Sunday, May 30, 2010

oil, water and sawdust part 3

I am in West Palm Beach, Florida, and my readers had asked about whether or not sawdust would remove oil from sea water. My readers had also inquired whether or not it would work with heavier viscosity oil, like one would encounter in crude. So this is my test. Water from the sea, chain saw oil, water, and sawdust from the local Home Depot.

You can see the results. Just as I expected, the sea water and thicker oil made no difference to the results. The addition of sawdust allowed the oil to be removed with a common teaspoon.

Engineers used to claim that dilution was the solution to pollution. Petrochemical engineers, particularly those who work for the major oil companies believe that dispersal is the solution to oil pollution.

Get that stuff out of sight as quickly as possible!

The dispersal chemicals, now having been distributed in excess of one million gallons and the oil, now dispersed throughout the gulf will have long term toxic consequences we cannot as yet foresee. Physical removal of the oil from water presents the most certain remedy.

With a bit of sawdust, a man equipped with little more than a shovel can have positive effect.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Columnist David Brooks of the New York Times, discussed complexity and disaster in his op-ed essay, Drilling for Certainty. Brooks says there are a number of components to the BP disaster. First, people don't immediately perceive how small failings can build up to major complications. Secondly, people become accustomed to risk, like driving along the expressway at 85 miles an hour. You forget that if you were hit by the idiot careening alongside you might be dead in an instant. Third, people place an "elaborate faith" in back-up systems. This would be the equivalent of thinking that since you are wearing seat-belts and your car is equipped with airbags, you could crash at no risk. Fourth, people think that complicated risks can be matched by "complicated governing structures." "Oh, yeah, we're ready for it...." Fifth, people tend to spread good news and hide the bad... particularly when they might have to accept some form of responsibility for having failed. And finally, people in the same field tend to think alike, which means in the case of the BP oil disaster, that the oilers and the inspectors were cut from exactly the same cloth and percieving from the same narrow point of reference.

David Brooks concludes that the BP situation is not just about oil, but about how we deal with the complexity of everyday society, and that we are ill prepared to deal with complexity that is growing faster than our ability to contend with it.

And so, what the heck does this have to do with the hands? Rudolf Steiner, creator of the Waldorf educational system, believed that children should not be introduced to technologies they could not understand. The early progressive educators, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Cygnaeus, Salomon and Montesorri, believed that learning should progress gradually from the simple to the complex.

In modern life, we thrust our children into the complexity of technology without giving them a fundamental understanding of the simple things. And by doing so, we fail to give them the monitoring power, and observational framework through which to place complexity within possible control. And so, I am once again trying to explain why children should be given tools. Not the high tech tools beyond their ability to understand, but the simple ones... saws, hammers, etc. And kids should be playing with blocks, and outdoors in nature, exploring the universe with their own hands. Brooks states in the editorial,
"If there is one thing we’ve learned, it is that humans are not great at measuring and responding to risk when placed in situations too complicated to understand."
I would suggest that what Brooks says we have learned is a lesson still to be learned. We can only prepare our children for complexity by giving them a foundation upon which to build complex understanding. It begins with very simple stuff, that we choose to completely ignore in modern education.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Paul Ruhlman at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts is director of one of the finest woodworking programs in the US, and this year one of his students made the violin shown in photos above and below.

Paul contends that the use of the hands is an important component of intellectual development as suggested by sloyd. A few independent schools like Buckingham, Brown and Nichols have preserved this essential understanding while public schools throughout the nation have eliminated the role of the hands in learning, largely to the extreme detriment to our children and our society. I could say more, but then a picture or two of what may be missing from most schools is worth a thousand words.

The irony in this is that while Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School is one of the most prestigious independent schools in the nation, educating children from the faculties of MIT and Harvard, and woodworking is one of its most beloved programs, there are so many thousands of schools where they just don't get the essential relationship between the hands and the development of intellect. Photos above courtesty of Paul Ruhlman, Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

free day, creative day

Today at Clear Spring School, the first, second and third grade students all wanted a "free day" to make anything they want. I would prefer that they do some project that is more manageable. When I know what the project is in advance, I can prepare materials, have everything ready, but "free day" means I often have five or six children trying to explain what they need in order to do what they want. Each needs something different in the way of materials.

When a child is able to conceive an object, then plan and make it themselves or with just a bit of help, they have learned very many things besides the making of the object. So, while one child made a table, another made wind chimes, while another made a locomotive, another made tops and still another a toy helicopter. I was too busy helping where needed than to take photos, so you will just have to imagine. "Free," or "creative" day is the children's favorite time in the wood shop.

Tonight I met (on the phone) with North Bennet Street School executive director Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez and Paul Ruhlman, director of the woodshop at Buckingham, Brown and Nichols School in Cambridge to discuss our joint panel presentation on sloyd at the Furniture Society Conference at MIT in June. I am very excited that we will have the opportunity to present on a subject very dear to me.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

surf's up

Richard Bazeley, shop teacher down under in Australia sent in a photo of a 10th year woodworking project. After adding the top skin, then some sanding and finish, it will be ready to test the waves. Richard explains the project as follows:
Using photos and dimensions of existing surfboards I made drawings in a program called Rhino3d. We used this program to produce scale and full size drawings of the curves we needed. The surfboard is all curves so it was handy to be able to produce the cross sections. The student made some models and experimented with a number of building techniques including the ones you can see in the photo.

