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Dismantling the Past Part II

Holding the Future in Our Hands

I hold wood in my hands and arms from a century and two past that, as I look at it, stops me and makes me think deeply. A sadness passes over me and part of me becomes melancholy. Rainforests aptly able to renew their growth and supply our needs forever are much depleted and in most places gone. You see, on its discovery, after its once hiddenness,  it was cheapened because it had no teeth and claws to fight back and it never defended itself. It wasn’t our ignorance that caused such tragic results but pure greed. If we’d worked carefully not to outstrip the supply and so leave the land bare and abused by mercenary greed, our world’s forests would still thrive and breath into our future forever and also yield a plentiful supply for our use forever.

I look into grain all the time. I mean it stops me. I search its fibres, no matter which species, and it never disappoints me. Such richness can never disappoint. You know, wood knows no equal in all it provides to us even though we have taken it for granted and wasted it destructively. All cultures throughout history have absolutely depended on it but not all cultures have damaged it. Only the greedy ones. It’s knowing our arrogance to be destructive that disappoints. The wood alone knows its own ability to protect itself is woven into the very essence of its being so I absorb the guilt as if its blood cries out from the ground to me in these dark and sombre columns that stand sentinel to warn us that they are no match for human greed. I mean, I stretch myself and reach to the future in hope that we are learning to live protectively of the great forests that remain an inheritance.

It’s necessary to burn some infested wood from my dismantled pieces. The bulk I managed to keep safe, saved for some new stepladders and then other pieces of beauty I will beautifully craft in my workshop and at my workbench. It’s part of my work to do this and things like this. Never to waste but always cultivate and create. I hope to see more not less in such three-dimensional mosaics of  loveliness in things made from the trees now lost to us. I have seen boards a metre (3’ feet) wide and over 5 metres (18 feet) long by many centimetres (inches) thick in clear mahogany. A man who owned one of these stood alongside it as did others, like trophy hunters in times past.

My mind returns to the here and now of my workbench where saneness couples with my hand tools and my hands. A dovetail stares up from the bench and its uneven sizing releases to me the image of its maker. I am consoled by the old man’s steady confidence given in clear cuts, straight, true, deliberate and highly effective. I detect sharp teeth from the strokes I see in the wood. There’s an unwavering thrust with no return in some cheeks where a single forward thrust took the saw from top to shoulder in one confident stroke. This I admire because I know. The course was decided, set by eye and acted on decisively, separating the waste from the wanted. I made the cut in my mind’s eye unhesitatingly, emulating the old man. These strokes I too know now. They are as a part of me as signing my name. I see his hands too, those knotted veins, muscled fingers and thumb surrounding a fruitwood tenon saw handle. I see a dozen scars on both of his hands, calloused knuckles, broken nails, split, uneven and hurting. The one hand captures and encloses the wood and the other caresses the saw with gentle firmness and sureness. There it is again. That scarce thing rarely seen in our age we call belonging. Belonging is more than ownership. Belonging is that sensing of being cared for in a mutual relationship of trust. It knows know words, no certificate, no contract. It senses the rightness of a shared future where each advantages the other yet neither takes advantage of the other but is advantaged by the other. My imagined stroke may one day be what’s left of me, but I too know what belonging is. I saw it owned by other men, grown men, men who came through wars and their tools and wood meant saneness and sense and the sensing of cuts that shaped and shaved wood from forests of lovely mahogany.

See here, I tell myself. The saw strayed but for a stroke, as if allowed to digress just a little. It became a note on the score. The grip on the saw handle never chokes in its encircling, but more caresses the shape that so fits the hand. This affirming becomes once more the union between the man and the tool he works the wood with. It’s here that I too rest my confident assertion as I stroke the wood with saw strokes that enter the fibres by my owner power and strength. I set the course, the wood yields, my eyes and ears watch and listen to guide my every stroke until the line is reached with that last tooth severing the waste from what my eyes want to remain. My replication forensics, my reenactments, open the doors to past methods. My mentors, buried now a hundred years and more and long gone, live for me still to train me. It was an era when skills owned and possessed were passed from man to boy, handed down to bespeak life instead of lifelessness. I imagine, I begin to speak to myself again,  in my head, ‘a man in a cloth apron stood at his bench and planing this wood from rough-sawn planks’. I see bandsaw strokes that lashed like whipping strokes, fast stripes living still and my fingers trace the very tips lightly over the textures that remain to speak to me. These things I dwell on and pluck as pearls and gems from my dismantled frames and cases. I treasure them and store them with my treasures of personal feelings as they should be regarded and kept. They are quite personal and privately held, as all treasures of this kind are. Unlocking past methods reveals to me the secrets of ordinary men in the unspoken things. A stray saw tooth miss-set in a saw blade records a memory when the saw struck the hard knot. So too a single line in the wood’s surface planing. The tired man missed his line in its darkness of candlelight, and glue filled the gap well. I reflect on seeing men in the most recent of years use a machine to cut a gaping tenon on purpose and use “special gap-filling glue” specifically designed to that end for ease of assembly and the work was shameful but the men didn’t even know their workmanship was indeed shamefully done. I stopped them. I said this work is shameful and they laughed at me, got offended and continued their poor work. So I think others too will look forensically and see the shamefulness of one era and the good work of another and understand what truly matters.

