Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year! Here we are nearly at the beginning of 2008 and the close of the 2007 tax year. In the US, we are in the midst of a presidential campaign. Unfortunately as most people in the world have witnessed thorough the stupidity of the current administration, the choices we will make in this election have global implications. We are also poised on the edge of global environmental challenges on an epic scale. In honor of the income tax we pay each year in the US, I’ll go right off the deep end. Woodworkers aren’t supposed to know anything about taxes, right?

In order to make the necessary changes in the American economy to facilitate environmental responsibility, it is important to engage in the systematic replacement of the income tax with a system of taxation that fully addresses the depletion of the world’s resources by rampant irresponsible consumerism. You can take the world’s resources and make things of lasting high quality, or you can waste those very same resources making useless junk and trash. By taxing the use and disposal of resources you put the burden of sustaining government where it belongs, on those whose actions diminish the future for our children and grandchildren. So in the common sense woodworker’s approach to taxes, I suggest that we tax the use of materials and the disposal of those materials, thereby pushing the American economy to grow as an expression of environmental responsibility instead of consumerism.

Taxation of labor has direct bearing on the expression of quality and skill in the American workforce. The income tax on individuals applies pressure for faster, less attentive workmanship, while concurrently pushing the American workman to settle for cheaper low quality imported goods.

And so exactly where does woodworking come in? Robert Rodale, former director of Rodale Press, Organic Gardening, Prevention and American Woodworker Magazines offered what some thought to be a bizarre hypothesis before his death in a car accident in Russia in 1990. Imagine, 1990? It would be at least another 17 years before George W. Bush would warm up his brain enough to admit the dangers of global warming. The idea proposed by Rodale was this: Wood is a carbon sink. Natural forests remove carbon dioxide from the environment. By building our homes from wood, and furnishing our homes in real wood, we extract carbon from the environment for as long as those carbon molecules are sequestered from decay. Build our homes to last and construct lasting high quality wooden furnishings and we have essentially prevented that carbon from adding to the intolerable levels of CO2 in the natural environment. Of course making things from wood is not a complete solution. Much more needs to be done, but in essence, woodworkers making high quality lasting goods could and should be paid carbon credits as long as the materials we use come from sources that do not put the environment at risk. Rustic furniture, anyone?

As you watch the presidential race and as we begin the New Year, watch to see if any candidates have the courage to address the current tax code. It is an abomination constructed by the special interests of consumerism. Those special interests sustain various candidates and it is hard for those candidates to find courage to propose change. So don't look for any actual changes to take place. And yet, I have hope that we are on the edge of an awakening that starts with the hands. As other parts of the environmental movement struggle to get a grip on the issues, the Wisdom of the Hands concept provides a handle, a place to get hold of things and begin lasting change.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

I have been working on articles for Woodwork Magazine (the writing part) and have also been working on the first pieces for the Rustic Furniture book. The photo at left is of a bedside or end table made from western cedar. It is a material commonly available as rough-sawn from lumber yards throughout the US. It can be nailed or doweled, cut with hand saws or circular power saws. The first tables I made in this design were made when my wife and I moved into our home and didn't have enough furniture or money to buy it. So quickly-made tables lasted for years until they were replaced by finer work and were passed along to other young couples starting their first homes. I am studying Swedish, and can tell you that the svenske word for table is very much like what our tables are made from, bord, but if I were writing this in Swedish, I would say the material is västlig ceder trä.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

It is the end of the year, 2007, and it is a good time to look up and scan the horizon. What comes next? What can a common woodworker see when he lifts his eyes from the workbench?

Yesterday I went to the movies with my wife, to a huge new mega-plex with 12 wide screens of distraction. It is what millions of people do to escape their lives, overcome a sense of boredom and find pleasure in visual imagery, loud noise and fantasy. It seems to be good for the measured economy and lots of people in cities far from Arkansas are making lots of money from it. So much money in fact, that going to the movies is something that most Americans do on special occasions. For the everyday distraction, the small but essential dose, we turn to television and DVDs.

And so what does that tell us about ourselves? Are our own lives so lacking in excitement, pleasure of relationship, and creative imagination?

I suspect the need for fantasy and distraction is so large because when we lift our eyes from the bench tops of our daily lives, what we see on the horizon may be more frightening than anything we would find in the movies. Global warming as a single issue would be enough to scare the pants off anyone willing to look at it directly and face its implications. We are failing to face the need for drastic change in our use of energy and the earth's resources. We are failing to address the world's poverty and the social issues that are the roots of terrorism. United States foreign policy has pushed us closer to the brink of international chaos. Add to that, the loss of nearly all manufacturing capacity in the USA and our dependency on imported energy and consumer goods. We have created a nation of helpless, distracted souls caught up in a desperate search for greater distraction.

There is something in my half Scandinavian heritage that asks the question, "Why should I spend money for those things I could do or make for myself?" Call me a cheapskate. So What? This simple starting point leads to simple pleasures that weave a fabric of community: each thread a skill developed locally and shared with neighbors and friends. There are essential values in the small scale economy of individual craftsmen that over time has the power to transform. Using the materials at hand in our own communities and the skills we can develop in our own hands, we discover simple power to transform the world and our relationships with each other. We are required to put aside our distractions and invest in our own creative power. It is not the same as sitting at the multi-plex, powerless zombies pulled by the screen to the edges of our seats. It is better, richer and in time more deeply rewarding. I call it the wisdom of the hands.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The photo at left is Dave with his grandmother's rocker, once again in working order. Objects carry memory. This chair, having been broken and placed in the attic managed to survive the flooding from Katrina. It had been repaired before and was made sometime in the mid-to-late 1880's.