The technique we used came about through these experiments. When the student bent some timber into the shape we could see then that all we had to do was hold it in place and cover the frame. Making models was a real help for the student to understand how the timber could bend into the shapes he needed.

After that it was just a matter of scaling everything up to full size. We are learning as we go and I am fortunate that the student has the skills to do most of the construction and shaping by himself. The skills he has learned from building model planes so this is like building a model wing on a larger scale.
Here in the US, we are wrapping up another school year, and I have one more day of classes at Clear Spring School.

North Bennet Street School began its Sloyd partnership with Eliot School in Boston this March. It was actually the renewal of a partnership which first began in 1885. NBSS executive director Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez described the reasons for the program as follows:
"North Bennet Street School has long been concerned about the elimination of virtually all educational programs in the public schools dealing with hand skills and the making of objects. This has resulted in several generations of students with no access to the kind of understanding one gets when a student conceives of an object, plans its construction, and executes that plan with his or her own hands. As these students move through their high school years, we hope that they will have an awareness that working with their hands is a rewarding endeavor that can result in productive employment over an entire lifetime."
Readers can download the North Bennet Street newsletter containing the article about sloyd, Here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Alfredo Bosi, Os trabalhos da mão

Reader Henrique Chaudon in Brazil is translating Alfredo Bosi's Os trabalhos da mão from Portuguese into English. You can get a preview of this beautiful text on Henrique's blog using machine translation from google.

There are three distinct strategies through which to make the important point about the necessity of hands-on learning. One is to appeal to reason, the second is to appeal to experience, and the third is poetry. The first is subject to argument, "yes, but." And there are those who are well practiced in the art, taking a contrarian view simply to display their mastery of rhetoric and presumed intellectual authority. The second strategy is to appeal to experience, but there are fewer these days who have experience in personal creative engagement of the hands. The third approach is to disarm opposition through the beauty of language. That is where Alfredo Bosi comes in... Here is a glimpse of what may come:
The Work of the Hand.

Man, of all is the symbolic animal; a single part may perform diverse functions. The hand is an example.

The hand pulls from the earth root and grass. It harvests the fruit of the tree, peels it and takes it to the mouth. The hand picks up the object, moves it, holds it into the body, and casts it away. The hand pulls and pushes, gathers and spreads, tightens and loosens. It contracts and relaxes, coils and unwinds; rubs, touches, pats, scratches, pinches, points, shakes, slaps, punches, then massages the sore muscle.
Today at Clear Spring School, students 7th through 11th grades finished work in the woodshop. Some turned on the lathe as shown at above. At left and below, you can see our completed Ark of the Covenant model stated earlier in the year in World Religions class. According to legend, touching the Ark brings death. The students carried it for a ways and then were struck dead by the curse in the school parking lot.
Just kidding, of course.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Some of my readers may remember my project working with kids doing paper sloyd, and another in which we folded paper cranes as part of our introduction to sister school, Shinrin Takumi Juku. The image above is origami by Robert J. Lang, an origami master whose life illustrates the intersection between craft and science. Having begun his creative career as a laser physicist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he has used his origami to design space telescopes and the folding patterns for airbags in cars, as well as to inspire.

It is truly unfortunate that most Americans are oblivious to the relationship between crafts and the advancement of science. No man, woman or child can learn to carve wood into something both useful and beautiful without becoming observant of wood qualities and grain. The fundamentals of scientific observation are what one learns through craftsmanship. As we allow our children to be entertained and disengaged from both hands-on learning and personal creativity, we cripple their potential in science and limit their understanding. And so, why aren't we doing something about it? Crafts should be the most important part of our children's education... even before reading, our children's hands should be learning to fold paper.

Many other scientists, mathematicians and educators have recognized the relationship between origami, mathematics and design and witnessed its potential to engage students. Professor of Mathematics, Tom Hull says,
"Kids are so afraid of math. The world is so afraid of math. But with origami, they're not thinking, 'I'm doing this scary math thing.' They're just folding paper. It's a neat way to break the barriers down." -- and do math.
I wrote Robert J. Lang about this blog post and he replied, "I couldn't agree more with the theme of your blog: for many people, hands-on manipulation is what makes the connection to true learning."

An editorial on scholarship in today's paper by Paul Greenburg told that the University of Arkansas has a 38 percent graduation rate among students who attend for up to 6 years. Some of the blame for that sorry state may be laid to rest on the poorly-prepared-to-attend students the university attracts. Piaget, in his theory of cognitive development recognized the time between ages 6-12 as "the concrete operational stage," and some theorists believe that computer gaming has actually delayed arrival of this stage as settings are pre-imagined and gamers work within sets of predetermined conditions set by game designers rather than by physical reality. This means that even at the time of entrance to college, many students have barely emerged into comfortable relationship with the abstract. More real hands-on learning can fix that.

