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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Woodworking for Dummies, and Idiots.

Having spent years trying to fix, or make, or assemble things I have come to the conclusion that I am not very handy. There are shows on PBS and YouTube videos that provide a step by step guide to the alchemy of woodshop.

It all looks so simple, measure, cut, glue, assemble, fasten and finish. Magically, you have converted a pile of lumber into an heirloom, a small pile of sawdust, and enough scraps to build a spice rack. There is always something, though, some step that they must have edited out. Some keystone procedure that brings the whole assembly to completion, or I am just not able to follow numerous, detailed, dangerous and difficult instructions.

One thing they seem to be pretty cavalier about is the banshee like shriek of the power saws. Tearing through wood without mercy, you can never be sure what is screaming, the agony of the wood, or the angry burden of the electric saw. I hate the sound, it is unearthly, demonic, Sweeney Todd, and Lizzie Borden fighting over the last piece of pizza.

We have, where I work, a man named John. He can create things using only his imagination, some wood and an impressive assortment of tools. He measures carefully, sketches out plans, always wears ear and eye protection. He assumes setbacks are going to happen, and reacts calmly, no swearing, no hysterics. He just corrects for course, calm, unconcerned, the therapeutic power of experience. His reactions are as measured as the hardwood he cut for the tabletop.

A delicate ballet of man, machine and material working toward a goal. Measure, mark, flip switches, press triggers, saw, stack on a neat pile, repeat.  Each measured step done delicately, deliberately, with an economy of motion, and a lack of hurry or concern. It is like watching a robot, every move timed, in sync. I watch as long as I can, until the perfect method starts intruding on my madness, on my need for haste.

When I feel the urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake him so violently the pencil falls from behind his ear, the safety glasses thump softly on the floor, and scream "For God's sake would you hurry up, man?" I leave. It helps preserve our friendship.

To the untrained eye it might look like several piles of similarly cut wood, stacked by an obsessive
compulsive person with spare time. But, to the man willing to dream it is monument to dedication and skill. And when he assembles the pieces it an act of almost unbelievable beauty.

John's finished product meets the specifications he set before starting. A brand new object, functional, attractive, and durable. In so many ways it is an amazing, symbiotic process, an exchange of goods. Both doing their part, teamwork, progress, moving from here to there in careful, predetermined steps.

When the piece poses in all its glory, and John stands admiring the culmination of his design, engineering and construction you sense something bigger than a simple cut and hammer exchange. You sense a profound respect for the beauty of craftsmanship. It is almost as if they had worked together in the act of creation. Both of them better than when they began.

In that one moment you can feel thousands of years of wisdom, the culmination of trial and error by people trying to build a better life, trying to make the most of the resources at hand. The most natural thing.

John won't talk much about the work, he just shrugs, says something self deprecating and changes the subject, And everybody views art through their own filter, but in so many ways what happens in the small room, in the building where I work is art. Of course, the finished product is art, but the act of creation, from the first pencil mark, so precise, to the last coat of lacquer applied so carefully is art, too. But, don't tell John you heard it from me.