Monthly Archives: February 2016

Mindful Woodworking… or …Gonzo Woodworking, Let Weirdness Reign

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Just as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson gave himself permission to create “Gonzo Journalism” , I have decided that I will champion the cause of Gonzo Woodworking.

Now, let it be said that my approach to this particular mutation of woodworking will be mostly focused on encouragement and exploration rather than cynicism and hallucinogens. Not that I have anything against cynicism or hallucinogens, its just that my focus is much more fixed much more on the evolution of woodworking norms rather than the journalling of their failures and hypocrisies.

The thing is, I am convinced that the woodworking community as a whole is badly in need of some fresh air. A little bit of deviance. A little bit of a shake up to see what comes of it. A little weirdness.

To be clear, I treasure and revere classic woodworking techniques. I love traditional joinery, I love traditional design. I adore a hand squared board. I covet antique hand and power tooling.

What I do not love, and what I am starting to see as an impediment of  the evolution of woodworking, is the ceaseless demand for adherence to the “Rules of Woodworking” .

“Its not woodworking unless you do everything by hand”     “Only this tool or that tool or that machine is used in true woodworking”. “Template cut dovetails are inferior to hand cut dovetails”. and on, and on.

The religion of woodworking and craftsmanship has become stale and tired. Still fun, still interesting, especially to a novice. Still a rush to the beginner tool junkie. But there is such fanaticism in most of the woodworking community. I think that this may be the result of the craft having been passed on, father to son, master to apprentice, thereby instilling rigidity.”This is the way I was taught, this is the way it has been done for centuries so it must be the right way”. I admire traditional woodworking and trust that it has it’s place. Especially as it relates to craftsmanship. There is “good” and “bad” woodworking. “Good” being woodworking that was executed with thought, attention to detail, and with abandon. “Bad” being woodworking that was done with no thought, carelessness, and with only the bottom line in mind.

Where I start wandering from the “one true path” is when woodworkers start choosing sides. Hand cut joinery verses machine cut or machine assisted, ALL hand tools/no machines verses all machines/mostly machines. Totally irrelevant.

The Gonzo in Gonzo Woodworking, is the view that a woodworker should derive joy and satisfaction from their pursuit of excellence in the design, planning, and execution of a particular project. The rubber meets the road, so to speak, as a woodworker takes his design idea and thinks it through. Edits the design for scale, function, and taking the limitations of the wood into consideration. He ensures that the concept is sound, plans the  joinery around the limitations of the medium, plans the order of operations, lays out the materials and tooling, and finally begins making sawdust.

These steps are where a bit of mindful woodworking comes in. By that I mean, it is taking each operation as an opportunity to enjoy as a “moment”. Be in the “moment” of developing the design. Be in the “moment” of cutting that dovetail regardless of the method you employ to do it.

Furthermore, and this may be another Gonzo philosophy, it is important to savor the setbacks as much as the victories. Each set back, in my view, should be viewed as opportunity, rather than failure. Life is too short to be looked through the success or failure lens. Too short indeed.

Rather, what once would be looked at as failure, could now be viewed as an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to modify, an opportunity to change. There are very few mistakes in woodworking. Very few slips that either cannot be fixed, or worked around. If, as a woodworker you find yourself staring at a project that simply cannot be reworked to satisfaction or to a level of craftsmanship that is appropriate to the task, put it in the “burn pile” and start again.

It is O.K. Give yourself permission to make the attempts regardless of the eventual outcome. Turn the table saw on and make the cut. Forget that there is potential to cut proud of a layout line. Forget that the project is on a deadline. Forget that Harry Handyman says you have to work the joinery this way or that. It is your moment to enjoy, not his.

That brings up another issue. I feel that a preponderance of the woodworking community feels that anything less than perfection is failure. Ask any craftsman about their project, and I would be willing to bet that they, if they are honest, would be able to show you exactly where things went “wrong” in its development and execution. That is if you could get them to talk about where things got sideways on them.

It is an undeniable truth of the woodworking universe that no project, and I do mean NO project goes exactly as planned. EVER. It just does not work that way. Enjoy it, don’t shy away from that little gift, because that is exactly what that is, a gift. It is the gift of imperfection that makes the project unique and therefore desirable. It is the gift of imperfection, among other things,that imparts the otherwise unobtainable feel of humanity to the piece.

That gift is, in my opinion, one of the things that makes working wood so enjoyable. To be sure, we attempt each project with the intention and the desire to work it through with no missteps, no errors, and pure perfection. Where most miss out, and only get half of what is available to them in doing so, is when they become disappointed or discouraged by a mis-reading of the tape measure or misguided stroke of steel on wood. Sure there may be a flash of disappointment, but I challenge the reader to reorient your perspective to the misstep. Change how you view it and see it as a chance to become creative in your repair or in how you decide to work around it. Once you give yourself permission to actually work wood, rather than chase perfection and only perfection will suffice, then your can relax into the moment. you can take each step, moment by moment, as something to be enjoyed and savored rather than approached with fear or with trepidation. The end result,in my experience, usually ends up being very satisfactory. The end result is one that expresses more richness than one that is built with tension or fear of failure. It is palpable, this difference between a project built out of the dogged pursuit of perfection and one that was built moment by moment.