Using origami and other folding paper techniques like paper sloyd, can be useful in making the transition from the concrete to abstract and the transition from high school to college, which these days is far too abstract for its own good.

Today in the woodshop, I worked on drawer sides for the small walnut chests of drawers. I resawed the maple stock into two halves then planed the stock to 3/8", jointed one edge, ripped it to width and then used the sled and stop block to cut parts to accurate lengths as shown below.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

a kettle fixed with wood...

Henrique Chaudon sent a photo of his kettle that he repaired with a wooden handle to replace one broken, thus allowing a much used pot even greater use. As Henrique knows, there is satisfaction in using old things as they tell us the history of ourselves. There is great power in the fixing of things... It tells us of our future and our potential as human beings. I offer the following to Henrique in celebration of a kettle with new life:
"We are surrounded by things, and we are surrounded by history. But too seldom do we use the artifacts that make up our environment to understand the past. Too seldom do we try to read objects as we read books - to understand the people and times that created them, used them, and discarded them."
from History From Things: Essays on Material Culture edited by Steven Lubar and W David Kingery. In this case the artifact was not discarded, however, but fixed, and in the fixing of things, a new chapter is written, much more fulfilling and personal than the last.

Also for Henrique, this poem is celebration of a job well done.
Things men have made with wakened hands, and put
soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go
on glowing
for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
Warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.

D.H. Lawrence
Last night, Alan Lacer, woodturner, came to dinner while passing through between demonstrations. As a past president of the American Association of Woodturners and the husband of the executive director, Mary Lacer, he has a strong interest in woodworking education, and his visit was a good opportunity to discuss hands-on learning. There is a growing chorus of concern about what we are doing to our children, a the persistent question, "How do we restore hands-on learning for all our nation's children?" Woodturning will most certainly need to be part of the answer.
A turned box by Alan Lacer.

walnut chest update...

Now you can begin to see how the parts fit together forming the carcass of the small walnut chest of drawers. The tapered sides have tenons now, allowing them to fit in matching mortises in the top and base. A groove cut in the sides, top and base allow for a floating panel back to fit as shown in the photo below. In the next few days, I'll fit drawer guides in each side, and begin making drawers.

the source of wisdom

You can think and speculate til the cows come home, but everything you actually do can become the source of wisdom. Sometimes the wisdom is hard earned and downright painful, and sometimes you can go through the painful lessons without actually learning anything. It all boils down to attention. "Are you here now?" And what are you doing about it?

I just came in from mowing the grass and was using the exercise to explore a few connected concepts. There is a squeeze bar on my mower that is intended to shut the machine down when the operator is no longer in his or her safe position of control. This device was mandated by the Consumer Products Safety Administration because too many people were doing dumb things, and some would regard it angrily as a government mandated inconvenience. But there are real idiots out there, like the MD who disabled the squeeze bar so he could lift his mower in both hands and use it as a hedge trimmer. He picked it up and immediately cut the tips from his fingers. I suspect he learned a few things from his experience... lessons that the regulators at the CPSA had very sincerely hoped he might avoid.

So, I am grateful for a bit of government regulation. As we begin to know less and less from our own personal experience, there become more and more things from which we will need to be protected.

Do you know how much money BP spent in lobbying efforts to avoid government regulation of oil drilling in the gulf? I consider it the teenage-boy-thing, trying to get away with things when the grownups aren't watching. A teenage boy thinks he knows lots better about things, even though his cerebral cortex is not fully developed. BP, showing obvious signs of corporate immaturity, tried to skirt the regulations, and took risks equivalent to the redneck teen jumping head first in shallow water crying as his last complete sentence on earth, "Hey watch this!"

Regulation is a good thing. I draw a comparison with my writing. A good editor makes me a better writer. Good regulators and reasonable regulations would have saved BP over a billion dollars, and saved the Gulf environment, and saved millions of people from tremendous heart-ache and monetary loss. Good regulators would have saved British Petroleum from themselves and us all the consequences of their idiocy.

Yesterday we had a shooting incident in Arkansas where two men, stoked toward a violent rage by anti-government rhetoric on Fox News and the internet, killed police officers. Do you see the pattern? I hope so.

I can tell you a few interesting things about work. Work in the real world, doing hand work or hard work or both work can be one of two things depending on your attitude. You work with joy toward personal fulfillment and expression of care, or you do not. One path leads to wisdom, the other does not. As we work, dependent on that choice, we either stew in things and grow angry or we become expansive through our thoughts of those things we might contribute toward the greater good.

I know there are some who have wondered, "If the use of the hands makes you smart, why doesn't it work with all people?" If you think about this, and how we use our hands and hearts in relation to the mind, perhaps you will know the answer.

What do you know? vs. What can you do?

What do you know? vs. What can you do? and How can we teach in this age and under these circumstances?

If you watch children these days, you will no doubt observe them hunched over their electronic communication devices using tiny keyboards to write text. As more and more attention is withdrawn to within the device, it is removed from other things. Put simple tools in their hands, and they may not know what to do. An article from Wooden Boat, March/April, 2010, called "A Sharp Pencil" by Harry Bryan is a wonderful exploration of the means through which to mark and measure wood. It shows a young boy in the proper use of a square in the photo below.

