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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2 thoughts on “Mindful Woodworking… or …Gonzo Woodworking, Let Weirdness Reign

  1. Jim Gregoric

    You masterfully describe the productive and seductive “flow” state that applies to many aspects of life. One of your best Cappy.
    Jim

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    1. madcapwoodwright Post author

      Thank you Jim,
      I continue to explore this. I have been making a point of using required, yet mundane tasks, as opportunities to focus on “the moment”. Take for instance, the fairly UN glamorous task of rough sketching an idea. It can be frustrating as it sometimes requires multiple attempts just to get a glimpse of what I’m after design – wise.
      Rough sketching is often needed to ” flesh out” the concept before assigning actual dimensions. It’s also sometimes needed to ascertain if an idea is plausible in its design taking the limitations of the medium into consideration.
      So then, if I take just the single operation of rough sketching, and being in THAT moment, with no other thought of the future of the idea, and just work the moment all the way through, a fairly mundane and potentially frustrating task becomes enjoyable. Downright satisfying.
      Certainly, this is not always the case, but it is the case enough of the time to be a worthwhile excersise in my view… I find that taking each operation in a project and breaking them down into individual “moments” not only dramatically boosts the enjoyment factor, it also boosts my concentration, and my ability/desire to focus on the quality. The improvement in detail and craftsmanship comes as a natural byproduct of this.
      Applications to daily life are staggering in their number, but also in how simple so many previously nagging or frustrating life moments become. It takes effort and consistent diligence, but so far, the rewards are pretty cool. More to follow!

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