Monday, March 31, 2014

Today in the CSS wood shop

My high school students are making progress on their small boxes, I finished a set of Froebel number 3 gifts to give as gifts visiting dignitaries at school, and my upper elementary school students made airplanes. (I hope they fly). I had no balsa, and so milled thin stock for the wings from basswood.

The kids are studying physics and this was a project suggested by their teacher over the weekend.  I am busy going over the loop of my book, Beautiful Boxes, Design and Technique, finding and fixing small errors before the book goes to press.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

the value of tools, vs. art...

From the New York Times
Evidently, some people are wondering why musical instruments like the Stradivarius violins and violas have not yet reached the value of works by famous artists. Blog reader Randall Henson alerted me to some articles that address this issue, like this on PBS, Setting a new bar on the price of musical instruments.

It is fascinating that musical instruments need to be used in order to be preserved of their usefulness and beauty of sound. An article from the New York Times describes this phenomenon: Fingers that keep the most treasured violins fit. On the other hand, a painting can be hung by a decorator on a wall in an office where a CEO can merely point to it with pride and derive benefit of pride from having it in his possession. He requires no particular expertise to revel in its proposed value. Someone owning a Stradivarius, would be made to feel shallow and incompetent by his or her own failure to make such a magical instrument perform. Now that these instruments are gaining in value, some are being leased to artists, and others, falling into the unskilled hands of speculators and collectors will diminish in value for not being played.

It may come to pass that musicians will be like dog walkers, hired to exercise strads in the same way dog walkers are hired by the rich and famous to exercise their poodles and thus keep them fit and of value.

What a funny world we live in.

My friend Larry Williams makes wood bodied hand planes that are works of art, and yet, most are sold to collectors who may be hesitant to take their first swipe on wood due to concerns that by doing so, they will diminish the plane's value. Perhaps when they learn that a tool is nothing without use, these collectors will hire craftsmen to make things using their collections of tools. Fat chance of anything like that happening.

My new book project that I'm beginning will be Making Kindergarten's Gifts. Chapter one will include some overview of the life of Friedrich Froebel, the impact of Kindergarten on world-wide education, and the making of the first gift.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

this day...

Jenny was out of practice, but made a ball!
Today I am going through what is called a loop. I received a FedEx package yesterday that contained a working preview of my book Beautiful Boxes, Design and Technique. It is a called a loop because the same stack of papers will run from one reviewer to the next, making its rounds through a number of sets of hands, each turning pages, casting a critical eye on each and proposing changes and corrections.

For the author of a how-to book, the loop is the first look at how things have been arranged by the editors responsible for design and layout. It is easy in such things for photo positions to fall out of order or for text to run long requiring it to be further edited. I also learned on-line that the new book is planned to come out in September. This is my 8th book.

 I had so much fun making boxes yesterday, and am excited to have had the teaching staff together with head master, to talk about the philosophy of education. I am hoping to do that again. Now if I can just get my fingers trained for crochet! Anyone with experience in crochet can make a Froebel gift ball in but a few minutes. It will take my fingers (trained as they are for other things)
a bit of time to comply.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, March 28, 2014

teachers in the wood shop.

Gift number one, ready for learning, ready for play
Today I invited our teachers to work with me in the wood shop, making Froebel gifts one and 3. It was a chance to talk about Froebel and the origins of progressive education, and also to address the mission of our school and educational method while doing a hands-on learning project, true to the school's mission. I took advantage of one of our teacher's expertise in crochet to get instruction in making Froebel's gift number one which consists of 6 small colored balls in a box with sliding lid. These simple toys were used with infants to stimulate interest and play while in the parent's lap. After all, Kindergarten was not invented to me merely the child's first year of school. It was a direct invitation to the parents to begin as the child's first teachers.

Kindergarten was a whole developmental time period from 3 months to 8 years of age, in which interactive play was the primary focus of education and child development.

