Monday, March 31, 2008

Mario Nunez sent this photo of one of Buffalo's small architectural (and mechanical) wonders, the Colonel Ward Pumping Station. Mario says, "The building that houses the pumps is roughly a city block long by a half block wide. Only one of the six pumps was removed when the city water authority installed an electric pump."

Think about the sculpture you have seen, and then think about these great things, the Colonel Ward pumps and the Corliss engine below. Is there really a difference between art and engineering? The line is often indistinct when viewed as form, color, or concept. So what if something is useful! Should that be a mark against its value?
When Liberty ships carried troops and supplies to Europe during WWII, they were powered by triple expansion engines like the one above. This is another model built by Bill Sherret in his basement workshop. More are shown below.
Felix Adler, 1892:
The Greek legend says that the giant Antæus was invincible so long as his feet were planted firmly on solid earth. We need to have a care that our civilization shall remain planted on the solid earth. There is a danger lest it may be developed to much into the air--that we may become too much separated from those primal sources of strength from which mankind has always drawn its vitality.
The New England Wireless and Steam Museum is a great place to visit for full immersion in steam technology. And perhaps steam may take a new role in meeting our energy needs. The images above are of the Corliss Steam engine that ran 13 acres of machinery through more than a mile of shafts at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Those interested in Sloyd will remember that the 1876 Exposition was the time of the introduction of Swedish Sloyd and the Russian System to American educators, leading to the industrial arts movement in American schools. On the illustrations above:
This is the largest engine that the Corliss Steam Engine Company built. The engine had a 44 inch bore, 10 foot stroke, was more than 45 feet tall, had a fifty-six ton, thirty foot diameter, twenty-four inch face flywheel, and produced 1,400 Horse Power at 36 RPM.

After 6 months of service at the Centennial the engine was shipped back to the Corliss Factory in Providence. Seven years later the engine was sold to the George Pullman company in Chicago and ran their factory until 1910.
This is another of Bill Sherret's model steam engines. It is all made from steel and brass scrap from designs in a book and is called a "hula engine" because of the interesting movement of parts at the center during operation. It required hundreds of hours as each small part was made with the metal lathe and milling machine. The great shame is that the kind of intellectual curiosity that drives craftsmen like Bill to create is a dying thing. We have come to a point of dull acceptance in relation to technological objects. We know we can't make them, we can't fix them, we can't understand how even the most simple things work so we cease to care. Having ceased to care, we lose our power to create. Understanding and interest in the inner workings of technologies start with more basic things. A saw, hammer and nails are a good way to start, moving a child from complaisant consumption to creative intellectual engagement. For that to happen someone has to flip the switch. Will it be you?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Another for the workshop series. I took a break from my writing today and visited a fellow craftsman in his basement shop. Bill Sherret is an amateur machinist, who makes model steam engines in his spare time. The photo above is of Bill in his shop. It is equipped for working with either wood or metal. At left you see one of his working steam engines at rest and again in action. Just because you do fine work in metal doesn't preclude fine work in wood as well. Also shown at left is a corner cabinet Bill made from cherry for his wife Elizabeth.

Bill tells me that there is a declining interest in machine work as a hobby in America, but that it is still going strong in the UK. Being in Bill's shop reminded me of my first visit to a machine shop when I was in 2nd grade. My father took me to see the shop where a friend of his made surgical instruments from stainless steel. I remember the sharp shavings on the floor underneath the lathes and milling machines. But you can nearly forget that kind of productivity now in America. If there is any machining going on, it would not be where a child might see it, get to touch shavings and develop an ongoing curiosity about making things.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Some hands are day-sailers, kept trim and neatly tended.
On a perfect day, when the sea is glass
and a gentle breeze carries ships from shore
they might be lured from pockets
to pull a sheet or tend a jib,
under fearful eye lest a nail be nicked.

My own are skipjacks.
Nails nicked and cut short,
their skin hard and worn from water and coarse rope,
they know nothing of lotions, pockets or fearful eye
as they hoist mainsail and jib and tend tiller in all winds.

*The skipjack is a Chesapeake Bay sail-powered work boat and the name comes from an archaic English term, meaning an "inexpensive yet useful servant."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Next weekend, April 5 and 6, I will be at the Northeastern Woodworkers Association's 17th Annual Woodworkers Showcase. I'll be one of the jurors for the exhibit and will give lectures on 3 subjects, "Furniture Design from a small town woodworker's perspective," "Box Making," and "The Wisdom of the Hands--how to put woodworking back in schools." And there will be many other lectures, demonstrations and presentations to choose from.

The Woodworkers Showcase is the largest club sponsored woodworking activity in the world, so if you live in the Northeast and have never been before, please try to attend and bring a friend. Fine Woodworking editor Anatole Burkin will be passing out free copies of the April issue with my boxes on the cover.

