Wednesday, February 28, 2007

When John met Yoko...It is interesting how two words can sound so much alike, have the same Latin root, virtus, and have so little in common in their actual meanings. The once commonly used word virtue, meaning morally good or righteous, and the overused word virtual meaning "sort of but not really," could be thrown into my earlier discussion of real wood vs. manufactured wood-like materials aka. partical board.

Particle board at its best can be made to look like wood. In an examination at a microscopic level, wood fibers can be found. But to call particle board virtuous rather than virtual would be a tremendous stretch of both the language and the imagination. It seems like imagination is abundant (for some things), and that can be a good. John Lennon imagined a world without war. I'll go for that.

Telling how John Lennon met Yoko Ono is an obvious ploy to increase readership of this blog. Please forgive me for pandering to pop culture. At some point, I hope that concern about the hands will become pop culture, but it will take a tremendous growth in readership for that to happen.

John Lennon attended an opening of artist Yoko Ono's work "where he climbed a ladder to the ceiling to see one of Ono's installations: a placard with a tiny word on it--"Yes." She gave him a card reading "Breathe;" and requested five shillings to hammer an imaginary nail into the wall. His famous retort: an imaginary five shillings to hammer the imaginary nail. The connection was instantaneous."

So here we have it. A virtual hammer, virtual nails, what I must assume was a real ladder and wall. But, here I am, a relic of the past, a craftsman for God's sake, looking for virtue in it. I would prefer a real hammer, maybe a Vaughan, some coated framing nails (we call them cc sinkers), some real wood, maybe oak so the hammering would require strength and some nails would bend. Regardless, I am imagining a world at peace.

Now why can't hammers all be real and war be virtual? I suspect that if all children were empowered to create things of usefulness and beauty...things for real... war would fade from the horrors of human imagination. Do you think I'm stretching things a bit? You'll never know unless you give me a hand. Take a few moments and introduce your friends to the Wisdom of the Hands. We may start a movement....for real.
Ike Doss, one of my senior woodworking students finished his curly, spalted maple bowl today. I'm not sure what to say about it except what you can see for yourself. He gave it to his mother after school, and you know it will be treasured.

Paper Sloyd, again...I hope you aren't bored with it. I mentioned that I had asked my 5th and 6th grade students to do it and they were surprised that it was much more fun than they expected.

It is really good for students of all ages to be able to learn directly from written instructions. When they ask, "how do I do this?" I tell them, the instructions are all there. When they say, "I just don't get it!" I ask, "did you do the preceding project, or are you trying to skip ahead?" Paper Sloyd projects build sequentially in difficulty in such a way that no project is more difficult than its preceding one. What you need to know in one project was learned by the last. The biggest challenge for me is to keep students from trying to jump ahead to projects that they think will be more interesting. They could hardly wait to do the pin wheels.

Computers are changing the way students learn. They tend to avoid directions and just play around with things until they work. If they reach a point of frustration, they will ask rather than read. That process of learning by the seat of the pants can be sort of fun on the computer, but rather inefficient, impulsive and poorly directed for real life.

I tell my students that if they can read and follow instructions they can do anything in the world that they can imagine.
When a knowledge of tools, materials, and processes is in place, they can create whatever they might dream up. They have asked if they can do paper sloyd again next week. The photo above shows students with their pin wheels made in today's lessons.
When furniture made from a chewed up stew of forest by-products begins to wear, sorry things appear. The plastic laminate surface whose color and carefully randomized wood image has kept us fooled and satisfied for a time peals or chips away and reveals the lack of integrity beneath. I'm very sorry, but there is no real wood there, nothing to fix.

Years ago I made a small cherry trestle-style dining table that served in our home through my daughter's earliest years. At one point, my wife asked me to sand and refinish the top. It had seen years of direct sunlight and looked dry from wiping after meals with a damp cloth.

As I began to sand, there were things I noticed that brought me to a halt. There in the surface were very slight indentations... the markings where my daughter Lucy sat as a toddler and tapped with her spoon. These were marks that I could have sanded through, but I wouldn't do it. Real wood records the lives of those who have found pleasure in its use.

There is comfort to be found in provenance. I'm not talking here about a written record of the journey and ownership of work that a museum curator would keep on file, but of the small markings, coded signs left in wood that record our lives and can only be seen, read, and understood by those who have known love in its use.

We learn to take both anguish and pleasure in the wear and tear that shows up on real wood. Our lives are inscribed in it and on it. Just as the rings, grain and imperfections in wood tell the story of the life of the tree, the forest and the earth, the wood in our homes is the medium upon which details of our own lives are recorded and preserved. Wood is a narrative thing. It tells its own story, then the story of the craftsman and then ours. To live our lives without it would be a very sad thing.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Integrity of materials...what about wood? There are clearly wonderful things about wood. It grows from the earth. It pulls minerals and water from the earth, processes carbon dioxide from the air to make oxygen and then grows large and strong in its relationship to gravity and light. There is no type of living thing that has engaged man's imagination more than our trees. We write poems about them.

Steel, glass, clay and stone are each materials that must be forcibly extracted from the earth before our use of them. Wood emerges abundantly on the surface of the earth, nearly as a gift. There is no material friendlier to the touch. Steel, glass and stone are either cold or hot to the touch. Wood, even in the harshest of conditions is mild to the touch. It may be rough and with splinters at first and yet, the touch can solve that problem as well. It becomes polished to perfection through our caress.

