Rethink Part I

I often wonder where reinventing your life came from but I do get that sometimes, maybe often, we have to walk away from a past, past concepts and look to a future we might not be able to wholly predict. There is a singular anchor in my life that still holds firm after almost 60 years. It came when I chose woodworking and to become a furniture maker. It became an obvious extension then to develop my design ability in all that I made and then, by necessity, to include designing and repurposing my life. But that early decision was but clay on the wheel. Giving shape and substance to my life as a maker evolved over many years. It took some rethinking, a turn or two and a u-turn and then taking the risks to make new happen in terms of direction. I don’t know that anyone is asking for advice but I feel I should say some things that might help others.

Even in a single stroke like this, a chisel dulls over a six-inch distance in soft pine.

Often we proceed along a path in hopes that we’ve done the right thing only to find we need critical thinking to get through the maze of what went wrong. Sometimes we caused the issue by a faltering step, a misguided influence or something like that, but often it comes as a result of unknown others. There have been times in my work where I have faced an element that seemed so very impossible to me. The cut could never be made: it would be impossible. The grain ran the wrong way and to place the chisel the one way I could would split the wood awry or tear out the grain in an irreparable way. So I take my chisel to the sharpening stones, hone the bevel to the lowest possible angle and polish it to 15,000-grit so I can see my face curving in the macro-camber of it. I lower the chisel to the wood, feel for the exact angle and gently engage the cutting edge to the merest fraction of penetration. Though no deeper than the smallest fraction of an inch, and with a pressure equally matched, I feel for direction, effort and energy and the impossible happens by the performance of many minute acts. So it is in rethinking the impossible in our lives and especially is this so when we are secure in taking one direction when something seemingly impossible tugs at us to take another.

This was my last design in the USA in 2008/9 after living there since 1986 and repatriating to my native England in 2016.

As parents, we always want what is best for our children. I have yet to meet any parent who did not want the very best of good for their sons and daughters as they grow them through their childhood to become independent adults. Does that mean that we always know and do what’s best for our children? In general, I might say, ‘Yes!’ but I know we don’t always get it dead right. The problem is that on the journey, the decisions we might make might also be a one-shot opportunity that’s date sensitive and irreversible. We do, however, want them to, ‘Get a good job.‘ and to ‘Be happy!‘ And we can indeed be quite impressive in expressing what we want in our interpretation of how that looks. We can also influence to get what we want for them rather than get them to actually achieve what they want. This is especially difficult for them because they are so very loyal to us. Somehow, I am sad to say that all too often that translates into this and that exam, qualifying for a university entrance, gaining a top-notch degree and getting that so-called good and secure (mostly money-making) job by which success is so often measured. However, at many venues whilst touring the USA and addressing audiences of around 200 (almost always mostly men) between 2005 and 2012, after I asked how many of them would actually pursue the same degree course they went through, a mere 5% of hands went up. When I asked the same group how many actually used their degree and what they had learned through their degrees, 95% answered “No!” After asking them if they were doing the job they actually wanted to do that hands up for yes was a mere handful too. But I am not exactly sure that in today’s world there is much of an alternative choice in that most job applications rely on a university degree as a filtering process to determine whether indeed someone might be employable somewhere in commerce of one kind or another. This sad but significant turn of events further supports that university degree qualifications trump technical college diplomas ten to one when in my world neither of them tell me very much at all about the character of someone I need to work with me. Of course, technical colleges of old simply kept the same content but with a different name that added university and degree into the title and product. I ask myself time and time again whether a degree does very much to qualify anyone in any field of creativity if most teachers and lecturers never worked in any applied field outside of the teaching industry? Of course, the best crafting artisan does not always make the best teacher and the better teacher is not necessarily gifted in making and creativity. I see this almost everywhere these days.

Hannah has a wide understanding of living as a maker now that she has given herself to her craft without being industrialised which is the sad demise of many who start out but lose their path.

Watching Hannah these past few years, six, in fact, has taught me that what we need in the world of making and creating is an environment that can provide oversight and mentorship with a vision to pass on all that individuals like myself have learned that can be passed on. In my case, it has been providing a working corner of my shop for several young people to be mentored in craft.

There is a sharing of space but then there is an ownership of space within the greater whole. A sense of belonging and purpose.