The showcase is held from 10 AM to 5 PM at the Saratoga Springs City Center, 522 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY.
The mystery of the hand-brain relationship is one of the great barely explored realms of science. My wife and I were having dinner with a friend last night who told about canoeing with her daughter who has her bachelor's and masters degrees from Stanford, one of the most prestigious universities in America. Her daughter has an inherited complex that keeps her from knowing left from right, so when her mother at the back of the canoe would say left or right, her daughter, with hands gripping the paddle, didn't have a clue what she meant. Normally, she would remember left from right by looking at her hands and noticing which one with thumb extended would make an "L", but with both hands on the paddle, she just couldn't tell. Obviously, not knowing left from right is not a sign of lack of intelligence, or how could you explain the master's degree from Stanford?

Scientists observing the patterns of activity in the brain using MRI technology have noted that as subjects work through algebraic functions, the parts of their brains that control the counting of their fingers are active even though their fingers are still. So what in the world does that mean?

It is obvious that educators over the past one hundred years who discouraged counting on fingers and forced the internalization of processes of thought have known very little about the hands or their value in learning. I was one of those students who scored in the 98th or 99th percentile in standardized testing in math, but hid my counting on fingers under my desk to keep from feeling embarrassed in class.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I know I won't get there alone. Give some thought to your own hands and raise them in revolution and seek their empowerment. Much of what happens will be up to you, thoughtful reader, not me alone.

Today I'll have my fingers on the laptop writing chapters of my rustic furniture book, so unless something comes up, I'll be away from the blog writing other things. While I'm away do some research on your own. Tell others about your interest in the hands, then see what comes up in conversation. Come back and share what you learn.

We know that students should never be made to feel less than intelligent for counting on fingers or not knowing left from right. The hands are an extension of wisdom and intelligence inseparably entwined in the workings of mind. We use them to make "L"s, to count, to remember the order of events, to keep track of things, to test things, to explore, to measure, to touch and to make. We ignore them only to be made stupid, incompetent, incoherent, insensitive and incomplete.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The photos at left show 5th and 6th grade students at Clear Spring working on letter openers based on Sloyd models and instructions. Next week the students will finish today's work, and then start over in an effort to get better results. The students first use the marking gauge to mark the thicker stock for sawing, then use the Japanese pull-type saw to cut the blade and handle to thickness. Then using a plane, the students remove the saw marks and taper the blank leaving it thinner at the tip and cutting edge. Next, the shape of the blade and handle can be sketched on the wood so it can be either cut with a scroll saw or carved with a knife.

When I ask my students whether they want easy projects or hard ones, guess what they say?
Tom Iovino's blog, Tom's Workbench is a great place for further reflection on what we do as woodworkers. He offers tips on techniques, links to explore and personal observations drawn from his own adventures in making things from wood. Like some of the rest of us, Tom is obsessed. But, fun, and obsessed in a good way, with woodworking and all things wood. Today, he posted an article about me based on an email interview. But don't just read about me. Go deeper in the blog. I loved Tom's article about the future and what it was supposed to be when viewed from the fanciful vantage point of the 1950's Popular Science. I am so glad that some of those predictions were dead wrong.

Check out Tom's Workbench for more good reading and woodworking adventure.

In the spirit of predicting the future, today the Clear Spring School 5th and 6th grade students will continue making sloyd models.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

We all know the importance of plan "B". We learn by doing, and sometimes don't understand physical consequences until we are faced with physical results. There is the law of unintended consequences. You mess with things in the hopes that one thing will happen, but set in motion a chain of events leading to results far different from what you anticipated.

That's why we have plan "B".

My rustic stump table had a little obnoxious wiggle in it due to the frame having insufficient resistance to movement of the mass of the stump. I had to further stiffen the table by adding brass pins through the legs into the stump at each corner. Each pin is secured by epoxy glue.

The realities of cause and effect are often made clear in the wood shop, and things can often be fixed with something simple. Now where was George W. Bush? Did he ever show up for wood shop while his brain and hands were capable of learning from the real world or from real wood? You can see the horrible mess he made of things. I suspect that if he had been educated in reality before his ascendancy to the office of President, we could have saved ourselves a lot of grief. If more Republicans had been educated in wood shops, learning common-sense hands-on reality they would never have allowed Bush to be nominated for office or to run for a second term.