Dave told me some of his grandmother's story. As a newly-wed in 1882, she and her husband booked passage to Cuba on a sailing ship carrying a load of lumber from Pascagoula, Mississippi. The load of lumber shifted in a rolling sea, changing the balance of the load and turning the ship bottom up. His grandmother and grandfather survived 3 weeks in a life boat, drinking rainwater and eating raw flying fish. They landed on a barrier island off the coast of Mexico. While it would be impossible to read that story directly from the chair, it is an object that provides a link to important memories and family history.

We think of stories being told in words, and it is quite true, they are. But objects play an important role in the recording and preservation and recording of history as well. It is quite telling that students will discard the papers they wrote in high school, but they will keep the objects they made in woodshop. One of the things we discovered about Dave's chair was that two braces, left and right were different. One was machine made and original, the other was hand made as a replacement for a broken part. Was it made by Dave's grandfather, or his father or brother? There are some parts of the story the chair will never tell.

Three more quick photos of the back leg repair sequence. The last one shows the rocker in place and with glue to secure the cracks in the front leg caused when the rocker broke loose from the back. Next I will drill through the old dowel hole in the rocker to reinstall the dowel in new wood. In the meantime, I'm cleaning and clearing the decks for the first project in the new book.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Just a bit more on chair repair. I traced the intersection of the rocker and back leg on the other side of the chair to serve as a guide for reshaping the broken back leg. After cutting out the template with scissors, I trace around it to mark the cut lines as shown in the photos above. Note the alignment of grain intended to secure greatest strength in the glued joint. Tomorrow, I will use a saber saw to cut the shape of the back leg and use a rasp to give it its final shape. Then the rocker can be attached with dowels and the chair can be put back in service.

A friend of mine rescued this walnut rocker from the attic of his brother's home in New Orleans just before it was torn down due to flood damage from Katrina. I usually avoid furniture repairs, preferring to make new, but I learned this simple technique from finishing pro Bob Flexner when I was teaching at Marc Adams School. I had to try it, and it gave me an excuse to save something from New Orleans that would otherwise have gone in the dump. To repair the broken back leg, plane wood to the same thickness as the chair leg. Then plane the broken leg down to provide a flat gluing surface and glue the replacement wood in position. After the glue sets, I will reshape the back leg to match the other side and drill it for the dowels from the rocker to fit. The end of the year is a good time to finish old projects, clearing the deck for the new. And my friend from New Orleans will be pleased to have saved a family heirloom.
The photo above shows the use of the book Winter Twigs of Arkansas by G. Thomas Clark. While the book is out of print, it can be a valuable resource for rustic furniture makers in the Eastern or Central US hoping to use their work to connect more deeply with the natural world. As you can probably guess, the twig shown is black cherry. You can also find a hardwood winter twig key online from Michigan State University, or from Virginal Tech.
You may have heard the reports about sales this Christmas season. There is a great deal of disappointment in the retail sales numbers and concern about a possible recession. Our government, business leaders and media are very watchful the numbers. If you can measure things you have the potential for manipulation and control. We all want security for our families and communities, but whether or not we find some comfort in the data may be related to which financial data we pay attention to and there are some wonderful things that are beyond our capacity to measure and are thus neglected by financial analysts.

What would happen to the numbers if we as a nation decided to make our presents instead of buying them? Can there be an increase in national product that wouldn't be measured in the GNP? Is production of value only when the object of production is sold and has impact on the measurable economy? If someone plants a garden and enjoys the fruit of their own labor, the measurable economy shrinks by a small degree, and yet the life of the gardener and his or her community is made rich and full.

It might be scary for some that I would ask for a reduction in holiday spending on senseless consumer items... that we turn next season in greater numbers to lives as makers of our own gifts. It would be regarded as a sacrilege by those whose only contact with reality is to scan the numbers in the Wall Street Journal and who control our nation.

There is a very dark side to the consumer society that has been developed and sold to us. It lurks in our land-fills and is toxic and wasteful of our earth's resources. It has arisen with our disconnect from hands-on-physical reality as we buzz high-speed-caffeinated through life as pin-balls bouncing between our acquisitions, and ever flipped toward the newest thing.

If you want to know just a bit more, look at the latest issue of National Geographic. It tells the challenges and dangers of disposal of the vast quantities of consumer electronics and where things go when they no longer have the power to distract and hold our attention.

So, here we are with 362 shopping or making days until next Christmas. You can open an account and save your money so next year you can support the very gross national product during this important season. Or you can open an account of wonder and skill, developing your own life as a maker of immeasurable beauty, in an unmeasurable national product. The choice is ours and we choose the gifts. The ones we make ourselves may give for generations.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Today, I went out with the tractor and chainsaw to harvest a sycamore log that has been bugging me for over three years. It was about 12 feet long, almost 2 ft. in diameter at the butt end, and laying in a ditch at the foot of Harmon Park in Eureka Springs. It had been bugging me because I knew it was decaying and going to waste and I drove past it at least twice a day on my way to and from school. The ditch nearly always had some water in it from a nearby spring, keeping the log wet, preventing serious cracks, but also maintaining perfect conditions for rapid decay. I really didn't know what to expect. Would there be anything useful in it, or would it all fall to sawdust at the first cut?

I had been offered the log by the parks director for free if I would haul it off. So today was the day. I cut it into three pieces to be able to carry it in the front loader of my small tractor, and then found that the last piece at the butt end was still too heavy to lift. I made a ripping cut down the center, cutting it in half for two loads, but also revealing the beautiful spalting wood inside. Parts of the log are too far decayed to be of any use, but those parts that are spalted and still sound will make beautiful inlay on the tops of boxes, and if I am lucky, a table top or two.