29 comments

  1. Gordon says:

    I recall the first time I restored an old Stanley plane (a mid 1920s #5), and on scraping and sanding back the damaged tote and knob I encountered a wood I’d never seen before; sanding produced a sweet odour, and a rich dark brown powder, similar to that of a good quality cocoa.

    I assume they are Brazilian rosewood, and it saddened me that we’ve driven it to a point where such an attractive species is no longer available.

  2. Jeremy says:

    The same greed driven machines of quick destruction is what stripped those forests. At first it was hard and slow , then the machines evolved to be a bit easier and faster; even creating a surplus. Then the end user evolved their “slower” hand tools into machines for “faster work.” They ate quickly of the surplus. The demand grew and the forest machines evolved into even more faster, more destructive land eaters. Now here in the US very few men are needed to log a forest, and it takes very little time. All that’s left now is to have one man monitor a bunch of autonomous machines in an airconditioned office. Man wants, therefore man evolves his tools for want of more. Man can be a terrible cycle sometimes.

  3. Carlos says:

    I too feel a sense of awe when I look at a piece of wood. To think of how long it took to grow slowly stamping the grain and fiber along its process. As a beginner in woodworking I take pleasure in feeling and smelling the lumber I’m working with. Hope there are enough people out there that feel the same way so that the future of trees will be secure.

  4. Your word craft is as strong as your teaching; and you are a top-notch of a teacher. I look forward to the words in the morning, and the bench i made from your tutelage after work. I habitually search out, collect, and repurpose old discarded furniture carcasses for project material. My bench material was repurposed spruce from my mom’s 115 year old house/ pub. I know now the bench will last beyond my years. The nostalgia you conjure provides a refreshing, grounded framework for modern-day life. Selfishly, i hope you continue to work, write, teach and live for another 100 years.

  5. Wooden Thumbs says:

    I couldn’t read the whole piece. It’s simply too depressing to think about how much human avarice has destroyed, how much it costs. Teeth and claws wouldn’t have saved the trees. They never worked for anything else when man sets his sights on plunder for profit.

  6. dynax says:

    “If a man has to prove his worth as a hunter, then he should do so with his bare hands and not with a weapon, the same goes for the man who wants to build with timber, let him bring down the tree by his own hand and not by machine, let his blood,sweat and tears be absorbed by the wood, then that tree becomes part of him and he becomes part of the tree, then and only then will he truly become one with nature”.

  7. Thomas Tieffenbacher says:

    Paul,

    I learned through some PBS videos that Minnesota was once a rain-forest. Now it’s mostly farm and grass save the northern part of the state. Shawn Connery did a movie called Medicine Man, which is about what the forest can offer other than building materials and it’s being cleared for grazing? What are we Nuts? I think so. The forest and the trees are our life and mother. Wisdom is wasted on the old. Hope you keep changing minds one person at a time.

  8. Steve says:

    Paul, you are obviously in a melancholy mood. If you were sat here now I would draw you a glass of my homemade cider from the cask in the corner of my garden. It wouldn’t bring the forests back but it might make you feel a bit more mellow.

  9. Reece Dike says:

    Paul,
    Your comment about “special gap-filling glue” brings to mind a few questions I have had about the glue you use. I noticed it is white, not yellow like most ‘wood-glue’. What is the difference? The second question is when you are restoring a piece of old furniture do you re-assembly it with hide glue or do you use the white glue? That brings me to the third question, why don’t you use hide-glue? Did you have to keep the glue pot warm when you started your apprenticeship and that made you dislike hide glue? What are you thoughts on white glue vs yellow glue vs hide glue vs the new water activated expanding “guerrilla glue”?