A simple square is one of the most basic tools of carpentry. If the body of the square isn't aligned with the wood, the blade will not be 90° to the wood and a line marked using the blade as your guide will not be square. For some reason, time and again children these days need to be instructed and reminded in its proper use.

At one point in time, children learned the use of such tools by observing others at work, and when it came time to use tools themselves, they had a baseline of knowledge as a foundation for their own creative activities.

An illustration of the sophistication of technique required for even the most simple tool, can be found in the article. Who would have thought that the pencil could present such complications? Well, actually any experienced carpenter might from his or her own observations. When you are attempting to achieve any degree of accuracy in your work, you begin to notice more and more things... unlike the tiny keyboard through which you begin to notice less and less. You can click on the image above for a larger view.

Many of the craftsmen I know who teach are saddened by what could be described as a diminishing baseline of expertise in the use of simple tools. Students come to our classes well versed in the latest technology, but having observed less and less of physical reality, they must be taught more and more in order to achieve reasonable success. Will it come to the point at which lessons must be taught on how to use a pencil? Guess what? It seems we're there already.

Put away the devices sometime and see what you can see. As a dear friend of mine remarked one time, "There's a real world out there." Cook, care, make, plant, create. Use the precious hands you've been given to create objects of useful beauty.

Today I will work on the walnut chests in the wood shop. Famous wood turner Alan Lacer will be my guest this evening for dinner to talk about Sloyd. Last night was an exceptional White Street Art Walk. We had a great turnout with both locals and visitors and everyone seemed to have great fun.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

mortised top and bottom

Today I've been setting up for White Street Art Walk, signed a contract with Taunton Press for a new book on making small cabinets, and mortised the tops and bottoms of my small walnut chests of drawers for the sides to fit. I'll cut the tenons tomorrow and then begin working on drawer guides. You can see today's operation in the photo above. I use a 1/4" spiral cutter in the router table and use stops and a fence to control the position of the cut. I gradually raise the router bit between cuts until it reaches the planned depth.

early box

One of the objects I received from my mother's estate is this walnut box that I had made for her as a Christmas present around 1981 or 82. I made similar boxes for each of my sisters from cherry. Each has hand cut dovetails, a hand made brass and walnut pull and matching panels. As with most of a maker's early works, one can see both strengths and weaknesses in it. There are elements of design which foretell later developments in my work, and areas where growth is still happening or needed. For instance, the finish leaves something to be desired.

Thankfully, mothers keep such things and are proud of them despite their flaws. This box was used to keep some of her jewelry, and has a sliding tray and compartments within. It will be given to my daughter when she is out of college dorms and has room for such things.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

today in the wood shops...

At Clear Spring School this morning, the first, second and third grade students made tops. They are simple, they are fun. We follow these steps:
1. Use a pencil sharpener to put a sharp point on a dowel.
2. Then use a hand saw to cut it to length. I've made a special centering jig on the drill press that holds a short piece of large dowel at exact center for drilling.
3. I clamp the work piece in place while the child drills.
4. Next glue the small dowel in place.
Each child made enough tops to fill their pockets, so you can imagine how much fun they had. They used markers and cut paper to do designs on the top and sides and also practiced their top spinning technique. This may have been the "most fun project" of the whole year.

In my own shop, I continue to work on the miniature walnut chest of drawers, and you can see the results of my tapering of sides in the photo above. As you can see, I am making two.

I am also busy setting up for the White Street Art Walk this next Friday night. May is Fine Arts Festival month in Eureka Springs. I also have work on exhibition in a special showing of local art at the Queen Anne Mansion.

In the meantime, the Eureka Springs Public High School is currently refusing to allow a jewelry making class to take place because the students would use propane torches. According to reports, the administration thinks that hot torches would be too dangerous for high school age students. The students can't be trusted with such dangerous tools.

Arts boosters in the community are hoping to take this issue up with the school board. Even though I no longer have a child in school, I've been asked to join the arts booster club to try to encourage creative opportunities for all students. Children are seriously injured each year playing basketball, but doing something far less dangerous and creative using sharp or hot objects is not allowed.

Is it any wonder we are becoming a nation of idiots? Is it any wonder that creatively inclined children drop out of school before graduation? Children are seriously injured by our failure to put tools of creative expression in their hands. They are also injured in spirit by our failure to trust. As I've mentioned before in the blog, we allow them to text message while driving which is far more dangerous than anything they could possibly do in schools.

This morning I was again thinking about the German expression, fingerspitzengefühl, which means having full command of something as though it is all present at one's fingertips. Fingerspitzengefühl was a term applied to famous German generals like Rommel, the Desert Fox, who seemed to have a supernatural sense of the entire field of battle. Is there a relationship between intuition and the use of the hands? I suspect that hands-on learning does foster intuition. After all, when we know someone is clue-less, we say they are out of touch.

