Friday, September 19, 2014

being replaced by a machine...

This morning I am doing work in which my own efforts could be replaced by that of a machine. I am making small parts from walnut and linden that will become boxes after they are all properly fitted and prepared. But as the choice is mine, I have chosen to continue making my small boxes just as I have for over 30 years. I could spend weeks making a dedicated machine of some sort, shaving minutes from the time and effort that it takes to make a box, and if I were a machinist whose sole pleasure came from making machines to do what skilled hands on their own might do and thence claim satisfaction from, I would be plotting my own liberation from effort. But I am a craftsman, after all, not a machinist.

Last night I participated in a woodworking chat with the North Carolina Woodworkers. It was easy and awkward. I found it difficult to imagine what it would be like on the other end of things, waiting patiently for me to arrange my thoughts and present them over the keyboard.

I had done a cheat sheet of posed questions and answers that was to help me keep up the pace, but I learned that the cut and paste function, moving from a word document to the chat forum did not work. So that left me on my own to punch in responses from the keyboard. Much of the interest involved my woodworking program at Clear Spring School and how we might extend our interest in wood working to subsequent generations.

Here is a bit of my prepared response:

Q. What do you see in the future as potentially having an impact on the craft?
A. I am concerned that the digital age has some negative impact in the short term. Kids are engaged in investing their energies in digital devices at such an early age, doing things that have been made easy for them by the intelligence invested in chips and software. As human beings, we have always discovered our senses of self by doing difficult and challenging things. We are hardwired for discovery, and expenditure of effort. We feel better when we have worked ourselves full out towards some noble goal. We feel pride when we can demonstrate craftsmanship and at some point, perhaps we will make a distinction between demonstrations of artificial prowess in which we demonstrate the power of our machines, and that prowess that comes through concerted effort and practice. One thing you will notice about the world of digital devices and software development is that every new development is to make things easier and more powerful, so that everyone (with the device) can do whatever it is with as little effort, as little skill and as little practice as possible.

If people don’t rediscover their hands (and feet), human culture will be made worse by it. On the other hand, if we find a balance with our digital devices and override the inclination to allow our senses and creativity to be stolen from us, the hands will always offer the potential of doing incredible, mind boggling things. You can’t simply erase the 10 million years of human development in which the hands played such a major part, in one digital age.
Make, fix and create...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

the dovetailedness of things...

Today in the wood shop at Clear Spring School my students from 5th grade and up began working on sketchup. My object is to get them designing. The program itself is fun and engaging. But when they have to work a bit harder at their play, I'll know that they are learning. Meanwhile in the science lab across the hall, we had a visit from the chicken lady, Alice McKee. Hands-on learning with real chickens is so  much more fun than learing from books.

The development of everyday virtues and the dovetailedness of all things. It is nice to see woodworking talk infused in an understanding of educational philosophy. From the Kindergarten by Kate Douglas Wiggins, 1893
The student of political economy sees clearly enough the need of greater thrift and frugality in the nation; but where and when do we propose to develop these virtues? Precious little time is given to them in most schools, for their cultivation does not yet seem to be insisted upon as an integral part of the scheme. Here and there an inspired human being seizes on the thought that the child should really be taught how to live at some time between the ages of six and sixteen, or he may not learn so easily afterwards. Accordingly, the pupils under the guidance of that particular person catch a glimpse of eternal verities between the printed lines of their geographies and grammars. The kindergarten makes the growth of every-day virtues so simple, so gradual, even so easy, that you are almost beguiled into thinking them commonplace. They seem to come in, just by-the-way, as it were, so that at the end of the day you have seen thought and word and deed so sweetly mingled that you marvel at the "universal dovetailedness of things," as Dickens puts it.
In American education, policy makers have seemingly forgotten that school is not just about standardized test scores, but also about learning to manage life and do real things. Our classrooms are lacking in reality, and the children are thus led to believe that schooling is of no greater meaning. Dickens' quote about dovetailedness comes from the following:
"The unities, sir,' he said, "are a completeness—a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much." Charles Dickens (1812-1870), British novelist. Mr. Curdle in Nicholas Nickleby, ch. 24, pp. 311-312 (1839).
Today in my wood shop, I am making boxes. At school, I am making racks for lathe tools in my quest to organize the new shop space. I have been loading Sketchup Make 2014 to the school's laptops, and plan to have the students in middle and high school at work with sketchup for the first time this afternoon.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Using a coping saw to make wooden feathers
This morning my first through 4th grade students will attempt to carve wooden feathers. Almost the whole school from 1st through 9th grades are engaged in the study of Ornithology, as part of our 4 year rotation, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, symbolizing the 4 Greek elements. We are in the air year of rotation. We know of course that all things are interconnected, and that the divisions between such things are tenuous at best. But the important thing is to know that not only can things be taken apart into basic components, they can reassembled into a discovery of the fabric of real life.

