grit and 180 grit sand papers on the orbital sander. I now have two grits 240 and 320 to go.

I have heard sanding referred to as a mindless exercise, but done well, it is not. Each edge and every flat plane requires scrutiny and multiple examinations during the progression from coarse to fine. It is a tactile as well as visual progression as tool markings and small abrasions from coarse sanding are eliminated by subsequent grits. The surface quality may seem OK until the final finish is applied, as sanding dust can obscure defects that may be revealed later, so there are no short-cuts to be taken if a high level of finish is expected. When a person knows that other craftsmen may examine the work and make judgements of craftsmanship and quality of character based on what they see, and touch and if you are one of those encumbered by self-respect, you begin to realize that the quest for improvements in craftsmanship can be relentless.

Counting helps to keep the mind engaged and to direct the course of sanding just as the count is important in music and ballet. The count one, two, three,  four is useful for more than just the waltz. It can help in controlling  the length of time the edge of a box is engaged on the surface of a power sander. Or it can count the number of strokes with a hand plane or sanding block to approach perfect uniformity. Counting engages the attention and helps direct the motions of the hands. It keeps the mind and body at a state of awareness and complete engagement.

In any case, while someone watching from outside might think that sanding is a mindless task, please let me assure you that sanding is no more mindless than ballet. And yet there are idiots afoot in the world that would assume ballet is mindless because it is based on extensive practice and control of the body.

And how are we to have successful education in the US while policy makers are focused exclusively on standardized tests to measure our effectiveness? Instead, we should be focused on the things that really count in the lives of kids... things that make schooling real. The arts, dance, music, wood shop, laboratory science and other things that allow children to express what they've learned and make it relevant to their own lives.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


"When something is palpable, you can touch or handle it, even though the word is often used to describe things that usually can't be handled or touched, such as emotions or sensations. You probably won't see palpable used to describe, say, an egg or a doorknob or a motorcycle. Palpable is usually reserved for situations in which something invisible becomes so intense that it feels as though it has substance or weight."
The word palpable comes from Latin palpare "touch gently, stroke." On the other hand, children who get their hands on electronic devices too soon are losing the capacity to do other things. Parents have been in a mad rush to get digital devices into their children's hands as early as possible due to concerns that they will be left out of the digital age. They've been made to feel guilty if they've been unable to afford these devices for their kids. Those children too soon given the powers of digital manipulation may be left out of real human creative capacity. Even the ability to play with blocks is being lost to a new generation of children that have been given early access to iPads and other touch screen devices. Can that be a good thing?

This article in the New York Times offers insight into building the moral character of the child. Raising a Moral Child.

Yesterday I began sanding a mountain of small boxes. As you can see in the photo there is a lot of sanding to do after the boxes are first assembled. I use the band saw to even the ends of the boxes with the angle of the lids, and then sand the ends flush on the top, bottom front and back of each box. After rough sanding on the stationary belt sander, I routed the edges, and front edge of the underside of the lid and I am now moving through grits on my inverted half sheet orbital sander, paying careful attention to each surface.

For just a moment, I want you to reflect on your own learning with the recognition that you are not unusual or outside the norm. You may have noticed that those things that you have use for are easy to learn and long remembered but those things that are no longer useful to you are quickly discarded. Those things that you have no use for are often difficult to learn, as your interest has not arisen to the point at which they matter to you. A wandering mind gathers no moss. So it is. The brain cleanses itself of useless clutter.

The Common Core Curriculum being foisted upon children in schooling throughout the US will likely not have the effect that is hoped for. While offered with the best of intentions, the Common Core trivializes and de-contextualizes learning, turning the schools into bastions of artificiality. Emphasis on the Common Core may raise standardized test scores in the short term and at the expense of other learning, but it will be on the order of miraculous for it to have any long term positive effect. The pendulum swings. joyless classrooms will prevail for only a short time before parents and students (the best and brightest of them) launch into full rebellion. That's when wood shop will pop in again. When students do real things in school: art, music, athletics, laboratory science and wood shop, they embrace learning and their enthusiasm is palpable. It can be felt.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

growth of mind...

When I first conceived forming a wood shop at the Clear Spring School, it was because woodworking in schools had become wrongfully understood to be irrelevant to education. Wood shops had closed in high schools all across the US and with the exception of a few Waldorf Schools, and a small number of independent schools on the east coast, woodworking in middle schools and elementary schools were a thing of the past.

