Pockets that Surprise Us

I’m standing beneath a giant skeleton of a dinosaur staring from its immense framework at another less dominant presence made by a man’s hands some decades past and respecting his design skills in the form of what appears at first glance to be a simple oak bench seat. Though I may not be speechless, as I might be, thinking about a Tyrannosaurus rex, I am quite impressed by two impressive but far from obvious elements that pulled my mind from bone structures and mass naturally formed, towards a different kind of framework made from wood with joints that are fitly framed together. On the one hand, the joints are held together by glue and with some mechanical resilience, the joints were designed for. On the other, the joints would have been held in union by muscle, sinew and tendon yet with equal consideration of longevity. One consideration was the ability of its designer to create something unpretentiously simple that constrained the design with several hidden complexities that transferred stress and strain from one part to another to maintain integrity. Another perspective is the evident consideration in the comfort it exudes before you sit that expresses ergonomic form before your body is embraced by its built-in curves. Much more impressed me with the design. There they sat unpretentiously around the museum, like punctuation marks in human design, with people milling about around them who seemed to me to be totally unaware that the seats could also warrant their considerations and much admiration as the replicated stegosaurus they stood admiring for 20 minutes. I suppose in many ways considerations are perhaps tied more to the imagination as the huge giants command attention by sheer mass, imagined mobility and fictional films. I admit that I am often surprised that visitors rarely consider simple designs to be works of art expressing ergonomic design qualities that are all too often unseen. These bench seats express skilled design work that then evidenced crafting artisanry. I sat, relaxed, allowed my body to collapse, and allowed myself to become absorbed by a manmade frame I just loved.

I sat on this bench seat and considered the man that made it for me to sit on and think.

Pockets of surprise often remain unsurprising to many. A hand-woven basket from split bamboo, a sieve cut from a coconut, bored with holes and tied cleverly and intricately to a handle of wood to serve for decades. I think perhaps that that can be because we no longer know what to look for, how to look and how to consider skilled work by men and women of old working silently and methodically using their hands. Perhaps we might also be living in an inconsiderate generation to whom such knowledge is now lost. Just how and why do we fully understand the complexities that cause surprise in design?

And just how does a design like this come together anyway?

Engineers don’t just build bridges of iron and stone, motorbikes, aeroplanes and metal fastenings that make life easier. Crafting artisans have been designing and engineering an outcome for centuries to make life work and work well. I was surprised by the beauty I saw in the bench seat because I knew of the hidden considerations in physical properties surrounding the way the joinery was completely concealed yet retained an admirable integrity of workmanship.

It’s extremely hard to describe how two woods positioned and joined together at a juncture like this can remain so perfectly aligned that no difference can be felt at the joint lines after decades of service.

Later the same day I saw another compilation. It was radically different and buyable from a supermarket forecourt for a couple of hundred dollars. When I say different, I don’t mean different as in different to the bench seat. I mean different into drawing attention sufficient to sell it. Three items stood in front of me and I was bemused by the ugliness of two outdoor chairs and a swing seat made from two by four construction wood stained burnt-brown as yard art, yard furniture. I was surprised by the reality that some designs have a cultural influence where Texanese has steadily become more an established form of state subculture. Yard art? Certainly. Ceramic pots decorated with watermelons and cacti reflected a summer message as a statement for outdoor living, yard decorating, yard eating and then a yard playfulness I haven’t seen so nationally and universally accepted in the UK. It made me wonder in what ways do evolving and existing cultures within the constructs of any social environment predispose certain individuals to join the more delinquent subcultures?

There is a certain type of defiance in design that defies design to become its own design concept.

I found myself being awkwardly refreshed by a certain type of vulgarity of texture, shapeliness and evident discomfort while asking myself at what point did such an offering become desired enough to become actually saleable. I had become gradually accepting of it through my living in Texas for two decades. Even now, after leaving my second homeland of Texas for over a decade to date, I was unsurprised by what I saw whereas if I took these pieces and put them in my UK garden it would cause quite a stir. But then I looked up at a 6 metre by roughly 3.5-metre fluttering, flapping and whip-cracking flag of statehood rippling in the high breezes above me that interrupted a blue sky spanning from sea to shining sea and thought to myself, “America the Beautiful!” It’s through diversity that I reflect so much on cultures that manage to somehow define who we are. Culture never ceases to change the whole of our being. As Olympians and those exponents of extreme sports roar at their own wins instead of just the admirers surrounding them, I see new cultures emerging. I ask myself how this or that happens and then I see an advert showing a person who only acts out the role of someone who doesn’t actually live nor ever lived and I see something beyond myself who was intended to create the illusion of being. My working with my hands somehow keeps me well grounded. I like the solidity of honest handwork and that I make something that makes life good.