The amazing thing abut this sycamore log is that it had been in the ditch for years with thousands of cars passing by, unaware of the potential beauty at hand. I get emails from readers wondering "where can I get spalted wood?" I tell them they can find it on eBay and pay lots of money, or they can pay attention as they walk or drive thorough their own communities and it will turn up. Bringing it home in a front loader and sawing it yourself is a much better adventure than waiting impatiently for the UPS truck. Photos above and below show some of the beauty, and if you can imagine something like this coming in a UPS truck, you can see why it might be expensive.

By the way, my daughter loves her tool box.

Monday, December 24, 2007

There are now no more making days until Christmas. Friends, Jackie and Paige came by with gifts they had made and it is wonderful that some are keeping crafts alive at Christmas time. I am looking forward to seeing Lucy's reaction to her new tool-kit. I did a bit more chain sawing today, milling a white oak log into planks for making some rustic benches. By standing the log on end, I was able to make ripping cuts nearly to the end, and keeping it together as a log held it stable for each cut. I think you will see what I mean in the following photo. The chainsaw is a 30 year old Stihl 041AV. It is a monster saw, and the 30 inch bar makes it a bear to handle except in these vertical ripping cuts.
These are the saplings and branches I harvested yesterday. I carefully trim the chain-sawn ends and then apply sealant to prevent cracking and infestation of bugs as they dry. Next, the saplings will be dried under cover from rain and snow, reducing their moisture content before they are used in making furniture in late spring or mid summer. In the photos below, you see a Christmas present in progress made of cherry by John Grossbohlin for his mother. He assures me it will be late. I think you can see the challenges involved. The only power tool used was the band-saw in preparing stock. A gift like this is more than just a gift to his mother. Preservation of technique and development of skill are gifts to the future as well(and not just because it will be late). Great work John.
Only one making day until Christmas, and with hand-made things that involve tools, whether in the wood shop or in the kitchen, I want to caution you not to hurry up to get done but to slow down and consciously avoid stress. I took a thin slice off my thumb last night with a cheese grater, which shows that even the simple every day tools used in the preparation of food can be a danger when we are tired or under stress.

So why hurry? The real gift is not the object itself, but the expression of care that it represents. There are too many meaningless objects in the world already. If the things we make are an expression of hurry or worry then they may be sending the wrong message. The calendar is an artificial thing, and so what if the gift arrives late?

If you are shopping today instead of making, the same reminder is required. Cars are dangerous things and there are millions of people out there stressed to the point of total distraction. They are a danger to themselves and to you if you happen to get in their way. The lessons learned and the damages done when a car goes out of control are far greater than when a cheese grater slips.

Please be safe and enjoy the holidays.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

It is a great day to be in the woods or forests of Northwest Arkansas, and I've been out with my chain saw harvesting small saplings for my rustic furniture book. As with most woodworking, rustic work presents a learning experience. What better way to learn about the outdoors than to go to work in it? Take two things with you besides your chainsaw, ear protection and hand held trimmers: Trees of Arkansas by Dwight Moore and published by the Arkansas Forestry Commission is a book that will be helpful in most of the eastern and central US for the identification and use of various species. If you are harvesting in the winter months when the sap is down and the leaves are off the tree, Winter Twigs of Arkansas, a book out of print but still available from used book sellers will help you to know what woods you are harvesting. Use of rustic materials is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the forests. I'd rather walk, discover, take home and make than hunt animals, and you know what they say, "use it or lose it." To protect our forests, we must first learn their beauty and value.

Harvesting materials for making rustic furniture can be done without damaging the forest. Look for trees that are crowded too close together or are damaged from falling timber. Removing these trees can help to improve the overall forest conditions, and you can leave the forest in better shape than you found it. But first, before you cut a stick, get to know the under-story trees. Dogwood, Redbud and Carolina Buckthorn trees should be left alone to grow undisturbed. They provide beauty in the forest and never grow large enough to provide lumber.
Richard Bazeley, wood shop teacher in Australia sent me the photo at left of "standing spoons" he made from apricot as a gift for good friends this holiday season.

A friend of mine Theo, also known as JOAT or Jack of all trades in the rec wood working newsgroup sent me the photos above for the blokes in basements, geezers in garages series from his shop in North Carolina. A big man in a small shop is evidence that size doesn't always matter. A woodshop never goes soft on you. It can provide hours of pleasure even when it is only 8' x 10' in size and filled with tools to the point you can hardly work without moving something out of the way. Theo paints his tools a distinctive yellow so that he will see them again when borrowed by his sons. He says about his shop:
Better today than it was a day ago, got rid of some trash. And, better now than when I was doing some reindeer 'yard art' for the dau-in-law. What a PITA those are. Mostly concentrating on banks, and routing jigs, for just now. Also do some kids puzzle rocking chairs, all my own shop stands,and whatever is fun at the moment.
Theo, thanks for sharing your shop. In the meantime, there are two more making days until Christmas. You will likely notice that everything you'll see under the tree this year will be made in China. If you are lucky enough to receive a gift made by a real person you know, take time to notice things about it. Fuss over it and compliment the skill or intent of the maker. As we have led our children away from the joy of making things, encouraging them to spend a large proportion of their lives in a virtual world, what little you see now of hand-made, well crafted objects may be the end of it. Unless, of course, we take matters into our own hands.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Now there are just two making days before Christmas, and for some, lacking tools and materials, not to mention experience, it may all come down to cookies. Follow a recipe for the best results. Tonight I made pizza to celebrate my daughter's return from New York. After taking two days instead of one due to delays and mechanical troubles, a missed final flight, and a lonely overnight in Memphis, Lucy made it home to Northwest Arkansas. Some comfort food was in order, and I was highly complemented that Lucy believes my pizza to be better than what she found in New York City.