Anyway, the photo above shows a simple fix. I wish it could be used on more than just this simple table. Plan "B".
While we know that craftsmanship can be nearly devoid of "artistry" and art can be devoid of "craftsmanship", how important are they to each other? A new poll at right may help us to decide.
Some of the Wabash Valley Woodworkers brought boxes to their last meeting, and I've heard that a flurry of box making has resulted from my class there as you will see in the photo above. Many in this group have a great deal of wood working experience, so it is no surprise that they would make quick use of what they learned in class.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bob Barnett in San Francisco, a member of the Diablo Woodworkers, alerted me to Kids Carpentry. It's an afternoon woodworking program that has been going strong in the San Francisco Bay area since 1982. It is promoted as a math enrichment program.
By building a variety of fun projects, children learn a wide range of valuable carpentry skills such as measuring, fractions, sawing, drilling, rasping, fastening, sanding, shaping, assembly, and painting. Hand in hand with the practical skills goes a wide variety of other worthy concepts such as abstract reasoning, applied mathematics, problem solving, craftsmanship, fine motor skills, respect for tools, and patience.
The photo above is of St. John the Divine Cathedral on Amsterdam near Columbia University. I took it last night on our way to dinner. You will note that the south tower is unfinished as work stopped years ago. The north tower hasn't been started yet. Perhaps someday when our society re-awakens to the wonder or our hands, work will begin again. The work of the hands is not just the stone, steel and wood left as evidence of labor, but takes root in the human spirit as well. Perhaps the stubbed off and missing towers are an appropriate symbol. We are stubbed off, missing a large part of ourselves when our hands are no longer empowered to shape our lives toward greater meaning.

In the mail today, I got my rejection notice from an art show. For some reason arts curators seldom relate to the simple elegance of real wood. But we'll keep working on it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

So, once again I am in New York. I love this city, but there are some things you have to get used to, and some things to get over. It is certainly about shopping and finance. But here and there are young families out for walks. You see that there are very real things going on. And they are constantly having to fix things. Water in this hotel will be shut off for 8 hours tomorrow so pipes can be fixed. But we will be on the M-60 bus and on our way home before the water runs out.

The latest buzz word is "authenticity", and whether you are in politics or in the sales of things, "authenticity" is the key to making your point, becoming accepted and approved and selling your stuff. Authenticity isn't something new. Lao Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly and then awakened wondering which version of himself was "authentic".

There is nothing more authentic than real wood crafted by hand, so you can see that there are levels and degrees of authenticity, and maybe the real thing isn't what people are really looking for. Now the even newer buzz words are "synthetic authenticity." The real stuff is so hard to find that we are being sold on fake as second best. Oh well, I'm in New York. I get on a jet liner in the morning, and head home to authentic Arkansas and working with wood.
The Diablo Woodworkers is beginning the publicity for their hgh school woodworking competition. I was asked to write a few words, and what I write is no doubt too much and will be edited to fit:
For many years the value of wood shop was one of the best kept secrets in American education. Students didn't get to take woodworking if they planned to go to college, so it became the place where the academically disinterested may have found a home long enough to graduate. But wood shop teachers have known it to be something more. We've watched our students mature, take an interest and grow in competency, confidence and comprehension. Tragically, administrators, many parents and school boards haven't understood the underlying mission. Woodworking doesn't merely prepare students for technical careers, it offers the foundation for all students to engage in life-long learning.

Some of this has to do with the hands. We all know that we learn best when our hands are engaged. We become more intelligent about the world and its workings when we are directly, physically, manually involved in it. Where schools have students sitting with hands folded on desks, don't look for the same levels of learning to take place.

In the years to come people will reawaken to the significance of individually crafted work. Significance is not just in the objects we make but in what happens to us, and within us. We turn from idle consumers to very powerful creators. Psychologists have called it self-actualization. We each can leave an important legacy in the things we make that tells more clearly than our words alone about our caring for each other and for the planet, and in the meantime, we become more potent, more intelligent, more creative, and more alive when we are engaged in making things from wood.

All things Swedish... My wife and I are visiting my daughter for Easter. she is a freshman at Columbia University, so we invited her for a walk in Central Park. The photo above shows the Swedish cottage in Central Park. I felt drawn to at least look at it and be photographed by it by my interest in Sloyd.

I also reconnected with a gallery that sold my work in the past with the hopes that they will again in the future. An American Craftsman has two locations in the Rockefeller Center Area of Manhattan and lots of fine woodworking.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The photo at left shows my stump table, part of chapter 3. The simple birch frame holds the chunk of spalted maple at a height which offers a possible use as an entry table. Or you could stretch things and call it "art". Unusual materials can be the key to the launching your creative imagination.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In last week's poll, 69 percent associated craftsmanship and truth. 30 percent associated art with deception. So this week we look at art to gain a clearer view of its meaning. You will find the poll at right and can choose all the terms that apply.
After waiting awhile for the first glue on the first parts to begin to set, I applied glue to the other mortises and clamped the base together as a unit. It may seem like a vast array of clamps for just 8 joints but the assembly requires clamps and spacers at the bottom as well as on the joint to make certain that it goes together straight and true. Tomorrow I can install the dowels that will attach the section of spalted maple stump to the base.

