First day of shop class

It was as I said, eye opening first, inspiring second and dovetailing third. The first dovetails were really good, the second ones less perfect and then we started the boxes and we were on our way to discovery. Half boxes stood on the bench as we closed for the day and swept the floor. We were feeling and touching real wood and real wood worked into walls of boxes meant we understood the principles well enough to make dovetails for the rest of our lives. Sawing is an important skill and having the right methods and techniques emerge gradually with each stroke is critical to developing rest in your work. Sometimes it’s more a matter of getting used to tools, especially sharp ones, and developing mastery stroke by stroke. The wood yields to the cutting edges of different chisels and confidence once missing becomes increasingly more evident in the smile of a man as he places his saw on the line, leans less assertively, without aggression, into the cut and severs the the waste from the wanted with saw cuts perhaps hitherto unknown.

Hard lessons and new understanding

It’s always good to sense new understanding undergird what teaching I bring. Saw sharpening is simple until you try to teach the techniques and understand shaping. For the first time, tooth sizing influences the decision for fleam or ripcut saw tooth shaping. This, of course, is modern, evolved if you will. Most modern saws sold in stores are, as I said somewhere before, sharpened for working man-made, wood-effect sheet goods and crosscutting studs developed and established for mass making and not woodworking. Here, one by one, we begin to set those tools aside in preference for sustainable woodworking, eschewing the disposable and the ease for the resharpenable and the lifelong. We begin mastering sharpening techniques we hitherto only read of and researched. Today, things change because we begin understanding the goals more clearly and develop skill from what we now clearly understand.

The Shakers live on in our work

Hard to imagine here today me teaching the skills of the Shakers who in the mid 1800‘s were on the cusp of industrialized woodworking when they were making the same dovetailed boxes I was teaching the making of today. Some thirty plus years ago I discovered Shop Drawings of Shaker Furniture and Woodenware (Volumes 1,2 and 3) by Ejner Handberg. They cost less today second hand than I paid back then, but these three volumes seemed to unlock something in me with the simplicity they fostered. I am so glad they are still around today, because I think they preserve the integrity of Shaker craftsmanship for us to glean from.

Value for money handwork

Here and above left are some pictures of pieces I saw at the Hancock Shaker Village gift shop. In our post Asian import world of cheapness at an unrivaled high cost, the price tag can at first seem high. These pieces should really be twice the price had we the respect to see that the pieces are not mass made but hand made with precision and care in the western culture from which they emerged as a tradition supporting family, community and cultural life. It was nice to turn over a wooden box and not find made in Taiwan or China stickers. One day we may see the same with hand tools again. It may seem that there is no middle ground with hand tools, but I think that even seemingly expensive hand tools bought new are actually quite inexpensive when you think that you cannot wear them out in two centuries. When we look at a chisel or a saw, a plane or a spokeshave, we should consider that. I think if we do we will discover they are built to last. I have been unable to wear out my Spear and Jackson 1960’s tenon saw though I have used it every day since 1965.

Handwork comes at a price

Handwork is intrinsic to all cultures and we must pay for it. Whether it’s tools we work with or product that comes from the hands the work those tools we should not so readily buy imported goods at the cost employing skilled people, apprentices and such and also I think that it’s important to remember companies providing domestic employment. Though I in no way want to see the smoke stacks of Sheffield once again belching black filth in uncontrolled plumes from the factories, I lament the loss of what that culture once had.