That brings me to the point of this evening's blog entry. Our culture has disparaged and undervalued the work of the hand. To put things right requires affirmative action in which time and effort are offered in appreciation of the values that the hands impart. This can be hard. There is a lot of ill-conceived, poorly-made stuff being done, and simply being done by hand is not sufficient justification for all of it. The secret to being of support to those who strive in the crafts is not to draw unreasonable comparisons with manufactured work, but to follow the guidance of Otto Salomon who said "the value of the student's work is not in the object but in the student." Notice the application of effort. Reward it with your attention. Ask about the feelings of accomplishment and the direction of future work. Ignore the obvious failings in the work and look for and describe its strengths. Remember that in learning not all will achieve the same level of expertise, but that all can benefit from the encouragement that you can offer.

So whether or not you have the time or inclination this Holiday season to make things or even cookies (or pizza) for those you love, you may encounter gifts made by hand. Treasure them and award their makers your undivided attention. The hands are the foundation of civilization and must not be forgotten.
There are 3 making days until Christmas, and if you are a normal American, you will be shopping at the malls and discount stores today and tomorrow with others in a rude, frantic rush. A friend of mine told about seeing a man ram a woman with his shopping cart while he demanded, "Move your fat ass." The season can really bring out the worst in some.

In the meantime those who make the gifts they give may not spend over the limits of their credit cards and bank accounts, and may instead feel some relative sense of calm this holiday season. If the gifts we give were acquired through the expression of anger and hostility, one can wonder how they reflect joy for those who receive them.

So, what if this is the first year for you as a maker of things? You do put a lot of yourself on the line. It is scary, right? As a beginner, your quality won't be same as the quality of work spewed from the world's factories. In a world where the hands are given so little notice or respect, and in which skill is marginalized in the face of the glitz and glitter of the newest meaningless thing, you are taking a chance on giving something you have made as an expression of your own aspirations. But use that gift as an excuse to share your own interest in the awakening of the wisdom of your own hands. Who knows, your example may help others to discover something new about themselves. The pleasure and sanity that comes from being more consciously engaged with the hands would be a great gift in a season too frantic, too worried, too hassled and rude.

Or you can get your shopping cart up to ramming speed, right?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Wishing a happy holiday for the hands! That doesn't mean that they get to rest, but that they get noticed. I had a conversation at lunch with an old friend, a chance to get caught up on each other's lives. It had been a couple years or more. Bill is a psychologist, a student of the mind, and I am a maker, a student of the hand, and these can be two different worlds. Bill escapes his work world of clients, counseling and the exploration of dream states by gardening, playing basketball and by playing guitar in a band. His vocation and avocations are a perfect image of the common divide, the hand and the brain, the intelligence vs. entry to spaces of the heart.

This was on Wednesday, the day in which I was having some difficulties explaining myself and I had some difficulties explaining to Bill, The Wisdom of the Hands. In the first place, anyone who takes the mind, or his mind or her mind seriously may have a great deal invested in reading or study of his or her own which must be offered up in rebuttal and challenge. The perceptions of the dominance and power of the mind are deeply entrenched. But open the door just a crack and the hands can begin to explain things on their own. Notice how when the hands are freed to gesture how much more freely the words can flow. Hold an object in your hands and observe what happens to the flow of thought. It can be a guitar that does it, or the dribbling of a ball. Hands in the soil while in the garden or the hot water while washing dishes. You can say that the revolution of consciousness is "at hand."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

As you can see from the photos above, Lucy's toolkit is ready to wrap. How have I been so lucky? I get to spend time in the woodshop instead of in the shopping mall. There are people who don't know what they are missing. We still have 4 more making days until Christmas.

The Vaughan and Bushnell "Little Pro" hammer, the "centerpiece" of the toolkit is important. It is the hammer of choice in the Wisdom of the Hands program. In 2002 when I won my first Golden Hammer Award for How-to writing from the National Association of Home Workshop Writers, sponsored by Vaughan and Bushnell, I suggested that each Golden Hammer Award winner be given a selection of Vaughan and Bushnell tools to present to a school program of his or her choice. Clear Spring School was the first school to be honored in this way, and each succeeding year there have been more recipients in a program we call "Tools for Schools." Since this box was designed to help compensate for the lack of tools on my daughter's floor at Columbia University, it is also a fitting time to acknowledge Vaughan and Bushnell for their support of putting real tools back in schools. Even Columbia University in New York City will feel the effects.
The photo above shows Lucy's tool box with its first coat of Danish oil. The step-by-step photos are all complete. Next come "beauty shots" for the opening page of the article. When I get the go-ahead from an editor, I begin to write and make sketches for the illustrator to work from.

Have you ever had the experience of being at the back of the room, raising your hand knowing that you have the right answer, but knowing as well that the teacher will ignore you as long as possible in the hopes that one of her pets will answer first? That's kind of what it is like being at the cutting edge of education. The real nitty-gritty is taking place in public schools where there are way too many students for the number of teachers, teachers are deprived of their creative turf by testing and "accountability", and few communities have either the will or the resources necessary to make changes. Administrators keep hoping some high tech, low cost solution will appear, but that waving hand at the back of the room, waves for the engagement in learning of all the other hands in the room.

It is expensive to engage the hands and to provide hands-on education for our children. It is also expensive and wasteful of the lives of our children to keep the hands idle. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the old saying: "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." So what if we put an end to our engagements in war and devoted those vast resources in the American classrooms? I know it won't happen yet, but when people get a chance to look up from their depressing educational circumstances, there is a small school in Arkansas that could serve as a model for change.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I wasn't in my best form for my talk this morning at Rotary. I was trying to cover too much ground in too short a time, and I need to learn a lesson from it. New things are best learned slowly. They have to be digested and when they have to do with the hands, they have to be explored in the hands as well as in the mind. That takes time. I spent the day running errands and locating materials for the new book, but I did manage to get the top veneer glued to the tool box for Lucy.