Work the wood fearlessly, work the wood with joy and abandon.

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Mindful Woodworking…or…The Tao of Working Wood

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For several months now, I have been considering my position as The Madcap Woodwright. This meditation is partially because the Tiny Shop is still not completely prepared for full operational status. Some time ago, after having adjusted my vintage Delta jointer, its motor decided to give up the ghost. I have been searching for it’s replacement ever since. So, while I can perform a wide range of operations, and have been engaged in some light restoration work, I am still not completely ready to turn the Tiny Shop and The Madcap Woodwright loose on the world just yet.

I think that part of the issue is that, in addition to having to manage some of my tooling issues,  I am more than a little bit uneasy about starting a business based on  such a non-traditional business model.

In reality, the business model is not all that radical. However, it does attempt to diverge from more traditional models in that, it’s primary focus is less about profit, and more about sustainability and satisfaction. Not just customer satisfaction, but also personal satisfaction. The two being dependent upon each other in my view.

Recently, a reader of this humble blog posted a lovely comment on the Madcap Manifesto post I put up a while ago. Dan H’s comment can be read in its entirety at the bottom of that post.

One portion of his comment summed up nicely, the notion of working for the internal reward verses the external rewards that are normally the driving force behind most business.

QUOTE:

“If I may, I’d like to add a little of my own thoughts. To borrow an analysis from a contemporary critic of modern culture, there are goods that are “external” to a practice and goods that are “internal” to a practice. One can engage in a practice merely to acquire certain external goods; wealth, fame, influence, etc. But, such goods are not uniquely connected to the practice. They can be acquired in many different ways. That’s why they are called external goods. If one is motivated by goods external to the practice he or she naturally will seek to be efficient, to cut corners, maybe even to cheat in order to get the goods.

On the other hand, one can seek to excel in a practice in order to achieve the goods that are internal to that practice. These are goods can only be achieved by participating and attempting to excel in the practice. Moreover, such a craftsman cannot cut corners, cannot cheat, to achieve such goods; it’s simply a contradiction. And, although difficult to prove, you are dead right that one way of doing it is more satisfying. Or, in your words, “…let the joy woodworking offers stand front and center.”
END QUOTE

The root of the Madcap Woodwright’s evolving philosophy summed in that second paragraph. It is the participation and the attempt(s) at excellence that contain the promise of the inner satisfaction that I’m after. But more than that, they are only the very root. There are some ancillary issues here too.

For example, a large part of my passion is also rooted in the desire to pass the love of woodworking on to others. I feel a need to develop my views and philosophies as they relate to woodworking in general, and Madcap Woodworking in particular. As it stands right now, one of my key messages is designed to liberate folks from the high handedness and eliteist dogma that have engulfed woodworking for so long. I feel moved to encourage anyone who will listen, to give themselves permission to just …work…the….wood. Yes, by all means do so with all your best efforts, be they focused on handcut dovetails, or building a shed. By all means, read the articles in Fine Woodwroking or Popular Woodworking or what ever. By all means, explore the lives of the craftsman who have gone before us. Just don’t become bogged in their way of doing things. Feel the freedom of exploring multiple options in both design and execution.

I thank Dan H. for responding the way he did. Not so much because he agrees with me, it’s more a case of gratitude for understanding.

Making peace with the reality of the potential responsibilities that come with promoting a, some would say, progressive view of how to approach woodworking, is proving to be a little more challenging than I first imagined. Be that as it may, I realize that it promises to be as rewarding as putting together a Tiny Shop, or cutting a dovetail, or scoring some vintage bit of woodworking machinery.

This piece seems to be a bit rambling. Clearly there is still work to be done as it relates to sifting through the various thoughts and bits of evolving philisophical perspective that I have. I have a foundational idea of how I view both the art/craft of working wood the way I do, I have a seed that has been planted in my spirit. It occurs to me that the resistance, slight as it may be right now, to moving forward and opening the doors of The Tiny Shop to the public might be the exact thing that may be hindering me from solidifying these philosophies?

In any case, rest assured that more navel gazing will occur as I continue to search out that replacement jointer motor. More thoughtful pondering will be forth comming after it is repaired and I go forth to procure a lovely little Delta shaper to round out my classic machine collection. Once I finally begin actually working wood more purposefully and the doors of The Tiny Shop are finally open for business, I suspect that more of the esoteric pieces shall fall into place.

Or….

Maybe the picture will change entirely….either way, its going to be fun getting back into the saddle. It’s going to be fun to be joyfully working wood with abandon again. Stay Tuned.

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