In my own shop, woodworking appeared as a nexus, interconnecting all things. You cannot DO real things without trespassing beyond the bound of the artificially contrived disciplines. Just as you cannot do Chemistry without math. You cannot do woodworking without some observation of the basic laws of physics, and if you begin to extract one thing from the other for the sake of convenience of instruction, the relevance of all things is sacrificed on the altar of expedience.

Froebel had in mind the education of the whole child, and to meet that goal, he suggested that education must consider the interconnectedness of all things. The following is from H. Courtwright Bowen's book Froebel:
" the young child, as to primitive humanity, all knowledge does, as a matter of fact, come as one whole, and that the subdivision into subjects and departments is a very gradually evolved plan, for the most part wholly artificial, and only adopted for the sake of convenience. Moreover, the very nature of knowledge itself teaches the necessity for connectedness."
This "connectedness" is the object of the reintegration of woodworking into education. Woodworking offers the opportunity to test what is learned in other more artificially contrived learning within the school, making real and of real interest learning that may have remained lifeless to the interests of the child. Our schools suffer from artificiality and disconnection from real life, as we suffer from the delusion that schooling will provide the necessary tools for our kids to prosper when graduated from their confinement.

Today, our Clear Spring School Students are at Heifer International, participating in their Global Village. I will be in my wood shop making a small mountain of boxes from a huge number of carefully machined parts.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, April 14, 2014

Make your soul grow...

Kurt Vonnegut's last writing assignment, written to a high school  in New York.

Make Your Soul Grow from Dogtooth Films on Vimeo.

What we need most now is the growth of the souls of educational policy makers so that they might see things as they truly are. Human beings are creative. We are expressive. Lacking interference by the humdrum, we follow leaps of learning into the making of useful beauty in the forms of music, art, and science. The only thing that can prevent those leaps appears to be the rigidity of our schooling.

There is a growing reaction to standardized testing and the core curriculum described in an article this week in Time Magazine. With all the pressures being put on children to all perform according to certain standards, when will children be exposed to great literature, the chance to write poetry, or to make a beautiful box?

For the coming months I'll be rooted in the subject of Kindergarten. I am starting on a new book, Making Kindergarten's Gifts, that I hope will stir young fathers and mothers and grandparents to take a greater interest in the progressive education of their own children.

When I went to Sweden and Otto Salomon's international school for teachers of Sloyd in 2006, one of the things that surprised me was the deep historic connection between Educational Sloyd and Kindergarten. The two movements were deeply entwined both in origins and philosophy. Both were firmly rooted in Froebel's thoughts. While the Russian system of manual training was concerned with giving students industrial and economic capacity (nothing wrong with that), Educational Sloyd was intended to grow the whole child, in physical strength, emotional balance, intellect and connectedness to greater purpose, and was intended as a continuation of Kindergarten methods throughout schooling.

The following is from Froebel's The Education of Man,
"Thus we find the human being, even in the earlier stages of boyhood fitted for the highest and most important business  of life--the fulfillment of his destiny and vocation, which is the representation (or outer active manifestation) of the divine nature within him. To lead this capability forward tot he acquirement of skill and certainly, to lift it into full consciousness, to give it insight and clearness, and to exalt it into a life of creative freedom by fitting stages of development and cultivation, is the business of the years which are not to follow. To demonstrating the ways and means for this, and of bringing them into the actual practice of life, a continuation of this treatise will be devoted, as will also the author's own life."
Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, my upper elementary school students will be working on their robot ramp walkers. This is a testing time in which we will learn whether or not they will work. They can be frustrating to tune just right and I'm hoping there are no great disappointments.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The advantage of late blooming

Announcing a new poll at right. Below are two boxes made with a mix and match veneering technique. I found that I have a choice of mixing up the lids in the finished box as shown in the second photo below. I ask my readers to  choose which one you like. Both will have feet, pulls and hinges added later.

Everything these days seems to driven toward global competitiveness. It's not enough to play a beautiful piece of music and to have the sincere applause of your neighborhood and small community for having done so. Everything is held up to externalized standards. Folks are raised to have an expectation of broad impact, with little depth required. If there are late bloomers and early bloomers and if Justin Beiber is an example of the latter, let us each bloom only when we've developed some wits about us.