This morning I finished my article about Nääs, the home of Swedish Sloyd which I visited in May of 2006. The article is scheduled go in the October issue of Woodwork Magazine. Editor John Lavine told me yesterday that I was trying to herd cats, bringing so many things together that had a tendency to wander off, and that I had more organization work to do or I would lose my readers. With John's pointers and a late night at the laptop, I got finished and the article reads much more coherently than it would had I been left to my own devices. Some people think that their words are too precious to be improved by a good editor. I am lucky to work with the best.

There is as difference between writing step-by-step how-to instruction in which every thing is exactingly linear and writing about such complex things as Sloyd in which important things were happening at various times in various countries and continents inspired by the goings on in Nääs. In any event, It is a relief to get finished and to know that what I learned in my travels will be shared with interested woodworkers in a national publication. Look for the October issue in late July.

As you can see in the photo above, I've begun assembly of my stump table shown yesterday in a practice fit. I shortened some of the parts to bring the legs in tighter to the stump as you will see in the finished piece.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

This the first trial assembly of a table using a stump supported by a frame made from turned and octagonal stock. The spalted maple stump will be held up on 5/8" dowels to bring it level with the top of the legs and the frame will fit closer at each side when all the tenons are fully seated in the mortises. This small table would work great as an entry table, giving you a place to put hat, purse and gloves as you put on your coat. But it is also a beautiful piece of wood that could be regarded as "art".

Monday, March 17, 2008

Question (I get this one a lot):
Can you recommend a place to start for a guy who might want to get started making his living as a woodworking craftsman?
Answer:There is no automatic formula. Just like the African saying, it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a craftsman. It all has to happen in harmony and with the encouragement of others. Spend some time in the shop and share what you learn with others. If you develop reasonable skill, have some artistic vision as to where you want to go with it, and have reasonable communication skills to convince others to join you on your journey, you may have the necessary skills to make a living as a craftsman.

Craft shows are the best way to introduce what you make to a community. They can also be discouraging and a test of whether you really want this life. They are one of the best places to observe customer response to products. They give direct information you won't find reading magazines, hanging out in the woodshop or trying to sell over the internet and through galleries.
I got the slab bench finished today, wedging the leg tenons, sawing and sanding them flush, adding a bit of steel to strengthen a crack (largely a decorative measure), and finishing with Danish oil. As you can see from the photo, rustic work is an invitation to explore textures and to introduce other material. The 20 p. nail was hammered on the anvil to flatten and distort surfaces, then bent in the vise with a 90 degree bend at each end. I cut off the end with the head and sharpened it to a point. Pilot holes nearly the diameter of the nail were drilled in the wood to prevent further splitting as it was hammered into place. The idea for this repair came from George Nakashima's use of dovetail keys to control splits, and the use of bent nails in the repair of the lid of my great grandmother's bent-wood Norwegian box.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A slab bench is one of the easiest pieces of furniture to make. It is durable, long lasting, and reveals the natural beauty of wood. This one still needs a bit more work. The octagonal ash legs have been tenoned with a Veritas round tenoner. The tenoned portions will be cut in the ends for walnut wedges to fit and tighten the joints, then the legs will be glued in place. After the wedges have been set and the glue is dry, the tenons will be sawn and sanded flush with the top. Next, I'll place the bench on a level surface so that the other ends of the legs can be marked and sawn to length. Easy, don't you think? You can make one now, before the book comes out. If you do, take a picture and send it to me.
Woodshop News this month offers a "Guide to Post-Secondary Schools" offering degrees in woodworking. With most high school woodworking programs closed and with most woodworking businesses having become dependent on computer aided design and manufacturing to be competitive, there is an increasing need for graduates with both woodworking and high-tech skills. Woodshop News has long been an advocate of high school woodworking programs. There is still a great deal that most don't understand about the potential of woodworking in general education.

The following is from Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of the New York College for the Training of Teachers, 1886.
"If the term manual training is used in antithesis to mental training, it is wrongly understood. Manual training, as I use the term is mental training. It is included in the psychologically determined course of study because it reaches important mental faculties which no other studies reach. It is also a most valuable and important stimulus to the receptive faculty of observation. The child can neither draw accurately, nor construct correctly unless he observes acutely."

