My Reasons

My weeks have always been filled with making wood work in the building of pieces, they still are after 58 years of making every day of those years. The wood usually doesn’t make too much difference; each stick and stem I see of it represents possibilities no matter how big or small. I’ll buy a drop-leaf table for the vintage, often highly figured oak or mahogany panels or an abused or dropped and damaged desk to be restored or remade anew.

Some furniture can never be repaired and should never be repaired or restored, but secondhand furniture can be a good source of woods you might not even be able to find today. Old-growth woods like mahogany and rosewood, ebonies and such.

Taking the unusable to make something useful, pretty, handy, is my favourite doing. Writing about the tools still fascinates me and even the shavings draw my eye to see inside what was hitherto unseen by any human. Reading descriptions of the characteristics of woods by mere academics and writers seems more to narrow the mind to an emptiness of minimal value whereas now that I am older and know the woods more they just keep ever expanding. Now that I know which woods are absorbing and stringy, unyielding, brittle, soapy and more, I can describe them for myself and others with much greater intensity, using quite different adjectives instead. Can wood be translucent, straggly, I, fractious and receptive? The hardness and densities shift and change radically even in the same board a few inches away from one cut to another and we who work it know that. I listen out for Hannah’s descriptions. We talk about them often, seek for deeper understanding. If wine tasters have their own intimate vernacular using words that belong almost only to them in the description of their chosen ‘poison‘ do they also have unique words in conversations we are not privied to too? I mean words only they would use between themselves that they would never use elsewhere? In some ways, I feel that we woodworkers have never really developed such accuracy of wording that’s because music continued to grow through instruments played but woodworking became stumped by machining offered as an extension of growth but it has been the exact opposite and served only to stymy the art of working wood. Musicians that bend sound, stretch notes and then blend them for a unique taste, compress them to create new meaning for transmission of a quality they as players and composers and translators decided on. Each piece of wood is a new melody itself. The plane and saw make notes that can be struck, strummed, picked out as an isolated pluck and then too blown for the change of depth by cut setting that in turn changes the sound and the rhythm to create meter.

My last article was as much about such things as anything. We makers compose with colour, grain configuration and then textures too to add depth and substance to our work. We look for contrast and use intensity with care to consolidate our impression on the works of art we create. The basic making of single pieces can and should be a single composition and then too a composition of many pieces to build into three-dimensional beauty and possibly four and five-dimensional works too. Rather than using mouldings, I go for contrasts, contrasts with crossbanding as a facing stand in stark opposition to a main body of wood.

The laptop desk I designed for woodworking masterclasses a few years back remains one of my favourites. Compact and elegant without adornment. The three liftup bins take key board and mouse, charger cables and so on.

On my laptop desk, I used a frieze of crossbanding as a bridge between the two leg frames in the same way I escaped convention on the doors and each of the facets of the White House pieces. Crossbanding created a frame without a framing long conventional to doors as in stiles and rails. It worked. Book matching transformed my designs and captured my ambition to create exact reflections of the two identical opposites to stand either side of the door leading into the corridor to the Oval Office. Every bookmatched panel was sequentially cut to express the importance of what would be taking place in the Oval Office through the decades to come. I wasn’t tasked to do this. I chose it as my theme to weave into the richer tapestry of my wood as each piece was selected to both compliment and then stand in contrast in every face.

My composition in the making enjoys a frieze of edge banding, further framed internally with ebony and oak bands to set off the book-matched centrepiece.

Wood has the capacity to make music, create harmony and sing as a silent voice to an audience or sole entity passing into and through a room. Can a dining chair do more than seat someone, hold clothes in a bedroom or work as a platform for a smaller child to wash dishes at a too-high sink? Just as human life becomes a composition in a family, so too the furniture pieces that make family work in a home.

The last work I concluded at the end of my living and working in the USA. Is it a perfect composition? Perhaps it has pretentions of grandeur I never alluded to but is was composed and composed for a special venue that need to befit is prestigious room of decision makers on a global scale with a global influence. People much more grand thin I and with a far greater scope of influence than me.