We are concerned with the whole child.

Kate Douglas Wiggen, 1893, expressed the idea of Kindergarten and its relationship to the manual arts as follows:
To Froebel, life, action, and knowledge were the three notes of one harmonious chord; but he did not advocate manual training merely that children might be kept busy, nor even that technical skill might be acquired. The piece of finished kindergarten work is only a symbol of something more valuable which the child has acquired in doing it. It is always the creative instinct that is to be reached and vivified; everything else is secondary. By reproduction from memory of a dictated form, by taking from or adding to it, by changing its center, corners, or sides—by a dozen ingenious preliminary steps—the child's inventive faculty is developed; and he soon reaches a point in drawing, building, modelling, or what not, where his greatest delight is to put his individual ideas into visible shape. Instead of twenty hackneyed and slavish copies of one pattern, we have twenty free, individual productions, each the expression of the child's inmost personal thought. This invests labor with a beauty and power, and confers upon it a dignity to be gained in no other way. It makes every task, however lowly, a joy, because all the higher faculties are brought into action. Much so-called "busy work," where pupils of the "A class" are allowed to stick a thousand pegs in a thousand holes while the "B class" is reciting arithmetic, is quite fruitless, because it has so little thought behind it.
Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two things in Little Rock

Last night my wife and I attended the banquet in Little Rock at which the Governor's Awards for Quality were presented to Arkansas corporations. One of the Governor's Award winners is a name that woodworkers will recognize as being the maker of the best electric motors in the US. Baldor.

Baldor motors have a reputation for quality and reliability, so it is no surprise that they could earn this prestigious award. Many of their best motors are made in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Quality Awards, presented by the Arkansas Institute for Performance Excellence has grown into a pretty big deal since I was first involved in designing the award base 20 years ago. I was pleased to see photos and short videos showing corporate CEOs in their offices with their quality awards proudly displayed, and last night 3 companies received the top award. I felt awkward in such a large crowd, but it was nice to look up at the stage and see three award bases I had made lined up in a row to be presented by Arkansas Governor Beebe.

We also went to the Clinton Museum Store, and I was reminded of when then Governor Bill Clinton bought some of my inlaid boxes to carry as gifts of state on a trade mission to Asia. It seemed to me that selling those boxes through the museum store would be an obvious hit. One of the best business decisions I made as a craftsman was that of working with woods from my home state, and emphasizing their beauty and value. Ironically, the small inlaid boxes and my making the Arkansas Governor's Award for Quality are connected.

Twenty years ago, I got a call from Barbara Harvel, then director of the Arkansas Quality Awards program just starting in Arkansas. She told me that my name had been given her as a possible designer of the Award base. She wanted to see a sample of my work, I told her that I had made small boxes for Governor Clinton that were for sale in Little Rock. She looked down on her desk, and said, "Oh, like this?" She turned over the Doug Stowe box on her desk that had been given to her by her husband Paul and discovered my signature underneath. That coincidence clinched the deal.