In Swedish, the term tummen mitt i handen “a thumb in the middle of your hand” — is a rough analogue to the English idiom “all thumbs,” and refers to physical clumsiness. On the other hand, fingerspitzengefühl is a term which refers to much more than simple dexterity.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

tapered sides

Today at Clear Spring School, I had a number of students practicing work on the lathe, some worked on their trebuchet, others carved spoons and still others made tops. After school, I packed up some inlaid boxes to send to a gallery, and began work on a very small walnut chest of drawers with sides that taper toward the top. "How does one make sides that taper toward the top?" You ask.

It is simple, as shown in the photo above. A block of wood attached with double stick carpet tape under one end allows the wood to pass unevenly through the planer, taking off more at one end than the other. It takes several passes through the planer to get this result. Attend the blog over the next few days and you will see more.

attention, hands on....

An article in the New York Times Business Section tells of the difficulties that pilots are having, now that they no longer actually fly planes. Their job in the cockpit is now to "manage and monitor" rather than fly, and they are actually losing the ability to pay attention. As Attention Wanders, Rethinking the Autopilot By Christine Negroni. I am reminded of Saturday's poem about the potter. Scroll down to read it in case you missed it.

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Occidental, CA has an ongoing set of classes relevant to those who aspire to wisdom of the hands, or fingerspitzengefühl. Among upcoming events is a woodshop for women, offering a basic set of woodworking skills.

Monday, May 17, 2010

observations on higher education

My daughter Lucy arrived home from Columbia in New York City, now a senior. It is amazing how quickly the first three years have passed. We had a conversation about teaching and teachers in what is considered one of the top schools in the US, and by now Lucy is an expert at what it takes to be a good teacher. Some teachers have it and get it. Some do not. Some make it easy for their students. Some do not.

Most often, teachers in universities are hired without specific preparation for teaching, and much university teaching could be improved by some simple insight from educational sloyd about how materials can be best presented. Four simple rules from educational sloyd:
Move from the easy to the more difficult.
Move from the simple to the complex.
Move from the known to the unknown.
Move from the concrete to the abstract.
I have discussed these earlier in the blog, and if all teachers understood these four principles and particularly the last, education in the US would be vastly improved.

In Lucy's observation, the best teachers present the practical applications for the theoretical early in the lectures, providing motivation for student interest. Some teachers, on the other hand, fail to help students make the connection between theory and application, treating application as an afterthought. Students thus sit through hours of lecture, wondering, "Where in the world is this going, and why is it important to me?" It is actually no surprise to me that there are so many students dropping out from colleges and universities with their educations incomplete. I nearly did so myself. It is also no surprise that so many graduate with degrees unrelated to their ultimate interests and pursuits.

Some of this can be fixed through a renewed understanding of the value of hands-on learning, not just for those not working toward university educations, but for all. In learning one establishes a chain of organizational relevance through action and application. Break that chain, and the student says, "I'm outta here," and even when the will chains the body to home plate, the mind wanders out of the park.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

hand work and community....

There are some who think that things made by hand are impractical, unaffordable, and absurdly expensive. What you pay when you engage someone to do fine work actually consists of two components. The first is the payment for the object being made which should cover the costs of material, overhead and time. The second could be best called an investment in learning and growth. When you commission work or purchase work created by an individual craftsman you are investing in the development of craftsmanship, skill and the quality of the individual. The tragedy of our modern times is that we have forgotten that. Communities rise and fall purely on the basis of craftsmanship. Where caring craftsmanship is engaged and encouraged, communities rise as individual craftsmen arise, to full human potential. When craftsmanship declines or is allowed to perish, communities decline also.

So why in the world is this simple thing so hard for some to understand? Some, ignoring craftsmanship, unwilling to invest in the growth of others, would allow communities to fail and then withdraw to gated communities to protect themselves from the consequences of their own neglect.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

work first

Work first, then rest.
-John Ruskin

Another poem from Two Hundred Poems for Teachers of Industrial Arts Education Compiled by William L. Hunter, 1933...

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

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

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

Slowly he raised this patient eyes,
With homely truth inspired;
"No, Marm, it isn't the foot that works,
The one that stands gets tired!"
-- Author unknown
Those who work not, know nothing of the energy it instills, nor the strength nor wisdom one derives from it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

sawdust and oil do mix part 2

Today, out of endless curiosity, I have continued my experiment mixing oil, water and sawdust. Did you know you could remove oil from water by using a teaspoon? Did you know that the application of fine sawdust could help to contain the spread of oil on the surface of water? The photos taken in my kitchen tell the story. The wood dust is basswood, collected from my orbital sander. The oil used is common motor oil. Wood dust sprinkled on water sinks as it gradually absorbs water. The wood dust that has absorbed oil coagulates and floats for easy removal of both sawdust and oil. Excess sawdust floats harmlessly to the bottom. I gave the glass some side to side wave action to simulate ocean conditions and the glass shown at the end of the experiment has some wood dust still clouding the water, but it is ten times better than oil.

In the meantime, British Petroleum engineers have used over 400,000 gallons of dispersant to attempt to control the multimillion gallon oil gusher. We have no idea what the ecological impact of the combined oil and dispersant will be... what kind of toxicological effects? You can get your degree in financial engineering, become head of a multinational corporation and know less about materials properties than what one might learn in the kitchen or woodshop. I am frightened for the health and safety of our planet.

mixing and matching woods

My article for Woodcraft Magazine, "Mixing and Matching Woods" came out in the Jun/July 2010 issue.

