Friday, November 30, 2012


As I was driving to and from the museum yesterday I listened to a program from our local NPR station. Students from the University of Arkansas were being interviewed about a class in which they were being required to read a "non-fiction" book. Students in the class had never read one before. It seems that children these days are seldom required to read non-fiction other than textbooks, and have little understanding of the world of reading that exists outside of let's pretend. Some of the students said, it was really cool. They could see that reading non-fiction might cause them to integrate new things in their own lives and maybe change a few things instead of being passively entertained. After reading one non-fiction book the students thought they might even be inclined to try another.

My brother-in-law teaches writing and literature at the Indiana University in Terre Haute, Indiana. He told me about a student who complained at having to read Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. She told him, "This is like 'old English' or something!" The sentence structure was more complex than she could manage. LOL

Remember when folks wrote in cursive, and when letters on the page were personalized and embellished and when language too, was a thing more complex and could actually engage the reader in swirls of thought just as the marks of a pen on paper might carry a person deeper into the page? When the pen would move across the page in sentences commensurate in length to the time the ink would follow from the nib, we as both readers and writers were more intelligent in our use of language. And now, lacking in flourish we've been reduced. LOL. or  ROFLOL, I guess.

A couple years ago, when I had a short piece published in the UU World magazine, I was told by the editor that they regarded by writing style as "baroque." I told them that if it's baroque,  fix it. Sentences can always be manipulated by a good editor for the greater success of the 6th grade reader. But writing style often reflects the complexity of thought.

Now schools are all abuzz about core standards. I guess with the decline in literacy, something must be done. But it is ironic that when schools were able to include wood shops and other hands-on activities, standards were higher. Early practitioners of manual arts training believed that time spent in the wood shop actually reinforced reading and math skills, and made the time spent in teaching reading and math more effective. Imagine that. Spending hours in the wood shop actually made learning in other classes more meaningful and relevant and thus the material was learned with greater ease and efficiency and in less time.

Charles R. Richards, director of manual arts training at Teachers College, Columbia University said in 1901,
"The problem of the elementary school today is, I conceive, to make the life of the school more real; more an epitome of the kind of thinking, feeling and doing that obtains in real life; more a reflection of the actual life outside the school walls..."
And so there you have it in a nutshell. Children need to be engaged in doing real things. And in the meantime, schools are missing the boat. We adopt iPads at elementary school and push reading and math and core standards. But you can not push a rope. Get children involved in making real things , and their interests will soar within the school walls. Even for reading and math. Really.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

repeating from an earlier post...

turning a leg for an 8 legged bench
Today in the wood shop we're working on box lids and applying Danish oil to the the bases of boxes. I will also make a delivery of boxes to the Crystal Bridges Museum store where my small boxes are sold. In the meantime, the following piece explains why the hands must be purposefully engaged in American education. We learn to greatest lasting effect when we learn hands-on.
"In many respects the organ of touch, as embodied in the hand, is the most wonderful of the senses. The organs of the other senses are passive; the organ of touch alone is active. The eye, the ear, and the nostril stand simply open: light, sound, and fragrance enter, and we are compelled to see, to hear, and to smell; but the hand selects what it shall touch, and touches what it pleases. It puts away from it the things which it hates, and beckons towards it the things which it desires unlike the eye, which must often gaze transfixed at horrible sights from which it cannot turn; and the ear, which cannot escape from the torture of discordant sounds and the nostril, which cannot protect itself from hateful odours.

Moreover, the hand cares not only for its own wants, but, when the other organs of the senses are rendered useless, takes their duties upon it. The hand of the blind man goes with him as an eye through the streets, and safely threads for him all the devious way: it looks for him at the faces of his friends, and tells him whose kindly features are gazing on him; it peruses books for him, and quickens the long hours by its silent readings. It ministers as willingly to the deaf; and when the tongue is dumb and the ear stopped, its fingers speak eloquently to the eye, and enable it to discharge the unwonted office of a listener.

The organs of all the other senses, also, even in their greatest perfection, are beholden to the hand for the enhancement and the exaltation of their powers. It constructs for the eye a copy of itself, and thus gives it a telescope with which to range among the stars; and by another copy on a slightly different plan, furnishes it with a microscope, and introduces it into a new world of wonders. It constructs for the ear the instruments by which it is educated, and sounds them in its hearing till its powers are trained to the full. It plucks for the nostril the flower which it longs to smell, and distills for it the fragrance which it covets. As for the tongue, if it had not the hand to serve it, it might abdicate its throne as the Lord of Taste. In short, the organ of touch is the minister of its sister senses, and, without any play of words, is the handmaid of them all.

And if the hand thus munificently serves the body, not less amply does it give expression to the genius and the wit, the courage and the affection, the will and the power of man. Put a sword into it, and it will fight for him; put a plough into it, and it will till for him; put a harp into it, and it will play for him; put a pencil into it, and it will paint for him; put a pen into it, and it will speak for him, plead for him, pray for him. What will it not do? What has it not done? A steam-engine is but a larger hand, made to extend its powers by the little hand of man! An electric telegraph is but a long pen for that little hand to write with! All our huge cannons and other weapons of war, with which we so effectually slay our brethren, are only Cain's hand made bigger, and stronger, and bloodier! What, moreover, is a ship, a railway, a lighthouse, or a palace? What, indeed, is a whole city, a whole continent of cities, all the cities of the globe, nay, the very globe itself, in so far as man has changed it, but the work of that giant hand, with which the human race, acting as one mighty man, has executed its will." --Dr. George Wilson on the Hand - 1856
And so why do we not make deliberate use of our children's actual grasp of the world in their education?

