Mar 9, 2007

For Starters

Years ago before leaving New York, I did woodworking at the YMCA in Manhattan. The class was taught by a man named Maurice, a Canadian, I recall, whose method was patiently to talk us through about a dozen basic lessons about tools and wood, then to give us some plans for a simple project based on some Shaker designs and watch as we struggled through the first efforts to turn a piece of fine wood into a useful item: a guitarist's stool, a step stool with a handle, or a small bench. Only oak was allowed, I remember, since it was relatively inexpensive. Pine was too soft and difficult to work with. Cherry and maple were too expensive for a beginner, though. Other woods were too quirky or expensive or too hard. We had to buy some simple tools--four good chisels, a sharpening stone, a smoothing plane, and a dovetail saw, an adjustable angle, a good steel 6-inch rule, an Exacto knife and blades. A marking gauge was optional, I think. What I liked about the class was Maurice's simple handouts and simple words.

I had heard the adage to "measure twice, cut once" many times, but Maurice was the first person who really showed what it meant to measure accurately. He also taught me not to be afraid to do the cutting. The evening after my first lesson, my wife and I visited my wife's uncle, whom we called "Runk" (from "Hi yer, Unk"). He was an autodidact, never went to college, but boasted of having read the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover at least once. He certainly could be condescending and pompous at times, and though he subscribed to the encyclopedia's annual supplement, some of his knowledge was very much out of date and out of touch with reality. We visited him the evening after my first lesson, and I discussed the class with him. He told me that he did not like to work with wood. It was "dimensionally unstable." Metal was his material of choice. He had a small machine shop in his basement in Middle Village and worked on inventions in his spare time.

For me, the quality of wood's instability was appealing. It "breathed," it grew old, and it shrunk, it drank moisture on a rainy day, it had grain and figure and color. Maurice had confirmed for me, that very first day, my love of wood and woodworking. He had also taught me an important lesson: most people think that sharp things are dangerous, but Maurice had taught me that for a craftsman, the sharp tool is the safe tool. On this matter Runk was in agreement. “The sharper tool makes better turnings.” And he illustrated by drilling a hole in a thin piece of metal with first a dull bit and then a sharpened bit. The dull bit howled and burned the lubricant and twisted the metal out of the clamp. The sharp bit whispered a clean hole needing no file work or deburring and only a single drop of the oil.

Years later I visited a woodworker who turned wooden bowls for a living. His tools had to be ultra sharp, for they had to be prepared for the hidden imperfections in the blank or the burl. Especially the burl. Nothing is as daunting as the sudden explosion of a burl that has been worked on for an hour or so. And for the wood turner, goggles and a facemask and gloves are needed as well as the sharp tools.

I am not going to write about woodworking on this blog unless the spirit moves me. I give the story only as a metaphor for the work. I don’t know what “wood” I will be turning, but I do intend to keep my tools as sharp as possible. One more piece of the metaphor and I am done. Over the years I have met a number of woodworkers who are missing digits or whole fingers, and while I have all my fingers, I do have some scars, and probably, before this enterprise is finished, more will appear, both inside and out. I hope so.

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