Wednesday, March 04, 2015

tool boxes and sense of self

I am off from school today due to a pending winter storm.  I had planned to begin a class on box making for home schooled students. But that will be delayed for one more week.

Yesterday in wood shop classes, my first and second grade students continued making their tool boxes. It is amazing to me how much impact these tool boxes can have. Usually my students want to decorate the wood objects they have made and take them home as soon as they are allowed. Decoration is part of the process of claiming ownership. Taking the object home is step number two in asserting their possession of what they have made.

These tool boxes seem to signal a higher level of maturity in response to their work. They have been in no rush to finish them and are in no rush to take them home, as they want tools to go inside. Last week we added tool holders for screwdrivers and other tools to be organized in the box. Yesterday we added holders for pencils, and we began making small tools to enable work at home. We made squares that they can use to mark wood for a square cut. Next week they want to make magnetic nail holders like those we use in the shop. We will also make a sanding block to be kept inside.

A tool box and the tools that go in it are important symbols. They identify the child as one who is trusted with powerful objects, and as one who has an important role in both family and community.

I remain deeply puzzled that there are some who do not understand the necessity that all students:

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

odd joints and glue...

 I've cut the parts and routed the hidden spline slots for assembly of my small wood chapels that will hold a "choir" consisting of samples of American hardwoods. Two chapels will be free standing and one is designed for wall mounting. After the parts are sanded, they will be glued together, a back will be fitted, and the galleries will be installed to hold the members of the "choir."

An article in Fine Woodworking this month illustrates making the "perfect mitered box." We all know that perfection is in the eye of the beholder, or more accurately, in the relationship between the observer and the object, and takes into consideration a wide range of values and experiences. I asked the author about his assembly of the perfect mitered box without using anything but glue. He had used a technique of pre-gluing the mitered ends and refrained from using any further method of strengthening the joint.

I was not the only one to question the glue only technique, and he was having to answer a number of questions from readers on his assertion that glue could be enough.

My thought was that if he could provide evidence of the effectiveness of a glued-only mitered joint, I could use it in this project that I hope will last a century or more when complete. Still, I could not resist doing what I know would work best. To spend a few hours making fixtures to hold the parts for routing, and then to spend a bit of extra time during the gluing operation makes perfect sense in light of the assurance it will not fall apart due to the expansion and contraction of wood.

Today in woodshop, my first and second grade students will be finishing their tool boxes. My upper elementary school students will be working on a variety of projects of their own interest.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, March 02, 2015

choiring of trees...

An author friend passed away a few short years back, and my favorite of his books is The Choiring of the Trees. In that book a character was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair in the Arkansas State Prison. But while waiting on death row, Nail Chism, could hear the trees of his home forest singing in choir. The choiring was what sustained him and guided him home following his escape.

These small chapel-like boxes are to contain small choirs of our local hardwoods, similar to an earlier series of boxes I called "reliquaries" of wood. The idea is that our forest diversity is a thing that should be held sacred. An arrangement of small samples of 25 Arkansas species will form the "choir. "

The photo above shows the interesting angles required for form the shape. In the photo below are also the routing jigs that will be used to guide the stock as hidden loose tenon joints are formed. At this point, the joints are merely taped together to check their fit. At the top, the roof sections are cut at 30 degrees to form a 60 degree angle. Where the roof intersects the sides, parts are cut 15 degrees off 90 to form a 150 degree joint.

Don Harington grew up in Arkansas and built his set of novels around remembrances to visits with his grandparents in a small town between Eureka Springs and Fayetteville. Harington was left profoundly deaf by meningococcal meningitis from age 12, but remembered the patterns of speech from that earlier time which then laid a foundation for dialog in his books, which, including Choiring of the Trees have been described as an undiscovered continent.

In conversation and by email, Don remind me of the number of tools and their uses that he included in his books. So in this project, I hope to pay tribute to the forests, and to a favorite author at the same time. For those who have not read Harington, I suggest Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks as the best starting point.

Harington was a professor of art history, and you will note that the title of this first book is a word play on the shape of the arc. Architecture, Arkansas and the Ozarks are etymologically connected. The Choiring of the Trees also offers a playful word twist. Choiring can refer to both the singing and the shape of trees gathered in  a ring. The idea expressed here is that when you open the box, portions of the ringed arrangement of species will be discovered inside. The chapel shape will put the viewer on alert as to the sacredness of the contents of the box.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, March 01, 2015

an odd position...