A flag whips at the sky in wind-driven statehood and declares a certain type of cultural independence.

So, back in the saddle of sanity and saneness, I pick up my bench plane, load wood into the jaws of my vise and take a few swipes of saneness over some rough-sawn cherry and oak and true up my wood until it’s smoothly flawless and level for my joint to be made. I identify with a certain unity between a man and a woman that make and made from decades past and left behind for me to consider. I am alive in reality and leave the fantasy of the fantastic for others outside my workshop door. For some, puzzlement is the element that surprised us. For others, it’s being surprised by beauty and then for others, it’s the surprise novel things bring to our lives. This is the power of culture We wonder why a roar goes up at certain events and why someone cries at another. Is wonderment surprise and is surprise puzzlement for others?

Western footwear. I sight like this is unseen in the UK and yet it will always be one of my favourite sights.

21 thoughts on “Pockets that Surprise Us”

  1. Your recent absence, or at the least parsimonious presence, suggested either illness or an extended vacation. While some may consider travel to Texas an affliction, others might recognize it for what it is for you – an opportunity to reconnect with a wonderful time of your life. Glad you are well and had the opportunity to visit Texas again.

      1. John Morrison

        You have solved one problem in your career – bringing others into hand tool woodworking & making them into craftsman.

        In this post you are venturing into another area – probably even more important for any old craft – how do you get others do see the beauty/value in what the craft can produce? Sharing and explaining what went into elegantly produced wooden objects is a great way to do that. Seeing pictures of Grinling Gibbon’s wood carvings or the Loretto Chapel Staircase in Sante Fe, New Mexico, USA is bound to stir anyone. Please do keep showing and telling us about wooden objects. It helps us appreciate what you do. Thank you.

      2. All those boots reminded me of San Antonio Shoes and the Texas Boot Shop next to it.
        I’ve traveled from Australia to the US 4 times, done California, not impressed, done Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, drove from Houston to Memphis just to see Graceland.
        My favourite state in the US that I’ve visited is Texas.
        My most favourite and memorable place which I absolutely adore is San Antonio.
        The food, the diversity, the atmosphere, the River Walk, the real Alamo (not the movie model, I think it was at College Station by memory).
        Sadly Texas is not a place people from Australia would normally consider visiting as a tourist. It’s a real shame, it’s nothing like the movies portray, nor are the people or the food for that matter.

  2. I have been looking everyday to see if there was a new blog or Instagram post.
    Enjoy your well earned vacation.

    When visiting monuments I also look at furniture (since a few years now).

  3. Glad to see you made your way home for a while. I know the UK is your pave of birth and where you reside. But, Texas gets in your blood, don’t it? I guess I’m a little biased, but I don’t care. It’s a beautiful and wonderful and dangerously wild place. But I’m am so glad that you’re back at your blog.

  4. Ah! Paul. I’m extraordinarily gratified that you took a jaunt stateside for a respite! I was afraid the ethereal masters of our communications had struck down my account! At our shared age of three score and ten, the value of nostalgic times and places seem invaluable. A chance to to look back down the path, with eyes more experienced, make those times and places more golden,if you will. Welcome back!

  5. Mike Towndrow

    Hope you enjoyed your break in the USA Paul.
    I guess you’ll be itching to get back in the workshop, but presumably you’re confined to barracks for 10 days now you’re home again?

    1. No, I have been back in the saddle since Tuesday. No quarantine required provided tests completed before and after flights. All tests have been negative included the one I took two days ago. They do follow up rigorously with an after travel accountability too. I am impressed with the efficiency of the UK’s accountability program before, during and after travel. Mine was an emergency journey though.

      1. Mike Towndrow

        Hi Paul, one reads so many negative comments about how the u.k. is handling travel in and out of the country, it’s really encouraging to read of your positive experience. And of course, very pleased for you and for all who follow your teaching that you can get straight back to the workshop!

      2. Good to have you back, hope the emergency visit was an ok one for you, sorry to hear about such a circumstance.

  6. I think it is a hard wired thing to appreciae hand made things that are put together well. When one goes into a place where fine furniture is built or sold it is a wonder to behold, even if we do not understand the process involved in the building. Alas, most of us can’t afford these things, worldwide. Some of us though are moved to make are own, learning as we go.

