Mostly my working wood and my enjoyment of it still is the area surrounding joinery, followed quite quickly by design and conceptualising something yet to be made. Generally, all designs are governed in great measure by the wood type, colour, grain configuration and wood strength. Wood density, flex, brittleness, porosity and other such wood characters pertinent to different wood types must also be taken into serious consideration when designing. As a result, wood often speaks into the design. These elements of wood present some of the greatest challenges of our craft. They also give us one of the most vibrantly rich and diverse resources from which we have built cultures on every continent. Wooden barrels and whole buildings have stored our foods and liquids to protect them from all elements and the most highly refined wood carvings have adorned just about every type of building we know. Massive ocean-going vessels took millions of migrants around the world in search of resettling to a better life and then, as if that wasn’t enough, the ships returned to homelands with exotic woods for us to transform into beautiful works of art and craft. With all of this in mind, and having worked with it now for 55 years near full time and six days a week, how could I be anything but reverent of this amazing material. When others see wood they say something like, ‘I love wood.’ It’s appreciative, but , and I dare to say it, their knowledge of it is but skin deep. When you have plumbed its depths, searched its inner fibres, planed it, sawn it, jointed it and made beautiful things from it, then and only then can you truly say I love wood.
Now then, there are those who say they love wood but mostly have never made anything from it. They like the richness of how it looks, but there is a good chance that they may never have actually touched real wood but what covers it and protects it. That’s the ‘skin deep’ I spoke of. Then there are those who make from it, who better understand what wood truly is in terms of characteristic qualities and such. Further, there are those who work the wood who love woodworking but not necessarily the wood. I am often surprised how many woodworkers spend much more of their time working MDF and veneering it than they do any solid wood. They seek a stability they feel wood does not give them and don’t like to take risks at all. I’m so glad our forebears knew no such barriers. So you see there are those who touch the surface of wood and love the way it looks, a photo-level if you will, and then there are those who go very slightly deeper by adding veneers to engineered boards manufactured for that purpose. Then we come to those who just get right inside the wood every which way they can. They want to know the fullest depth of the wood and not the superficial veneer people accept even as wood today. Even most woodworkers don’t realise that the veneers in the past centuries were never intended to fake designs in any way but to provide the single most balanced way of bringing complete control to a design. Through this, a way to present perfect symmetry and colour balances was developed using good and solid veneers. What many consider as veneers today, a paper thin version, rarely presents even a close reflection or resemblance of wood because what is sold primarily is rotary cut veneer and not flitch or crown cut. The old veneers, and the veneers I make for my own works, are several times thicker than those offered generally as say peel and stick, which are usually less than 0.5mm. Of course there are specialist veneer suppliers that give better grades too. So it is from here that I say I love wood because…
Making joints by hand seems somehow to me a high-demand element that has fully satisfied me and never left me bored or seemed too tedious. Oh, when I am tired physically, I might not enjoy it quite so much, but then I rest for a while, perhaps overnight, and I am back to the task with high energy again. How you quantify how much you love wood is as difficult as giving the reasons. At a basic level I love to see half a dozen boards planed smooth and waiting for me there on my workbench. I love drawing out the projects in my notebook and then taking the measurements to transfer my idea from drawings to the wood. Inevitably that first joint signifies my commitment to both start and finish. It’s the springboard before 50 or 100 joints unite all the parts and a chair emerges from a few sticks and planks of wood. I even like it if things go awry and I have to repair or rethink things. Wood snaps or splits and splinters when you least expect it, so I set it aside, stare for a while as I think and work out how it can be fixed but without compromising the integrity of my work. Most times I can come up with an answer
I am often misunderstood when people think I am somehow anti machines. That’s not the case at all. Far from it. I just took delivery of a new bandsaw yesterday. Whereas I do feel machines and the noise and dust and mess they make are highly invasive, I still have high regard for the progressive way they work. Even so, on the rare occasion I see someone truly skilled in hand work working, I am the most fascinated by his manipulation of the work and the tools used. I am more aware than most that they dumb down much of what could be achieved if people would learn hand skills, but it’s not even that so much that concerns me about their use. Hand work has taught me many things through the decades of my using the tools. It’s taught me the significance that skill is much more than the art of being useful or even skilful but that unpredictable challenges are actually very good for us in that they demand critical thinking and decision making. Character is only ever built through difficult work and never by ease.Machines are really quite predictable and highly controllable. I think many people like this guaranteed outcome to their work. So a piece of wood passed into a tablesaw with a push stick comes out the other side square, straight and parallel. So what? The thing for me is it’s so, well, effortless. Now people say but that’s the beauty of it. Well there is efficiency, I’ll give you that, but it’s also quite unchallenging and again, at the risk of being boring, boringly effortless. You see, I dislike exercise for exercise sake and I could never work out in a gym as such. I can get comparable results from my high-demand workouts continuously at the bench. I quite like machines themselves, but they can be so very dull — to the point of being without challenge at all. Handwork on the other hand engages every part of the brain in a completely different ways.Ways so subtle to us we cannot even fathom the complexities. Of course it’s more demanding, but it also very interesting and that’s because the wood is so unpredictably non-uniform and often even non-conforming. The machine was developed to deal with such unpredictability by using hundreds of thousands of small removal cuts per second or minute of work. Drill bits, table saws planers and abraders all work on a rotary cut and deliver separating cuts in tiny measure, but it is still quite dull and uninteresting to me now that I have the methods I so love.
The thing I understand is this. The demand of my handwork means that I enter realms few people can know. My climbing extreme severe climbs in my later youth and early 20s meant I was hardwired for the exposure out on the crags of Derbyshire or the little mountain faces of north Wales’ Snowden. Watching the sport on TV never interested me once I’d experienced the sections in real life. So it is when I find difficult wood and make unpredictable cuts. I want the difficulty, not the ease. I want the engagement, the management, the decision making. I negotiate my approach to the awkwardness as I did my climbs. Often I ignored the guidebook because predictability left me without decision in making. When I work my wood, because all wood is different, I make minute by minute decisions so that I work with the wood, interpret the strands, the strata, the fibre. Constantly I look for feedback from the wood, the sounds, the sights and work hard to respond to my sensing for direction, for pressure. Though I might also employ some of the same tactics with machines, it’s never necessary to the same degree. Using machines is like driving an automatic car. As I say often enough, all machines were developed to substitute for skill and to maximise output and speed. The machines end up pushing you to work ever faster. Hand tools do the opposite. They demand skill and your sensitive involvement. They demand you approach with all of your 25 or so of your senses engaged. That’s your gut-senses and your inner heart and head-senses. These slow you down, engage you, make you think, make you respect all things. Once you understand such things life is working in you to change you in the way you think. You become more accepting that speed is no longer the essential element controlling things. You accept the need to sharpen your tools constantly. You learn to slice off wood sensitively and accurately, unhesitatingly too. These are the things I love about working and working with wood. I try to remind those searching out such things, that follow the work we espouse, by repeating often that it is not so much what you make but how that determines the outcome of work. It is this then leads to your wellbeing. Wellbeing is satisfaction and fulfillment. The reward of good work isn’t the financial income at all. Income has no measure compared to the enjoyment you gain from seeing something completed come from a tree. You start to really love wood that way.