The tree is down. No ceremony was performed for it. As a street tree, this maple had a pretty good long run. I was sorry to have to remove it but seeing it fallen over on top of a car would have made me a bit sorrier. It was half dead as was plain to see this spring and rot would soon take over the trunk. So.
It was actually pretty cool to watch how the arborist, Aaron, took it down. He roped up and started dropping limbs, both dead and alive from the top on down. When he got close to the crotch is when I became really interested.
Where you make your first cut determines so much about the kind of wood you might receive from the tree. About 7′ up, we had two big limbs split off from one another. This crotch area can reveal beautiful grain. You could already see some spalting on the outside of the tree and some ripple in the grain. I wanted to capture all that in some slabs so I had Aaron cut off just about the crotch split.
From there, he switched out chainsaws to one with a rip blade on it and made two rip cuts so we could maximize the crotch wood. Almost lined them up but that’s a tough cut to nail. It’s a big kerf too. You can see right through it.
Once he got the log split, then he crosscut the sections down. This is when it became apparent that there was some real pretty wood here and a bunch of rot as well. You can see how the right side, the dead side, is starting to rot out from the center. That’s how it goes whenever you cut down a tree. You never know the surprises that await.
I hate cutting down trees. As much as I love the wood that comes from them, there is still something about cutting down a tree that seems to me an affront. A crime against the sky. Certainly it is a loss of some valuable shade in the heat of the sun. And it changes a landscape, a street view.
But it was half dead and once cut, discovered to be rotten inside. It had to come down now in a noisy if controlled fashion rather than taking out someone’s car some chance day. It was a good sized tree and it had a good run of time. Pretty looking wood. But all wood, wet and fresh from a saw cut, looks like Christmas. I do still hope for a good slab or two.
The thing about cutting a tree down is the finality of it. It’s up and standing and a pain in your side and maybe a hazard and in a few hours, it’s gone. Like it never existed. I don’t like cutting down trees because it makes me feel just as temporary. Maybe even more so as I was younger than that tree. Still I’ll try to make something out it instead of just burning all of it. Now that is a crime.
How can anyone afford to do good work these days? Isn’t the strain of surviving enough to make mediocre work good enough? As that famous poet once said, You gonna have to serve somebody. So who’s it gonna be? Your landlord or the voice inside you asking you to do it right this time.
I can’t choose for you. I can only choose for myself. These were the standards I said I had to adhere to and if I couldn’t meet those then it wasn’t worth doing. Yeah, some days those standards were higher than others. Yep, some days I wanted to jump off a cliff rather than do the nitpicky goddang minutiae, why-in-the-hell-worry-‘bout-that-spot kinda work I can get involved in sometimes. Sometimes that money losing work is enough to drive you crazy.
But when it’s done right, when the job is done, and you’ve done it 4 times just to get it right and you step back and you look at your work, the ability to be able to say, It was done right. That was worth a lot to me. Cheap taco dinners usually, but worth eating them in order to be able to walk away satisifed. Mastery ain’t for everybody. That’s why it’s called mastery and not mediocrity.
Signature Piece by Mastery student, Patrick McGlade, 2014
In the middle of a storm, commonplace things change. My bench for instance. When building a piece for a deadline, my recognizable bench becomes a place of chaos, a haven for every tool, every piece of scrap wood, for every note and drawing, dull tool, and a ready to hand assortment of screws and sandpaper, most of which I will not use. A place for everyone and everything. Emptying it will take days. It becomes not just a symbol of my own tumult. It is a signal of the state of my mind. Seemingly hundreds of items collect across it at once and I am able mostly, if no one disturbs the clutter, to find the things I need in order to build. But it is transformed before my eyes. It is a tableau of my life, of my mind. It is stunning and I say it is a sign of intelligence with so many “ideas” strewn about.
You on the other hand may find it vaguely recognizable if true.
I heard a poet speak last night about doing good work. I was immediately intrigued by the parallels to our work at the bench. He said that doing it was worth it because it was hard. It was hard to do good work. Nothing good comes easy. If you’ve ever tried to write you know how hard good can be.
The same thing is true for our work at the bench. It’s easy to drop your standards. Here’s a note from a maker struggling with this issue:
Recently I watched the video featuring you and your beliefs on woodworking. I share some of your feelings about woodworking. I don’t quite feel that I prefer the days of the 19th century but I do feel that technologically speaking, we have reached a point in the industry where there is nothing to be gained.
