Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Still loving the old Fine WoodWorking magazines.

I'm still looking through back issues of Fine Woodworking from the mid 80's.

One of the things I've noticed that's no longer in the magazine is the snail-mail equivalent of a message board. Wood workers were looking for tips on sourcing parts, or tools, or wood, or hardware, in a dedicated section of the magazine.

It made sense to me that the section isn't there anymore, since this is something that most folks are able to do online now. But it made it clear that there was an existing community back then for wood workers to appeal to. And it was also clear from some of the entries that this was an attempt to reach out beyond what they had for local resources.

It was intriguing. I've talked to people online who have grown very used to being able to find answers immediately. There were a lot of questions in those old magazine sections, and in the reader's letters, from people who had tried to figure out their own answers, first, before writing. I don't see that as much online these days. It makes sense that people had to push through it in the old days. There was a long time between the moment someone puts a letter into the mailbox, and the moment when the editorial glacier deposits the answer back into their hands. Chances are pretty reasonable that they'd be waiting months... and anyone who wants to wrap up a project won't let it collect dust for that long unless they're really and truly stuck, and had to move onto something else in the meantime.

Side by side with this, there was a clear body of knowledge that existed. People were making tools that were pretty ingenious, and coming up with procedures that were pretty remarkable. AND, they were sharing them. I don't know if this is a result of the decline in middle-class manufacturing jobs, if this was a case of 'the way things were in the good old days,' or if CNC production has eliminated a wide body of skilled workers. Back when I was selling tools, I would have said it was just laziness...  I was astounded at how many people were simply convinced that every tool for any purpose had been created and marketed, and was surely just sitting on the shelf somewhere... But now I'm not so sure.

There's not really a moral or a lesson to this entry. But it does feel sometimes like the world is becoming something analogous to Tolkien's middle-earth, and that the wisdom of the elves has been leaving our shores.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

So what's the goal?

For the past month or two I've been posting a variety of philosophical musings on how to lay out a shop, how to handle mistakes, and how to approach the learning process with persistence and attention to progress. But somehow in the course description I completely failed to mention what the ultimate goal of all of this work is supposed to be. The goal, in a word, is to become an artisan.

But what exactly is an artisan? And really, hasn't that just become another buzz word that's getting beaten to death? Artisanal bread, artisanal cheese, or wine, or hardware, or whatever else... it feels like the advertising industry has seized on the word as yet another way to imbue mass-manufactured objects with an aura of quality that is purely in the mind of the beholder. A factory-custom, limited- edition model car is still not the same thing as something that's really been overhauled and customized, and taken to a level of detail that a factory can't economically provide. And something that's made by a true artisan will stand out from the objects that are made by machine operators or assembly line workers.

But back to the point... what is an artisan? What are the distinguishing characteristics?

The short, romantic-sounding answer, is that an artisan is someone who makes a difficult, skilled procedure look deceptively easy. Fast but not hurried, incisive and insightful in a way that makes it seem like he has x-ray vision that sees right past the satellite issues and into the heart of a problem. In short, and more practically, an artisan is a skilled practitioner of a craft, as well as a thoughtful philosopher and artist. To be creative is not enough. To be skilled is not enough. And to have an understanding of what works and what doesn't, and why, is not enough. Even having two out of the three is not enough. An artisan is an artist, possessed of sufficient technical know-how to move a thought or idea into manifest existence, with grace and beauty.

The word Sloyd, according to Gustaf Larsson, derives roughly from the Swedish adjective Slög, which translates roughly as skillful or handy. But there's a lot more to it than simple hand skills. Sloyd as a program is/was characterized by both planning and execution: A project starts with a detailed drawing, and finishes with a skilfully executed end product, that is possessed of a refined aesthetic. That's what makes Sloyd such a great point of departure. It's important to begin with a solid grasp of both theory and practice. It's the difference between someone who came up with design, procedure, and stock list on their own, and someone who complains that "I followed the instructions to the letter, I don't know how the hell this went wrong!"

That's the point of departure. The rest is a matter of effort. In short, there's a clear need to spend a lot of time in the shop, planning, building, learning, and growing.

A true artisan is the product of years of thoughtfully designing and executing, and refining both practice and theory in accordance as a result of their experience. In other words, an artisan is someone who's been there, done it, learned his (or her) lessons well, and evolved into someone more capable. An artisan will have the humility and intent to grow and evolve in the face of those lessons, instead of sticking to familiar, obsolete habits.

The whole object behind organizing a productive shop, and documenting your process, is to help facilitate the process of growth, so you're not wasting time with clearing off the bench, and trying to remember what you were doing, the last time you were in there.

The ongoing goal is to spend your time productively creating, instead of endlessly maintaining a monument to (not yet fulfilled) potential.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Science Nation Army

A pretty cool video put together by some students in a lab at Imperial College, in London. 

Their thoughts on the production:  "While it may seem lighthearted, there’s a strong message behind the video. The finished product of a scientific investigation, like a song, is inevitably the result of days of practice, experimentation and collaboration. A scientist might have an idea of what they want their investigation to sound like, but the process of science will throw up challenges, test creativity and occasionally uncover entirely new melodies."