I know this blog post has all been rather chatty. My point is simple. We tend to take things apart in our minds, noting the differences between two things. The truth is far less complex.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, September 15, 2014

book giveaway...

You can enter to win a copy of my new book on the Fine Woodworking website.

in the midst of an uncontrolled experiment...

Today my wife and I go to Little Rock for the Arkansas Quality Awards banquet, in which the Governor's Quality Awards will be presented. This is the 20th year of Arkansas Quality Awards. I was designer of the award base, and each year make one or two as required.

In celebration of the 20th year, my wife and I were invited to attend.

This article from Columbia University sheds light on the development of the brain in relation to  our uncontrolled experiment in digital technologies. The first two years of a child's life are spent growing neurons and connecting dendrites, and from there the pruning of dendrites begins to make the brain more efficient later in life. You may have noticed that some things are easier for young people to learn than for older folks. For instance the introduction of languages is easier for very young children to grasp.

I spent nearly two years trying to learn Swedish, when a toddler would have grasped as much of the the language I was able to absorb in a few days. Sir James Crichton-Browne was called the last of the great Victorians. His views on the relationship between hand, brain and body are described in Gustaf Larsson's book Sloyd, 1902 as follows:
The eminent English scholar and scientist, Sir James Chrichton Browne, tells us that certain portions of the brain are developed between the ages of four and fourteen years by manual exercises alone. He also says, "It is plain that the highest functional activity of these motor centres is a thing to be aimed at with a view to general mental power as well as with a view to muscular expertness; and as the hand centres hold a prominent place among the motor centres, and are in relation with an organ which in prehension, in touch, and in a thousand different combinations of movement, adds enormously to our intellectual resources, thoughts, and sentiments, it is plain that the highest possible functional activity of these hand centres is of paramount importance not less to mental grasp than to industrial success." Again he says,"Depend upon it that much of the confusion of thought, awkwardness, bashfulness, stutterings, stupidity, and irresolution which we encounter in the world, and even in highly educated men and women, is dependent on defective or misdirected muscular training, and that the thoughtful and diligent cultivation of this is conducive to breadth of mind as well as to breadth of shoulders."

"The nascent period of the hand centres has not been accurately measured ... but its most active epoch being from the fourth to the fifteenth year, after which these centres in the large majority of persons become somewhat fixed and stubborn. Hence it can be understood that boys and girls whose hands have been altogether untrained up to the fifteenth year are practically incapable of high manual efficiency ever afterwards.

"The small muscles of the eye, ear, larynx, tongue, and hand have much higher and more extensive intellectual relations than the large muscles of the trunk and limbs. If you would attain to the full intellectual stature of which you are capable, do not, I would say, neglect the physical education of the hand."--Sir James Crichton-Browne
According to the article on the Columbia University website, How is digital technology changing the way kids' brains learn?
"The average American kid between 8 and 18-years-old spends eight-and-a-half hours a day on a computer, listening to an iPod, watching TV, or paying attention to some form of digital technology. To put that another way, over half of an American child's waking hours are spent plugged-in. To YouTube. To Facebook. To their cell phones, you name it. As they get older, they begin to spend even more time online."
If they are online, they are not learning the things that children have always learned in the past, how to observe directly their environment, and to make from it beautiful and useful things. And so our uncontrolled experiment in the relentless distribution of digital technologies involves the pruning of dendrites, the steady decline of human faculties, and offers profound implications for the future of human culture. I you want to know more about fixed and stubborn, pick up a chisel, and if you are unused to the muscularity of its use, give it try and see what you can do with it. Most adults in the US have become trained in the disuse of their muscular faculties. Is that what we want to give to our kids? Or shall we offer them the full range of human expression?

To reverse things with our kids, we must, as early as possible teach them to:

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Making T-squares... "what do I do next?"

Prepared stock
 Last Thursday I guided my students, 5th through 11th grades in making "T" squares, they each came up to me, one at a time, asking "what do I do next?" Making T-squares was their idea and was a way that I hope they can carry some of their interest in mechanical drawing home with them for further exploration.