Today in my home woodshop, I will be applying coats of Danish oil to small boxes, and cleaning the shop in preparation for starting a new book on making small cabinets.

John Grossbohlin sent this link to an article about those who need not or best not go to college. College for all? Experts say not necessarily. There are two simultaneous poems in the old book, Two Hundred Poems for Teachers of Industrial Arts Education that add to the discussion. The first describes the pleasure that some feel in the trades, that may guide some to seek much more than academic involvement in learning:

I want to be a carpenter
I want to be a carpenter,
To work all day long in clean wood,
Shaving it into little thin ribbons
Which roll up into curls behind my plane;
Pounding long, thin nails into white boards.
I want to shingle a house,
Sitting on the ridge pole in a cool breeze.
I want to put the shingles on neatly,
Taking great care that each is directly between two others.
I want my hands to have the tang of wood:
Spruce, cedar, cypress.
I want to draw a line with a flat pencil,
And then saw along that line,
With the sweet-smelling sawdust piling up in a heap at my feet.
--Amy Lowell
The second poem is shorter, author unknown but describes hand work and work of the mind combined as it must be in order to create whole people.

Hail to the Skillful Hand
Hail to the skillful hand, cunning hand;
Hail to the cultured mind;
Contending for the world's command,
Here let them be combined.
And so, the point of the Wisdom of the Hands is not merely that some students are best served by not going to college, but also that those who do go to college would be best served by engagement through their hands, learning mastery of both themselves and physical reality.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hunched in frame and intellect?

It seems we have a choice. Do we live our lives hunched over our electronic devices, starting at earlier and earlier ages, or do we spend our lives exploring the full extent of our humanity? Is intelligence to be measured only in what circles endlessly in our own heads, or will we have the matching physical acumen and expertise to create in full expression of our humanity?

Observe as you go through your day, what the hand held electronic device does to human posture. At one time, posture in schools was a matter for concern. In the days of Educational Sloyd, physical and intellectual education were understood as a single integrated enterprise in the development of man. And so, one must wonder, what are the effects of being wired into the world of entertainment and distraction while being isolated from the full physical expression of our humanity? Put down the device. Remove yourself from the keyboard. Get thee to the wood shop or garden. Stretch out to your full breadth. Plant, tend, make, create. To make something beautiful is to remake oneself as craftsman.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

building a birdhouse

Today, I helped the preschool kids at Clear Spring School build a birdhouse as you can see in the photo at left. Then, at home, in addition to sanding small boxes in my never ending friendly competition with the Chinese, I've also been conducting an experiment called, "do sawdust and oil mix?"

I am concerned as many are about the impact of the BP disaster, and based on my observations about sawdust being an excellent hand cleaner for oily hands, I began to wonder if sawdust might be utilized to remove oil from the surface of water. Not having a laboratory, my experiment is likely flawed. You can see the results in the series of photos below. Some of you may have seen my tip in Fine Woodworking about using sawdust to scrub oily hands. I saw an internet post on hair-brained clean up ideas and illustrated with a photo showing oily hands. Seeing that photo, I remarked to myself. If my hands were that oily, I would need sawdust to clean them up. That led to today's experiment. Starting out with a clean bucket of water, I added oil, then sawdust, then observed. After the floating layer of sawdust was removed, very little oily film remained. I expected the bucket to require detergent to clean. No oily film was left when the bucket was emptied. Amazing. More can be seen in later posts, Part 2, and Part 3

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

creativity is addictive. Crafted objects are, too.

There is a great deal of pleasure to be found in shaping wood into something beautiful and useful, and even when the work is done, the finished work demands being handled. Today, some of my students worked on their trebuchet and others worked on carved spoons and turning miniature ball bats on the lathe. All were more or less successful in that they were pleased with the results. When my turning students returned to class they had their ball bats taken away for the rest of the day. They just couldn't put them down. I know how they felt. I've been working on a carved walnut spoon and giving a lot of attention to getting it sanded perfectly smooth and applying an oil finish.

You can see it in the photos below. The shape invites examination, but it doesn't have a a very useful handle. It thus offers a juxtaposition of beauty with awkward uselessness and invites the viewer (or user) to examine other qualities a simple spoon represents. Is nourishment only a physical thing, or is it also emotional? Can one gain a sense of nourishment from handling such objects? I suspect so. Make one, shape and sand it to near perfection and see if you can put it down. Your hands may insist that you start another.
On the very same subject, I gave one of my fellow teachers a spoon carving blank and got her started making a spoon in yesterday's class. She told me she can hardly put it down and continues to give it shape. She sands her spoon as she talks on the phone and conducts other business. There are neurohormones triggered by hands-on creative activities that foster a sense of well-being.

can kids play with fire? please?

It turns out that consumer electronics products are addictive. Children can't resist text messaging as they drive or as a distraction in class. They say they can't be separated from their important connections. The article I posted yesterday from NPR explains some of it. One adult, lecturing to a class on the dangers of texting and driving, discovered a child texting surreptitiously under her desk. Nearly every teacher in America has had the same experience.