I love the thought that we are indeed composing rather than just combining ready-mades. That we’ve moved from assembling those ready-made to actually making pieces that fit the spaces we live in in our different rooms and that each composition becomes a womb of creativity where we consider each piece for its relationship and functionality within the whole. I love to raise my garden filled with vegetables and have access to the garden to bring the vegetables into the kitchen for preparation for dinner preparation. It’s a composition for someone to use and live with and enjoy. The extension of all this is of course family gatherings and visits for friends at events like birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas times. Against the backdrop of our compositions, the work of our hands and minds, we find ourselves celebrating further with the composition of human life itself in shared space, shared events and the limited space in rooms we’ve composed at different times of day in mornings, noons, evening and night.

I’m privileged to have been a maker and a composer throughout my work life. Now I see others growing to reconfigure their lives too. Personally, I believe that everyone can be as good a woodworker and a furnituremaker as I am but not everyone can or want to or is meant to earn their living from it as I have. I see people engineering their futures for the widest range of highly meaningful things not the least of which is their own mental welfare and an awareness they never really related to or saw the importance of before. This has become an extension of my original goal to return and restore the art of crafting to men and women and families around the world where they can share the making of things for their homes and own use. My goal developed into something much deeper to become an ambition to help people to understand that making things from wood and fibres, clay and bamboo only serves to strengthen relationships. We might think that making something together in a garage or shed is just making some three-dimensional item from materials. Still, we are crafting human life in relationships when we decide to build together with another or with others. I make a coffee table or a dining chair and I build with those who work with me to share the building of it with hundreds of thousands around the world. `The videographers are filming and composing in the lens as I am in the workshop and then take that work to another who edits and composes the work further. So we see the significant composing in the truest meaning of the word.

A new legacy continues in the teaching of hand’s-on classes as John Winter takes on the mantle to combine his own making with teaching and passing on the craft.

My friend John has been with me since 2011, not full-time but for extensive periods. Last week he started composing something he’d only partially taken part in before. He held a workshop teaching people totally new to woodworking the art of joinery. Joinery takes its meaning from the root word harmos, where we get the word harmony. I saw men and women achieve something they never thought possible but I also saw how making simple things from wood drew them together in a harmonious composition. Sometimes we have to see what something is not to see what it really is. Life is like that! Life is what it is, a living and moving culture.

A cello in the final stages is taken from 30-40 pounds (13-18 kilos) of dry-weight of wood down to less under four pounds (1.8 kilos) by the time all of the carving and shaping is done. A violin is a fraction of this, of course.

I thought about luthiers who learned woodworking to carve and shape a range of bowed instruments using gouges and curve-soled planes. When I made my first cello I was a woodworker who was more expert at hand tool woodworking, furniture making and so on than most. When I finished, a leading symphony cellist who plays a Guarneri every day said it was absolutely beautiful and that it was hard to give it back. He played it for an hour. It didn’t make me a luthier, just a woodworker that could make a cello worth playing. The instrument was no less a composition than the sheet music it followed to play Bach’s cello suites. You see, it was the art of making with wood developed over half a century that gave me both the ability confidence to find nothing too difficult or complex beyond my ability to make a fine instrument and then with confidence too. I made my first canoe and kayak at age 15 so it would be the same for a strip kayak or a timber-framed building, a horse-drawn carriage or just about anything I wanted to make from wood. This then is composition and the composing of a man’s life, nothing less. There are no joints used in making a cello or a violin, just the bending of wood by heat and care and then the carving of the belly and back, the arching, the neck and the scroll. We have purfling to contend with which is a simple string inlay in black and white strips, two black and two white. Very lovely! Simple. Mostly the parts just butt up against one another, preferably gap-free, and a non-complex animal glue holds them together for three hundred years. The greatest challenge for me was there being no woodworking joints of any consequence anywhere in the union of parts. The second challenge came the day when I first realised something I had as yet not considered. I was carving an actual voice! The wood would be a chamber, not unlike a human chest holding everything that would speak clearly yet have the power to project itself and I was to do this without ever hearing the whole of it until the strings were stretched taut and the set-up was completed by the moving of a thin rod that stood by modest friction between the belly and the back that was allowed to self-move by the vibration of the played strings to centre itself on that perfect spot in perfect self composition. Such revelations are ours for the making of things wood.