In the meantime, I got an email from Tom Begnal at Fine Woodworking that my box design article is almost ready to go to press and that a class he taught to Fine Woodworking staff on box making based on his visit here making boxes with me is featured in the Fine Woodworking Editor's Blog at the Fine Woodworking website.

The photo above shows laminating the veneer on Lucy's box using the Thin Air vacuum press kit. The Thin Air kit works great. Put the work in the bag and use the small hand pump to remove the air. I used Elmer's Carpentry Glue, so a couple hours in the bag was long enough to for the glue to set, and the veneered top is shown below ready for sanding and routing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tomorrow I get up real early for the Eureka Springs Rotary Club's breakfast meeting. I am this month's guest speaker, and I always enjoy the opportunity to practice with friends. I know that some day I'll have to describe the Wisdom of the Hands program to a larger audience, and perhaps even defend it against detractors. So to talk about these things with an audience of friendly faces is a welcomed experience. And as I do more of it, my natural nervousness goes away.

How do I reduce all this, however, to a 20 minute presentation? I have to choose the points that are most relevant to the audience, and having spoken there before I know that they will be a cross section of business leaders from our community, a smattering of educators, health care specialists and retired executives.

So my talk will be about the role of independent schools in sustaining creativity in the teaching profession and how this fits the education of the hand and heart. I'll take a PowerPoint presentation that I'll go through very quickly, then some notes about the hands in learning and then finish with the recent article about the need for creativity in schools.
Today, I made the box, and cut the lid from the base as shown in the photo above. With the blade set to a height just less than the thickness of the sides, I leave a bit to trim with the knife, actually separating the two parts after they are removed from the saw. Tomorrow I will put a piece of veneer on the top, add some mechanical fasteners to the corners for strength, sand and install the hardware. We now have 6 making days left until Christmas.

If you think about it, with all the advances in knowledge that have taken place over the years a huge number of the "correct" answers upon which children have been tested have later been proven wrong. Oops! But what if we were to look for "creative problem solving" in our assessment of student performance, instead?

Monday, December 17, 2007

I made a little progress today on Lucy's toolbox to take back to Columbia in NYC. It is a Christmas present, but also an excuse to write an article about the lack of real tools in colleges and universities. I used 1/2" thick foam board in two layers to make the dividers to hold the tools in place, using the scroll saw to cut and remove the shapes of the tools. I used Donjer Flocking and adhesive to "flock" the interior. It is a cheap, easy and quick solution to lining a complex shape. Tomorrow I make the box to put it in.
I made the delivery of Clear Spring kid-made toys to the food bank where they were busy loading baskets for the poor. They said, "We were hoping the kids would do this again." This is our third year, so I guess it has become a tradition. Distribution of wooden toys to kids is a holiday tradition for many adult woodworking clubs, and this year with concerns about lead paint on Chinese made goods, things made of wood are in high demand. The few remaining American wooden toy makers are having record sales as parents seek safer products. What a great time to rediscover the wonder of real wood.

The 3rd and 4th grade class finished their stamp dispenser trucks today, so they are ready to sell at the Holiday program tomorrow night.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Next week, my holiday break from school begins, the first chapter of my new book gets started, my daughter comes home from Columbia University for her semester break, and the western world is thrown into the pandemonium of last ditch Christmas shopping. I went shopping with my wife the other night and saw first hand what I try my best to avoid. I guess the worst of it, or at least the most offensive is the wrapping paper, which will go immediately to the land fill the week after Christmas. But I shouldn't be too hard on that. The wrapping of presents is at least a small opportunity for people to feel creatively engaged. There can even be skill in it. With the usual avenues of creative expression closed to most people, at least some sense of participation in the creation of beauty can be found in wrapping up the stuff.

But what if things were reversed? What if we were to put our creative and constructive energy into the making of the gift and then made our presentation of it unceremoniously wrapped in brown paper or newsprint? Would the gift be less expressive of our love?

One thing for sure, we would learn more from the making of objects than we would from wrapping things in the finest and most expensive ribbons and papers. We would share more of ourselves, our innermost aspirations for skill and creative expression. We would take greater creative risk in our lives, expressing more of ourselves to each other. We would lessen the toll of the holidays on our fragile environment. We would save money, and save ourselves from the frantic curse of holiday shopping. And the things we made and gave might live on past the arrival of the weekly garbage truck and serve as small monuments to growth, caring and love.

And its not too late. We still have 8 good making days until Christmas. I plan to make a quick and easy tool box for my daughter to take back to college, and if only I knew how to knit, I'd be making socks.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Joe Barry wrote the following in today's e-mail:
"If you're re-reading Pye you should also go back to The Unknown Craftsman. In rustic furniture there is also the very Japanese concept of "Ma", or space. In the west we consider space to just be empty. In Japan the space is the balance or counterpoise to the object. The random accidents of space produced in rustic furniture are ones that western viewers have been unable to articulate due to a lack of vocabulary. We are reduced to saying we don't know why it appeals - only that it does."
In our culture we are focused on object as object, distinct, and isolated not only in terms of spatial and material qualities. We have an absurd fixation on seeing things as fixed in space and time when in reality they are not. In our quest for "certainty" we live in constant and active denial of the laws of physics, motion and change. Objects are expressions of relationship, not just of space vs. emptiness, but also involving the element of time. They capture the essential qualities of their maker in the moment of their creation. Rustic work may or may not reflect a final destination, but as part of a journey may be just what is required for growth. In other words, even the finest woodworker starts out by making something far short of his or her finest work. It takes a while to get good at anything. The real secret is to overcome lack of confidence and just start work. I can help some with that.