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The three photos below show making a small slab bench. Sometime over the weekend, I'll have the finished bench to show. An editor has been assigned to my Rustic Furniture book. Strother Purdy is a writer and woodworker from Connecticut with whom I had corresponded earlier about Sloyd. At that time he was on his way to India to teach woodworking in a private school. In the days to come, I hope to hear about his interesting adventure. One thing he said yesterday on the phone was that the caste system in India made the upper caste children in his school disdainful of woodworking. It was a difficult cultural barrier to what he hoped to share. If you look at Strother's website, you will see what they were missing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sailing on blue, still water. Third and 4th grade teacher Michelle made her sail boat in woodshop for her son Cooper, and it got its first test sail in Cooper's wading pool. Math and Science teacher Pete Golden sent his boat for its maiden voyage in the tub. (Sorry there were no photos to record this event.) Much of the success of the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School is due to the enthusiastic support and participation of the teaching staff. When teachers are having such fun, the students have fun too. When students associate learning with fun, they are hooked for life.
Richard Bazeley sent this photo of one of his seniors in Australia gluing a small table. It is nice to see such a high level of intensity expressed. Today I am working on my rustic projects, finding legs for a small bench/table and a back for a rustic chair. One of the nice things about rustic furniture is that it can be more responsive to impulse. "Let's stick these together and see how they work!" Photos will follow.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The article about my work from the Tuesday Arkansas Democrat-Gazette can be found on-line at this link. I'm sorry, the photos aren't included.
I am up too early this morning. My wife sprang out of bed remembering an early morning meeting in another town. I'm packaging information to help the North Bennet St. School in Boston reconnect with their sloyd past, which is an odd turn of events since the North Bennet St. School was the starting point for my own journey into the heart of a long forgotten educational heritage.

I got a phone call from a mother in response to the article in the Democrat-Gazette. Her son, now a college student studying engineering has an irrepressible love of woodworking and the article led her to call and ask what she could do to encourage it.

There are two areas in which our imaginings create our futures. As parents we have hopes and ambitions for our children's success and we watch as they travel the prescribed path, step-by-step. They enroll as college prep, of course. We can't imagine their success without college and we make sure their feet are placed on that path whether they are reluctant or not. We watch their grades and homework and run them off to their ACT and SAT examinations and then universities with our fingers crossed as we launch them into the unknown.

Then there is the other area of imagining. Children must do their own. Parents, knowing neither their children's hearts nor their own missed opportunities, having been pushed and damaged themselves, push their children on toward futures the children are poorly prepared to imagine, we have kept them so tightly scheduled within bounds.

The North Bennet St. School was in my thoughts as I spoke with the woman about her son. There are so few mothers and fathers in the world who can imagine broadly enough to encourage their children toward lives of craftsmanship. We have so disparaged and negated the significance of the human hand that we have damaged our collective imagination. But there are irrepressible creative urges that children feel in their hearts and souls that lead them to imagine things their parents cannot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The 5th and 6th grade students started a sloyd project today, making thread winders. What can you use thread winders for today? Gone are the days in which most people made their own clothes, but it is useful to be reminded of those days as we learn skills that may come into play in designing our futures.

Clear Spring senior Dylan Seneca has been doing an internship with me learning skills and business in the wood shop. One of his projects has been to develop toy top making as a possible business venture. Today we took complete step-by-step photos of Dylan's process leading to the point at which the tip is cut, freeing it from the lathe. The bottom photo shows the progress in Dylan's work from his first attempt to one he turned on the lathe today.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Today at the Clear Spring School wood shop, we were both finishing up and starting new. In the first and 2nd grades students worked on their ankylosaurus dinosaurs as shown in the first photo below. In the 3rd and 4th grades students finished their sailboats and began a project with Paper Sloyd, a system of paper folding designed to increase woodworking skills and their spatial visualization skills that will be used later in Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry.

This morning an article about my work is in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Style section, and I want to thank Michelle Parks for the well written story. There seems to actually be very little that is stylish about what I do so perhaps with help from the Democrat-Gazette woodworking and woodworking with kids will make a comeback, and become stylish once more.

Some of it all comes down to texture and the warmth of real things. Everything we buy these days is machined or molded to perfection. There are other textures that we've forgotten. The feel of the coarsely woven. The movement of fine pigment across canvas. The squeeze of wet clay. The wooden edges that scare of slivers. But we shape our world to be least offensive to senses. It is a world on Prozac... But me? I'll take bent nails. When nails are bent, they show evidence of learning. And they show the attempt, even when failed to connect things together.

If you have been lured here by the address in the Democrat-Gazette, welcome. If you are at all interested in hands-on learning, please come back. In the meantime, if you read no further but would like a small souvenir to keep and think about, look down now at your hands. We take them for granted. Acknowledge their wisdom, and your world may never be quite the same.

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Let the youth once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick level in its mortar, and he has learned a multitude of other matters which no lips of man could ever teach him" --John Ruskin, "Time and Tide", 1883.

With those words, I introduce a new poll at right, somewhat abstract and designed to stimulate your thoughts. Arts and crafts have become synonymous for some, hierarchal or divergent for others. If your thoughts get all stirred up, share them with us. My email address is also at right.
We worry about our schools and what is taught therein as we watch a steady decline in the moral values of our society. We want to blame movies and video/computer games, but perhaps we have something simpler and more direct at the root. The following is from Charles H. Hamm's Mind and Hand, 1886.
It is possible for the mind to indulge in false logic, to make worse appear the better reason, without instant exposure. But for the hand to work falsely is to produce a misshapen thing--tool or machine--which in its construction gives the lie to its maker. Thus the hand that is false to truth, in the very act publishes the verdict of its own guilt, exposes itself to contempt and derision, convicts itself of unskillfulness or of dishonesty.