You can walk right into the forest with an axe or a knife, find a deadfall branch and begin making art. No other material lends itself so directly to man's creative genius.

Joe mentioned the young couple in the furniture store, and it brings up all kinds of questions about wood. Wood can be such a simple and direct material with such depth of integrity, and yet we know that the wood most people have in the furnishings of their homes isn't really wood at all, but material mixed and compressed from a stew of random forest fibers, reshaped and decorated with printed images on plastic film.

There are several factors that go into the value of an object. One is the integrity of the material. You might ask, is it real? Real wood can be sanded, repaired and refinished. A piece of furniture made from real wood can thus be made to last generations. Another factor is the integrity of the craftsmanship. A craftsman can put into the making of things, the full extent of his knowledge and experience. How can he really know how to do that with newly invented materials? The best craftsmen choose materials with integrity that allow their use of techniques that make their work last beyond their own times. The third factor is the care that is given when the craftsman's work is done. Real wood sustains greater wear without loss of value or appearance, and seldom reaches that sorry point at which the owner of the work no longer cares for it.

The photos above and at left are of a steam bent hickory music stand I made for a violinist. My intent was for it to look as though it just waltzed from the woods. In a sense, it did.
In modern times, we have objects we identify as art or craft because we also choose to live our lives surrounded by objects of little meaning. In the world of museums, there is a term "provenance" which refers to knowing the source and ownership history of a work of art, or literature or an architectural find. We live our lives with objects that have no provenance. They are disposable and in most cases aren't even designed to be easily composted or recycled, so if they had "provenance," it would merely describe the uninteresting journey from the store through a couple months or so at home before being put at the curbside for disposal. The ironic thing is that we sweat bullets over the acquisition of these things.

Provenance is actually the story of the object, and the story the object tells of the culture. Remove an article from its provenance, and its deeper meaning and value are lost as well.

Now, just for one moment, imagine living a life in which every object has clear povenance, each thing reflecting relationship with its maker and the long line of people who have enjoyed its use. What you have just imagined is the kind of world we would live in if we were to choose quality over price, deeper meaning and personal growth over expedience.

My sloyd brother Joe Barry sent me the following reflection on yesterday's post.

" I can't recall the source right now but I was struck by something I read last year about the differences and opportunity costs in quality. It referred to the depression era and how there were two choices for shoes. You could buy a cheap cardboard and plastic pair for $15 that would last 1-2 years or buy a good leather pair for $60 that would last 15-20 years with care and re-soling. The poor man has no choice but to buy the cheap shoes even though he will have paid more for shoes in several years than the wealthy man who is still on the first pair he bought.

"I have had customers save up to pay for a solid wood table even though it was a strain because they knew it would be better than what they could buy in a furniture store. I heard an ad several years ago in Boston for a furniture store in which they interviewed customers shopping in the store and there was a newlywed couple that said they were there to buy a new bedroom set because the one they bought five years previously when they married needed to be replaced! I was shocked and appalled. Okay, as newlyweds they might need a new mattress or even have broken the sorry excuses for beds that are sold. But, replace the whole set of bedroom furniture??!!?? My mother still has the mahagony bedroom set she got when she married in 1951 and it is still in great shape. I wouldn't mind inheriting it. What sort of disposable culture do we have when furniture gets replaced after only 5 years. I wouldn't be surprised if the Ents didn't declare war on us and march upon High Point with the intent to punish them for the wasteful use of trees."

Thanks, Joe, for adding to the discussion.

The solid cherry china cabinet in the photo above is one I made in the early 1980's. It is made with through wedged mortise and tenon joints, hand cut dovetails and lathe turned knobs and door latches. The base and crown moldings were hand carved and attached with sliding dovetails. At the time, I considered it to be my master's thesis in woodworking, but I was attending the school of hard knocks where no actual degree is offered.

Monday, February 26, 2007

There are times when I wish my readers would be more challenging of the things I say. For instance, yesterday I said that hand-made things are more expensive than machine made things. This is only true if you are thinking only of the short term. When the long term value of the object enters the equation, the hand crafted unique object may be far less expensive. I offer the following quote from Michael Ruhlman in Wooden Boats

"We mass-produced our stuff and made it cheap so we could aford lots of it, and thus the quality had diminished to the point that we needed even more stuff, because cheap things break or go bad or get old fast. Things that grow more valuable with age are typically things of superior quality. Even now we might be unable to recognize things of superlative quality, and if so, it was already too late--we'd have to wait four hundred years for a second Renaissance to flood the culture with light."

But we won't wait four hundred years. Tomorrow in the woodshop at Clear Spring School, we will be making friendship boxes to be inscribed and exchanged between students in the First and Second grades. In the 3rd and 4th grades, we are making similar boxes, but because they are studying space, the friendship expressed will be between the earth and moon. The lids of the boxes will be decorated with the earth, orbited by the moon. These won't be objects of the highest quality unless you are looking at the qualities of learning and growth. As Otto Salomon said, the value of the child's work is not in the object made, but in the child who made it.