    I once walked into an art gallery and observed some small paintings, about 6 or 8 inches square, they portrayed normal people doing normal things; like putting on some shoes or reading a book. The thing that really fascinated me was the artists use of shadowing, that stood out in her creations the most. I commented to the artist about her skilful use of shadows and she was amazed and said: “ no one has ever said that to me before ! “.

    Why did I say that to her? I too have dabbled in art work and realised how even just a light shadow can change an entire picture; just look at the Mona Lisa’s face.

    I think Paul’s blog illustrates that well made things that we are familiar with stand out starkly, even if we are in the presence of otherwise amazing things.

  7. Yes Paul, we would definitely miss you. I check your blog every morning and look forward to it. Len Connecticut, USA.

  8. I understand completely your appreciation for that bench. I work for a government agency and have an oak office chair with the same back, arm, seat, back, except of course built for one, not several. Mine is approximately WWII age. The design is genius. It’s a hard wooden chair that is comfortable hour after hour with no cushion. The curve of the arm is pure genius. No matter your height or length of your arm, your elbow will intersect that curve somewhere and be supported. I weigh 200 lbs and have been tipping it back on its rear legs like an untrainable 9-year-old for several decades and it is still solid. I have to wonder if you looked underneath the bench if the name of the manufacturer was stenciled in black on the underside. They were made in both oak and walnut. They were once everywhere, they littered the hallways, but are now becoming rare. I have fought to keep mine. Ergo replacements have been offered and declined.
    “You need to take care of your back!”.
    “I am”.

  9. It is so easy (and disrespectful) to casually call this “just” a bench. In its simplicity it has beauty. In its sturdiness as proven with use over time it applauds the craftsman’s handiwork. Regarding its function, well that is shown by those resting upon it over the many decades.
    May we all be so fortunate as to make a similar contribution regardless of how small.

  10. Brannon Marlowe

    As a fellow Texan here in Dallas, I would be honored if you could find a venue here to teach some courses when you’re on vacation. I know that’s too much to ask, but it would be an incredible opportunity for my family and I. I unfortunately was brought to your site by a friend who’s a master woodworker and an executive. I’m just a doctor who got hooked on woodwork in my 7th and 8th grade shop classes which sadly my children won’t experience in school like I had the opportunity to 30years ago. Thank you for your mission and I just wanted to say thank you for all of your efforts. I’ve learned so much and my children have as well.

  11. I agree with all the previous posts here. Be certain your absence is noted and presence missed.
    Ca. Westberg

  12. Well certainly … I look at the flag of Tejas and the racks of boots and wonder when Mr. Sellers made a trip back to his former state?!?
    While they may appreciate you there, the entire rest of the globe is rather glad to have you on a regular basis.
    That being said, I for one would love to see you in a good pair of cowboy boots! Saddle up and stay safe.

  13. Dear amazing and wonderful Paul, you launched a real revolution, and I am forever grateful for your generosity in sharing your skills and knowledge. I learned woodworking in the typical American way: great noisy herds of expensive dangerous machines, and confusing rough carpentry, mechanical work, and fine woodworking, so that I bought the wrong tools, and made the wrong types of workbenches. (My fave horrid example is building elaborate jigs for safely cutting small pieces on a tablesaw, instead of whipping out a handsaw and getting the job done.) Learning from you has been the best adventure.

    I hope you will consider making more thoughtful word choices. Words matter. Woodworking is dominated by white men, at least in the US. You reach the audience you target. Girls, women, non-binary, and people of color are ignored by the industry, or at best, acknowledged as afterthoughts. At the least, making careful word choices is a good start to reaching more people. For example, man, manmade, craftsman… I consulted my trusty thesaurus and found artisan, maker, skilled woodworker, crafter, handworker. For manmade, perhaps built, constructed, crafted, built by human hands…To my ear they all sound a bit clunky, but at least they include everyone.

    I have worked in male-dominated fields most of my life, and it is exhausting to continually bump against outmoded and silly attitudes, and sometimes outright hostility. Most of the woodworkers I know are cool people, but even the best are still burdened with outmoded notions of where women belong. They treat me in ways they do not treat men: they talk to me like I know nothing, grab tools and workpieces away from me, make dumb “jokes”. If I had a nickel for every time something I said was ignored until a man said it, and took credit for it, I could build my dream maker shop and invite everyone to come make cool stuff.

    Again, thank you, you are a genuine treasure and revolutionary.

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