Yesterday as I helped my first, second and third grade students to make toys and tops for the children of the poor in our community, I realized what a special thing it is for these kids to be creatively engaged in making real useful things. It is certainly an experience that all children should have but do not.

"Handwork, such as can only be learned in its own narrow field, must precede all life, all action, all art. To know one thing well and to practice it, gives more culture than a half-knowledge of a hundred things." --Goethe

Make, fix and create.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

they say...

As described in this lecture by craft critic Bruce Metcalf, Hand Work, looking back, looking forward, "Handwork, they say, is by nature irrelevant in the 21st Century." Metcalf presents a lengthy rebuttal to that notion, but along the way also, a rather depressing set of circumstances including the loss of programs at the university level. There seems to be a growing sense that human skill except that in the realm of digital manipulation is no longer required.

We can use maker bots, robots, huge digital routers to take the place of actual human manipulation of tools and materials... which might be a fine thing if all our products were to be made from reconstituted sawdust instead of real wood. But real wood has grain, variations in density and color that demand human attention and judgement, and require the expression of care that can come only through the human hands, even if those hands are feeding a table saw, or passing wood through an operation on the router table. Human engagement in the form of discernment is essential.

I'm enough of a craftsman that I want some particular things. For instance, as my students are making cigar box guitars, I want them to end up with guitars that can be actually played, and kept as an important expression of this part of their lives. That means frets, smooth necks that feel good in the hand, and some uniformity between each student's guitars so that they can be played together. I've been going to rather great lengths to keep these lovely things from getting screwed up.

From the student perspective, some are excited about making them, but don't even care if they will actually work, which makes me wonder "What is this, 'art' or something?" For instance, one student having put a huge sound hole where the bridge must be says, "It's OK if it doesn't work because I can hang it on the wall or something." That's enough to break a craftsman's heart. It also makes me worry that student's expressions of "originality" have become more important than understanding of physical reality. For instance, the ability for a guitar to actually make consistent notes and form chords is dependent on the precise relationship between the frets, nut and bridge.

The point of this, of course, is that real skill is required, and skill requires a commitment of time and energy, discretion and attention, that is not required in doing one's own meaningless thing. It's enough to make me look fondly back at the days of educational Sloyd in which students were asked to do certain prescribed models that led to greater skill. The models were assessed by some as lacking in creativity, as they were designed to be actually useful rather than simply decorative. That's what happens when work is held to a useful standard.

We want our students to be both skilled and creative. I think a child can become both, but at some point, one end or the other, and whether internally composed or externally imposed, standards must be demonstrated and adopted if skill is ever to be valued again in American culture. I suspect that "creativity" has become a poor substitute for work lacking in skill. Coming up with crap as a result is too often excused by the explanation, "I was trying to be different".

In a way, it is like standing at the lathe, tool poked in randomly at the wood. But after seeing "creativity" time and again, and seeing so little that is actually creative emerge from work, I do have a longing for excuses to cease and real skill to receive priority. For when skill and creativity are combined you've really got something.

I thank reader Brian for the link to Bruce Metcalf's lecture. In the wood shop today I am working on lids for 500 boxes. The best work is not always the most creative or "artistic". But comes when artistry and skill are brought into creative partnership.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, November 25, 2012


A friend Jackie on twitter asked:
Emergency. Emergency. We are out of Qtips. Anyone make those locally?
Are Qtips a thing you could make yourself? Imagine needle felting from yesterday's post. That technique be applied to make Qtips more creative and certainly more personal than they already are.

DIY is about as local as you can get and the inclination to MIY (make it yourself) is the foundation of human culture. If Vicki Hardcastle can make tiny pigs and other creatures by needle felting, why not make Qtips as an art form that serves the imagination in better ways than the real thing? If small is beautiful, can exquisite art (rather than other yucky things) be expressed on the tip of a cotton swab? I can see a whole new art and craft genre emerging here. Locally made Qtips being sold internationally on Etsy. I shipped a box to an Etsy customer in Singapore last week, and exquisitely crafted Qtips would be much easier on the postal service.

OK, I'm kidding. But in regard to Qtips I'm already up to my ears in boxes and I'll "stick" to making useful-beautiful things from real wood.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Needle Felting

I always find the ways artists create fascinating and in this video Vicki Hardcastle demonstrates needle felting, a technique in which a barbed needle is used to poke into wool causing it to interlock and bind in a tight structure. This technique has been used for centuries. Vicki, a regular reader of the blog, is selling her work this weekend at the Fall Art Fair sponsored by the Eureka Spring School of the arts.

Make, fix and create...

lovely Saturday...

perhaps like this?
Black Friday is past and it is nice to see that the US appears  to be moving beyond economic recession. Before we get carried away with cheap stuff, it's Saturday, and the time of year many men (and women) turn toward time in their wood shops. If you have no inclinations at all in that direction, I'm sorry. You could have had such a great time.

Here in Eureka Springs today and tomorrow we have the Fall Art Show sponsored by the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. Many local artists are involved. It is a social event for many as well as a time to see and buy some beautiful work done by friends and neighbors.

