Beneath the grain

The plane glides beneath my hands and arms as if floating and shavings rise simultaneously through the plane’s slit throat like smoke rises from the woodsman’s autumn fire. Shavings drift to the benchtop and down past my legs to my feet. My hands and arms respond to unseen whorls and eddies inside this strangely diverse substance we woodworkers call grain. We reach deeper inside its fibre in search of smoothness, yet a texture most never know of stops us as we look at changing colour with each successive stroke we take. The rings glisten with oils hitherto held within the long cells and the redolence of incense woods alone can give translate us to eras past in which perhaps we stood suspended within the ancient workshop doors.

Though some people may catch the essence of wood held momentarily in the atmosphere surrounding my work, I am immersed in it most days as the plane’s sole heats the wood by friction and so too the saws I work with. These tools disturb the atmosphere with resins and unknown, unnamed substances from which different woods are formed.


The smells of oak and spruce, walnut, cherry, pine and fir and many hundreds of others are all uniquely different—they cannot be mistaken one for another in smell particularly nor in colour, texture and even configuration of the grain. As red stands distinct from yellow in colour, so oak and walnut contrast as markedly as the stuck piano key from the bow on the taut strings of the violin, and so too oaks from ash and redwood from cedar, juniper and bois d’ arc.

Our culture and being cultured by our academic, techno industrial, computer-digitised world has removed all people from experiencing what has coloured our world and would in some measure have coloured theirs. It’s over. They will never know what I write of. Wood is a mere substance. Something that, well, looks nice. Wood is something that feels a certain way to them even though they may never have ever actually touched the unfinished surface of wood and certainly nothing beneath or inside or beyond its skinned surface. Wood is mere; superficially known and not deep. Our schools do this. Nothing deepens to educate young people for life beyond the superficial levels of abstract knowledge that says it knows but knows nothing. It’s academic in that mere sense. How do you talk of texture in the written word of a book, split wood in a photograph, hear it split? Every wood species is different texture, denseness, and hardness. The grain fibres and cells compress differently, interlock uniquely. Knowing these things deepens knowledge and experience grows by these and other such things

Even those who run what we now call woodland schools have substituted relational knowledge for a structured teaching by teachers deemed specialists in their field yet qualified only by the colleges and universities and not by fieldworkers and woodsmen, workmen understanding the symbiosis between man and wood. For the main part, they never penetrate wood to know its substance more than quite superficially yet the believe they know this thing of substance we call wood. Herein is the danger. They are all experts! They present it superficially for they see it so and are governed by their own superficiality. It’s endorsed by forestry academics that control education of children and adults. They know nothings of what I am writing, even though they have set themselves up as the experts to whom all others turn for qualification. These are the ones who have access to electronic microscopes and experimental equipment, yet more and more I see that this non-relational approach to education cannot capture relational knowledge and the work of the workman. The workman knows differently and imparts his knowledge to others differently. The problem now is where is he?

Grain has depth beyond what ‘s depicted on its external appearances yet having worked it’s substance these two score years and ten, grain still amazes me with new content. That’s without even considering the tools with which I work or my own physical body that works the both.


  1. I know that. I like to warn them so they donlt spend years of time trying to find satisfaction from a router and dovetail jig when they know at the end that they didn’t cut the dovetail and it always looks like a router did.

  2. Thanks for this, John. We all need inspiring and that’s the goal we have in passing on our knowledge and skill through a relational approach.

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