It requires effort and attention to see objects in their real form, so rather than seeing a table as an expression of its maker, or its placement in the home, or the materials used in its making or in relation to the objects it is designed to hold and display, or of the people for whom it was made, we just say table, as though in the naming of it our mastery of the object is complete. It would be impossible to describe in words the infinite, intricate relationships the table represents. When we move beyond seeing the world as full of objects, we begin to understand ourselves as active expressions of relationship and begin to understand others in the same light.

I think part of the appeal of rustic work can be explained by the relationship between order and chaos. We take comfort in the one, but have a strange fascination with the other. We are bored by the certainty we work like dogs to sustain. We are drawn like moths to the flame toward things coming apart. As voyeurs, sitting in the comfort of our lazy boys in front of our TVs we take great comfort that the chaos we see affects other people's lives and not our own. Randomness of texture and form within the confines of concepts known and accepted is that dance of contrasts, male-female, darkness-light, smooth-rough, worked-unworked, craftsmanship in inexplicable contrast/balance with natural form. A good piece of rustic furniture can engage the imagination like driving by a car past a train wreck, but with no injuries, and no ambulance required.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What is it? Even Julian doesn't know for sure. The first and second grade students have been making wood objects at an alarming rate and this is one I purchased on Thursday. In their classroom they have made a variety of stores where they sell things they have made using gravel from the playground as their currency. For a few bits of gravel you can buy nearly anything but popcorn which requires real US dollars since the kids are saving real money to make a Holiday contribution to Heifer International. There is something that happens to kids on their way to becoming adults. They lose their creativity. In essence, you can say it is schooled out of us. We are dulled to conform with other people's dull notions of reality. So, you can see from Julian's example, that things can be quickly made and even though you don't know what they are, they can still engage the imagination, and stimulate others to explore their own creativity.
Tomorrow I start gathering the materials for making several pieces of rustic furniture. I was surprised to hear in a discussion on the internet that some woodworkers view rustic work as being inferior and unworthy of interest, in light of more technically demanding work. It may be that since fewer tools are required and the level of finish is not quite as demanding, it may not qualify as "real" woodworking in some minds.

I've been re-reading David Pye's book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, in which he proposes the interesting concept, "workmanship of risk" as contrasted with workmanship of certainty in which tools and jigs remove the requirement of attention in the making of objects. Nearly all our mass production culture is based on "workmanship of certainty." Unfortunately, Pye drops the ball in his interesting discussion. Rather than describing what the values of risk are in human life and society, thus entering the insecure zone of human reflection and emotion, he spends the balance of the book in criticism of John Ruskin and William Morris for the imprecision and lack of rationality of their justification and advocacy of hand-craftsmanship.

So, anyway, Mr. Pye, thank you for your contribution of an interesting and valuable concept. Not trying to be flip, but, here is the skinny. No risk, no culture. Everything that exists is what it is because someone stepped outside the bounds, out of the box, putting something on the line to try something new, to learn to do something they had never done before, and we owe it ALL, EVERYTHING to the very simple concept of risk.

So, in explanation of rustic work... or the work of kids in school where not every edge gets sanded and not all concepts work: Where there is risk, there is learning and growth. When things are done by hand, even inexpertly done by a child there is the potential of discovery and refinement. So, none of this can really be understood as a purely intellectual concept. It is messy and emotional like the twigs on a branch and the branches on a tree... connected at the deepest core of our humanity where we may suddenly feel beauty as visceral and real ("My breath was taken away"). There is a hollow space behind the heart that is suddenly filled and brought to silence in the presence of a well crafted object. And if you put aside David Pye's criticisms of Ruskin and Morris and examine the feelings of order, attention and serenity conveyed by one of the things he made, you will probably decide as I have that while a picture is worth a thousand words, an object, well crafted, created in the fullest expression of human attention is worth a million or more.

So, go make something. The photo above is from David Pye's book The Nature and Art of Workmanship. If you look closely at the wood grain, you may get a better understanding of the piece, and the woodworker always has a choice. Do I use my skills to draw attention to myself? Or do I use my skills to draw attention to the beauty of the materials and nature? Most of us are working somewhere in balance between the two, so if you were to wondering where rustic work falls into the scheme of things, now you know.
This morning teacher Pete and I divided the students into teams of two for making cars. The purpose of this was to encourage cooperation in the design, and to reinforce of course the real world concept of working in teams. That is hard for some who would rather work on their own, but we all know that many wonderful things come when we work closely with others on the completion of a task. The photo above shows Colter with a finished car, and below you see the class with the proceeds of the morning's work.
This morning in the Clear Spring School wood shop, the 7th, 8th and 9th grades will be working on toy cars and trucks to help the 5th and 6th grade project. There will be photos later in the day. In my outside the school work, I just signed a contract for a new book about making rustic furniture. It should get me out into the surrounding woods for some fun. so, I have been ordering some tools, clearing some space in my messy shop, clearing the decks in various ways. During the 9 months it will take to write and photograph the book, I will also keep up with things at school, fill orders for my small boxes, and try to keep a few articles in print. One of my pre-book priorities has been to get an article finished for Woodwork magazine on my visit to Nääs and Solomon's role in the international promotion of Sloyd. The whole story is far too large for the pages of a magazine, but my hope is that what I've submitted to the editor helps the woodworking public to better undertstand our own history and the potential that woodworking offers modern education.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Today, the 5th and 6th grade students finished their work on the toy cars which will be given to the local food bank for distribution, as shown in the photos at left and below. To make the most of our time, we divided tasks, some students designing cars, some cutting the shapes, some sanding and some assembling. I scrambled to keep the kids supplied with wood and axles. It was a fun project. On Friday, the 7th, 8th and 9th graders will join in the fun.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I had a conversation last week with a teacher from the public school system in which she described a "staggering lack of curiosity," among her students. Even the bright ones. And of course, being one who grew up in a time when curiosity was somewhat fashionable, I am curious whether the lack of curiosity might be a symptom of another recently described disorder, "Nature deficit disorder." Now don't go asking at your doctor for pills, and don't go looking in your DMR for NDD as an accepted psychological disorder. Don't try to claim the costs of your next vacation on your health insurance. It won't work. But, in case you haven't noticed, at one time human beings lived in tents, teepees, wigwams and caves and we lived much more closely in harmony with nature than we do now.