There is no escaping the logical conclusion of an investigation in the relations existing between the mind and the hand. The hand is scarcely less the guide than the agent of the mind. It steadies the mind. It is the mind's moral rudder, its balance-wheel. It is the mind's monitor. It is constantly appealing to the mind by its acts, to "hew to the line, let the chips fly where they may."

So as we watch case after case arise in the media of intellectual dishonesty, let's remember that what we see is the result of failure to engage our children's hands in their learning. As we fail to make them responsible to the truth inherent in hands-on fundamental reality we push students down the path of intellectual deception.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

While in the US the media can't seem to get away from discussion of the economy and possible recession, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is marching to a different drummer. Instead of Gross National Product, they measure quality of life in an index caled "Gross National Happiness" rather than the economy alone in tracking their nation's progress. From Wikipedia: "The term was coined by Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972 in response to criticism that his economy was growing poorly. It signaled his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values."

I offer this on a Sunday afternoon to assure readers that there is some wisdom in the world, and that not all peoples are driven by mindless consumerism. There is hope to be found in the restoration of values expressed and discovered through the craftsmanship and service of the human hand.
We don't have to open our eyes more than just a crack to see the direction we are going. The economy is in a fizzle. Most manufacturing jobs are in China. We are consumers and self-satisfied for the most part. We fail to contest the legitimacy of our presidential elections. To challenge them would interfere with the Christmas shopping season. The elective war in Iraq is costing us billions. (Not to mention thousands of dead US soldiers and many more Iraqis). Children in schools are pushed toward academics and their hands are left with twiddling thumbs, while their hearts are left unfulfilled by the distance created between themselves and real life. Perhaps it is the design of things. Prevent normal engagement in real life, then offer the opportunity of much-too-real-life engagement in wars to protect the very special interests of the Bush-Cheney administration, Halliburton and Oil. If you've been to the movies lately, you'll know what I mean.

When you discover that the hands are the true source of human intelligence, it flips our understanding on its head. You begin to see life as somewhat different than you were led to believe. It says that the makers are the new Moses, empowered by the wisdom of hands to lead a nation from wilderness. You can join the hand tribe. Look down at your fingers. Jiggle them about. Within your hands are the power to shape and make new.

As to specifics? Grow the food, cook the dinner, wash the dishes, and join me in the woodshop. All else follows.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Today I started another rustic project, making a stump chair. The particular spalted maple stump I'm using has a flat spot at the back where I'll attach a slab of wood to serve as both the seat back and back legs. The particular shape of the stump will require the use of an outboard leg as shown in the sketch above. At this point, I've cut the stump to a uniform thickness and sanded it with an angle grinder and random orbit sander.
Today's national news in brief...

The US lost 63,000 jobs in February.

Rising sales in the land of falling prices. Walmart posted a 2.6% rise in February as shoppers felt growing pressure to watch their spending. Dillards and other upscale shopping venues posted declines in total sales.

Yesterday on the NBC's Today, well known personal financial consultant Suze Orman told viewers what to do with their tax rebate coming in May. "Don't spend it." Use it to reduce debt, or put it in the bank and let it sit. Don't use it wantonly to stimulate the economy as the Bush administration suggests. In other words follow the advice of the airlines: "If in the event of sudden loss of cabin pressure, and you are traveling with a small child, fit the oxygen mask to your own face first."

The IRS spent 42 million dollars on a letter to announce to American taxpayers that checks are coming. This announcement could have been handled as a press release at no cost to the American government. Go figure.

Local news (very brief)

Today in the Doug Stowe woodshop, I'm competing with the Chinese again, making small boxes from American hardwoods. My product is unique, but labor is not. People all over the world make things.


American politicians and economists have long regarded work of the hands to be inconsequential to the American economy... The idea was that we could be the head, while the hands might be located in other nations. Those at the top and in control would benefit from the labor of all. It is a fundamentally Socratic notion, rooted in the ideas of slavery and imperialism.

It might be time to throw the bums out. Raise your hands and call question to the status quo, then by putting your hands to work, reshape our nation toward higher purpose than our squandered and devalued American dollar.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The photo at left should help explain why so many wood workers love walnut. This is the second application of Danish oil on the rustic walnut hall table. One of the craftsman's favorite moments is when the finish hits the wood, bringing it to life. But it can also be a moment of frustration as it reveals all those small things that got missed... a spot of glue or a sanding dip in the otherwise smooth surface.