In the meantime, a jewelry making class at our local public high school was canceled because it required students to use small acetylene torches which were considered too dangerous. Kids could not be trusted with fire.

In Oakland, CA, one interested in hands-on learning should visit the Crucible. Reader, Larry Gallagher sent the link and recommendation. At the Crucible, children can make, fix and modify bikes, and adults can learn to weld and forge. In one program, children use grinders, acetylene torches and arc welders to modify bikes.

If as overprotective adults, we fail to put real tools in the hands of our children, thus stifling their creative powers we push their natural hands-on inclinations into the realm of real danger... That of complete distraction from the real dangers of physical reality. The use of the hands is hard wired to the brain. To manipulate objects with the hands and fingers is an essential human activity. Shall we use our hands and fingers to become physically creative and expressive? Or must we leave our children addicted to the canned uncreative expressions of consumer culture? Cook, fix, make, plant, sew, cut, grind, weld, shape, saw, nail.

"The function of the artist is to express reality as felt."
-- abstract painter Robert Motherwell

Monday, May 10, 2010

kids and risk

On NPR this morning they talked about children's natural attraction to risk taking behavior. There have been scientific studies, but anyone with eyes would be able to see kids purposely taking risks all the time. Risky behavior is the process through which children explore their limitations and their power.

I asked my 5th and 6th grade students about it. They confirmed two things. First kids like to take risks. Secondly, their risky behavior increases when they are with peers. They don't want to be seen as lacking in courage, so when they are with friends they do wilder stuff. Peers also provide an important audience. You've heard the redneck kid's last cry? "Hey watch this!"

I also asked this important question, that wasn't covered on the radio this morning. "Does being prevented from taking small risks, increase your probability of taking larger ones?" My students said yes, but that also, children who have not engaged in risky behavior have a poorly developed sense of consequences arising from the more outrageous things they might be inclined to do. In other words, the effects from minor risk taking help children to predict the effects resulting from larger ones.

Ironically, the radio report was about texting while driving, something without the oh wow! factor of more meaningful risk taking. It is sad that something offering so little fun might be the thing most likely to kill kids. In the meantime whittling with knives in school seems to be the thing that would frighten parents the most. Go figure. It seems that by sheltering kids, we may be doing them the most harm, by making them blind to the cause and effect relationships inherent in physical reality.

Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop, the 4th, 5th and sixth grade students practiced carving and sharpening knives in preparation for the spring camping trip which starts tomorrow.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

distraction or empowerment...???

President Obama, delivering the commencement address at Hampton University, said that it is the responsibility of all Americans to offer every child the type of education that will make them competitive in an economy in which just a high school diploma is no longer enough.

Moreover, Obama said, the era of iPads and Xboxes had turned information into a diversion that was imposing new strains on democracy.
"You're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter," he told the students. "And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy."
But we don't often give kids a choice. Their hands crave engagement, but the only tools we offer for their use are digital. We have become a nation of overprotective parents who stifle real creativity. Cook, garden, make, create. Change our schools and our technologies to empower kids hands to make. Got a hammer?

creativity, New York Times

Reuben sent an interesting article from the New York Times: Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory by Patricia Cohen. Lots we don't know, but we do know creativity isn't what we teach in school.

Links to published works

I realize that new readers come to the blog each day, and some may not want to go through the whole thing, but may want to be directed to some of my published articles. Others may want reading in addition to that which is offered daily in this blog.

I believe that the view of the craftsman has become unusual in today's culture, despite it being the view from which modern human culture arose in the first place. And as a craftsman, I hope to offer a perspective that may be useful to others with regard to the hands. I have gathered resources in this post that will be helpful to those wishing to explore the Wisdom of the Hands concept, and the two videos embedded below will give a brief glimpse of what we do in the Clear Spring School woodshop.

Although my training is not that of an educator, I teach woodworking at Clear Spring School in Northwest Arkansas grades 1-12 with occasional projects at the preschool and kindergarten levels. Clear Spring School is 35 years old, has been called by some “a miracle in the woods” for its unlikely location in a very small town in Arkansas. It is accredited through ISACS and the NAIS, and has been called by some one of the few truly progressive schools in America. While some independent schools are set up to provide an alternative for students in particular communities, Clear Spring School originated as a laboratory to explore new ideas in education that might have impact in time on the nation at large.

Here are some document resources that I am making available for your download and review:

CV/Resume condensed

Wisdom of the Hands article in Independent School Magazine Published by NAIS, National Association of Independent Schools.
Article in Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, Department of Psychology, City University of New York.

The following are my articles about Educational Sloyd:
Educational Sloyd, Woodwork magazine
Paper Sloyd, Woodwork Magazine
The Sloyd Knife, Woodwork magazine
Making a Child’s Benchhook Woodwork Magazine
Beginning Sloyd, Woodwork Magazine
Nääs: Placing the hands at the center of education, Woodwork Magazine
Nääs: Looking Back, Sloyd Models, Woodwork Magazine
Sloyd article in "Furniture Matters," newsletter of the Furniture Society.