I find myself in an odd position that I suspect will sort itself out in time.  We began using the 3-D printer in school because I wanted students to begin to understand the process of designing work. We started with drawing boards, made our own t-squares, did some very basic orthographic projections, and then went through an introduction to Sketchup™ in the hopes my students would follow through and use their at-home computers to take an interest in design. The making of legos™ came next in the process.

Then in order to get some additional mileage out of the machine, I introduced the idea of making a prosthetic hand and the joining of e-Nable. So we've done that. I have become a slave of the machine, in that when it needs something to complete a hand, I poke at the controls, try to figure out why it messed up, adjust things and start over.

It is a bit like baking. You have to step back out of the way while the oven does its work, but keep an eye on things so you don't lose the product. I've found that the 3-D printer is a lot like other tools. There is a learning curve in its use. For instance, the plastic is spewed in layers onto the build plate. The build plate can be covered with blue masking tape so that things can be removed. If the build surface is too slick, or the table is out of level, the parts, and supports will come loose, making the printer make messes instead of the desired plastic objects. If the build surface is not slick enough, then the plastic objects require a chisel and mallet to remove them from it. People don't automatically tell you these things, so there are still things to discover about the process. That's a good thing.

Finally, I think I have things worked out. I am using premium green masking tape on the build plate, but to make it just a little less slick, I'm wiping down the surface with alcohol between builds, and I'm trying to build fewer parts at a time, so that if something messes up, it won't be a whole hand.

I am at that point in my own life that I am beginning to come to terms with my own mortality. I have a shop full of tools that were necessary for me to earn a living. I have a barn full of woods that were gathered because they were of interest to me. I have an inventory of works that ought to be sold. And we do get to a point that we would prefer our relationships to be with people rather than with things. Things can become burdensome, whereas friends can lighten any load.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, February 28, 2015

wrest and wry...

Readers will have noticed that I have a fascination with words, and the use of those words allows me to appear intellectual despite the number of hours I've spent isolated in the wood shop. It is surprising how many interesting words come from our use of our hands. Even though it appears that the academicians have the upper hand, the hands themselves are inescapable in that our language cannot remove itself completely from the physicality of our beings. The hands are the most instrumental part of human anatomy and thus take a sustaining role in all that human beings do and in how we think. George Lakoff has made a study of metaphor as a means of understanding our human perceptions, and it is absolutely true that without the hands supplying the metaphors, much of our literature would be diddly squat. That's why it's important to actually understand what a dovetail is, how it is used to join wood at cross grain and how it is formed in order to use the term dovetailed to its greatest effect.

Two other good hand words are wrest and wry and etymology online is my pal in the exploration of language and its interrelation with what we do.

I am not attempting to imply that to be a good writer, one must have done every possible thing in the book of human action, but simply that to have done real things brings greater depth to what is written and what is understood. In the case of fiction, to have done real things, rather than using second hand metaphors or third hand metaphorical frameworks, provides the tools necessary to bring your reader to a willing suspension of disbelief. In the case of non-fiction which is either based on having done real things, or upon thoroughly researching someone else having done real things, what one learns in the process of engaging deeply in real life, provides a necessary framework for both interpreting and sharing reality with readers.

The point I am trying to make here is that as long as we insist that schooling be the most important thing in children's lives, school should involve doing real things. The doing of real things is what provides the necessary framework for depth of understanding. So, if schooling is to be built upon a foundation of reading and writing, efficacy demands that the footings for the foundation be dug deep by doing real things.

I have a friend Bill, who retired from a career teaching philosophy at a major state institution. Bill was always the odd man out in the department due to the fact that he had supported himself throughout his education with jobs in construction and agriculture. Doing real things is the mine to which we must all return to dig narrative gold. It is the source of all metaphors, and to use them effectively, it is best that we wrest them from the soil through our own strength, that they be fresh and useful to us.

It is extremely odd that so much human effort would be directed toward releasing the hands from their labors, while the labors of the hands offer the greatest liberation, even for those who eschew labor.

Tim sent the following link to Comment Magazine, the work of our hands. Also, in that issue, you will find an interview with Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft and about his new book, the World Beyond Your head, Becoming an individual in the age of distraction. You will remember Crawford as the philosopher/motorcycle mechanic, who effectively connected the two.

Becoming an individual requires doing something upon which you can draw upon. Without being grounded in the work of the hands, things become wry, and much goes awry, as you can witness for yourself in this modern life.

It is snowing today in Arkansas. There is no better way to spend the day than in a warm wood shop, and there is no warmer image than the one above.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, February 27, 2015

symmetry and form

Our students at Clear Spring are studying ancient history, and are now working through the Greek and Roman empires. In art classes, the students were cutting the shapes of amphora from brown paper, and the masks representing comedy and tragedy, and placing them on a background page. These were excellent projects illustrating their study of civilizations, integrating them with art, and using folded paper to create symmetrical forms, much like those we discover in an examination of all life.