The piece in the photo above is some of my early work, from around 1980 or so. It is made of cherry with exposed mortise and tenon joints locked and expanded outside the mortise with walnut wedges. I don't know if this piece of early work exists or if it has value. It would be nice to see it again someday.
There are hidden costs to nearly everything, so when a human being is put to test, trying to make decisions about spending hard earned resources, it is extremely difficult to come to a clear understanding of the price we pay. We compare various features of the products involved, relative to price, and then decide.

What if we throw other variables into the equation? Like its origins. Was it made in a sweatshop where child labor is exploited and people work under conditions of near slavery? Are there environmental consequences of the ways its raw materials were extracted from the earth, or are there serious dangers from the by-products of its manufacture? What about the disposal costs of the object after its usefulness is depleted? What about the transportation costs and the effects on the environment? What about wasteful packaging and its disposal costs? And what do we mean by disposal? Are we just talking about the costs of hauling it away, or are we talking about the long term costs of the degradation of the environment from landfills or incineration?

Then there are other costs that are even more difficult to evaluate. These can be called the "human opportunity costs." If we buy something rather than make it ourselves, we choose not to invest in the creative opportunity and growth opportunity that we, ourselves would derive from it. If we choose to buy an object from a big box store, rather than having someone we know in our own community make it for us, we make less of an investment in the people of our community and more in the big box store and what it represents. If, in total, we choose not to invest in the creative potential of our own people, but place our investment outside our own communities, can it be any surprise when we have crime, juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, meth addiction, gated communities, increasing police surveillance, failure in schools, increasing costs of incarceration...

I realize that these are complex issues with no easy answer... at least not one that won't come one pair of hands at a time.

I wanted to talk today about the mental health issues related to the use of the hands. It is another thing that fits into the category of "human opportunity costs." If we buy instead of make, we are missing the opportunity to discover and take pleasure in our creative potential. Depression is one of the serious consequences of that choice. If we fail to offer others in our community the challenge of making their lives and livings through the use of their hands, we have failed to encourage the members of our community to discover and take pleasure in their creative potential. Again, depression, mental illness, and substance abuse among our neighbors are the logical consequences of our choice.

Not happy thoughts, but we can change things, one pair of hands at a time. Let's start with our own.

The photo above is of a dining chair made for my cousin Mary Lou and her husband Michael. The set of 6 chairs, table and sideboard were made in 1996.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

John Henry...there is a story and song in American folklore about a man who tried to keep up with a steam powered machine while working on the railroad laying track. Of course it is a sad song, and John Henry couldn't keep up.

Every thing that is made for sale competes with every other thing for the attention of the American wallet. American craftsmen, like John Henry, just can't keep up. Human beings make things that are different from the things made by machines. In most cases, objects made by hand are more expensive. But with machine made things, we seldom see their hidden costs.

So why would anyone in their right mind want to buy something that was hand made? There are a number of qualities that machines just can't put in place, and from the looks of things, people have very little comprehension what those qualities are.

Machines don't have feelings about their work. They don't care. There is nothing in the soul of the machine to invest the essential qualities of humanity within the object it makes. It is ironic that people would choose to fill their lives with meaningless objects, devoid of feeling and manufactured without the most interesting components of humanity invested in them...the qualities of hope, aspiration and personal growth.

You know when you set up a machine to make something, it may start out at a high level, but it gets worse and worse at it until the wear of the machine leads it to failure. When you yourself, set out to do something, you get better and better at it and if you care for the outcomes of your efforts, your work reaches higher levels of craftsmanship. When we ask others to make things with their hands, aspirations and hope, we play an important role in their growth, and perhaps even in the growth of our human culture. You can think of buying hand made things as making an investment in humanity.

As a craftsman, I owe everything to a few important customers who encouraged my growth by asking me to make beautiful things. You can play a part in the growth of others, or you can spend your money on foolish, meaningless stuff. You choose. The photo above is of a trestle table made for my very good friends, Kathy and Rick McCormick.
If you look back in the past of any traditional culture, you find a tradition of hand crafts. This is true whether you examine the plains indians of North America, the peoples of Viet Nam, Tibet, Australia, the Moari, the polynesians, east Indians, black Africans or the Soumi of northern Sweden and Finland. People used their hands to create beauty in their lives...not in pursuit of art to be sold, but as an essential condition of daily life.

John Neihard, in his novel about the Sioux, "When the Tree Flowered" describes the life of a young man growing up in the traditional way and the pride he felt in the articles of clothing made for him by his mother and sisters. Compare that with what we have now...the lust that children feel to look just like the distant designers prescribe, outlined in the pages of magazines and catalogs, all the while living in fear that they will stand out from their crowd. The measure of their family's love is in the purchase of the brand name, and the look of modern sophistication.

You can tell me. Have we missed something? If so, how do we make the journey back?

We can learn a lot from Sweden. In the early part of the 19th century, Sweden was flooded with well made manufactured goods that made traditional handcrafts meaningless. Why make what you could buy so cheaply and well made? Next came alcoholism. Men and women needed something to do to ease the long winter nights and there was no longer a need to make the objects required for their daily lives. They were stripped of their traditional source of self-esteem, so they made and drank alcohol.

I'm not stating this as a criticism of anyone. The same problems have appeared everywhere the hands have been stilled by the introduction of mass quantities of manufactured goods. Here in Arkansas, we have problems with alcoholism and Meth addiction. Add to that all the other problems involving mental health, and you may get the picture. Who needs to make anything when you have Walmart? And besides, who would want to wear anything your mother made you, even though it was made with artistry and love?