Now of course Kindergarten is no special time in the lives of children as it was originally intended. Instead, it is the time that kids learn to fill bubbles on standardized tests, so that they can prove to the world that they've been taught while learning to sit and stay.

I am grateful to teach at a school that knows the difference.

Today our upper elementary school teacher said, "This is the first time I've made a box." At one time the skills to crochet and to make small useful objects was widespread, and children would have acquired these skills from their earliest days and at home. Froebel had recognized that mothers and fathers could become best equipped to instruct at the earliest ages. Their's was a sacred task.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Oneway, part two.

Oneway makes beautiful lathes and they are heavy. Yesterday the UPS Freight truck arrived during my middle school class and it was good to have them there for help. The two lathes were palleted, with each weighing over 600 lbs. The lift gate truck lowered them to the ground in front of the school building and we wheeled them into the school on a flat dolly. It may sound easier than it actually was. but we managed to get them in place without pinched fingers or aching back.

In the meantime, schools all across the US are at the point of testing to see if they've been successful in their implementation of the common core. Rather than common core, I would prefer that schools offer uncommon experiences. Our strength and survival as a social species has not been from our uniformity. We are each uncommon and bring diversity of ideas and diversity of experience to the common table.

So, while Oneway makes great lathes, oneway is not the most desirable pathway for kids to follow in school. We are attempting to push them through a slot, hoping that they will all emerge on the other side as uniform and efficient as grated cheese. That process might be fun for policy makers, but is a disgusting thing to do to kids and their unique interests.

Children when they meet middle school are a bundle of conflicting impulses. They want to be the same as their peers as expressed in their dress and mannerisms, but they are also very competitive in their attempt to stand out in the display of skill. Stand two boys at Oneway lathes and they will demonstrate for each other, what they can do with the tools, and how finely they can sand. And they don't need the teacher to interfere by giving marks.

Yesterday I mentioned an NPR news article about the loss of cursive handwriting in schools.
"Handwriting instruction is in danger of becoming increasingly marginalized."

If the claim is to be believed, that's a bad thing. And lots of reading specialists and academics believe it. It turns out, the real fear among those who study kids and handwriting is not that our schools will stop teaching cursive; it's what Steve Graham of ASU has noticed in recent years: "We don't see much writing going on at all across the school day," Graham says.

What are kids doing instead?

"Filling in blanks on worksheets," Graham says. "One-sentence responses to questions, maybe in a short response summarizing information."
In other words, we are turning kids into grated mozzarella, when we should be turning them on to wood turning. That would be the Oneway, that would work to revolutionize education.

Today I'll be working on boxes and preparing for my teacher class on Friday when I'll have the Clear Spring School staff in the wood shop to make Froebel's gifts.

I'm also working with Taunton Press today on gallery pages at the end of my newest book. The photo at left was taken by staff at Fine Woodworking and shows a representative sample of boxes I made and that you can make, too.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Today UPS freight will deliver two new Oneway lathes to the school, so that means we will be shifting things and making room. I will also be preparing for a class at school on Friday for teachers. Between those two things and today's classes, it will be a busy day.

Yesterday, NPR had a news report about the fight over whether or not cursive writing should be taught in schools. The argument centers around tradition, and whether or not students will be capable of reading historic documents or writing letters. But from the standpoint of the hands and the creative expressiveness of the hands, cursive is much more than swirly writing on paper. Nietzsche, was going blind and began writing with a type writer. One of his friends had noticed that he wrote differently and brought it to Nietzche's attention. Yes, he replied. The typing was changing the way he thought.

Typing when done well is pizzicato.  Typing on iPhones is awkward in comparison. But cursive was when thoughts flowed onto paper like melted butter from the mind.

It used to be that thoughts were composed of materials and sentences about the length of a human breath. Now, with fingers on tiny keyboards, thoughts are reduced to random stacatto. Whereas with cursive, there was a flow between letters and an interconnection between things, and the opportunity for creative expression in form as well as content, and perhaps we should be watching how we write as well as what we write. But then, even writing itself as an expression of ideas, may be falling into the dustbin of educational malfeasance. If the hands are the source of all human wisdom, we've become pretty dumb on the way to educational reform.