A door hinged by hand to swing freely within its new frame is indeed a work of art. It’s a common enough thing seldom ever looked at by those that use doors daily and it’s doubtful to me that you ever look at a hinged door around its hinges. Aligning the made door with the made frame a man and a woman built with their hands can never be compared with any other method from mass making. Those recesses measured to an exact depth measured to allow for a 1mm gap all along the door twixt stile and jamb may well never be noticed or even known by people passing through or reaching inside whatever is hinged there and yet the equal 1mm gap all around — that’s head, and opposite stile, well, its is a wonderful sight to me when I see it.

A hinge recessed with screws aligned reflects the composition of a maker’s inclination to compose in even the smallest things. Remember it is not what you make but how you make what you make that makes the greatest impact.

We’re surrounded by woodworking compositions when we choose to look for them. They stretch back into centuries of our reliance on wood and those who say we should not cut trees that so enrich our lives miss the point. I can imagine the greatest composition of all in the mighty forests of the world but it is not woodworking that has so depleted our forests but the mass-made junk created for planned obsolescence not by wearing out and wearing down but by creating fashion style itself to wear it out. Alongside deleting clothes by fashion not wear, we continue to waste paper and paper goods taken from pulverising trees and console ourselves by saying ‘But paper and cardboard recycles and I always recycle!

A design benefits from a child’s toy building kit using scrap from cardboard boxes and what takes time initially saves time in the long run and aptly creates a facsimile of a full-sized piece of furniture as a place holder in a room. It’s real purpose in real life would be to show your customer what you are looking at in the actual space it will occupy.

Many things made to be discarded by fashion can be and indeed were once made to last for decades and even centuries. The violins composed and made by Antonio Stradivarius came to us sometime in the late 1600s or early 1700s during the peak of his making. This exemplification of making into longevity seems to me almost unparalleled and yet those we seem in awe of wear one dress one time and we admire them for it. How can it be that we no longer look for those qualities? Imagine fine instrument makers taking on the challenges of making more modern violins that equal or even possibly surpass that of Stradivarius, Amarti and Guanari that currently receive new and real acceptance and support and that still prove innovative and inspired in positive ways. One luthier site does practice agiesm in its promoting of young and gifted makers when there should be no separatism by age for any maker. I can imagine myself becoming an instrument maker beyond my furniture making because I might feel called to it and could indeed make excellent instruments because of my ability to work with wood but then being rejected for support articles because, well, I do look 73 years old. Not the image the promoter wants and so exclusivity continues by age alone. This prejudiced and jaundiced view explains many things and sends very direct messages too. When we preclude other age groups we exemplify and promote misconceptions about age. It no longer represents the composition of life from new beginnings and on towards the ending of life when we effectively cull out the elderley by restricting them in the diverse ways that we now can through media internet for this too effectively edits out and rejects the composition inclusivity allows in the accepting of changing ages.

Go ahead! Marvel! It’s over 300 years old and still the most pristine Stad in existence. Many gifted makers aspire to achieve the same but few achieve such brilliance or provoke themselves as he did in the making of beautiful voices. As a vegetarian I never try to find meat or dairy substitutes, I just choose what I eat as different foods. Perhaps it should be the same for makers except most of them have to go back to copying elements of the master’s original. This alone is remarkable although I have seen some amazing instruments with no belly or back play with real clarity of voice and projection. few would play them in a national orchestra though. I wonder why?