After years of excluding sapwood and knots from my work with walnut, I am pleased to use them deliberately in the design of rustic work. The placements of the knots in both the top and in the bottom shelf provide points of emphasis in the design, catching they eye and pulling the observer into closer relationship to the wood. Something I learned doing a bench with a natural edge is also apparent in this piece. You can see a small ray pattern in the wood moving from the left to the right from the center. The very small protrusion at the edge is the terminal bud revealed on the outside of the tree. The natural edge provides greater understanding to someone observing the patterns inherent in the wood. Sapwood is considered a detriment to the value of walnut. In production work, craftsmen have little time to pay attention to its effective use as an element of design. In one-of-a-kind work, done start to finish by a single craftsman, attention to detail in matching of grain and color of wood, presents the opportunity for work far richer in creative content. All of the parts of this table were cut from two consecutively sawn planks from a walnut tree that grew in the Presbyterian Church yard in Berryville, Arkansas.
Yesterday Courtney broke a nail, just a small tip, but it was something that had to be announced to draw the sympathy and attention of the class. I don't like when that happens to me either, but the amount of special protection nails must receive as young women engage in woodworking (or anything else)is amazing to me.

This may go back to Socrates and before. Men and women of the upper classes were not to engage in the real work and creative efforts of the lower class. Their spirits were to soar unencumbered by fleshly form as they indulged in the domination and control of others. Their physical forms were for adornment and pleasurable sensations, nothing more. Dirt on the skin, grease under a nail, were evidence of low class or betrayal of class values.

The hands themselves are a source of status recognition. Beautiful long nails that have been colored and tended so carefully are a statement of idleness and indulgence being encouraged over other human values of creativity, industry and effort.

Our hands are much more an expression of personal identity than our faces. Our own faces are only apparent to us when we look in mirrors and reflections, but our hands are always there when we pause briefly from the internal senseless chatter and are reminded of our physical form.

In action and service the hands disappear from consciousness as we engage in skilled manipulation of tools and materials. The man at the lathe skillfully shaping wood takes no notice of his hands. The tool and the hands holding it in well-practiced manner, become an extension of his intellect as his consciousness engages directly in material and the creation of form.

Let’s consider Zen for a moment. The hands are the primary method of human engagement with essential reality. Extract the hands from their exploration of material and form, withdraw them from their essential role as the creative extension of intellect, force them to become mere expressions of idle reflection and adornment. What do you get? Is it the sound of one hand clapping idly in space and time with no noise and no discernible effect? Let’s consider putting our hands together and see what we can do with two… Or how about you and I together with four?

When Courtney broke a nail, I asked, “Is there blood, do you need a band-aid?” When Peggy broke a nail, I showed her how to fix it with 120 grit sandpaper. You can see that in some things my heart is stone. But I have a soft spot for kids getting over the inhibitions that keep them idle and prevent the unfolding of creative self. I have a soft spot for broken nails, bent ones too. Let’s start more kids working with wood.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, we worked again on the flower pot stands and maps of territorial acquisition. As you can see in the photo below, success in fitting the joint starts with accurate measurements and layout before sawing. Even the thickkness of a pencil line matters. This project is kind of sneaky in the measurements. Each piece being 5 1/4" long, students are required to divide fractions to determine the center, and then divide another fraction to measure on each side of center for marking their saw cuts. I asked as they were finishing today's class, "Does this help y ou to become better at your fractions?" "Yes, they all said."
Richard Bazeley from down under where it is hot, dry and no snow expected has his 7th year students making pot stands. He says,"Good lesson in math, 3d visualization and communication. Not to forget, basic hand skills." We need to compare notes and I hope more will come. One thing I noticed is that it can be a challenge to go from blackboard math to stick and tape in hand, "Now how do I divide fractions?" Even a very simple thing, holding a square to the wood, on the mark you have measured, and then drawing a straight line to cut, involves complications of body and mind that you don't meet when you are sitting at a desk holding a mouse.

We have a way of disparaging the past in light of the new, thinking little of the accomplishments of hand and mind on which our civilization rests. Despite what some may think, the old ways offer great wisdom and intelligence, and we have not outlived their purpose.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Shown in the photo above is the box I made at the workshop in Indiana. I sanded it and applied the oil finish this afternoon. The demonstrations involved in making this box, were resawing, corner matchining, making cross-cut and miter sleds, making raised panel floating tops, mitering sides, assembly without clamps, keyed-miter joints, cutting the lid from base, installing hinges with the "flipping-story stick technique, and making your own lid stay.
Today in the Clear Spring wood shop, the students continued making their plant stands as shown in the photo above. Below you see that I've applied the first coat of finish to the rustic walnut hall table.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The photo above shows the simple joinery connecting the parts of the rustic walnut hall table. You will notice a similarity with the 5-board bench shown below. The walnut plugs hide 2" long screws, and the attachment in two directions gives a strong long-lasting joint.
I have a snow day today and am off from school with a chance to catch up. Things have a a way of taking their toll. To many irons in the fire... a phrase that originates from the black-smith trade. If you have more irons heating than you can successfully hammer and forge, you rush your work, it suffers and the finished blade may be found lacking.