But not in wood shop.

Make, fix, create...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

which reminds me...

Yesterday my two of my 4th grade students began work on the lathe for the first time, and as they worked, I was reminded of Beth Ireland's Turning around America project when she was here to work with our kids. This year, she and Eliot School in Jamaica Plain are collaborating in a project "Turning around Boston."

I thought of Beth when I gave colored pencils to the girls to use in coloring their lathe work, just as Beth had used colored pencils with kids when she was here.

Of course there are elements of form that can be obscured by the use of color, and there are those who would argue that development of the use of form might be addressed more simply if the colors were left off. But if you saw the pride with which these students held their work and the excitement they expressed in making it, you would know that color or no, turning with kids is a wonderful experience.

As one of the many supporters of Beth's Turning around Boston, I received a small booklet of photos as a thank you gift. The photos are beautiful and the quotes of various educators in support of the program tell a great tale.

I also got invitations to two memorials for Bill Coperthwaite. One will be held May 25 at Bill's burial site at Machiasport, Maine, and the other on May 31 at the Brown Center for Innovative Learning in Durham New Hampshire. If you are one of many friends of Bill and are able to be in New England during that week, and are interested in hand crafting a better life, it would be useful for you to attend either or both.

On yet another subject, some of my readers may wonder why I would have become so upset about a power line being proposed through some of the most beautiful parts of Arkansas. One of the proposed routes is 75 feet off my deck. This is not an ordinary power line like folks are used to, as you can see in the photo below. Please study this. You can see normal size power lines in the foreground. These gargantuan power poles and the 150 ft. wide right of way would be devastating.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, March 24, 2014

weekend woodworking.

A small finger jointed box
I spent the weekend teaching a private class for a box maker from Texas, and as you can imagine, we had fun. In addition to using a variety of techniques, we used some beautiful wood and I presented a mini class on box design. Regardless of subject, it is fun sharing what you've learned if there is a common interest in the subject matter.

We finished one box and managed to get a second one finished but for hinges, lid tab and Danish oil.

Mike was interested in trays and dividers, as well as various forms of joining corners, for strength and beauty.
With lift out tray

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Miscellaneous stuff.

This morning I will begin my second day of a private lesson for a new found friend from Texas.

Yesterday we made a miter cornered box with walnut keys used to strengthen the joints. We installed butt hinges in the lid, and installed a small pull. In addition, we cut finger joints, and mitered finger joints. And talked a great deal about design, and of course about wood.

I have a new small invention that is intended to keep a 2 inch square block handy at the saw. Some readers will remember my x +/- 2 system of proportion to be used in box making. And this small block is key. By adding a small magnet to the back, allowing it to be positioned on the saw and not lost on the floor, it becomes an actual tool rather than just a chunk of wood to be discarded and replaced whenever needed. Adding the magnet to the back keeps it handy, and stamping the size on the front looks cool and keeps it from being mistaken for scrap.

I discovered an advertisement in a 1936 craft magazine for an early version of the the multi-tool that would later inspire the making of Shopsmiths. My own shopsmith is a 1948 model. The Walker-Turner "Driver Add-A-Tool" was a near complete woodworking shop. Starting out as a lathe and table saw, you could add various sanders, a band saw, and jointer. The complete shop could be purchased for less than $100.00.

The box we made yesterday can be seen at the top of the post.

Today, we will make trays, dividers, drawers and perhaps some other forms of corner joints, depending on time and interest.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

contrived in haste and desperation

Clinch hinges from Craft, Inc.
Yesterday I bought a small load of about 100 board feet of walnut which should keep me busy making small boxes for some time. I also received some sample hinges from Craft, Inc. that are intended for machine installation. The machine costs over $6,000, so it is unlikely I'll put these to regular use in my work unless I go whole hog into much larger production of small boxes.