So what are the costs involved? What price do we pay for luxury and comfort? Instead of being tuned in to our natural environment we are tuned in to other things. Like what Paris Hilton was wearing at her last arrest or whether OJ has a real Rolex or is it fake?

We have been presented the luxury of filling our lives and our heads with meaningless drivel. Can you see perhaps why children might give up on curiosity? They can safely do so. But lead your children on foot to the forests. Immerse them regularly in nature. They will awaken.

The photos at left are from this morning in the woodshop at Clear Spring school. The 3rd and 4th grade students were working on their stamp trucks using an assembly line. The finished products will be sold to raise money for their Springfield trip in the spring. It is a lesson in their study of economics. The first and 2nd graders worked to add to the collection of toy cars being made by the 5th and 6th grade students to give to the poor. The photo below is of some of the creative woodwork being done by the 1st and 2nd graders in their classroom. Making things from wood has become a favorite leisure activity for the students.

Monday, December 10, 2007

It was interesting yesterday reading about the about the newly discovered business interest in "creativity" being taught in schools. The last business buzz in education was the insistence on "accountability." Students' performance was to be tested and measured to make certain that schools were getting their money's worth from the performance of the teaching staff.

There are two divergent forces in American education. That of learning and creativity, and that of discipline and control. Business leaders are inspired by business models. When we were a manufacturing nation, they wanted schools to be like assembly lines. Now that we are a nation of big box stores, one can only imagine what they have in mind.

Instead of attempting to interject creativity as one more layer to be measured and for which teachers must be held accountable, perhaps it is time for business to butt out. Trust teachers to teach according to the methods of Pestalozzi, Froebel, Salomon and Montessori. Then trust children to play and learn. Anything else we do furthers our journey toward becoming a nation of idiots.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Creativity matters... From the Associated Press.
Seattle -- Applicants for even the most technical jobs need more than good grades and the ability to understand complex problems, says a group of business leaders who want to add another essential to the list of things kids learn in school: creativity.
The article raises the question, "Can you even teach creativity in the classroom?" The simple answer: If you allow it and if you encourage it. If you keep children's hands folded neatly on their desks, it won't happen. And we show how this works every day in the Wisdom of the Hands program and at Clear Spring School. Perhaps one day the world will awaken. There are risks. People with creativity can be like loose cannons. We can fire off in all directions and can be the faulty administrator's worst nightmare.

I am reminded of an art teacher friend, Jack, who was told by his new principal that he was expected to maintain quiet and order in his classroom. Jack calmly replied, "Let's go to your office so I can submit my letter of resignation right now." The principal, facing the challenge of hiring a new teacher at the beginning of the year backed down, leaving Jack the room he needed to work. You can't have creativity in schools unless you allow space for it and allow your teachers to model it. Jack uses movement and dance in his art classes to loosen the children up for creative work.

According to Bob Watt, vice president of government and community relations at Boeing: "We make our living imagining things that never before existed. Creativity is at the heart of what Boeing does."

But at the heart of all education is the teacher. There are three things that have to happen in American schools for creativity to blossom. 1. Reduce class sizes to allow teachers to engage in greater depth with the needs of their students. 2. Reduce the emphasis on testing. Teaching to the test and close adherence to a scripted curriculum deprives the teachers of their much needed creative engagement with subject materials. 3. Restore the arts (including woodworking) as the center of school activities. If you need an example of how this works, the current leader in PISA testing of academic performance is Finland. For 150 years, since the time of Uno Cignaeus, inventor of Sloyd and founder of the Folk Schools, Sloyd hand crafts have been compulsory for all children in Finland. And it makes a difference.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

I have an article in this month's Woodwork Magazine, making the bench shown in the photo above. In case you are not a subscriber, you can order a complimentary copy from their website, or find it at either Barnes and Noble or Border's Bookstores.
People who teach woodworking tell me that new friends often show them the old things they made years before in woodshop. The things we make in wood have a particular energy that assures their longevity, and even when they are no longer useful or practical, they may have sentimental value that insures their place in the home.

Bengt Svensson attended the summer classes at Nääs in the late 1950’s worked for 40 years as a Sloyd teacher and then became a professor at the Department for Aesthetic Art (Sloyd, Handicraft and Design) at Linköping University, Sweden. From his home near Borås, fifty kilometers northeast of Nääs, he learned of an elementary school teacher Sven Alfred Kjellgren (1864-1937), who studied at Nääs Sloyd Teacher Training School for six weeks in 1898. His students made the objects of the 1902 model series, which took them just four lessons per week in grades 5 through 7.

Svensson met some of Kjellgren’s students, who had saved their sloyd models for over 60 years, and by following connections between students and their families, he managed to collect and photograph the entire 1902 model series which he has made available either on CD or by internet download from his website The collection also includes information about the intended educational value of the series.