The atmosphere is refreshing as the crowds are not as manic as what one would find at the shopping mall or big box store. No knives or guns will be required to force your way in line. If you have no inclination to make beautiful and useful things yourself, or if you want to support human creativity within our culture, stop at the Fall Art Fair and you will be pleased that you did.

I am taking a break from my own wood shop. I've been pushing too hard toward the goal of completing 500 boxes, and I'm ready for more creative work... perhaps a small collection of desk boxes with drawers.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, November 23, 2012

black friday...the real deal...

Let's take a lesson from reality. You may feel great scoring some cheap stuff, but in the long run, will feel far better avoiding the mobs in the first place and spending this day making your own gifts for the holiday season. Wooden boxes can be both beautiful and useful. In addition, they can engage the maker in the development of skills that apply far beyond the making of each small thing.

I will be in the wood shop today. There is no better way to spend time recovering from the excesses of the table and football games in which at least half lost, and it is far more gratifying to spend time doing something of tangible value in contrast to fighting crowds at shopping malls over this year's load of stuff.

By this afternoon, the news reports for this black Friday will be just like those from past years. Folks will have made fools of themselves in fights over cheap stuff. The economy is getting better, so you know behavior will be getting worse.

You and I on the other hand, can take quiet pleasure watching the beauty of real wood transformed to useful purpose in our own hands.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

the life of pie...

live blogging, the life of pie...

9 AM
The crust recipe is from the Joy of Cooking, and the filling recipe followed straight off the can. The crust is my new "rustic" design.

Happy Thanksgiving!

11 AM
Update. It's not pretty, but will taste great.

Make, fix and create.

in touch with the heroic...

Yesterday I began making lids for the 500 boxes and am pleased that with a great assistant I'm ahead of schedule. Making boxes may never seem heroic, and I make no claims for it.

A reader introduced me to Nicolaj Grundtvig, proponent of the Danish Folk High School in the 1800's. Grundtvig was a Lutheran pastor and advocate of Danish nationalism who wrote in response to religion, education and world-view which undermined the value of Danish culture. What good was education in Latin and Greek if it undermined support for the local indigenous character of man?  In any case, Grundtvig inspired similar Folk High Schools in other nations including some as far away as China.

These days as then, the heroic life of the local seems to be under the onslaught of international homogeneity. Here in Arkansas teachers are having to be trained in the implementation of core curriculum, to make certain that all kids across the state and nation are on the same page, when perhaps Folk High Schools, that put children in touch with their communities and internal, local heroic opportunities would offer greater meaning.

I ran across this blog that investigates the Architecture of Early Childhood and was offered this quote:
“Before the child goes to school, he learns with his hand, eye and ear, because they are organs of the process of doing something from which meaning results. The boy flying a kite has to keep his eye on the kite, and has to note the various pressures of the string on his hand. His senses are avenues of knowledge not because external facts are somehow ‘conveyed’ to the brain, but because they are used in doing something with a purpose.”
--John Dewey, ‘Democracy and Education’, 1915
Are we to surrender education for meaning for the emptiness of the internet? Surrender the natural heroic inclinations for the virtual, but virtuously unreal?

A friend Jackie Wolven is responsible for the graphic shown above. She's making a similar graphic for each of the 50 states, and these can be found here for your useful pleasure. On this day before Black Friday, you may be off from work, have some duties in the kitchen, and may also have time to plan what you will make for this holiday season. Avoid the use of power tools on a full stomach, but...

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

33 shopping (making) days...

Due to the early Thanksgiving day and extra early "Black Friday" we have a very long holiday shopping season this year. Save your money. Creative kids like cardboard boxes better than the toys that might come in them. Those toys are often creatively designed to override the child's creative play. And when the relationship with an object is overly scripted, can we even call that play? The video below shows how much extra fun you can have with creative materials instead of toys.


On the other hand readers still have 34 creative days to make toys and gifts before Christmas day.

Make, fix and create...

not one-of-a-kind making...

There is an article in this month's American Craft Magazine about 8 artists who've gone from one-of-a-kind making to mass production.  The the article in part looks at situations where a craft artist turns "designer" and sells his or her designs to industry to mass produce. But some of the craft artists featured do keep hands on the nitty-gritty and continue to make. One of those featured is Thomas Moser, maker and designer of fine furniture.

My back-to-back commissions to make a total of 800 boxes along with my smaller more normal production  seems to have put my own work temporarily into mass mode. But with the character of real wood offering its advantages, each piece can still retain a sense of being unique. Mass production was started with the ancient Greeks.

There are valuable lessons to be learned about efficiency and organization when one makes the leap from few to larger numbers of work. There are also necessary refinements of operation that must take place that give lasting benefits to one-of-a-kind work. As a custom furniture maker, I've always used making boxes as my fall-back position... keeping cash flowing when I had no customers for larger work. Who could have known that box making could be such a big deal?

There are some important things that happen when a craftsman is pushed in this way. Perhaps the most important is that he or she must begin sharing by training others to do the work. And so I am grateful to have the help of one diligent craftsman in making boxes. He is pleased to be learning box making and further developing his skills.

At CSS this last week we began our annual toy making event with children from first through 6th grades making toys to give to children through our local food bank during the holiday season. It is a necessary lesson in creativity and generosity. In essence, the young craftsman is busily making him or her self.

With our school off today for the Thanksgiving recess, I and my assistant will be making boxes.