All of those presently working in my workshop and in the past have university degrees yet none of them needed their degrees to be with me and none if any had actually felt any clarity in choice of degree courses. Our paid staff did indeed learn their craft of videography at university and I value that because for them it was a wonderful stepping stone that gave them the grammar of videography. But it is what they learned in the outside afterwards that really gives them the experience and support for exploration into their craft: an environment to learn in and exchange views in, to grow in. It made them the creative people they are today. In what way?

Hannah’s workspace has a sense of belonging to it as she has developed and grown as an artisan.

Will is just completing a drone course for our videography for the times when we want to enhance our offering to include outdoor elements of our work. The garage workshop is their studio on the other side of the imaginary brick-wall divide that separates me from them yet is the platform where they can exchange the reality of filming with the world of editing, writing and producing a living work as close as possible. Ask me when I learned the very most about my craft and I will say in the last three years, and before that, it was the previous three years, and before that the previous three years, and so and so forth. You see school was more working with building blocks and then came the real world where the theatre of life takes place outside of the artificial realms creating pretend situations. What do I mean? When being trained as a police officer in training camp artificial scenarios are acted out in scenes of crime, of violence, of accidents and so on. In the heart of hearts of participants each knew when they were there that no one was going to be violently assaulted and that they could indeed control artificial events knowing that in a few minutes life would return to normal. Months later the situations all changed and real thugs tried to kill them or they were pulling a dying person from a car wreck who would not stand up and walk away from anything ever again.

My quite small and compact garage workshop has become the most creative element in support of my whole career in furniture making and especially the designing, making and teachings side of things. This is a space I share with some very creative videographers who care as much about their craft as I do mine.

I love that everyone at the workshop strives to be creative in every sphere of working and that goes from bookkeeping to social media, video editing to building furniture, choosing music and much more. My router plane kits are going out most days now and a year ago the idea was only gestating in my mind because I knew that I had to be a solution. Everyone that I work with has the same creative attitude. They strive to be a solution and to be that solution you must Rethink who you are and what you do, will do. Life is mostly about becoming. It’s a process. We do better at going through processes if we consciously make decisions along the path that lead to an end goal in the same way we use a map to plot a destination. This means choosing the method of transportation, the direction of travel, the number of stops along the way and things like that. If we can choose what we want to become, the ‘A’ to be ‘B’ is mostly logistical. Courses, people, opportunities along the way can open the doors. I enjoy the very thought of successful achievements along the way not the least of which is spending quality time with my children as they learned life alongside me. The pieces I made massively filled me with great joy and that especially includes the ones I have built in the recent years where `i can express myself as a mentor and influencer in my craft. Did I know that this would be included in my life when I answered my calling to become a woodworker and furniture maker? I didn’t at all. It simply became a burden to which I could become a solution. My decision to pass on the art of woodworking combined with skilled workmanship was indeed a highly conscious decision. It wasn’t just something ‘interesting’ to do, I felt I was called to do it. A calling begins with a voice, ‘vocare‘, vocation. That voice is an ongoing calling of dedication that leads and directs you in the process of becoming. My calling is the preservation and conservation of the craft I belong to. It has become a culture within which I have influence. The important thing about any culture that we should never forget is that it influences everything that you do. Everything!

19 thoughts on “Rethink Part I”

  1. William Couillard

    Wow, the picture of the pine shaving is just incredible. Both sublime and amazing. Thank you for sharing that, Paul.

  2. Allan davidson

    Young man, so succinct and sincere. I have recently rejigged from the financial world to having serious callouses on my hands due largely to your influence. Never been happier! Thank you

  3. Hi Paul, great blog as always, is there anything that you would have done differently in your career path or was it roughly the way you wanted it to go so far. Reason I’m asking is most of us look back and think if only I had done this or gone down that route. I must say it looks like you took the right path to me. Many regards.

    1. Thankfully I never thought of my work as a career of any sort. In my most recent years, I have considered the word career only with such negative thoughts and I think it might be because I attach it to the business world of commerce rather than a lifestyle of creativity. My own life has been more a way of living whereby the work and the periods of different working were never separate to my family life, my faith, and my belief that craft was for every man, woman and child and that craft was the art of work and life itself. I can think of no regrets per se and any disappointment was a mere stepping stone for improving flawed thinking. There really is nothing I would have done differently I don’t think.