    • Cyrille Velez says:

      Hello,
      in France and Europe in general, “most wood glue” are white…it’s the same, just color change

    • Paul Sellers says:

      I am preparing a blog on glues but for now, I like what the USA did in treating flexible PVA for fabrics differently than for rigid, as in wood. In the USA, PVA wood adhesive or glue is yellow and fabric PVA adhesive is white. Simple!

  10. Greg says:

    Fear not! I believe it’s just a matter of time until the genetic engineering applied to plants we eat at the dinner table is applied to species that are crafted into a dinner table through DNA therapy. And the lost shall return.

  11. Matt says:

    A timely post given that today an elected tawny haired puffer fish withdrew my country from the Paris climate accord.

    Paul, I greatly appreciate your well formed thoughts and approachable instruction. Highly recommend Wendell Berry to anyone unfamiliar with his work.

  12. Stolarski says:

    “Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone
    They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” (Joni Mitchell)

  13. Dan DeGenaro says:

    A few years ago I was on an underground mine tour in Butte, Montana. It was an abandoned copper mine, large in scale, that in places descended vertically to unknown depths, depths that were now flooded. Supporting these tunnels and shafts were large timbers. I’d guess they were 18 to 24 inches square and many feet tall. The tour guide told us they were made of Honduran mahogany. As far as I could tell they were clear and straight. There are many miles of these old tunnels.

  14. John Hollis says:

    As a young boy in the 1940’s I just loved visiting my uncle Ross at weekends; he was in charge of the drying kilns of Crosby’s in Farnham, Surry. We would visit all the different temperature & humidity controlled drying rooms. The smells from the wood from all over the world was intoxicating.
    Walking around the yard I saw huge trunks of beech and oak just drying naturally; Ross would say- ‘those trees have been laying there for over fifty years & I would say they will be there at least the same time again’ I viewed a wood I had never seen before – used in making landing craft for the war effort – plywood!

  15. Joseph Palas says:

    If you have a look at the Rainforests in the Amazon or Congo, and many other places, using google earth, and zoom in, you will see that there are Trillions of old growth trees there, for many hundreds of miles, and only a fraction of the rainforests have been cut. I’m curious why there is this prevailing belief that the forests are “gone”.
    I’m just reporting on what I can see with my eyes using the current technology.
    It’s astounding really, how many gigantic trees there are out there.
    I feel that the regulations in place are not because they are gone, but to keep them there still.

    • Paul Sellers says:

      I am sorry, Joseph but I don’t believe people that the problem is people believe=ing some kind of lie or misinformation but more likely people don’t believe such things are happening. You don’t need to look back in history very far to see how much destruction has already taken place. Just as an example.In the USA there lives a tree called Longleaf Pine. It’s an indigenous species there. I have worked extensively with this wood, which is a pine like no other. The old, virgin growth I made into furniture had growth rings as small as a millimetre apart often. The forests once stretched all along the eastern seaboard and down through Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Millions upon millions of acres of trees. Today the species is protected, but there are only 35,000 acres left now. The significance? Modern Longleaf woodlands are grown commercially, surely they will replenish what was clearcut? Perhaps, but the growth rings are now 10mm apart because there is no canopy. Because we can reforest an area doesn’t mean we can recreate what was there in terms of ecosystems and climates. I have used second growth and virgin longleaf rescued from the burn piles and old buildings of Texas. They may be the same species with the same name but they are not one and the same in terms of properties. More judicious harvesting and then replanting or culling as needed would have presented a different story. Destruction takes place unchecked in many parts of the world. And rainforested ares have gone, never to return. It was greed then and in some cases it’s greed now. Imagine if that happened in one country alone what has already happened worldwide.

      • Joseph Palas says:

        Paul you are preaching to the converted on that note. I suppose I was referring only to the “tropical rainforests” as still being in existence.Granted much of those trees visible from the air are not accessible by man anyhow.

        I did not mean to insinuate denial of the devastation of our old growth forests in North America and Europe.

        I am a huge proponent of reclaiming wood and reusing old-growth timbers that have much more life left in them than new growth trees. I was tickled to see those mahogany tops stacked as such on your workbench, knowing that they will have another long life, and last for as many or more years than it took for the wood itself to grow, which was surely no brief span of time.

        You’re my biggest inspiration in my woodworking sir, and I want to thank you for your service to the craft. Your contribution will indeed endure.