Now, in Sweden there is a movement called Home Sloyd Or "Hemsloyd", which is the Swedish equivalent of the American Craft movement. I have a good book to recommend that is about turning a corner on things. It is by a friend of mine, Bill Coperthwaite and is called "A Handmade Life" The photo above is of some of Bill's handmade crooked knives and a handmade basket from his collection.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Joe Barry, my brother in Sloyd asked in response to today's post whether I'd heard of Ninja Finger Weaving. I guess I'd seen it in the martial arts movies, but didn't understand what it was. The site explains it. Interestingly, the purpose isn't really to do magic, but to still and focus the mind...again illustrating the hand/mind inter-relationship that we overlook in education. The image above is from and illustrates the weaving of fingers in the pattern "toh" to establish mental and emotional harmony with the universe. Personally, I prefer the kind of weaving that leaves baskets and cloth behind...objects made in reflection of our harmony with the universe that can be understood and used by others without pretense or mystique.
The image at the left is of a cave painting in whch a stencil of the hands formed the origin and destination of a journey rich in symbolism.

The image of the hands in meditation illustrate how the posturing of the hands can be used to induce prescribed mental states.

I am reminded of a conversation with Eureka Springs artist, Eleanor Lux. I was describing how modern research into gesture indicates the powerful connection between the movement of the hands and human expression through speech. She remembered when her mother would tell her, "sit on your hands" to get her to be quiet or to help her to avoid saying things that might make someone angry. The body language of sitting on hands always tells the observer that there are serious matters being pushed aside, significant feelings being repressed or important words left unspoken.

As an experiment, hold your hands in the position shown in the photo above and note the state of your consciousness. Does the hand posture induce calm? or quiet? Try it. Tell me what you think I tried to put my hands in the position illustrated and found that the geometry of the illustration is impossible for me to duplicate without extreme pain, as the view shown is what you would see in the mirror and not what you would see by looking at your own hands. Under normal circumstances, thoughtful contemplation of my hands often brings peace, stills my heart and quiets my mind.

Friday, February 23, 2007

One of the most interesting things about the hands is their connection with meditation or prayer. Our hands are far more deeply connected to the human psyche than we can imagine. There are three images I want to share. The first is of a cave painting of human hands from Patagonia. The second is Albrecht Dürer's classic portrait of hands in prayer and the third is of hands in the classic zazen meditation position.

We have always known the intimate relationship between the hands, our creative power, and the shaping of spiritual and physical reality. But we do a pretty fair job of ignoring the hands in modern education. Because we ignore the hands, we get dumber by the minute.
A Reverance for Wood...a blog reader was kind enough to compare my writings with those of one of my idols, Eric Sloane. One of Sloane's books A Reverance for Wood was the book that awakened me to the wonders of wood and the essential role that wood played in American history. I've read the book many times as it is one of those I can pick up and take comfort in.

Eric Sloane was first and foremost a painter and illustrator rather than a writer and all his books are beautifully illustrated in line drawings that add value and interest to the text, in the same way I hope the photos on this blog add interest to what you read here. A Reverance for Wood has had such profound impact on my life, it is difficult to find the right words to say about it. Just find it and read it. It might have an effect on yours. The image above is one of Sloane's illustrations from A Reverance for Wood.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

One of the best things we can do for our children is to be creatively engaged in our own lives. If you watch TV or play computer games with your time, what do you think your children will do when they grow up? Your time would be better spent whittling at the kitchen table, making things that are useful, beautiful or both and serving as a role model of creativity.

One of the things I do when I get my summers off from Clear Spring School is teach. There are a variety of wood working schools and clubs that engage me to teach week long classes to adults. The first school where I taught is one of my favorites. It got me hooked on the experience of sharing my knowledge and experience with others. I tell about my first teaching experience at Arrowmont on a page in my website which I call Turning Left at the Hard Rock Cafe.

I can't really describe for you what a rich experience a week at Arrowmont can be. You would have to experience it for yourself to understand. This year I'll be teaching at American Sycamore Woodworking Retreat in Indiana, William Ng's School of Fine Woodworking in Los Angeles, The South Florida Woodworking Guild, and with Diablo Woodworkers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Later in the fall I'll have two day classes at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock and at a Woodcraft Store near Dearborn, Michigan. Each of those will be an incomparable experience. Here in Eureka Springs, some friends and I have founded the Eureka Springs School of the Arts (ESSA) because we believe that being engaged in the arts is essential to the human spirit. At ESSA or Arrowmont, you can choose from a variety of crafts in addition to woodworking. The photos above are from Arrowmont.
It is difficult for human beings to grasp complex concepts without being led through the basic simple premises that lead up to the complexity. Difficult tasks are made easy when simple skills are in place. Abstract concepts may be difficult to understand without first understanding the concrete observations upon which they are based.

Human beings can be capable of incredible insight and creativity, but we arrive at these points through incremental development that is too often ignored in modern education. We think the purpose of schools is to impart knowledge, forgetting that there are levels of knowledge and an objective transcendent of knowledge called wisdom.