Educational Sloyd was firmly rooted in the educational philosophy of Freidrich Froebel, the German educator who invented Kindergarten. The addition of Sloyd to Schools was seen as a way to extend Froebel’s theories beyond the earliest years of education. The key to an understanding of the use of Sloyd models rests in Froebel’s concept “self-activity.” Through the careful arrangement by skills used in the making of the models, a student would learn from one model nearly, but not quite everything required to complete the next, which was designed to add one more layer of skill and complexity, enabling the student to tackle the next. And so on. Through following the complete model series the student could not only develop a set of skills, but would also come to a full understanding of themselves as self-directed, self-motivated learners.

A uninformed viewer might think, “Look they’re making stuff.” When in reality, they are engaging both the material world and their own metaphysical and psychological landscape in much more subtle ways. As stated by Otto Salomon, “the value of the child’s work is not in the objects made but in the child that has made them.”

That these Sloyd models were kept and valued tells that they are much more than mere objects. They are treasured marks of conquest and learning, and also reflect relationship with a much-revered teacher and method of an earlier time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

I am applying to be a presenter at a 2nd International Conference on Sloyd. This one is in Helsinki, Finland in September 2008. If you are a regular reader, you won't find anything new in the following but it is the abstract of my presentation. It was asked that abstracts be 250 words or less, and I asked for permission for mine to run just a bit long.
Tools, Hands and the Expansion of Intellect

Abraham Maslow (American Psychologist 1908-1970): “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” So what if the only tool we offer in education is a computer? As powerful as that computer may be, does it tempt children (or ourselves) to view all things as virtual or unreal? Will solutions to real problems be thought found in the buttons, command-control-delete? There is magic in the manipulation of real tools and real materials. They engage the heart and soul of the learner, and we are endangered by our abandonment in American schools of the commonplace and mundane tools that form the foundation of human creativity.

But there is more… modern research on gesture and MRI investigation of the brain reveal the significance of the varied and rhythmic use of the hands in the development of human intellect. In essence, we are made stupid when our hands are stilled.

While most American schools and homes are involved in a vast and risky experiment in which the tools of artists and craftsmen are largely abandoned, Clear Spring School, a small independent school in Northwest Arkansas is different. We are on the cutting edge in the use of tools. In fact, we make our own tools for the exploration of learning, from hand-carved ink pens based on the 1885 Nääs Sloyd model series to the looms our children use in weaving and textiles. And when the child makes the tools used in his or her own instruction, there is a depth of interest and understanding that cannot be approached otherwise.

This presentation will illustrate in words and photos how a small school woodworking shop rooted in the principles and heritage of Educational Sloyd can be the focal point of an integrated curriculum, in which the interconnectedness of all things becomes known and expressed through the hands of each child, and how all subjects from math to physics to literature are deepened in scope and meaning by time spent in the woodshop.
In the meantime, at the Clear Spring School wood shop, students from the Critical Thinking class finished their cube puzzles as shown in the photos above and below.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What you see in the photo at left is a cherry cradle I made over 25 years ago. It is in the shop for clean-up and renewal prior to be loaned out for one more child. I originally made it as part of a small series of cradles, and this is the one that didn't sell. My wife and I began lending it to friends. When our daughter was born it became Lucy's cradle and was featured in Woodwork magazine in the US and then in Practical Woodworker in the UK. It has at last count had nearly twenty children in it, so it was due for a fresh coat of Danish oil before going to its next assignment. Teacher Pete Golden and his wife Cora are expecting their first child in January, so the cradle must be delivered soon!

It is interesting for me to revisit a piece I had made a quarter century before. I have grown a great deal in the refinement of my work and also in confidence of my own artistic vision and understanding of materials and processes. And yet, as a kid, I made the thing that has held so many children, has rocked so many times, squeaks a bit more than it should, but still could be readied for use with just a wiping of oil. Ah, the wonders of wood.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

This morning as we worked on toys in the woodshop, I also worked with the kids to finish their writing pens. Then later, after school when I pulled into the parking lot to pick up high school kids for afternoon wood club, 5th grader, Killian ran up and asked me to roll down my window. He wanted to thank me for my help in making his pen. His class had been testing their pens by writing with ink. The student and teacher assessments of their pens and the fun of using them to write? "Awesome!"

I had great hopes of getting my shop clean this afternoon but got distracted by writing and photography. I finished the last few photos for a box making article for Fine Woodworking, and began writing a "kids and Sloyd pen-making" article for Woodwork that I hope will run concurrently with my next general article on Sloyd.
Today the 5th and 6th grade students worked on the toy cars for distribution through our local food bank. Drilling the holes in the wheels is shown at left and a finished car is shown below. Many woodworking clubs are very busy this time of year making toys and hand made things have great appeal. In fact, when all you've seen in the way of toys is the highly finished plastic we've become accustomed to, some real wood is a welcomed treat. Our children find meaning in the opportunity to give back to the community and to those less fortunate. But it is also fun.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Don Boudreau is a box maker friend in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida who makes exquisite boxes in a shop only slightly larger than a two car garage. It is crammed full of tools, wood and equipment, with a bit of well traveled walking space between. Don was a corporate executive who sold his business to sail the world with his wife Carol, and then decided that life must surely offer something more than that! The answer? Box Making in his own shop -- Learning and growing in skill and artistic vision each day. Don's work can be discovered in a few select craft shows or at his website Boxes By Boudreau

Today in the Clear Spring School Woodshop, the 3rd and 4th graders, minus some absent classmates began their assembly line production of stamp/clip dispenser toy trucks. We will finish the trucks next week and hope that all the students will be present. the 1st and 2nd graders made star holiday ornaments, sawn by hand and hung from hand braided yarn hangers. It ws the first time for most of the students to try their hands at braiding. The photos above show the students at work and with stars ready for paint.