A reader asked if I was familiar with N.F.S. Grundtvig founder of the Danish Folk Schools whose image is shown at left... Grundtvig offers one more avenue to explore concerning the Wisdom of the Hands. The folk school was a concept that circled throughout Scandinavia, with proponents in Finland (Cygnaeus) and Sweden (Rudenschold).

I have come to the conclusion that schools, rather than be shaped to uniform standards, should draw upon the character of their unique communities. The notion of a folk school suggests that what is is of value, not what others superimpose that it should be. And so rigidly applying one formula to another place would be a violation of the underlying principles. With this in mind, it makes sense for farming communities to farm, fishing communities to fish, and for each community follow the examples of craftsmanship in its own heritage.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

of all the senses...

This TED talk is about optical illusion and perception and should help readers to understand why a multi-sensory approach to education and learning is essential. Are the eyes and ears enough to help children interpret the truth?

Beau Lotto suggests "Each of us is defined by our ecology." And so the question becomes, "Do we give our children a foundation for discovery and understanding and grasp of truth when we confine them to desks?" We need to take matters into our own hands. And allow our children to take matters into theirs. And there is a reason why hands on learning is such a powerful force. The hands ascertain the reality of the other senses.

 Make, fix and create...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

distributed interest...

One of the important things about our species is our natural diversity. Seeking diversity is built into our genetically framed response to life. Kids in the CSS wood shop have a love of their own creativity, and all hell breaks loose so to speak when one sees another "copying" what he or she has done. This natural inclination to distribute ourselves along creative lines is a major factor in the success of our species, and begins in the earliest days of our lives.

Howard Gardner brought up the matter of how we are smart in different ways, but I suggest that we self-distribute along lines of interest  and opportunity and following those lines become smart through the application of attention and practice.

Somewhere in the Stowe family video archive, there is a 8 mm. film of my sister Ann and I coloring on paper. Ann would work diligently on her own, then would lean over to make corrections on my page, adding her flourishes to my work. It became instantly clear to me that Ann was the artistic one. She was 18 months older than I and her maturity gave her an advantage. So surrendering art as an area of interest, I became interested in building things. Get the picture? It is not hard to see how it works, and I invite you to examine family relationships on your own. Got a family? Have siblings or children of your own? You will see how it works and certainly don't have to take my word for it. I welcome your own recollections and observation in the comments below.

Let's jump ahead in my life to 7th grade wood shop. As a closing project for the year, we were all making book shelves which involved the use of the coping saw to cut out curving sides. I looked down and noticed that my saw blade, in a moment of inattention, had gone off the line. I looked over at my immediate neighbor and saw that he was even further off the line, and made the assessment that I was doing OK in comparison. We learn these things, make assessments of our own skill, and use them to self-distribute along lines of interest, and perceived ability, that at some point will be assessed by others as intellect.

Let's jump to athletics. In McComb, Mississippi where my family lived at the time I became of age to try out for little league baseball, we were new in a tight-knit southern town and completely unknown. Even though I hit a home run (on errors) my first time at bat, I was not chosen for the team. Thus I might have had a greater interest, and hence "athletic intelligence" if my father had been better known. But that's the way things work out (often for the best).

I offer these recollections because the idea of intelligence is over-blown. But having a variety of experiences and opportunities to develop along diverse lines of interest is essential to our humanity, our human culture and our capacity for problem solving and survival...  And yet, we put kids in schools, measure them all to the same standards, narrow their fields of activity, squeeze and narrow their capacity to conceptualize, screw them up with too much narrow focus on academics alone, and shit-can their futures and the future of our economy.

When I started the wisdom of the hands project at Clear Spring School, the idea had been to demonstrate that wood working was still of value in American education, even though most schools were doing away with wood shops. I have come to the conclusion that kids generally need to do real things, and need the opportunity to find interests and express intelligence in a wide variety of ways, including through the making beautiful and useful real things.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, November 16, 2012


It would be about time for folks at Harvard's Project Zero, the brainchild of Howard Gardner, to take an interest in the maker culture and in what making does to the mind and character of a child. They've done so in this article: Harvard Wants to Know: How Does the Act of Making Shape Kids’ Brains?

Harvard most often takes interest in things when they've been invented by Harvard, or when the overwhelming evidence sweeps their minds into a corner. Howard Gardner in Project Zero came up with the idea of multiple intelligences, which would have been a thing any machinist or wood worker would have understood beforehand, hands down, and could have told about if asked. Still the idea of multiple intelligences can help us to be more cognizant of the value of doing real things.

In the wood shop, a craftsman uses musical intelligence as he or she listens to the application of tool to wood, whether that tool is powered by hand or by the grid. The craftsman uses math, connection to culture, sense of partnership with others, sense of one's own body, and each and every known form of intellect specifically identified by Gardner, but without it having to be prescribed and identified. I think one term that Harvard would have trouble identifying would be the academic dumbass. We are diminished in character and in intellect when our hands are stilled. Put a man solely behind a desk, or at a lectern and without great effort to overcome his natural proclivities he will become out of touch.

One of the precepts of Educational Sloyd was the movement in learning from the concrete to the abstract. But reality does not lose its meaning for the intellect once it has escaped into abstraction. Like a humming bird returning to the feeder, an active mind returns again and again to what's happening in the real world. That is why students and professors at all levels and in all disciplines should be making things (even unrelated to their fields of study) and engaged in field work and application of what they are in the process of learning to real life.

Real life is not administered in doses, prescribed for specialties of learning and intelligence, as in Gardner's work. The failure of the multiple intelligences theory to be utilized in modern education results from the difficulty and complexity that each teacher faces in taking time to prescribe lessons personalized for the smarts of each child.