Just as a matter of discussion, I suggest the following for you to consider:

Levels of Knowledge--
Knows about.
Knows how.
Can explain it.
Can do it.
Can do it well.
Can do it well and explain it.

You will note that knowledge in its higher forms involves capacities for both action and understanding.

Knowledge comes from a variety of sources…conversation, books, radio, instruction, television, internet, personal observation.
Knowledge may be acquired either directly or from a third party.
Wisdom emerges from reflection on personal and collective experience.
Wisdom involves understanding the relationships between seemingly disparate events, concepts and things.

If we designed our schools to impart wisdom, one of the activities for all students would be woodworking, and the school would look a lot like Clear Spring School.

The drawing above is of Otto Salomon demonstrating the proper posture and stance for sawing in Educational Sloyd.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Today in the woodshop, the 5th and 6th graders were finishing up two projects, fraction blocks and wooden pyramid boxes. Some were already done with both. When students miss school due to illness, or when some students work more slowly than others, there are times that we need something else to do as a filler that is also fun. Today I introduced paper sloyd. Even though paper sloyd was originally intended for even younger children, the method is fun and the students were allowed to advance at their own pace. There is an opportunity in it for precise workmanship, and to advance independently required the students to either read carefully or watch carefully what the other children were doing. The photo above is of Edna Anne Rich's book Paper Sloyd published in 1910, along with the Valentine I found inside and a paper sloyd project made in class. The students (and teacher) had so much fun that they want to do the same thing next week. Teacher, Andrea Brinton made a pin wheel and as I carried some students in my car to the lower campus, she, driving the van ahead, held her work out the window to allow the wind to give it a good spin.

I wish there were Clear Spring Schools in every community and that all children (and teachers) could find so much fun in learning.
I've been reading a good book, recommended by a friend Reuben Rajala who keeps me informed of articles about woodworking education. The book Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman, is about the Gannon & Benjamin boatyard in Martha's Vinyard and the men and women who make and design wooden boats. It is truly a wonderful book for anyone who might either love boats, or feel drawn to acquiring a better understanding of the human desire to create with integrity and greater purpose. Michael Ruhlman's book is a story well told about the lives of boat makers, the making of wooden boats, and the people who might be inspired (being "boatstruck") to commission wooden boats costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, but saving for the present the means and methods of work that reflect the essense of our humanity.

But then, we could just forget about all that hands-on stuff and live virtual lives though our desktops and PDAs. We'll download our music and our thoughts instead of making music and thinking thoughts of our own. We can shape our schools and education to prevent our children taking risks and having experiences that might lead them to creative lives. Oh, wait a minute...aren't we doing that already?

You might enjoy the book. It is an entertaining one. Then when you're done, make something. Invest your attention and integrity. It doesn't even have to be a boat.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The woodshop and afterschool meetings wore me out today, so I'm going to avoid the subject of zen except to mention that the empty cup referred to in yesterday's post is exactly the same thing as "undifferentiated consciousness." Most religious leaders would like to shape and mold your world view, filling your cup with beliefs to match their own rather than allowing you to see things clearly with your own eyes. Of course you are free to disagree, and hopefully you will explore on your own rather than accept my authority. I hope you will do the same in the exploration of your hands. Don't take what I say for gospel. Study your own hands and their relationship to your learning. If you arrive at the same conclusions I've reached there will be at least two of us. Most important, we will have arrived at authority based on experience rather than dogma.

The photos above were taken today in the Clear Spring Woodshop. Brian finished his model of the solar system along with others in the 3rd and 4th grade study of space. An item of the disappointment of most students, in the planning of the project we chose to ignore Pluto. The second photo is of Clear Spring High School senior Ike Doss turning a curly maple bowl on the lathe.

Monday, February 19, 2007

One of the special programs at Clear Spring School is called "Travel School." Students from Clear Spring have been all over the US on school trips to bring education to greater meaning and relevance. It is one of the "hands-on/hearts-engaged" features of our school. Travel school really kicks in at 4th and 5th grades when our students begin their travels throughout Arkansas. They learn the 4 specific geographic regions of our state and visit each one. One trip includes digging for actual diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park, and digging for quartz crystals near Hot Springs.

The photo above is Caleb making an Arkansas cutting board/map. The students cut the boards out using a scroll saw and then locate the various features of the state on the wood.
One more little zen thing before I move on. You may know the story of the zen master who, while pouring tea, kept pouring into the student's cup until it was overflowing on the floor. The lesson was that in order to receive the teaching, an empty cup was required.

Psychologists coined the term, “undifferentiated consciousness” to describe the state of both the newborn infant and the student of meditation. The state of undifferentiated consciousness is one in which no beliefs expressed in the form of internal dialog intrude to frame and control the experience of reality. The infant stares at the light, without an interpretive foundation to hide or distort its meaning. The student of Zen strives to attain that state, but most often while in safe retreat from society where there is no opportunity for truth to intrude.

To see truth for oneself requires the suspension of belief and a constant vigil to avoid illusion and self-deception. There are those whose meddlesome concerns about your beliefs you may find disconcerting. There are those who believe belief to be more important that acts or attitudes. Suspend belief, look freely at all, and act with love. You may learn to see the world, its mysteries and miracles with the wide-eyed wonder of a child.

