Two owls call to one another as I unlock the door to the garage. The news powers up in homes around the country to tell of a drone attack that sadly and wrongly killed ten innocent people, including children, and we are all filled with a pang of sadness for the losses of life in ones so young. At the same time, the inexplicable things fade as I feel a gratitude that I can still find sanity in nature and my workshop. The devolved governments of the UK argue their different corners and France just lost billions by losing some trade deal they set up with Australia and became explosive about it. Self-pitying seems equal in size to the new pandemic when we should feel thankful that we might find we are not so great as we thought we were. Reality should be freeing. Two things make sense to me as the sports fanatics are bombarded with fast-talking sports commenters shouting out quite meaningless hype in just-released results and I see my tools on the workbench and ten items resulting from a new project as steps in the prototyping of something that will be meaningful for woodworkers around the world. If sports and news excite a global band of faithful BBC Radio four listeners, I’m much less impressed by its obvious biases. What really matters to me now is the realness of the work I do and now did throughout the pandemic where I never missed a single beat and increased my output two- or three-fold. What matters is what is now in my control area and what’s there on and around my bench. I cannot take control of the world’s problems nor can I even begin to process them. I stood and waited until the owls stopped as what they said made all the sense I needed in an increasingly senseless world. Having just made ten of one thing to take care of any variations, I ended up with ten working models no one out there has yet seen or knows about. The spalted beech I bought two years ago is stunning. The plywood has created something stunningly utilitarian too. I adopted and adapted these woods, along with other ‘things‘ to make, and make I did. This, my friends, is prototyping and it is prototypical of who I am and what I do and have done for decades. The owls outside and what’s on my workbench are the natural outcomes of my favourite real worlds; nature and making should never be ignored.
In many ways, my world of making is in contrast to the alternative world most people live and exist in. I take what’s natural and make it into an alternative to what it once was. That is what craft and the art of working wood is all about, contrast. A tree becomes a cabinet, a bed, a wall clock and a set of coasters. It no longer resembles anything of what it once was as a living organism. My eyes feast on the diverse grains of different woods and my hands lift the tools to the work in an interplay of tasks that give form and shape and smoothness of a level that contrasts markedly with what it once was. The roughness of bark and of saw kerfs gradually disappear stroke on stroke as my arms move swiftly like pistons to saw and plane smooth the coarseness of nature. Many will never know of the contrast of which I speak. I have taken down a hundred trees and more, severed them from their rootedness in the earth to convert their stems into boards and beams and other such things. I smell what was never smelt before this work’s done as friction from my plane’s sole disturbs the “shaving-scented air” and ignites my soul — more contrast. Who can know of what I speak in this day and age? Who can know of such things when they so detach themselves from nature and making and yet what I smell was once common to all men who worked as I do, for I smell the very essence of wood and not the dust-laden atmosphere caused by machines. My air is clean and crystal clear, my shavings inches and feet long, unchipped as they are from the machines I rarely if ever use. I am glad to work on Saturdays when many rejoice in the late Friday afternoon’s release where they cease from working for other to do their own thing. I lay awake and waiting for the day to come in an hour before it comes and feel excited at my plans to make in the day yet to unflold. I feel this way on Mondays and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays as well. I always have. Oh, and my using the word ‘contrast‘? It comes to us from the Latin contra- ‘against’ + stare ‘stand’.It means to stand against. So my owl calls stood against the silence of the night as the first bird before the approaching day broke the silence around me. The darkness stood against the light yet to be within the minutes yet to come. The contrast of rough bark and rough-sawn planks made silky smooth by my planing. The smells of newly planed wood where the scents were sleeping inside. So many contrasts in a matter of minutes.
What is it or are they that stand waiting on my bench? I cannot tell you just yet, but it will most likely be the most exciting thing I have released in a long time.