There are three important standards in making a T-square.
  1. The blade  must be straight. I took care of that standard by carefully jointing each one and ripping it to width on the table saw. I advised the students to avoid sanding the edges so that they would remain crisp and straight. 
  2. The head of the square must be designed in such a way that there is sufficient space for the blade to be attached. We met this standard by my checking their designs to make certain that they not cut into the space required. 
  3. The head be attached square to the blade. For this, I had each student attach the head of the square with a single nail and glue, so that it could be clamped in a square position while the glue dried, and that it's squareness could be checked before the glue set. Additional nails can be driven in place after the glue sets, but to put in additional nails while the glue is still wet will likely force the head of the T-square out of square. So to meet this standard, I had to get the students to deliberately restrain themselves, when their natural inclination was to simply drive 4 nails and be done with it.
 If these three standards are met, the T-square should be useful. If not, not.

There are other standards that have to do with the appearance of the T-square that the child can select.
  1. The head of the square can be symmetrical on both sides, or can be deliberately asymmetrical. That would be a standard chosen by the child. 
  2. The arrangement of the nails attaching the blade to the head should be made to appear intentional rather than random. Evenly spaced and symmetrically arranged implies the presence of an attentive and caring human being in the making of it. We call that "craftsmanship." To meet this standard I encourage the students to carefully measure and mark the location of the holes prior to drilling.
  3. How smooth should it be? This is a tool. It will be handled, and tools that are sanded smooth to the touch invite more frequent use.

Kid designed t-squares
One thing I'm wrestling with at school is that my kids are extremely creative to the point that anything goes. They enjoy messing with materials and tools and they are a long way from being able to stand back as a craftsman must and assess their own work from the standpoint of useful beauty.

Another challenge I face is that of getting them to look at their surroundings for the answer, "what do I do next?" Kids have been conditioned to have either teachers or the screens of their devices between themselves and reality when they would be bettter served by simply looking directly at reality and attempting to assess its qualities for themselves.

A new charter high school in Springdale, Arkansas, called "the School of Innovation," is attempting to escape the notion of graduation being based on "seat time." The idea that students can graduate high school based on spending x number of hours sitting at desks during a set range of courses, is archaic and destructive. I've hardly a clue as to how well the new school will do, and whether or not it will perform well enough to overcome the policy maker's objections to such things. Most schools are based on units of seat time called Carnegie units, rather on the student's actual learning. A Carnegie Unit is supposed to represent 120 hours of instruction, but we all know that instruction is not the same as learning. Time spent bored in classrooms while the professor drones on and on is not learning. The Innovative high school is a step in the right direction and I wish them great success.

Sadly, they seem to have no wood shop. They claim to be involved in STEM education but seem to have only digital devices. No saw or hammer in sight.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, September 13, 2014

making boxes... it is that time of the year...

This time of year, I usually receive an order from Appalachian Spring Gallery that sets my box making in motion. It came yesterday. I also have a large corporate gifts order due in late November, so I am getting ready for that, too.

I've spent enough time at school relocating my school wood shop that my classes are going OK and my students are having fun and learning.

Folks have asked how I find a balance between writing, teaching and woodworking, and it is simply a matter of attending the squeaky wheels. Each part of the triad, writing, teaching and woodworking in my own shop is kept fresh by regular rotation. Keeping these three activities in rotation keeps me productive and prevents boredom from getting in the way of my work.

First I compared the new order with what I already had in stock, and noted the kinds and sizes of boxes in the order that I could not ship. Then I set to work on those, making them in multiples, so that I'll have enough to fill the order and replenish my inventory.

The first step is to rip walnut and linden (basswood) into widths about 1/4 in. wider than the finished stock. Then I resaw that material into thinner stock that can be planed to final thickness. Then after one edge is jointed straight and smooth, the stock will be cut to finished width before being cut to final length. I keep the prices reasonable on my boxes by working in multiples, as many as 50 or 60 at the same time.

Make, fix and create...