A few pictures and words

The video for the York:Crafted event should be available sometime in the future (near or not) but in the mean time I thought I’d post the content of the presentation in a different way. Below are the 20 pictures I chose and the 20 seconds worth of text that accompanied each.

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  • None of us are the geniuses we think we are, and nothing we do is ever in a vacuum. All work is in some way collaborative and I am deeply indebted here to Christopher Schwarz and his book ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest’.
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Not about throwing bombs
  • Why choose the word anarchy? in some circles, that word carries a lot of baggage, but this is not about throwing bombs. Aesthetic anarchism is simply a creative, non-violent, anti-consumer approach to living. A tendency to eschew large corporations and organizations. A preference for individual action as opposed to mandates and mass manufacturing.
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Choosing to build rather than buy
  • In woodworking (and craft in general) this means a tendency to build rather than to buy. It is a reflective and conscious choice to question the “givens” about our material culture and make use of our individual gifts to create culture around ourselves.
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Making furniture for yourself and others is a radical act
  • And that can be a gift not just to ourselves, but to culture at large because making furniture for yourself and others is a radical act. It is a denouncement of the treadmill of planned obsolescence and it stands in opposition to the broader cultural narrative that tells us “more is better” and “everything is disposable”.
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This is not acceptable
  • The disposable mindset is neither realistic or sustainable. There is nothing about this that is acceptable. The wood is barely wood. The joinery is non-existent. The price of this stool was probably “right” but the life-cycle of “furniture” like this would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.
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Why work with wood?
  • So why work with wood? There are more predictable materials. More durable materials, more uniform materials and cheaper materials. But woodworking is at the core of our material culture. We are connected to the natural world in ways that fathom the depths of our ability to communicate it. It is in our bones.
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Making culture out of nature is part of being human
  • Making culture out of nature is part of what it means to be human. Our consciousness is connected to creativity and when the most creative thing we can do is buy a new sofa to replace the old sofa that fell apart too soon, our humanity suffers. Designing and building with natural elements is a way of reclaiming that.
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Working with the grain of the universe
  • But you have to learn to understand to respect the material. Wood has grain. If you’ve ever tried to pet a cat backwards from the tail to the head you can understand the nature of grain. You have to work with the grain, and that means you have to learn to read the grain, and that’s really where hand-tools enter the picture for me.
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Am I crazy?
  • There are woodworkers who consider me foolish for abandoning my table saw and router in favor of hand saws, chisels and planes, but when you learn to work wood in this way, you become acquainted with its eccentricities. You start to understand, respect and work it in a different way. To pet the cat in the right direction as it were.
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A simple set of tools
  • To learn that, you just have to make some sawdust and shavings, and there’s no better place to start in my opinion than with a tool chest and a simple set of well-tuned hand tools. Working wood with hand-tools doesn’t require you to be a virtuoso. You just need to develop good habits and learn to do a few key operations reliably well.
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Cutting to the line
  • The most important skill in hand tool woodworking is learning how to cut to a line. There’s no magic to cutting accurately and efficiently with hand saws, but once your body learns what that feels like you will never look at a piece of wood the same way again.  If you can do that, the rest follows suit.
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Learning where to put the line
  • Everything else is just learning where to put the line. If sawing relies on habit, layout relies on judgement. Understanding your capacities, tolerances and the nature of the wood and how it works. All of that will begin to inform your sense of space and design.
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Coarse, Medium and Fine
  • From there, the rest of the work is about learning how to cut joints and refine surfaces from rough and ready to ready for finish. Hand tools are designed to work in stages from coarse to medium and fine, leaving surfaces that are pleasing and engaging both to sight and to touch. There is something human in what is left behind 
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Not conquered but understood
  • I’m not, anti-power tool, and I’m no evangelist, but to work wood with hand tools at this level of understanding invites a different sort of relationship with both the product and the material. It’s not about conquering the wood, but understanding it and learning to use both its strengths and weaknesses to the best mechanical and aesthetic advantage.
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A thousandth of an inch
  • Some will say that machines are more suited to precision, but properly tuned and sharpened hand tools allow the craftsperson to work within tolerances of a few thousandths of an inch. I can’t think of any reason you would need more precision than that.
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Structure and freedom
  • Machines are certainly well suited to repeatable accuracy. That is the core idea of the industrial revolution; that a mechanical jig can allow one man to push one button and make thousands of chairs.  But maybe your goal isn’t to make thousands of chairs on a production line. Maybe your goal is to make furniture that bears your individual mark.
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The workmanship of risk
  • At the end of the day, furniture designer and maker David Pye suggests that the terms handmade and machine made don’t really tell us much about the craftsmanship involved in a piece. Even hand tools are machines of one sort. What we really want to know is was there a degree of risk involved in the making of a thing and how much skill and control were required by the individual making it.
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How sharp is sharp?
  • Like power tools, hand tools are only as capable as the hands using them. The wood will quickly teach you when your tools (or your skills) aren’t sharp enough. There is little difference between honing your chisel, honing your skills with a hand plane or honing your eye for proportion and design. You learn, by practice the nature of sharp and smooth and square and beautiful.
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Some assembly required
  • And I’m afraid this is where I must leave off and you must pick up if you’re interested in this work, because reading, listening and thinking will only take you so far. The habits that you need to develop as a woodworker can only come when your own hands are on the tools and your own senses are engaged in making.
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A reflection of ourselves
  • Enlightenment comes at different times for different people. For me, it came when I understood that I wanted my furniture to be a reflection of myself, and not the other way around. It came when I understood I had the skills and tools to make that a reality. If you’ve heard nothing else today, I hope you hear this: You are not your disposable big box store bookshelf. You’re better than that. Make it happen.

 

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12 thoughts on “A few pictures and words

  1. When I was about 8 y/o I watched my Grandfather build a set of steps about 10′ L, out of 3 2″x12″, kiln-dried oak planks for the risers, 1″ pine for the steps, and 2″x4″ pine for the rails. He used a hand saw, a hammer, a carpenters square, a brace and bits, a pencil, several files and sharpening stones and several different sized nails and screws. If memory serves, there were 12 steps, for which he cut every rise/run with the hand saw, etc. When, as an adult, it dawned on me what he had done, I wanted that same challenge and outcome. 30 years later, I’m still working on the skilled outcome.

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  2. Holy cow James, this is so well done. Fantastic photographs! You’re such a great story teller, there’s a book in there I’m sure. Very inspirational, you’ve captured this simple path perfectly. Now write a book so I can buy it already.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful post! I’m curious what reading material has helped you the most on your journey? I’m making the transition to more hand tools and am trying to learn alll I can, both by trail and error and learning from the lessons of others. Thank you!

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    1. Tyler, ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest’ is the first place I point everyone, but ‘The Anarchist’s Design Book’ is now a close second. Both titles (along with just about everything else from Lost Art Press will challenge you and send you on a trajectory all your own. I also suggest Tom Fidgen’s ‘The Unplugged Workshop’ if you’re looking for a project based way of entering into hand tools, but although I admire Tom’s work I have yet to build any of those projects.

      Also ‘The Essential Woodworker’ by Robert Wearing is my go-to resource whenever I have to pause and say, “huh, I wonder how that’s done?”

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