My general school wood shop articles:
Woodcraft article on Clear Spring School Woodworking
American Woodworker article on Clear Spring School
Article in Woodcraft magazine, Back to School
Making Sculpture from the Half Model describes using an ancient boat building technique as a means of creating sculptural forms at Clear Spring School.
Making a crooked knife page one
Making a crooked knife page two

Community and family in the woodshop.
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4

21 Reasons for School Woodshops was produced by Doug Stowe, Jack Grube and the New England Association of Wood Working Teachers for distribution to schools throughout New England.

In May, 2006, I presented the following paper, a 21st century personal journey to the heart of Educational Sloyd, at a Sloyd conference at Umeå University in Sweden, and in September, 2008 I presented the paper, Hands, Tools and the Expansion of Intellect at the Crafticulation and Education Conference at the University of Helsinki.These papers in their full view have photos which have been omitted due to file size. You can see photos of regular school activities here on the blog.

Additional documents will be placed online for your use. And other articles and editorials have been featured in Cabinet Maker Magazine and Northern Woodlands. I am currently on the Fulbright Senior Specialists Roster making me available for overseas teaching at the university level.

Tinkering School

Gever Tully on Ted
A friend sent me this link and more can be found on Gever Tulley's Tinkering School Here.As we watch our children walking around with all their attention and shoulders pulled within the hand-held text devices that have come to so dominate their existence, some have come to the conclusion that we are approaching a point of crisis. Kids, however, really do like working in the physical world when they get the chance. Constructing, deconstructing are engaging operations.

But what about skill? There are three important things to consider. The first is that children need to be exposed to the making of beautiful, useful objects. The second is that children need to be trusted with the tools through which beautiful, useful objects are created. Third, children need to be mentored by adults in the making of things. Some of this can happen in school, and it is the great tragedy of our times that we have forgotten and neglected to enable our children to become creators of useful beauty. In our drive for higher test scores, we have neglected to impart the basics of our humanity. Fortunately, some of this can also happen in homes and within families, or we would be really screwed.

I was lucky to grow up in a family active in the crafts and in which finely crafted things framed the home environment, were used and appreciated. The formula is simple. Do beautiful stuff. Making crap and taking crap apart without an eye to beauty can go a ways, providing a sense of confidence and understanding. That is where tinkering can come in. But the next level has to do with a concern for beauty. We must demonstrate both beauty, and the making of it, and then share what we do with kids.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Mom's dulcimer

For a craftsman, the death of a parent can bring a reunion with objects made in the past. The dulcimer shown above and below is one I made for my mother in 1977. She was very proud of it and played it in a dulcimer club in Omaha in the late 70's before her hearing became impaired and she lost her ability to participate in music. Today we are shipping it off to my nephew Logan, a musician in Portland. Logan told me it is the best gift he's received in his whole life. He played it when we gathered for my mother's memorial service, and for me to hear the dulcimer I made for my mother played in the hands of one of her two much loved grandsons was also a gift... one that I'm sure my mother would have enjoyed.

The dulcimer is made with walnut, spruce, a bit of ebony, copper inlay, and a touch of humor. But it would not have been made without the encouragement of my mother. I made a small number of dulcimers before becoming focused exclusively on boxes and furniture. All were rather unconventional like the one shown.

Friday, May 07, 2010

woodworking runs in families...

The objects in the photo above are from my mother's estate and were made by my great uncle Charlie. I present them here in recognition that skilled trades are not just for those who choose not to go to college, but are of immense value to all. Charles Richards was a Methodist minister in Ft. Dodge, Iowa and did carving as a hobby. The mahogany corner shelf was signed and dated Dec. 25, 1944, while at least 3 of his nephews and one of his nieces were at war in Europe. Material expression of skill and attention is a transcendental act the value of which is not limited to those of a particular social class.

Having his work in our home as I was growing up was inspiring. To know that some of the objects in our home were lovingly made with skilled hands rather than being spewed from machinery gave my sisters and me a special place in the universe.

Our children are not easily lured away from their iPods, iPhones, and iPads and other iDevices. But, I was lucky. I can still feel my father's arms around me, helping me to hold the gouge as I turned my first wood on the lathe. Then as I taught my daughter Lucy to turn, I held her in my arms the way my father held me. Can you see how all this works? I can look back at my great uncle Charlie, and my uncle Ron, and my dad, and know that woodworking can run in families when someone cares about sharing their passion for woodworking with each new generation. It is not too late to start a family tradition of your own, but you will have to stand up to a culture of distraction in order to do so. These days, teens spend an average of 11 hours per day wired to the internet, gaming or texting friends. If we could just capture an hour or two each day for each in the woodshop, we would bring about a cultural renewal and advancement of intellect educational administrators and politicians could hardly imagine.

I spent the afternoon engaged in my usual friendly competition with the Chinese, making small inlaid boxes to sell through a few galleries. Most people in America aren't making anything anymore, so being a craftsman is swimming against a tide of well-made meaningless products in a sea largely unfamiliar with the sincerity of hand crafted work.