Of course, this excluding of life in different ways effectively disables those who might better enrich a life in need of less complication; by that I mean add more relief in positive ways to what is increasingly less logical and far more complex than even 20 years ago, ways we might not even know to be possible. It truly disables so many ahead of their time when anyone is passed over for the younger or the older and for many, many other reasons too. Instead of what I see as greater composition by the inclusion of those who lost ability but not wisdom and knowledge of a craft we might well face a decomposition when we erase the elders or practice ageism as a means of creating space for young people. Is it really an either-or and did we have have all the answers when a gifted maker took in an apprentice to increase his and her circle of influence within their craft field and beyond. It was a man in his late 70s that taught me much by showing and not even doing. He listened to the file in the gullet of a saw and said too heavy, too short a stroke, too light, too fussy. The ability to sharpen scrapers was an art in explanation using words he carefully composed as he pulled the strokes and described where and when to apply pressure and then too what ‘weight‘ and strength to apply. I never treated those that taught me as my equal but always respected them for taking the time to train me into adulthood making. I’m sure I would have got what they gave me so freely eventually but who knows how many decades that would have taken. He taught me of the history of the square awl and a thousand other things but his knowledge was from real life as a country cabinet maker making his furniture and small cages from split and riven sticks if oak.

So here `i find myself teaching training, experimenting and researching to find new answers. I now sharpen my planes at a different angle to everyone in the world and have done so for a few weeks. I now know things I did not know two months ago. I have not laid my plane on its side since my apprenticeship when I started to work with the men who said, “What on earth are you doing that for?” in no uncertain terms. I stopped but wasn’t sure why. Later in life I researched it and saw in old photographs and books that no one laid their planes on their sides and then in a vintage book written for schools I found the answer. It had nothing to do with the trade of woodworking!

21 Comments

  1. Agree Paul the trick is to learn as much as you can from others but then to test and extend that knowledge through your own experimentation. That’s the difference between copying and understanding I suppose. In that spirit, looking forward to hearing what you’ve changed in the last few weeks with respect to plane sharpening angles. I fiddle a bit to find the sweet spot for a given tool in a given wood, but not usually anything radically different from your customary 30-25 degree camber. Interested to hear what you have come up with. Such a pleasure to learn from someone so relentlessly practical but who also never stops experimenting.

  2. Paul, the musical analogy is so appropriate. As a professional trombonist of almost 60 years experience I have to say that the challenge and stimulation of chasing my idea of the ideal sound with commensurate musicality is as strong today as it was all those years ago. Thank you.

  3. “As a vegetarian I never try to find meat or dairy substitutes, I just choose what I eat as different foods.”
    +1
    There are so many flavors to discover and combine. As far as taste and consistency are concerned, substitutes are generally far away from the original and, in my experience, should not be pursued.
    My wife an myself have stopped to eat meat (or fish) every day and, when we decide not to eat meat/fish, we do as you do.

  4. – “He listened to the file in the gullet of a saw and said too heavy, too short a stroke, too light, too fussy.”
    One of your biggest lessons is: “work with sensitivity”.

    – “In some ways, I feel that we woodworkers have never really developed such accuracy of wording…” Or maybe it has been lost or was a trade secret.
    I have heard my great grand father who was an “ébéniste” could identify wood by odor and taste (although, licking some wood species might not be wise).

  5. I’m intrigued! You have mentioned previously that you set down your plane on its sole, not on it’s side and now you teasingly mention that there is a reason that this is the correct way!
    At grammar school Mr Calderwood (good old “Knocker”) taught me the opposite and to this day more than half a century later I still have the unbreakable habit of setting it down carefully on its side.
    I also set chisels down bevel-down so that the edge is clear of the bench top, again thanks to him.
    I suspect it was because Mr Calderwood had to maintain the tools himself and found it easier if generations of ham-fisted oiks were not chucking them edge-down on top of anything that happened to be in the way!
    Save yourselves, brothers and sisters – it’s too late for me haha!
    I’m right with you on saving timber from old furniture. Some Victorian pieces for example are downright ugly to me, but some of the wood used is just beautiful and nearly unobtainable these days. I’ve just finished making a set of deck cleats and fairleads for an old wooden yacht from two broken teak table legs that were on their way to the kindling box, but I have the luxury of doing it for fun; I’m far too slow to make money from it.

    1. The sideways plane mantra does seem to have come from schools, where one suspects teachers may have been primarily concerned with kids putting planes sole-down on top of other metal objects. But that’s just a guess. Certainly it’s not clear what problem a mere wooden bench would present.