The next thing of course for Harvard might be for Howard Gardner to discover a new form of human intelligence we can call, Maker Smart. The only thing is, however, maker smarts is  not really a separate form any more than any of the others are, but rather, the summation of all other forms of human intelligence.

There is a simple solution to the problem of education and the recognition of all forms of human intellect. Ask our students and teachers to do real things. Making things in a wood shop may be the best place to start.

Yesterday as I was sanding boxes, my assistant noticed that I was like a small band of music, as the sanding block was applied to the wood in conscious, counted rhythmic strokes. By becoming aware of the sounds of woodworking, greater intelligence is applied. Interpersonal intelligence? Try working in a wood shop full of kids.

Today in my wood shop, I continue making 500 boxes. In the mail in the next few days I expect a contract to arrive for my 5th book on making beautiful boxes, and my head is already swimming with notions.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

children are intended for great things...

I have been reading Nat Benjamin's account of the building of Charlotte, in the Nov/Dec. issue of Wooden Boat, and the story of a great boat is also the story of the lives changed in the making of it. A friend Geoff had called Nat asking if he had a place for his son Tyler who was flunking out of high school. The kid was not sober, was staying out late every night and sleeping past noon when he should have been in school. Nat's first inclination was to run the kid off. But instead the conversation went like this:
"Lets roll the keel timber over with the outside of the tree facing up so we can see the sapwood and avoid it when laying out the half-breadths. But, first, after scraping off the ice, adze and power-lane the flat surfaces so we have a constant thickness of 8 1/2". Then strike a centerline on both surfaces and lay out the stations from the keel batten hanging on the rack over there and mark down the offsets. Fair them with  a batten on both sides of the timber so we can saw it out to the lines drawn Then lever the timber on its edge, and we'll chainsaw it out."

"Yeah," responded Tyler laconically, gazing first at me, then at the 2,000-lb piece of angelique. I went back to work, knowing full well that this task was far beyond his abilities, my peremptory instructions notwithstanding. A few hours later, Tyler strolled into the building shed and called, "Nat, bring out the chainsaw." "We were off."
That was the start of the building of a great boat. Tyler did graduate from high school, his life having turned on a dime. As Benjamin describes, "Tyler caught fire."

Part of the challenge for teachers in school is that of having great things for kids to do, that are real, that test their strength of body, character and mind. Making real things in school can serve this purpose. That real thing should excite their imaginations, and allow them to build the workings of character and intellect.

Today in my own wood shop, we continue the current challenge of making 500 wooden boxes before the first of the year. Today, too, I have a conversation with the acquisitions editor at Taunton Press about a new box book.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

rustic furniture review...

The follow review of my book Rustic Furniture Basics is from Living Woods Magazine in the UK:
Rustic Furniture -- Doug Stowe is a bit of a hero of Living Woods. In a paper entitled Tools, Hands and the Expansion of Intellect, presented to the University of Helsinki (which we hope to publish) he said:
'Tools not only provide the power to shape materials, but frame the dimensions of human intellect. There is magic in the manipulation of real tools and real materials.' As a clarion call to educators around the world he added: 'We are made stupid when our hands are stilled. '

His 2009 book Rustic Furniture Basics is the bait to keep hands moving, and to rouse stilled ones. There are power tools and hand tools and planed wood, but also branches and twigs and various types of seating. It has an eclectic range of projects and techniques to follow or to ransack mainly aimed at woodworkers who might like to loosen up a little Green woodworking enthusiasts might find it a bit of a jumble, but there are plenty of tips and some pleasant designs, with numerous photos of the Veritas Tenon Cutter in use, and a simple cardboard box kiln for drying tenon ends. It is the sort of book for adults to use to make furniture with younger craftspeople, introducing them to the joys of making, as Doug intimated in Helsinki; 'By and large we feel better when we take the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the process of creating something from wood.'
Today in the CSS wood shop, students finished small boxes and began our annual toy making project in which the students make small toys to be distributed through our local food bank. Our middle school students began turning legs for a new bench to be placed in the school office.

Make Magazine is having an "open meetup" to discuss 3-D printing devices. You can register to attend this meeting by following this 

If I weren't so busy making things from real wood, I would try to attend. There is a difference between real wood, and plastic, and if you know how to make  useful, beautiful, things from real wood, other materials seem cheap in comparison, regardless of how easy they are to make.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, November 12, 2012

the need to make, and the need to express craftsmanship...

I have been reading the article about Marcin Jakubowski's Factor e farm in Bloomberg Business week which I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, but also remembering my summer visit with Bill Coperthwaite. Both Coperthwaite and Jakubowski are driven by a goal of regaining a necessary democratic distribution of human resources. Both are concerned with the tools of civilization. If you were to view Bill at an earlier time when his imagination had been captured by the huge power supply potential of the Mill Pond tidal basin, it might have appeared that he and Jakubowski were speaking the same language. But that was before Coperthwaite discovered the powers of his own hands, body and mind. While Jakubowski is concerned with tractors, Bill is working on the crooked knife, democratic axe, and wheel barrows. You can learn more about Coperthwaite, by typing his name in the search blog at top left.