  4. Hi Paul how would you say you arrived at your level of expertise?, for example as a beginner woodworker is it better to jump straight in and cut dovetails (with some instruction of course even if that entails following a YouTube video) or is it better to research, plan and read books and then finally try it, I guess simply put is it best to learn woodworking by a sort of trial and error process learning from the mistakes one makes or should one study the craft in the forms of books and carefully plan a project before ever picking up tools?

    1. It’s all available for free on my commonwoodworking.com site and then there are my videos on woodworkingmasterclasses.com both free and paid for. No, don’t read books on dovetailing! A picture paints a thousand words and a video a million. I would not research. Cutting dovetails is basic woodworking and you, YOU, need to make one and another and another until YOU get it right. It’s just that simple, George.

      1. So to clarify Paul I use the dove tail example as just one of the many processes an artisan like yourself has to master and would you say the same answer from hanging a door to making more intricate furniture, that the key is repetitition and learning by doing? And not reading/researching and planning and simply just getting on with making ?

      2. So to clarify Paul I use the dovetail example as just one process an artisan like yourself has had to master throughout their career. But for other more intricate processes such as making and hanging a door or making a complete furniture set with all its fine details is the advice you prescribe still remain the same? That you learn it by “doing” and reading books researching and planning is not the most effective way to learn these processes? And it’s also this repetition of getting your hands dirty and learning along the way, making mistakes and learning from them the philosophy you’re trying to impart ?

  5. Always love seeing photos of your workshop space, and now those of your fellow makers. What a joy it must be to work there.

  6. Paul, you are such a philosopher! Thank you! I made your router plane…albeit without the intellectual depths which you explore. It came out very good looking. But I know immediately when I use it, how I misjudged the tolerances and overlooked the details, That said, it still works and still performs the tasks I need. I have been thinking of re-starting the whole project and becoming more precise in the blade positioning. And then I think, well, maybe I don’t need to. What I’ve learned from you is to make it. Now. And then see how it works. I’ve learned to work the tool I’ve made. flaws and all. And that’s what I get from your post. The whole exercise is a give and take with our body and our mind. And our minds are much more malleable than we think. The trick is to do it. Then look at it. Then use it. Then assess it. So thank you for your deep and abiding insights to the world of life…the life of work.

  7. University, for many people, is about gaining independence after leaving home, being self-motivated to study, working to deadlines and setting goals for oneself rather than the particular subject matter. After all there are only so many marine biologists, archaeologists and art historians that the country needs.

    1. I understand what you are saying, Bill, but where were the parents all this time. They seem to have been distanced or are distant from the responsibility of raising children to adulthood. School has very successfully replaced parents but not with good parenting. Any eighteen-yeqr-old should be at a good level of responsibility by the time they are off to university so that they can apply themselves responsibly to mastering their subjects. I would expect any 13 years old to make good choices about their future and not wait for some university staff to anything but teach and lecture.

  8. Your work and working words of wisdom and sense brings a positive light to us all. I only wish I could affirmatively say what I wanted to do at the age you did. You enlighten and inspire me every time i read your articles wishing I could have learned under your mentorship. Thank You for a most positive and philosophical article that I needed to read and befits where I am in life right now.

  9. Uni was a place to learn big ideas and was fairly cheap back in the bad old days (lol). Some folks grew hippie hair and put a flower on the ear, smoked dope and dropped acid and expanded their minds. Then they shaved, cut their hair short, settled into their Mad Men career, 9 to 5 jobs, and bought the big car and the small house and the wife and 2.5 children in suburbia. The degree gave the average Joe Blow a chance at working a job not at minimum wage and no benefits.

    We’ve moved on from Plato’s Academy and now Madison Avenue owns the colleges and its Corporate Education from K-16 and beyond. You are not there as much to create and critique as much as to make the college numbers. Money per capita, bums in seats, etc. Austerity cutbacks. College sports scholarships. Identity politics police. Crushing student loans that you pay to the grave. All kinds of silliness. At least that’s a bigger share of the schools I have attended. And that’s a crying shame.

    Despite all that, I still found university time priceless and wouldn’t trade it for a thing. I learned how to manage my life and my place in the world at the universities and colleges I attended. Exposure to different and diverse viewpoints was liberating, too. You can get that through other avenues, too, other than college, but university life is still a good way to get those good things. Its a mixed bag for sure.

  10. This post made me smile a lot.
    I recently had to finish working after 40 years as a television cameraman, now known as a videographer. I never called it a career, it was a great way to experience life and to earn a decent living.
    Now that I’m unable to work In able to spend more time making things and striving to improve.

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