There is a great deal more to tell about all this, which I will probably reserve for a Saw Zen blog which is in the works. I love the photo of Lucy shown above, so I just had to share it again. Wide eyes, open hands and heart full.
I always stick my neck out and then wonder afterwards why I've done it. It is the same with writing as with woodworking. Now, I've stated I would talk about Saw Zen, but it is such a deep committment. I am going to change my mind and offer it a bit at a time, rather than over several days. So, if you are interested, you will have to read between the lines and look more closely for it. It will be described over the course of months rather than days.

For the moment, I'll offer one thing. The sound of one hand clapping. Place your left hand in your lap. Hold your right hand out to your side. Move your right hand in quickly to a stopping point right in front of your chest. Were you listening? Do it again, and this time listen more closely. Can you hear it? It is far less mysterious than you imagined.

Most of what we believe is based on what we have been told. Most of what we see is based on what we believe. You have to go deeper into things to have real knowledge. It comes from the hand. Now that you know the sound of one hand clapping, we will go into something much more important. It is called, "the sound of one hand sawing." It is the start of a movement. It leads to many hands sawing and hammering, stepping outside comfort zones to make, create and serve. I call it the wisdom of the hands. The photo above is Arlo at work.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

You might also be interested in a short story written by E.M. Forster in 1909. It describes a world of fabricated belief in which hands-on experience and engagement are no longer required or desired. The Machine Stops (link) presents a frightening view of a future society in which comfort, entertainment and distraction have become more important than the hands-on experience of reality.
I know that if you have been a regular reader of this blog, you may be suspicious that I've gone off the deep end. "Hey, Doug's talking about religion! He wants to go into zen!" But, I'm not really interested in religion here, but in how the hands shape belief. Are our beliefs shaped by experience in our own hands or are they implanted or imposed through the will, direction and insistence of others? There is an interesting text from the zen tradition called the Hsin Hsin Ming that I have found influential in my own thoughts. An often quoted line is as follows:

The Great Way is neither easy nor difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

To state things more simply, "the devil is in the details." We take a thing apart for intellectual examination and promptly forget the whole of it and its greater significance. The worst of it comes when "heaven and earth" or the worlds of practicality and spirit are seen as divergent and separate from each other as is seemingly agreed upon by many modern religions.

There is another line in the Hsin Hsin Ming in which the reader is given a prescription for making the world whole.

To come directly into harmony with this reality just simply say when doubt arises, 'Not two.'
In this 'not two' nothing is separate, nothing is excluded.
No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth.

Here, I am attempting in my own feeble way to explain the difference between zazen and saw zen. Zazen is built upon withdrawal from the world, retreat into spiritual meditation as distinct from the practical qualities of life. Saw zen is built upon the direct engagement in the world through the use of the hands in creating, making and serving. I know there are those who would point out that what I am describing are the two distinct yet traditional forms of Buddhism. If you are reading and want to interject, please feel free to leave a comment.

As I suggested in yesterday's post, this may be a slow process. Even one that will drive you from this blog for a short time. Don't forget to come back later. The table shown above is one I made of walnut in 1979 or 1980. It was made with through-wedged mortise and tenon joints and was designed to reflect my own interest in Japanese culture.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Saw zen...I want to spend a few days exploring a concept I call "saw zen". This may be a bit much for some of you, so you may want to check out for about a week or so and spend your time reading other things. Before I got so involved in exploring the Wisdom of the Hands concept through teaching at Clear Spring School, I was working on a book proposal I called "Saw-Zen, A Craftsman's Guide to Practicality and Spirit." Perhaps at some point, given time, I will be able to complete it and have it published. For now, it is enough to share a few of the concepts as they relate to the hands, woodworking, learning and growth.

A number of readers of sidebar materials in my how-to books and students in my classes have noted a similarity between my approach to woodworking and their understanding of Zen Buddist meditation. There is a concept in Zen called "zazen" which can be found in any number of internet sites through a Google search or in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Before I spend a few days outlining what is meant by "saw zen," I would like to point out that while "zazen" is practiced as sitting meditation, in withdrawal from practical affairs, "saw zen" is practiced while in full 100 percent immersion in the practical and creative affairs of daily life.

I plan to go slowly with this, so either check in for more or check out for awhile depending on your interests. The image above is of zazen. If you want to know what saw zen looks like, you will see evidence of it in nearly every other photograph in this blog. Believe me, the two are not to be confused or mistaken for each other.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Let's develop a strategy...that puts the hands back at the center of learning. How do we do what needs to be done? If you are a parent, (or a grandparent) it may be easy and fun. Do things with your kids. Provide them with some tools and materials and the place and opportunity to work. Scissors and paper can be enough to get you started. Your children will need your hands-on involvment. Don't sit at the sidelines. Become a creative role model. Cook, make stuff, play in the garden, get out the art supplies. Get your own hands dirty and make a mess...not as a bystander, but as a full fledged, enthusiastic participant in creative messy-art making. If you don't have a child, but are interested in creating meaningful hands-on learning opportunities for the children (or adults) in your community, go out and get acquainted with the members of your local school board. Tell them about the Wisdom of the Hands and point them to this blog if they seem to show the slightest interest. Taking American education into our own hands is a concept way past due. It's subversive, but subversive can be a very good thing.