Human beings these days seem to have become unfamiliar with the rhythmic potentials of our own bodies. Give a kid a chisel, and he wants to drive it straight into the wood, not realizing that work is most easily accomplished through rhythmic (and thoughtful) application of force. By dividing work into smaller increments, human beings can have tremendous power. The illustration above is from Rudolfs J. Drillis "Folk Norms and Biomechanics" and shows the optimum work tempo for man. Don't expect others these days to make such observations or to make such observations of our bodies. We have reached the point of foolishness in which human labor and the productive capacities of our own bodies is a thing to be escaped rather than studied and cherished.

A poem from Two Hundred Poems for Teachers of Industrial Arts Education Compiled by William L. Hunter, 1933 tells a bit of the story

The Potter
The potter stood at his daily work,
One patient foot on the ground;
The other with never slackening speed
Turning his swift wheel around.

Silent we stood beside him there,
Watching the restless knee,
'Til my friend said low, in pitying voice,
"How tired his foot must be!"

The potter never paused in his work,
Shaping the wondrous thing;
'Twas only a common flower pot,
But perfect in fashioning.

Slowly he raised this patient eyes,
With homely truth inspired;
"No, Marm, it isn't the foot that works,
The one that stands gets tired!"
-- Author unknown
 Blog reader Reuben sent in this link, Why teachers should put students to work.
Today in the CSS wood shop, 4th, 5th and 6th grade students enjoyed a "free" day or "creative" day in which they got to do pretty much what they wanted. It is the day in the wood shop that they love most. The high school students worked on their cigar box guitars.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

the great secret...

NORTH HOUSE FOLK SCHOOL trailer from dennysFilms on Vimeo.

Jean Jacques Rousseau had said that the great secret of education is to combine mental and physical labors so that each refreshes the other. This is truly the best kept secret of education. We force students to sit in desks and resist their most natural inclinations.

I am safely home from Louisville, having flown in a private plane piloted by a former student. It was a great adventure flying over the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at 6,000 feet, and then coming in for a landing in crosswinds at our local airport. We learn best when our whole beings are involved in learning, and being present in learning. Why in the world would that be so difficult for educators to admit the hands into the circle as the foundation for effective learning?

It is just cheaper to go through empty motions and pretense.

This afternoon I am back to making boxes. It is a relief to have my presentations over and to relax in the pleasure of my chosen craft. A blog reader sent the North House Folk School video embedded above. In Bloomberg Business Week, an article features the work of Marcin Jakubowski, making anyone can make without license open source machines. Making real things that serve humanity in various ways might even offer a better means to engage kids in learning than making making an activity akin to sports. Are we to inform our kids that life is simply one more game, or do we have more at stake than that? The article about Jakubowski is called: The Post-Apocalypse Survival Machine Nerd Farm. Inhad written much earlier about Jakubowski here.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

headed home...

Today I will fly home from Louisville in a Cessna piloted by a former student. What a great honor that will be! I was also pleased to spend time yesterday and Friday with fellow teachers who were interested in the strategic engagement of the hands. As one might expect, the overwhelming buzz in all of education is toward high tech. That is not all bad, though I would like to recommend low tech as well.

We have a great deal to learn from technology of all kinds. One expert in the implementation of laptops in schools warned about the Apple iPad. Despite the wonders of the machine, it is not one that one can easily program or develop programs for. As professor Alex Slocum at MIT had told me on the phone, students should be given explorational tools they are free to break if necessary. What good is a chisel in the wood shop if the teacher is unwilling to risk allowing the student to sharpen it, knowing that the student might damage the edge? When we invest heavily in our tools, do they become too precious for student use? Computers for student use should assemble and disassemble with screws, should be able to be taken apart, broken down in code, viewed inside and out so that students may become masters, not slaves of our technologies.

In Waldorf schools, it was once believed (and may still be) that students should not be exposed to technologies beyond their capacity to intellectually understand.

I want to thank those who welcomed me with their attention during my presentations at the ISACS conference and hope they will feel free to keep connected by hand as well as in spirit.

I have to say that I am currently a bit discouraged by some of what has been described as STEM education. STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. There is the opportunity for science in whittling a stick, and STEM in some cases may really be Scripted Technology Engineering and Math, with programs and design challenges taking away too many open ended possibilities for real service to mankind. As I was quoted in Matt Crawford's book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, page one, ch. one:
“In schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
Some new contrivances in education may offer an improvement over the plate upon which our children are now served. But the greatest gift we can make to their educations is to push forward their hands-on, real, uncontrived service to family, community and self. In other words, let's make it real, not virtual, as only hands-on learning can be.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, November 09, 2012

as one might expect...

Tools in school have always been messy propositions. Doing real things means some level of chaos rather than perfect order. One of our students had gone to a local public high school for the SAT exam, and was surprised at the level of sterility. No color, no mess, no single, sign of work.

These days education seems to be heading inevitably in the direction of high tech, and yesterday I attended a seminar on the use of laptops in school. The presenter, who seemed quite full of himself throughout his presentation (a little bit of ego goes a long ways) left as his final point, "case closed." Just as one who protests too much, his decision was that anyone arguing against the application of high tech devices in schools has already lost the case. But in my view, that is true, not because we should not and cannot justifiably be questioning the utility of such devices, but because the overall thrust of educational development and the movement of market acceptance of these devices is overwhelming the voices that raise other very serious concerns.

