Monday, April 04, 2011

Mr. Mens, meet Mr. Manus

The motto at MIT is one that most wisdom of the hands readers would appreciate, Mens et manus, which means mind and hand. It should probably be spelled as a single word as the hand and mind are functionally entwined except in those cases in which men or women work thoughtlessly with the hands on the one hand or in complete separation from reality on the other. The following essay is by David Brittan and was published by the MIT Review in November/December 1995, and is republished here with permission of the author.

Mr. Mens, Meet Mr. Manus By David Brittan

My pal Dickie, an accomplished woodworker with whom I sometimes collaborate in the role of slightly retarded apprentice, likes to satirize the lowbrow status of his craft. Explaining some technical point, he'll say archly, "It's all in Barclay's monograph on beveling or "Surely you've read Wallace on studs." Then we'll both have a good laugh and go back to our scraping and banging.

As it happens, there really is a classic literature of woodworking. Asher Benjamin, a Boston builder of the early nineteenth century, summed up his wisdom in volumes such as The Builder's Assistant (1800) and The Practical House Carpenter (1830). Minard Lafever, who signed himself "architect and practical builder in the City of New-York," published The Young Builder's General Instructor in 1829. It was intended as a follow-on to the copious writings of the British builder Peter Nicholson—the Bob Vila of his time—whose name was known to all who shoved a plane.

Naturally, these books are full of helpful hints. They offer rules of thumb for sizing newel posts and gluing planks, and tips on fitting veneer to a curved surface ("prepare a quantity of hot water and put the veneer into it, and there let it remain until it becomes as soft as a piece of leather"). But more than that, they offer geometry. Reams and reams of geometry. To read Nicholson on handrails is to wrestle with pages of tricky operations on line segments and with diagrams so elaborate you might think you were splitting atoms, not wood.

Contrary to its image, woodworking is not all handiwork. In fact, the more one learns about it, the more one wonders why it is classified as a manual trade—and the less one wonders why it has been a haven for rebel intellectuals Although parents may despair when their child throws over a prep-school or Ivy League education for a career as a carpenter or joiner, and although the ranks of woodworkers are swollen with refugees from physics and English Lit. whose former colleagues grumble that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, working with wood is as much a mental activity as a manual one—as much mens as manus. There are no minds wasted here.

The Euclidean mysteries of joinery and construction are one thing—the dovetail or mortise-and-tenon joints that divide fine furniture from cheap, the well-fashioned beams that divide solid dwellings from deathtraps. But the tools and materials are a study in themselves. They are quirky enough to challenge the keenest intellect and completely baffle the rank beginner (that would he me).

On short acquaintance with the craft, I will venture my own rule of thumb: the simpler the tool, the harder it is to use. Electric table saws and routers afford speed, precision, and a comfortable distance from the mechanical properties of the lumber. Handsaws, planes, and chisels force you to experience wood at the level of cellulose fillers and resin—as bundles of splinters, in other words—and grant success in direct proportion to your skill. It is with such humble implements that woodworkers spend the bulk of their time.

Because the tools of the trade have changed little since the Romans, a body of lore has had a couple of thousand years to grow up around each one. For example, a clean cut does not saw itself; it may require any number of cunning devices— from a wedge placed in the kerf (the slit made by the saw) to keep the saw from binding, to a line of masking tape that prevents plywood from splintering—all of which the woodworker must learn or be laughed off the shop floor.

These subtleties are multiplied by the number of subspecies into which each tool has branched. There's the firmer chisel (firmer than what I couldn't tell you), which has a flat blade without a bevel. The mortise chisel is for cutting rectangular holes, or mortises, in furniture legs. The pocket chisel is not at all what it sounds like (it resembles the firmer chisel but has a beveled blade), the butt chisel even less so. Then there are those cousins with hollowed-out blades, the gouges. And the saw's taxonomy would fill several pages.

Sandpaper is the simplest tool and also the most dangerous, especially in the hands of an amateur. The cherry mantelpiece I just completed appears ravaged by time. "It looks like a real antique," says Dickie, putting the best face on things. But age alone could not account for flaws like these. I have sanded down crisp corners, thinking I was doing the wood a favor. I have rubbed right through the thin veneer on an expensive piece of cherry ply, leaving a bald spot that Dickie has been good enough not to mention. I have overlooked the milling marks created by the lumber yard, allowing them to soak up dark stain in the pattern of a bar graph. I have even made ripples on surfaces that were once calm. Obviously, I should have read Spence and Griffiths on the importance of the sanding block: "Never use just your hand to hold the abrasive paper when sanding flat surfaces," they warn in a latter day handbook. "This will sand away the softer part of the wood, giving a wavy surface."

From time to time I fantasize about an alternative career in furniture making. It must be satisfying to create lovely, useful objects that you know will outlast you, and to tax your mind in the process. But the motto of Gustav Stickley, the great turn-of-the-century furniture designer, is a strong deterrent: "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne." If I apply myself now, I might manage a decent rocking chair by the time I need one.

David Brittan is currently is the editor of Tufts Magazine.

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, the 4th, 5th and 6th grade students finished looms, windmills, books and did exercises in paper sloyd. The 10th, 11th and 12th grade students worked on  business card holders as an exercise in their study of economics.

Make, fix and create.

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