Our current dependency on technology, in work and in life, is destroying the most valuable relationships we have. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to be intimately involved in the building process and experience the rewards that come with it. Not many clients are willing to, or can afford to pay for hand built pieces anymore. In fact very few people are even informed enough to appreciate the workmanship. I work as a cabinetmaker and it is tough to get independent work consistently. Primarily now I have to make my living installing kitchens for large manufacturer’s. These kitchens are produced by CNC. From a logical standpoint you would think that this improves the accuracy of the product but it is the furthest thing from the truth. Consistently the cabinets are of poor quality. I simply can’t compete against the prices of these other manufacturers. The times that I do get to produce my own cabinets, are very fulfilling and remind me of the enjoyment I get from building.
It was nice to hear from another woodworker who still enjoys the process. RW
I hear you. Your goal has to be to let people know what quality is and You can produce it. You show the difference between a CNC box and one of yours. The key is marketing unfortunately. Not what you are probably good at. But it’s the key to your survival as a professional woodworker. Get an article in your local paper, do blog posts, have open studio tours so people can understand your process. Photographs of work both completed and in process. Folks have to learn to appreciate quality. And unfortunately you have to sell them this. It’s more than a piece of furniture that you’re selling. It’s a piece of quality. Good luck to you.
I am in Iceland when I see this place. Iceland. Norsemen, volcanoes, Vikings, edge of the earth, moonscaped, treeless Iceland. Actually there were a few trees there in Reykjavik but some blew down in the hurricane winds we had when I visited. As someone there put it to me, We’re not here for the weather.
And yet, look at this place. Hallgrimskirkja. A cathedral whose design started in the 1930’s. It was finished in the mid-80’s. Record time for a cathedral I would think.
Look at what came up out of the earth. A place so right for its location on earth: rock and ice floes and basalt columns rising up to the sky, yet with Art Deco repetition and rhythm. Inside it’s a clear rise up into the arches. Stunning.
Design like this does not come from being safe. It comes from trying something a bit new, a bit different. Oh there are designs like this elsewhere and churches that look a bit like it too. But the idea to take this up into the sky like this required some Iceland nuts. Someone stepping out of their comfort zone.
We are a type, we woodworkers. We are tool nuts, junkies. We love our tools.
Somebody asked me once how many sets of chisels I have. I said, Only two. I have my old Marples firmer chisels from 1/4″ to 3/4″ and then my bevel edge Lie-Nielsens. And oh yeah, I have a missed match set of Japanese paring and mortise chisels. And I forgot the 3 or 4 Stanley 750’s I have collected, and the old Stanley butt chisels I bought when I started out. Then there’s those 3 big mortising chisels. Ooh, and I bought another set of the Marples firmer chisels because, you know, they were cheap. Had to.
I have a few sets of chisels. My name is Gary and I have a problem. I love me my tools.
I will try to share the love next week in class in The Hand Tool Shop at the Studio. We will focus on hand tools and which to buy and how to sharpen them and tune them and build cool stuff with them. Join us for a week at the bench.
What can you do about it? This weather has its own way of being, it’s own way of acting. Asking it to change would be like asking you to stop being who you are. We respond the way we respond. We take on our challenges the way we take them on.
The best we can hope for I think is to understand our methods and prepare for them. Case in point. Anyone who has worked around me when I am at the bench knows that I am, shall we say, a loud woodworker. There is always some tool or piece of wood to talk to, cajol, or simply swear at. It is as if I think things will go better if I am loud.
So when something really does go off the tracks, I know that the best thing for me to do is to walk away from my bench. Give the problem time to shrink to its real size. I walk outside or even around the block if I need. Then when I return, the winds have calmed some, and I can see more clearly what needs to be done.
What makes one design sing and another snore? Is it the form, the shape, the color, the details, or the finish?
I think it is all of the above. Done with an end in mind, design uses all these means to create a work that grabs us and makes us engage with it. Call them touch points or engagement points, these are the things that bring a viewer or a buyer closer in.
Consider the form of your work. It is the first thing that gets someone’s attention. Is the shape pleasing? Are the proportions of it right? What is your intention with the form of the piece? To be bold enough to gain attention? Or is it to be restrained and subtle?
How do you want your work to make someone feel? Understanding one’s own intent when designing makes you look at each part of the design so that each works toward your intention.
Expectations. We all have them when we walk into the shop. Ah yes, I have come to spend a pleasant relaxing day at the bench undisturbed, unperturbed.
Then you begin work.
Things can go wrong. Jigs don’t work, parts mis-align as the glue holds fast in the wrong spot, wood tears out, screw heads break off, and finishes blotch. Lest it be misunderstood that I am somehow above the fray here, that nothing ever goes wrong for me, that I am the calm sea in the eye of every storm at my bench, just ask my assistants over the years. Loud is a good way to describe my woodworking.
It comes down to what we think is going to happen and what actually happens. It comes down to practice and preparation. But mostly it comes to slowing down because you’re in a hurry. That’s the key. Expectations.