Number one as originally intended
Number two mixing veneers and lids
When schooling our children we feel compelled to compare them with national standards rather than simply encouraging them to grow in character and intellect under the watchful eyes of caring and compassionate adults. This too, is the result of a mass media culture, in which obsessive comparisons between things become more important than the things themselves. This applies to people, too.

Television producers have proposed a reality TV program for my small town of Eureka Springs. If you think of reality television, you will likely imagine participants back-biting each other on camera and competing in order to receive some prize and being voted off the show. I'm not sure if that's what the producers have in mind for Eureka Springs. I hope not. We don't vote folks off the program in Eureka. They plan to do the program here because of this town's reputation as being a place misfits fit. I hope they are not disappointed in the normality of this place.

It is more lovely than most can imagine being a part of a small thing. And most people don't set roots long enough to know what it is like to be a part of something larger than themselves for a very long time. And so while most in our culture are hungry for the next big thing that will sweep our nation and commandeer our attention for a short span, there is a great deal to be said for the Cal Ripkin effect. You stay with one team, show up each and every day to encourage your team mates, and in the steady humdrum duration of all things, you will have discovered yourself part of the fabric of community.

My father had a favorite poem that I rediscovered in a book of 100 poems for teachers of Industrial Arts. If your life's goal is to give rise to the persons around you and awaken them to their own creative power, your work will find fulfillment and it is why many people decide to teach, though too many these days disparage teaching and may have never known what it is like to be part of a community.
 "Isn't it strange that princes and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
And common folk like you and me
Are builders for eternity?

To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass, and a book of rules.
And each must make 'ere life has flown,
A stumbling block or stepping stone."
--Author unknown
I want to invite you to attend the premier of the Living Treasure Film Series in Little Rock on May 28th. The video produced by the Department of Arkansas Heritage about my work will  have its first screening at this event.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Finally finishing an old box!
As I've been once again thinking of ways to return assessment to the hands of teachers, students and parents, and to extract assessment from the cold grasp of statisticians and from the lifeless realm of useless abstraction, the Beaufort scale again serves as a reminder of simplicity. Lets start with some basic assumptions.
  1. Learning is one of the most innate of human functions.
  2. Children have a natural curiosity about their world and how it works.
  3. Not all children have the same level of curiosity about each and every thing.
  4. All children are inclined to discover some way in which their own natural intellectual and physical capacities can be applied to the world at large, progressing outwardly from family and community.
With these basic assumptions in hand, let's visit the role of the teacher. If I compare the teacher to the sailing master on a wind borne vessel, the teacher is the master of the wind. He does not tell the wind which way to blow, but he knows the course the vessel must follow if it can, and he asks the crew to trim the sails in such a manner that that course can be met. Each member of the crew learns to anticipate which sailing order comes next and each member of the crew knows his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and understands the mission at hand because each has learned to feel a part of the vessel of learning. Students trust the ship, the sailing master and their fellows on the crew to carry them to their diverse homes.

The model in most schools is teacher as instructor, captain of the classroom, in charge of discipline, and in control of delivery of learning, as though the feelings and interests and the variability of curiosities and capacities of the crew do not matter. All must be taught the same things to meet the same standards. That which the curriculum demands be imparted will be without regard to the direction the wind is blowing, and without regard for the individual interests of each child. This idea of schooling is formulated in complete disregard for the four basic assumptions listed above.

If a child is empowered with a sense of confidence about his or her own learning, all a teacher needs to do is observe the child's position on the Beaufort scale of learning and to nudge in the right direction. The wise teacher observes that which is going on with the child and offers encouragement in the right time and  in the right direction. Then if the children are empowered to do real things. No one will need standardized testing to prove that they've learned to do real things.

The object here is to take advantage of real life that surrounds us.

There is a movement afoot to withhold children from schools on days in which standardized tests are to be administered. Standardized testing is a distraction from real learning. Policymakers are using standardized benchmark testing to take greater control over student learning. But the farther things go in that direction, the less responsive education becomes to the actual interests of the child...  interests that would be most easily restored and monitored by doing real things in nature, in the community, in science, in art, in music and in the wood shop.

In my own wood shop today I will be assembling and finishing boxes, including the one above that I started a number of years ago, and that served as a model in my book Complete Illustrated Guide to Box Making. I've been given the nudge to finish it from sample hinges sent to me by Ian Hawthorne, box maker extraordinaire from the UK. You can view his work at Hawthorne Crafts.

Make, fix and create...