These hinges press-in-place and are clinched for a tight grip in both hardwoods and soft or in cardboard and some plastics.

The unexpected great thing about these hinges is that they are made in a plant using solar power. Craft, Inc. in Massachusetts gets 97% of its power from the sun. In other words, these small hinges, shown in the photo represent the future of the American power industry -- Locally generated power for local use, and international distribution of manufactured products. These hinges are nothing new.

Craft has been making them for generations as shown on the box at left, marked as a gift from Bob Swigert in 1939.

In the meantime, as we've worked to prevent an extra high voltage power transmission line from devastating a huge swath of Arkansas forest, the power company has proposed new route segments that would help their preferred route 33 avoid the National Military Park at Pea Ridge, a course that set it at odds with the National Park Service and that would have made approval by the US Army Corp of Engineers far from likely. Of course their new routes are even more hastily contrived than their original proposal and show as a sign of their desperation. Also showing their desperation, they've hired a Washington lobbying and public relations firm from Washington, DC to take over their failed public relations on the project. So now there are advertisements going into all the local papers in the area claiming the vast benefits of greatly enhanced reliability. And it is tough being a small group of volunteers having taken on the challenge of stopping a major corporation with deep pockets and that is relentless in making profits without concern for the environment.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission staff weighed in with their opinion yesterday, that the power company's request for consideration of new route segments should be open to rehearing.  The Arkansas Public Service Commission has never met a transmission line it didn't like. I've been helping our attorney draft our response. Of course hastily drawn lines on a map are not the same thing as walking the ground and discovering what you find there, and what we've found already shows the corporation is acting out of haste and desperation. Their new proposed route segments have many problems of their own and will face stiff opposition.

In contrast, the work of craftsmen is seldom contrived in haste and desperation. We attempt to work skilfully. We become stewards of the space around us, and we strive to leave beauty behind us in our work. If we make serious mistakes, be back up and start over. Today I offer private lessons to Mike from Texas. We will work thoughtfully as I share techniques and offer insight into my methods of design.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, March 21, 2014

shallow, steeped in artificiality, and devoid of interconnectedness...

I am sorry to have to use those terms in relation to American education. In this week's Time Magazine, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, took issue with the SAT as being "part hoax, part fraud." The same can be said of American education, where too much information is reduced to yes, no, right and wrong answers, whereas in real life oversimplification of reality is not advisable.

Box by my student Richard Bell as featured in Lee Valley Newsletter
When you make something from wood, or play an instrument, there are a variety of approaches that can be taken, and there are decisions that can be made that lead to interesting and personalized results, that build creative judgement and expertise.

As I was on my evening walk last night, I thought about the odious word problems presented in math. There was one from the first SAT administered in 1926 in the margins of the Botstein's essay. It goes like this: "If a package containing twenty cigarettes costs fifteen cents, how many cigarettes can be bought for 90 cents?" It doesn't say how many multiple choices were offered or what they were, but the word problems offered in math are simply an attempt to show math used in contrived context in artificialized learning. The problem of word problems is obvious to anyone who has done math to solve real world problems as offered in wood shop.

Botstein asks that new tests be developed to replace the SAT. He says, "The truth is that the only legitimate test is one in which a question is put forward and an answer is required with no options or hints." I suggest that the only legitimate test is one in which the answer applies directly to real life, and its correctness is measured in the success of doing real things, not by the College Board. The questions to which there are right and wrong answers are the ones that are wrong to be asking kids if we are concerned about developing a lifelong love of learning.

Today I am signing a contract for another book, will travel to buy walnut for box making and will prepare for a weekend class. The tool box shown in the photo above was made by one of my students at Marc Adams School of Woodworking. I remember when he worked on it is class and I suggested he send it to the Lee Valley Newsletter. It was published in this week's edition.

Make, fix and create...