When my daughter was 2 or 3 my wife and I made a small table and chair set which we painted and decorated with stenciling. It's stored in the attic now, being saved for when Lucy has children of her own. We spent long hours sitting in the tiny chairs modeling things from clay, from pipe cleaners, folded from paper or cut out with scissors. If you want to give your child the opportunity for growth most appropriate to becoming a creative and responsible human being, a place to be creative and make messes with craft work is a far better contribution than a computer or laptop. Children will grow to sensibly engage in high technology later, after the real world provides a sensible foundation for their experience. Make certain that the television is off. My most creative students at Clear Spring School have been the ones who grew up without television and did more interesting things. Instead of searching for idle entertainments, they made things of their own invention and worked in service of the needs of their families. In other words, plan your child's life to engage in real experience instead of distraction and escape.

The photo above is of my daughter Lucy at her play table. Do you think she was having fun?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The chart below is from BB Hoffman's book The Sloyd System of Woodworking published in 1892, and was designed to point out the educational value of Sloyd Woodworking in comparison to other crafts. If you click on it, it will enlarge and you may be able to read it.

I live in a community of artists, and would be hesitant to proclaim woodworking as being of greater artistic merit than other crafts. The point that BB Hoffman and others made about education was that since few schools have the economic resources to teach all crafts, the unique educational values in woodworking make it the craft of choice for implementation in all schools, whether in 1892, or 2007.

I don't agree with everything on the chart, but given my experience, I can't argue with Hoffman's logic. If you have read a bit of this blog and have seen what the kids at Clear Spring do in our woodshop, I suspect you will agree.

Unfortunately, we have a very long way to go to get people in education to begin to understand the role our children's hands must play in their learning.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Today in the woodshop, 7th grader Rachel, wearing a Valentines Day Tutu began making a foot stool using hand tools. I wish I had had the chance for such things when I was in 7th grade. In the photo below, Rachel is using a rip saw, and sawing in the rather unconventional Sloyd style. The 5th and 6th grade students finished their pyramid boxes.Shown in the photo are Ryan, Brendan, Killian and Tanner.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Today in the woodshop at Clear Spring School, the 3rd and 4th grade students made models of the Solar System as part of their study of space.

The first and second grade students made toy cats. The cats weren't planned as part of an integrated curriculum. They were just a project that the students decided they wanted to do, and it is hard to say no to such enthusiasm. The cats were designed to be cut from a single block of 4 1/2 inch long 2 x 4. A tablesaw cut along one edge and a scroll saw cut forming the shape of the cat's head were made before class so that the legs and head could be liberated from the cat's body with two simple straight cuts.

Both of these projects have direct relevance to our children's needs for the development of spatial visualization, an important building block that will come into play when the students learn geometry and algebra.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Metaphors express the depth of human experience in relation to the hands. When we talk about opinions, we frame our discussion using the words related to the eye. We say, "this is my view," and we know it is only a perspective. We say in examining someone else's opinion, "Oh, I see." But it doesn't mean we agree. When we talk about deeper things, core beliefs, we say, "these are the beliefs I hold." When we want a complete understanding, we may say, "I want to get a 'handle" on things." "These are the facts in hand." We say, "I want to get a grasp of the issues." If our lives are falling apart, we don't just go for a "look-see." We try to "get a grip on things."

You can see from the language the importance of the hands. While the eyes and their view may lead to cursory involvement, the true depth of involvement in learning and life arrives with the touch of the hands.

If there was a conspiracy to turn human beings toward incompetance and conformity, there would be no better tool toward that end than to still the human hands in idleness and the human heart to complaisance. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the old saying, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop."

At this point, I urge you to get a grip on things. Teach your hands a few tricks. Let them inform you of your power. You will find them in service to others, shaping the world and our beliefs toward greater purpose. Give your children the hands-on experience that will make their lives rich in competency and enthusiasm.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A friend yesterday was describing his son-in-law's complete lack of prowess in anything that might be regarded as "mechanical" or require hand skills. This is becoming an all-too-common phenomenon. Young men and women develop themselves in all kinds of ways, while overlooking the kinds of development that lead to basic competency in dealing with the simple technologies of life. In The Sloyd System of Wood Working (1892) by BB Hoffman, Superintendent of the Baron De Hirsch Fund Trade Schools in New York City, Hoffman quoted an unidentified writer’s view,

“As the development of the motor centers in the brain hinges, in a great degree upon the movements and exercises of youth, it will be readily understood how important is the nature of the part played by the early exercise of the hand. There can be no doubt that the most active epoch in the development of these motor centers is from the fourth to fifteenth year, after which they become comparatively fixed and stubborn. Hence it can be understood that boys and girls whose hands have been left altogether untrained up to the fifteenth year are practically incapable of high manual efficiency thereafter.”

In essence, use it and develop it early or you will either never have it, or will develop it only through great effort. If children are not encouraged to explore and develop their use of their hands, as adults they will be deprived of their highest use of them.