Now I am in another session, live blogging for the first time in my life. So far this one is about how to find stuff on the web to help with the development of STEM programs. Here's one...Check and another and another... How about ? digital systems library? Career cruising? have you heard of it. Try google. A last site for upper school:

At this point, my live blogging will end. TMI to keep up with. I was hoping for strategies for finding local resources... But hey, here's one that can help to connect local resources: National Lab network

Update: Our keynote speaker at lunch today was Daniel Pink, an author whom I've mentioned before in the blog... His book Drive, investigates human motivation and dispels the mythology of the relationship between monetary rewards vs. the kinds of intrinsic rewards sought by artists. One study he mentioned showed how artist's works were more inspired when they came from the personal motivation of the artist rather than  made in response to commissions paid for by others. The same intrinsic motivation can be at the heart of every learning endeavor, and my thoughts were very much on the learning model presented by David Henry Feldman, the child as craftsman, which I have mentioned so many times before in the blog. Pink's presentation reminded us of how very close we at Clear Spring School are to doing things right.

I await my turn to set up in the conference room assigned to my presentation. I will be flying home tomorrow in a plane piloted by a former student.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Today I made my presentation on the Wisdom of the Hands at the ISACS conference, and will have one more presentation tomorrow afternoon. I also attended a presentation on Robotics by staff from the Breck School from Minneapolis. Robotics is a great way to get kids engaged in working with their hands which Breck manages through an afternoon and weekend program using the First Competition program. First offers students and schools the chance to compete to complete challenges of mind and constructive imagination in venues similar to athletic events. Some schools even offer letters for participation similar to what athletes may receive for participation in sports.

National First Robotics Competition
I am an advocate of using every available resource to get the hands engaged in learning, whether it's drama, wood shop, dance, music, laboratory science, physical education or any number of direct approaches. I was reminded by the president of our board, at Clear Spring School we don't ask, "How smart is this child?" But rather, "how is this child smart."

Where the hands are engaged, the heart may also be. Robotics is one good way of engaging the hands and imaginations of many students. In some cases the journey it offers can be "transformational."

 My thanks to  A. J. Collanni and Gene Jasper for an interesting and informative program.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

working knowledge...

In a rather nice article on "Reactivating Agriculture Education; High school reviving vo-ag, FFA programs", passed along by Reuben, the photo caption describes the object being assembled by students as a "drill." It is interesting to me that writers could be so out of touch from DIY capacity as to mistake a scroll saw for a drill. But then given the overall decline in woodworking programs over the years, we have writers who have no knowledge of physical reality what-so-ever.

Today I am leaving for Louisville, KY for the ISACS conference where I will make two presentations on the Wisdom of the Hands. One particular point that I will share with fellow teachers will be the concept of the "child as craftsman." The following is from David Henry Feldman's essay of that name:
To see a child as a craftsman means to see him as a person who wants to be good at something. It also suggests that the child continually takes pride in accomplishment and has a sense of integrity about his work, regardless of the actual level of the work produced. The notion is somewhat akin to Robert White's competence motivation, except that White's notion implies more of a need to feel mastery over uncontrolled forces in the environment. The child a craftsman no doubt is move by what White refers to as "effectance motivation," but the metaphor is intended to go beyond this to include a more direct link to specific fields of endeavor and to suggest why some activities are so much more compelling to a given child than others...

Perhaps the most important implication of the metaphor is to suggest that it may well be the main purpose of education to provide conditions under which each child will identify and find satisfaction through a chosen field or fields of work.

In other words,

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

personalized learning vs. classroom instruction...

I am still working on my presentation for the ISACS conference and my thoughts have returned to the difference between personalized instruction vs. classroom learning. Individual instruction was one of the guiding principles of Educational Sloyd. We learn best when we are in direct caring relationship with others. And when someone takes the time to show us directly, making certain that we understand, the learning is at a deeper level and to more memorable effect. For instance, I remember standing at the lathe for the first time, with my father's arms around me, helping to safely guide the tools as they came into contact with the wood. When my daughter learned to turn on the lathe, I stood in the place of my father, and there was the sense that generations were involved.

If you have not, in your life, received personalized instruction from someone, you may never know what you've missed. But to be engaged in a personal, individualized learning exercise, where caring is expressed is a far cry from the learning offered in most schools. Personalized learning shows that the materials are important, but even more importantly, the learner is important.

A reader suggests that other readers (and I) would be interested in MITES, the Michigan Industrial and Technological Education Society. MITES is a non-profit organization with over 400 members and volunteers who believe in the power of hands-on, relevant, and real-world learning. Reuben sent the following link on a man in Oregon who made a high school woodshop. The point of course is not that students become carpenters or plumbers, but that they find meaning in their educations. All students, including those planning to go to college and advanced degrees can benefit from learning through their hands.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, November 05, 2012


From Wikipedia:
A touchstone is a small tablet of dark stone such as fieldstone, slate, or lydite, used for assaying precious metal alloys. It has a finely grained surface on which soft metals leave a visible trace.[1]

As a metaphor, a touchstone refers to any physical or intellectual measure by which the validity or merit of a concept can be tested. It is similar in use to an acid test, litmus test in politics, or, from a negative perspective, a shibboleth where the criterion is considered by some to be out-of-date.

And so what can serve as a touchstone of education? The idea of a touchstone as an assaying tool is that it offers concrete evidence of material reality. What looks and feels like gold may indeed not be.

Educational Sloyd suggested that learning start with the interests of the child, and just as on the surface of dark stone, interest can be seen in a child's attention. If you don't have it, you are wasting your time in trying to teach.