You can only hammer one blade at a time. Today, I am working on sidebars for the book. Some will be technical in nature, some will convey information about design, and some will, I hope, convey the kinds of information that will help readers feel comfortable with their work and inspire their creative participation.

Here is a start. Please let me know what you think.

“Setting up shop” also called "Keep it simple"
Years ago when I had written my first book, a reader contacted me and complained; “I want to make a present for my father-in-law who arrives in two weeks. I went through your book, buying all the tools. Now I’m having trouble knowing where to start.” Unfortunately the project he had chosen was one of the most complicated in the book, and he had no skill or experience in the use of any of the tools. I suggested that he start with simple projects at the beginning of the book, and that his father–in–law would be as impressed by the sincerity of his efforts as by the physical product that results.

If you’ve seen woodworking on TV, or in books and magazines you’ve seen a wide array of tools in use. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that most of those may be required to make furniture. But, people have been making furniture for years longer than most of those tools have in existence. Too many tools can actually complicate the matter and make it more challenging to start.

If you are just starting out, keep things simple. Each tool has a “learning curve.” Even when the brain gets it, has read up and understands it, the hand and body must adapt themselves to its use. It takes practice to grow familiar and comfortable with the tool’s capabilities and your own. And even experienced craftsmen discover new uses for old friends.

In time you will discover yourself working like those experienced craftsmen who make things look very easy on TV. Like them you will have had practice in the use of each tool. Remember that what seems effortless in books and magazine or on TV is not as easy as you might think. Expect to feel clumsy at first as your hands and body find new relationships with each tool and the movements required in its use. Cut yourself some slack. Start out simple. Allow yourself some success.

Over time you will acquire new tools that will make your work even more fun and productive. At some point you may need a full-featured workshop with all the tools you see in the books and on TV, but take your time and enjoy the gradual unfolding of your woodworking skills, using one or two new tools at a time.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Rough-sawn yellow pine, red and green milk paint and clear acrylic finish. The small 5-board bench is complete.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

I took a few photos for the book today. The top photo is of the 2nd coat of milk paint on the 5 board bench. By partly sanding through the green to reveal the barn red beneath, the rough-sawn surface of the wood will be highlighted. On the rustic walnut hall table, I reshaped the ends of the top surface to help it to better fit the room setting, to reflect the curves sawn in the ends of the cross stretchers, and to conform to the slight angle in the front edge.
Suppose you take children and lock them in a room where there are toys, computers and lots of virtual games to play, but no real exposure to reality outside the walls. They are safe, they are sheltered. If something goes wrong, or one of them gets in trouble, we rush in to fix things before their inflated sense of self is put at risk. They grow up to attend universities and become rulers over the lives and circumstances of others.

And the working men and women have been tested and excluded and accepted their measured inferiority as fact, allowing those from the sheltered room to assume positions of power and prestige, controlling the destiny of the planet despite a completely distorted non-experiential view of its reality.

Welcome to the United States of America. May I introduce our President?

So maybe sarcasm isn't my strongest suit. Perhaps it is best if we engage in life as it is expressed through the creating with our own hands: Cooking, cleaning, crafting, making and making whole. Join me, please.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Today I've been tied up in home maintenance. Our clothes dryer vent had gotten plugged up with lint, diminishing the efficiency of the dryer. That meant numerous trips to the roof and then crawling around tight places in the attic. My wife thinks I should hire others to do such things, but not only can I save money, I can reap the satisfaction reward of having fixed it myself.

I read this morning that oil prices are going up despite the abundance of supply and a slight decline in demand. For some reason, politicians in Washington can't quite seem to understand that the high cost of our elective war in Iraq and the balance of payment deficit resulting from our import of cheap consumer products are like bleeding though a major artery. The consequence is the steep decline in the value of the dollar, and while we claim the oil prices are climbing, the real situation is that the dollar is falling and can buy less. So, while many Americans can't afford to fill their tanks, oil is on sale for the rest of the world.

I know some would think I'm crazy, but I propose that the loss of hands-on experiential relationship with reality has made our leaders dumb and dumber. There are some things that fall in the category of "common" sense that they just don't get.

Today, I also worked on the Rustic Table Book, getting to the point of trial assembly of a natural edged walnut plank table. It is a variation of a simple 5 board bench technique. The photo of the table held together with clamps is shown above. It will be far more beautiful when the ends of the top are shaped and sanded, and the whole thing will come to life when the Danish oil finish is applied.