    2. I wonder sometimes if this ‘doctrine’ for handling planes and chisels ultimately had less to do with the mechanics of the tools (damage avoidance, safety, etc.) but has to more to do with cultivating awareness in our relationship with the tools we use – and ultimately the lives we lead. One of the most important lessons my long-suffering teachers ever tried to foster in me was “pay attention to the fine details”. There are arguments to be made for as (seemingly) trivial a process as placing a plane on its sole or on its side, but the most important lesson this contains is to focus and pay attention to all the elements of our process. In friendship.

  6. Lovely post Paul. Thank you. I love my day job and solidly in the third act of my career. That said, woodworking is a serious passion and hobby of mine. Looking forward to going to a woodworking school full time for a year or two to further refine my skills.

    If I couldn’t choose my current career. It would likely be woodworking. Of all the categories, I would likely become a luthier or antique restorer. Funny thing is I don’t even play a musical instrument. Just the thought of creating something that produces such a lovely sound that will be enjoyed by others is appealing.

    Probably also why I think repairing antique furniture would appeal. As best I can tell, it is often someone who has inherited grandparents or great grandparents piece of furniture and it is in disrepair. They want to love it and use it again. Fixing it for them would bring them such joy and in turn would bring me joy.

    Who knows, maybe in “retirement” I will do both those and traditional joiner. No reason I can’t. Never though retirement (6ish years out) could be so exciting.

  7. Paul,
    A great article and perfectly timed. I have just finished making am 18 ft strip built sea kayak from 60 year old mahogany benches that were in a changing room where I used to work. I added ash from the frame of my old arm chair and some pine left over from another project. Its thanks to your guidance that I developed sharpening skills and was able to restore planes and saws and was injected with the drive to have a go. Thanks I owe a lot to you and your team.

  8. Random question Paul.
    I have plum tree wood thats been air drying for 5 years or so. And i want to create new saw handles from it. My question is, could you possibly share pictures of your favourite feeling dovetail and tenon saws?
    I am interested to see how the handle angles in regard to the sawblade.
    I see many variations where the hand is vert close or very far away from the saw and was wondering what you favor in like and feel and accuracy of cut.
    Many many thanks in advance, it would explain a lot to me.
    Kind regards

    1. I probably won’t share pics because of time constraints but if you go to eBay and input R Groves saws you will see the best hand saws and the ones I use every day. Oops the price just doubled. Ten years ago you could buy these for £10 until I said I preferred them to all others. Oh, well. As far as handles go, the absolute best saw handles for dovetail saws bar none and I mean none is the Gent’s saw handle. I especially like the traditional shapes with the bulbous handle as this optimises the Nothing comes close and certainly no pistol grip version. I use a 10″ version, any shorter and they are pretty useless. Of course, this is what I like and have grown most accustomed to. I used to use pistol grips predominantly but found myself reaching more and more for the gents and now I wouldn’t change. Oh, ther other thing, I never use a pull stroke saw for anything and especially for dovetials.

        1. I once had my wife’s great great grandfather’s drawlnife and it had a build two handles. perfect fit for hands…sucks I broke a handle off. the steel was fatigued from several generations of professional woodworkers. it served its purpose. made the surface of wood glassy on everything I sliced. new ones are sad facsimiles of that knife.

          1. I hear you.
            When I started woodworking I bought all brand new tools by modern makers. Chisels, saws, planes, etc.
            Ever since I inherited my great-grandfather’s wooden plane and a few chisels I started to collect and refurbish old tools for personal use.
            I have much more satisfaction and pleasure in using them, knowing I perfected them. But the nostalgic feel they give really does it for me. I love my wooden planes and old plane irons, same for the old chisels and saws. It has some emotional value too using my ancestors tools that they’ve helt in their very same hands.

  9. Recently, I visited the Ashmolean Museum on Oxford, home to a famous Stradivarius violin.
    Even more beautiful than that, for me, was the Stradivarius guitar.
    Visitors are allowed to walk around the exhibits but sadly you can’t beat the tone of the piece.