I have older friends that have had incredible life adventures based on leadership skills and academic intelligence, who still feel deprived when they engage the physical world and the basic competancies it can require. Those rich enough can hire others to do for them the things they cannot do for themselves, but I would like to inform them of the simple joy that comes from feeling one's competence. One time many years ago my Toyota pick-up quit on the side of the road. I used my Swiss Army knife to dismantle the carberator, adjust the float level to get it running again, and drove along to complete my journey. I would have difficulties performing any similar maneuver on my fuel injected Subaru. Most things these days are designed to deny the competency of the consumer. I can tell you, however, that change is not always good. Technology is best where the individual is led to a sense of mastery and not helpless dependence. In the Wisdom of the Hands program, it is clear that not every child has the same mechanical inclinations or abilities, but that all children benefit from learning the basics of technology and the confidence that hands-on intellect and experience can bring to life.
This is the time of year in which thousands of Cub Scouts all across America are preparing their Pinewood Derby racers. John Grossbohlin sent me photos of his son Joshua working on his chess inspired pinewood racer. The photo at left is of Joshua with the finished work. The checkerboard pattern and the pawn driver were made by Joshua with hand tools. If you would like to know more about the Pinewood Derby racing program, Randy Worcester's Pinewood Derby website or the The Pinewood Derby Supersite are great places to start.

Good Luck Joshua! It looks like a fast car. I like that it brought your love of chess into the race. And thanks John for the photos.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Today we had the Clear Spring School Chocolate Festival, which is one of our largest and best school fundraisers. All the parents and kids are involved in helping, both to make and serve chocolates, and to promote the school. You have to know that our helpful and thoughtful students are our best promotion. To see them in action makes us very proud. We had a couple tables for the Wisdom of the Hands Program to display student work and to serve strawberries, pretzels and other food items for dipping in a small chocolate fountain. The cupcake tree shown in the photo above was one of two designed and made by High School students in the Clear Spring woodshop. The photo below is of some of the student work on display. The Chocolate Festival has become a major regional event with people driving in from quite a distance to attend.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Making geometric solids...One of the things we do on occasion in the woodshop is make geometric solids for the study of geometry. At left is a worksheet showing the method used for determining cut angles for making a pyramidal nonagon, or what could be called a nine sided pyramid. Below is the completed pyramid after being cut upside down on the bandsaw and liberated from the surrounding matrix. This project was done by Kyle Hunnicutt and Zach Gates in spring, 2005.
Dylan Seneca, Clear Spring High School Junior, wanted to make a "battle board" for tops. The idea is that a concave shaped board would lead tops to the center where they could battle each other for the longest spin. The battle board is made of 1/4" thick masonite, depressed at the center and glued to 3/4" thick particle board. Pretty trim around the edges will come later.

The 9th and 10th grade boys have taken a great interest in turning tops for competition. Shown in the photo above are two tops. The one at right named Mahammad Ali is designed for heavy-weight contention. At left is a top designed and made by Dylan which he calls "the wall," due to its flat side designed to keep other tops from tipping it over.

Making tops is really a study of physics. The students have been working to refine various elements of top design: the diameter of the handle, the mass and where it is placed in the design, choice of wood, shape at the bottom, various kinds of tip designs. Some are turned from octagonal stock so that their flat edges will engage other tops (with hopes of defeat). Then there is work to do on the beauty of it and the quality of finish. It adds interest that the tops can also be spun upside down, bringing new opportunities for refinement, competition and fun.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A couple quick items. I got copies of the new Woodcraft Magazine in the mail today and there are two items of special interest (to me anyway). The first is a one page article I wrote about integrating a study of economics with a woodworking activity in 3rd and 4th grades at Clear Spring School. You can download a copy of the article from my website. They also published a review of my new book, Basic Box Making. You can download that page from my website as well.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Today in the Clear Spring School Wood Shop, the 1st and 2nd graders did Paper Sloyd, from the original book by Ednah Anne Rich. This was the 4th project done from that book, making folded paper scissor cases for their school scissors. They also did knot tying, and to help with a classroom project, we sawed open a coconut, tasted coconut milk and ate coconut meat.

Third and 4th graders made fraction blocks for their study of fractions. Photos of both projects are shown above.

Monday, February 05, 2007

My improved bench hook is featured in the new Woodwork Magazine (April 07 number 104) It gives small children better accuracy in cutting parts to exact lengths. It has magnets to help guide the saw, giving the students a boost on keeping cuts square to the stock while also keeping their hands safe. This bench hook is the third generation of bench hooks in the Clear Spring School woodshop. No doubt it will be further refined. If you are not a subscriber to Woodwork, you can get a free trial issue by following the link above. Look for a very brief article about the Clear Spring School woodshop in the next issue of Woodcraft Magazine, too.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

When a student asked her art teacher, Laura Waters, whether woodworking was really art or PE, it was a good question, and one that has come up before. The student's question arose from the amount of pysical effort required, but as we all know, PE is about much more than the expenditure of physical effort. The drawings at left are illustrations showing proper forms for Educational Sloyd published by Otto Salomon at Nääs in 1894. Woodworking, done with attention, builds a sense of form within the body and a relationship between the body and the earth even as objects are made. In order to cut a straight line, or plane a square edge, the student has to pay attention to posture and the movement of his or her limbs, hands and body, and study their relationships to the tools, the material and to the gravitational forces of the earth. It seems like a simple thing. When teaching my students to plane wood, I ask them to pay attention to their stance, the angles that they hold their hands as they grip the ball and tote (handle) of the plane, and their alignment with gravity. Woodworking builds self-awareness, and students can assess their own alignment by measuring the results with a square on the edge of the wood.