The following is from educational psychologist Jerome Bruner:
"In so far as possible, a method of instruction should have the objective of leading the child to discover for himself. Telling children and then testing them on what they have been told inevitably has the effect of producing bench-bound learners whose motivation for learning is likely to be extrinsic to the task--pleasing the teacher, getting into college, artificially maintaining self-esteem. The virtues of encouraging discovery are of two kinds. In the first place, he child will make what he learns his own, will fit his discovery into the interior world of culture that he creates for himself. Equally important, discovery and the sense of confidence it provides is the proper reward for learning. It is a reward that, moreover, strengthens the very process that is at the heart of education--disciplined inquiry."
I am headed home from Phoenix, and will have one day of box making before leaving for the ISACS Conference in Louisville, KY where I'll make a presentation on the Wisdom of the Hands.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, November 04, 2012

where minds are fed on words alone...

The following is from Charles H. Hamm...
The fundamental principle of Comenius is that, “we learn by doing.” A victim of the schools of his time, he thus describes them: “They are the terror of boys, and the slaughter-houses of mind—-places where a hatred of literature and books is contracted, where ten or more years are spent in learning what might be acquired in one, where what ought to be poured in gently, is violently forced in, and beaten in, where what ought to be put clearly and perspicuously is presented in a confused and intricate way, as if it were a collection of puzzles—-places where minds are fed on words.”
A friend was telling me of the experience of the military in WWII. Many of the new recruits were illiterate, but were quickly trained to read in a matter of weeks, illustrating the truth of Comenius' observation. 

I am working on my presentation for the ISACS conference on Thursday and Friday.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, November 03, 2012

walking on a dusty road...

Today my wife and daughter and I are in Phoenix, AZ to attend a small mini-reunion of cousins and family at my sister's house. After flying into Phoenix yesterday I looked out the window of our rental car and saw one person in the distance walking alone along a dusty road in a barren landscape. I realized that regardless of what happens with our current model of environmental predation and excess, humans will survive in some form that demands the steady development of skill and attention.

We are staying at the Talking Stick Indian Casino and it is amazing to see hundreds of folks sitting bored and passive at video games as they shovel their money away into these electronic machines that make so much noise, a sane person can't think straight. It seems so mindless. Getting to the hotel and restaurants requires passing through the gauntlet of electronic noise.

Is this the high point in the development of human culture? Or is human culture best reflected in that one lone Native American walking a dusty road? Here in the hotel, artifacts of an earlier time are on display, celebrating the creative ingenuity of folks who walked this landscape in an earlier time. There are beautiful hand made pots and weavings. But folks are really here for other reasons entirely.

One of my jobs while I'm here is to prepare for my ISACS presentation next Thursday and Friday in Louisville, KY. So I am going through slides and preparing thoughts that are relevant to woodworking education and the ways our hands engage our interests, attention, heart, mind, and character. One of the great things for me is that I've kept photographic records of my work at the Clear Spring School, so I can look back month by month through this blog and remember what we've done. The blog makes presentation easier than it would be without such a clear record of our wood shop activities.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, November 01, 2012


The video of High Tech High and was suggested by a reader who said, "I wish I could go back to middle school." Watch it, it's worth it. Pay attention to the integration of the arts, science and math. The video is better to watch through this link.

I had a busy day in the shop yesterday and will repeat the experience today with my trusted helper. We started making 500 boxes. Some narrow minded pinheads watching from a place of detachment would think going through these motions, making cut after cut would be an exercise in mindlessness. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Because these boxes are made of real wood, each piece requires careful assessment as to suitability of size, wood grain, color and possible defects. No cut is made without careful examination of the stock and reflection on its best use. The hand, eye and mind working together make these simple, well practiced assessments quickly, so no lengthy deliberation is required. The speed at which these assessments are made might lead some inexperienced nincompoop  to assume the process mindless. Working with the characteristics of real wood, it is anything but.

As I was cutting mitered corners, each piece again required close scrutiny. First, I had to observe each piece as to which end to begin my cuts. Checks and cracks needed to be avoided. I used the same technique to obtain a 3 corner match that I've demonstrated in my books, classes and articles on box making. The description of what goes through my mind as I make each set of cuts would take paragraphs, and yet with my hands and mind working together, the process goes quickly, allowing me to cut the corners of a box in what would appear to be a flash.

But the mindfulness is not just in the process itself. It took years of reflection on processes to get to this point. It took years of careful observation and training to integrate my hands, eyes and mind in making boxes. It also requires hands trained in the manipulation of parts... sensitivity as well as motor capacity.

And so, while we have been trained to see mindfulness in some things and not others, to see a man at work in a thing as simple as the making of a box is to see mind at work. In fact, the deliberate motions of the hands illustrate the workings of mind, even though some in the academic world, unskilled in the making of things might fail to see it.

So today is more of the same. There is a richness of mind that comes from close scrutiny of physical reality in the making of real things. Research by Ellen Langer proves that mindfulness is essential to a long and meaningful life. And there is no better path to mindfulness than that offered by the hands. In her interview on Talk of the Nation, Ellen Langer was asked about the apparent mindlessness in the performance of music. She laughed at the foolishness of such notions.

As you can see in the photo at left, the small wooden things I showed in yesterday's post are door stops. The pins protruding are used just as are dowel centers and will mark the location for matching holes to be drilled in the doors, so that rare earth magnets can be glued in place to hold the doors closed.

Make, fix and create...