  10. Congratulations on making a fine cello.If you feel the urge to make more, go for it and don’t let any age bias stop you. Here in Hawaii all the best ukulele makers are Old Guys.

    Years ago before I knew who you were, I was in the White House’s West Wing Conference Room. I wish I’d known you made some of the furniture – I’d have paid closer attention to the details.

  11. Hi Paul I love what you do and many folk live off every thing you say.The thing is you tend to unconsciously give off bad vibes.This thing is you basically are portraying your methods are the bench mark for good wood work.To a large extent they are.There are many folk who are doing wood work and don’t use your methods.Some things you do are really off the
    mark.You did an apprenticeship many years ago probably 4 or 5 years .Whilst you learnt your trade and have made a career of passing that on to others and that is good.This in it’s self isn’t the be all to end all.The guy who taught me did 8 years of apprenticeship.In the 1930’s.I am sorry but seeing what you teach and what he taught me is cheese and chalk.You learnt well.Yeah you have work in the White house but my dad has work in Buckingham palace too. I am Bermudian now living Australia.I don’t see you doing any Bermuda style dovetail joints or making cabinets to the standard of of those craftsman.I
    am a sponge and soak up
    any new technique I find.Try Japanese joints these aren’t easy to master as are so many other things .I worked with lots of European and South American US and Canadian tradesmen and they taught me a thing or too.Sorry about my rant but when folk criticise me for not doing something using your method I find it insulting to me, my father and any other wood worker.
    At the end of the day we all love wood work and folk like
    us keep the tradition alive.Cheers Richie.

  12. Hi Paul. I apologise for my rant .It probably should have been directed to the one who criticised me.This is how far reaching your teaching is.I appreciate your dedication to passing on your knowledge to folk world over.Obviously there are
    things you do that I can’t and vice versa.I think both you and me either know of or have seen some awesome craftsman and we can only hope to get that good.The main thing is keeping this wood work tradition alive and well.
    I recycle / salvage 100% of my material.I have also been refurbishing reparing tools for many years.My oldest tool is a saw from the
    1780’s -90’s.German steel London made.Its still used and cuts good.Anyway you have a great day and keep passing it on.
    Cheers Richie.

    1. Thanks for that. If being me, without airs, causes others to promote my ways of working, I make no apology. I think that they were helped, given a step up, found new things to enjoy in the simplicity rather than the confusing. Living genuineness expresses honesty in the final work itself. The outcome is good woodworking with hand tools on every continent. It’s just opening the door for others, nothing more.
      Though I can easily carve a ball and claw foot with a handful of hand tools it is unlikely that I ever will do so in the future because of certain decisions I have made. I doubt too that you will ever see me use a power router to create housing dadoes and dovetails are add ornate moulding to my work using the same equipment or even a moulding plane these days. I have my reasons but mostly because I don’t need to use machines to get the work done and I more enjoy the hand methods, the simplicity, the noiselessness and elimination of dust, protective equipment etc. I like that my granddaughter can come into the shop at any time night or day and she will be safe. Equally important to me is the reality that I can now reach around 1.5 million people in any given month who want to know more about how, why and where I work. It’s a garage-sized space with a single machine, a bandsaw, and all the rest is hand tools. Why use a garage size? I put it out there and asked people what workspace they had. The first was a single-car garage, the second a shed, then an attic or basement, spare room. I replicated the same or similar workspace and I guarantee that my pieces are made in that space size. You suggest that there are better makers than me. I never compare myself to others. I doubt that there is anything others make that I can’t, but I don’t care. I have made all the pieces I care to make, sold every single piece I made to sell and now I make to train those who want the skills of hand work. I am 73 years old in a few days time. My plan to leave the training as a legacy for hand tool woodworkers yet to be born will soon be complete and perhaps then I can relax more. It’s sad that you really don’t know me nor my real objectives to stem the tide of machine-only woodworking that started in the 1980s when in my view we were about to lose hand skills. But it’s out there. You are entitled to express free speech. In a few days a new year starts and I will go into it with the new hope we all want for a new and emerging generation.

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