          • Joseph Palas says:

            If you have a minute, just for kicks, go to Google Earth, and view the trees of the Congo. Just pick the darkest spot on the map, and zoom all the way in, then poke around. For an admirer of trees, it’s truly amazing to behold!

            I do the same thing in New England. Pennsylvania has some dense forests. Just amazing. The 3D feature is also very cool.

  16. Ken says:

    I met a man this weekend who operates a saw mill in southern California. I took some logs to him to be milled into boards for use from tree that fell on my grandfathers property during the unusual whether we had this winter. I discovered that his saw mill only cuts lumber from trees that have either fallen, killed in fires or been killed by insects. he pioneered a method to eliminate the bugs and insects that burrow into the wood allowing it to be used to make furniture or other uses and has actually become quite prized due to the uniqueness of the surface patterns caused from the burrowing insects. He built his business around taking trees this way as before he came along commercial logging outfits considered these trees worthless and he received them for nearly nothing, (just the cost to cut and load them) He has now won awards for being the most environmentally sensitive sawyer in all of the US as a result. It is sad to see wood being burned due to insect infestation now that i know there are process that now exist that can guarantee the elimination of the insects/pests, and he has proven that a logging and sawyer business can be extremely successful, even more so by being environmentally sensitive

    • Joseph Palas says:

      Where is this sawyer? Name? I’m in southern california (Irvine) and I’d love to know.
      I know they saw slabs at Woodhill Firewood in Irvine, and they get the Urban trees as they are in partnership with West Coast Arborists (the Mahoney family, of which John is a Chainsaw carver found at Woodhill firewood, and a talented one at that)

      It’s an operation I envy. Take out trees that are a danger or need removal, then mill them up and build something amazing out of them. I hope to pursue this route in the future.

  17. Gail Millard says:

    Paul, I very much like the read. Where I live in northern NY the ash are being wiped out by an imported bug. Long ago the elm were lost. Oh they will regenerate to a degree but never reach maturity. They were done by an imported disease. Now we have the Asian longhorn beetle which will destroy pines. I am lucky two own Woodlots which I contain hard maple, ash, black cherry, beech, hemlock, ironwood, and a few birch. At my home I have also some elm and white pine. I can tell you that at my age the trees are not growing like they should. Loggers overy here are rapidly destroying the forests. The military base here produces it’s own electric with wood chips. I’ve been told the upwards of 100 tractor trailer loads are required each day. There are areas around here where you can travel considerable distance and not see a single tree over 8 inches in diameter. They chip trees whole. I mean large ones. If they were to stop cutting now it would be my grandchildren time before they could see a mature tree. I understand about the rainforest but it is happening all around. While I don’T disagree with your thoughts on greed one needs to remember that jobs would be lost if we did what needs to be done. There is always this balance problem. I have also never taken out my hedgerows. But today’s farming seems to want the biggest fields possible. I have some beautiful maples growing in my hedgerows. They support all kinds of wildlife and are a source of wood for the future. Keep up the good work.

  18. Chris Cooper says:

    I call this Tyranny of the Present. It is easy to say, having been brought up and steeped in a culture that emphasizes conservation and having the benefit of being educated on the effects of overuse, to criticize and even demonize those in the past. But to the lumberjack, simply trying to feed his family, seeing the seemingly unlimited ranges of trees, the thought of conservation couldn’t have been further from his mind. As I drive through the western US, it still seem limitless. Yes, there was probably greed so some at the top making the big bucks, but for the rest it was simply a job. Let’s just learn from the past and move on, not think we’re so smart. A hundred years from now, our descendants will look back at things we did and shake their collective heads, and say, “How could they have been so ignorant?”

  19. Les Vion says:

    The very premise of how slow (comparatively) the progression of work via hand tools occurs is what so attracts me to them. All too often I have people laugh at what they say is such a slow method. “You know you can never make a living with those old hand tools, right? You would so much faster & produce more if…,” I think the world needs a big break from our industrialness, the slower I work, the less material I need, the more I appreciate it. In fact, it’s good practice to know the history of the resources you use, if you never see the ruined forest from which your livelihood depends, you won’t respect it as much (or at all) Imagine if you had to witness the clear cutting of entire forest knowing it’s sacrifice was made for your new deck – mabey then we would be O.K. With standing on dirt.

  20. Chris Bailey says:

    What a soulful beautiful piece of writing Paul. I echo your thoughts but without your knowledge and experience. Perhaps as woodworkers we have a moral duty to balance our use of wood with due regard to it’s longevity of resource.

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