We put nearly all studies into the realm of reading, and as important as reading is, the arts, are also. In the arts, the eyes are led to examine, and the hands led to create.

Barbara has finished her first round in the translation of I Sløjdsagen Et Inlæg. The last section  of Christian Jacobsen's book has to do with beauty, the attractiveness of form, how it is perceived and how it is made. This section comes as a bit of a surprise to me, as who in schools today would take an interest in such things outside of art classes?

And yet, in the training of the eye, to perceive, beauty is discovered and that process is important for all scholars.

I am reminded of the place where I was living when my wife and I first met, and married. I lived in a small log cabin with a waterfall outside my bedroom window. The hollow (valley) was deep with high ridges on each side, and the trees towered overhead. The patterns of the branches were arranged so that each tree gave space to the other and by looking up, I could sense the natural harmony between each one and its neighbors. In this case, as always, it could be said that beauty was in the eye of the beholder, but it could also be said that the the beauty was also a real thing available in that interrelationship of form for the eye to behold.

In the arts (and in wood shop) the student becomes an investigator of form and a participant in the interrelationship between form, beauty, and functionality. And in becoming so, the student adopts a more thorough role in life itself.

I on the other hand, have become a slave of the machine. The 3-D printer at school does not want to just print a simple hand. As it goes through the steps, one piece or another will become loose from the print platform, turning the whole of it into a snarl of spewed fiber. At first you will want to watch it at work, because it is fascinating. Then you will become bored with it, and when you are not watching, it will mess up and there will be nothing that you can do about it, except stop and start over.

We have, however, printed parts for a third hand, and I am training my students for the next steps.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

printing plastic stuff in our kitchens?

The idea in the 3-D printing community has been that we'll buy printers and then have them available to print out the things we need and want from plastic. Some in the industry are beginning to think that idea is "over-hyped." Today I'll resume 3-D printing of parts for prosthetic hands and my students will finish assembling the parts we've printed so far. The potential for screw-ups in the printing of parts is enormous. It seems small parts lift from the printing plate and after the thing has run for an hour or several hours what you may end up with is not what you might have had in mind. So other than personalized legos that take over an hour to make 6, tiny kitchen spatulas with a personalized emblem or family crest, or things we have downloaded from, what will we make?

The important question about any technology is not what to make, however, for the value of the object is not in the object itself, but in the transformation of self that comes when one is engaged in creative work. The question becomes, how did this process shift my understanding and my character? Did it bring me into closer union (or communion) with my companions in life?

Barbara has finished the last of her first round of translation of I Sløjdsagen Et Inlæg. Now she will read the whole of it through, applying to the first what she had learned in the latter part of the book. And is it not the same with everything? We take the materials we are provided, whether it be wood, or plastic, or concepts, or metaphors, and bring them into refinement. Still, in this, it is important to go deep.

The name of this blog, Wisdom of the Hands, came from a radio interview with Stanley Kunich, former US Poet Laureate,  in which he referred to "the wisdom of the body." The further we get from that wisdom, whether we are creating in the wood shop, or writing in the attic, the more disembodied our work may become. The term, in the parlance of the hand, is "out of touch."

This morning, as I lay in bed, too soon to get up,  I was thinking of the metaphor that has become so commonplace, that things dovetail together. The term is used to describe a perfect fit, and yet we may know that dovetails are not always a perfect fit. Nor do they go together just-like-that. They take practice and care (at least the hand cut ones do), and for those with experience in real dovetails to say that these things dovetail (if one is to be honest in the reading and writing of such things) would be an acknowledgement of the work involved. Things don't dovetail, unless they've been carefully crafted to do so.

It is odd that human beings want all things to be easy, even though we know that all things are not as easy as they look, and that it is the hard work we put into learning things and using tools and materials in the best fashion that leads us on the journey in which we arise to higher levels of wisdom and responsibility. In the article linked above, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass suggests that once folks have bought cheap 3-D printers for their kitchens, our fascination with watching cheap plastic stuff arise before our very eyes will soon diminish and the stuff we've made will enter the waste stream, only to be followed later by the printers themselves. But it is telling in contrast, that my woodworking students have collections of their own work. Their parents, too, keep collections of these objects their children have made, as evidence of their growth.

While we look for ease, we may remember that the greatest growth comes from doing difficult and challenging things.And I think that's why my students treasure the things they've made. They worked hard to make them, learned something and managed to arise in the process.

Make, fix and create...