It's an interesting sentiment, and I think the process of 'practice, experimentation, and collaboration,' has some real parallels to the work that some of us do in our wood shops.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Applied Force of Habit

Learning any new skill requires many things: You need a supportive environment, proper equipment, time, energy, and just enough information to move forward. But once everything is in place, there’s still the matter of actual learning.

I read an interesting article on the New York Times website recently that talks about the development of habits. And one of the elements of the article talked about neurological experiments that were done with rats. The rats were wired up, to show the researchers just what was going on in their minds, and then sent out into a very simple maze to look for some chocolate. The first time through the maze, it didn’t look like the rat was really trying to make much progress, but neurologically speaking, the rat’s brain was completely lit up, trying to incorporate every sensory input, and understand what was happening. With repetition, the rat’s brain quieted down, and as the habit of running the maze took hold, there was actually very little brain activity, except at the beginning, and the end.

(Side note: there's a lot more to the article than this, because it exposes some of the practical applications of this kind of research. It's scary, but worth reading.)

I think this description of habit forming is a pretty accurate description of what goes on at the bench when I’m learning something new, or trying to figure out a new procedure. It takes me a while, and after the first attempt or two, I start to get the hang of it.

I was talking with my wife about this yesterday. Ariel’s a Nurse Practitioner, and she confirmed that this is basically what she went through, when she learned new procedures. Early examinations of patients were very thorough, but unfocused, while she tried to take everything in, and get used to the new context. After a while, though, she began to find a few reference points, and it helped her to establish herself in the routine, and she was able to hone in on the parts of the body that she was specifically looking for. She said it was very frustrating for her, because she’s such a diligent student. She’d read so much, and studied the theory so hard, knew it backwards and forwards, and she told me that she had some hope that this would make learning the exams faster and easier. But the reality was that there were some things that simply didn’t make sense until she was in that context. Recited facts made more sense when she was able to match them up with what she was actually feeling. But more extensive knowledge of the theory involved didn't translate into a tactile understanding of what her hands and fingers were telling her in those early examinations.

Without the theory, what she does as a practitioner is just groping around. She needs the theory to help her make sense of what she’s feeling. I came at it from the other side, arguing that a child pulling a nail has a tactile, visceral understanding of leverage, but that learning more about how leverage breaks down will help refine that understanding. Which comes first: the theory or the experience? Once the process gets going, I lean towards doing the practical work before learning theory. Once I’m engaged in something, and I hit a snag, I’m fully engaged in trying to solve that problem. This is very fertile soil to plant new information in, because I’m invested in learning it, to solve my problem. That’s 180 degrees from the lab sciences I learned as a kid, where we’d learn something, and do a lab ‘experiment’ to see that it actually worked. My wife still leans towards theory first, because otherwise, any kind of physical exam would be nothing more than gratuitous groping. There’s a little bit of a chicken and egg thing going on here.

I also watched a video recently, of a talk given by Dr. Abraham Verghese, talking about the importance he finds in the ritual of the physical exam, and it really drives home the point that it’s important to remain present in the moment, and not be distracted or distanced by technology. And he makes an interesting point about how it’s very easy for some of them to really lose touch of the context, and the point: That context, and the point, is the patient. This is part of why I think that happens:

As you (yes, you) read these words, you’re not really paying attention to the rest of the screen. You’re almost certainly not paying attention to the rest of the computer. Or the desk that it’s sitting on, or the walls around you, the things that are on the walls, or on the floor,... or anything else that lies in the expanse of your field of view: You’re only focusing on the objects that your mind is telling you to look for: these tiny sequences of symbols that make up words and sentences. Despite all of the visual information that your eyes are actually taking in, your brain is actively ignoring most of it... or at least, it does when some goofy blogger doesn't deliberately call your attention to the rest of the room. It’s a habit that we form, to deliberately not see everything, because we’re not really looking at the room, with the computer in it. We make a habit of ignoring the context around these words. And a mental process that deliberately shuts out that wider context is going to lead to other habits with similar traits, like seeing the data, but not patient. (This also leads to a variety of other problems that I won’t get into here.)

But when you’re engaged in work that is guided by touch, it’s almost completely opposite. Your entire brain remains focused on making sense of what it’s hearing from your muscles and your skin, and all of the nerves that are communicating very little more than ‘hot-cold,’ ‘pressure,’ and ‘push-pull.’ Your mind isn’t ignoring any of that input, because it’s all necessary to help your mind form an image, and both hemispheres are fully engaged in the process of analyzing and visualizing the object.

This is where I finally bring this post full-circle. It’s important to keep your brain fully engaged when you’re trying to learn new techniques and processes in the shop, to form good habits. It’s important to understand enough theory to guide the learning process, but it’s just as important to feel what’s going on, and let the work guide that process. I know that I have a habit of bringing a dead horse in for its regularly scheduled beating when it comes to learning on the internet. I think this is why I keep talking about it. I believe that the best learning is the result of using theory to inform your understanding of the visceral understanding of the work that you do. And I believe that having your hands actively engaged in that work will make it more present in your thoughts, because when you’re physically working, you’re actively engaged in the work, and you’re not worried about something you just read. Once the work is done, you can see if it worked out as planned. If not, you can refine your strategy or your technique accordingly, to solve the problems that you’re having.

It's very easy to read, and read, and read, and wonder why it's not making the skill come any faster. And that's distracting, and demoralizing, and one of the other features of good habit forming is the reward that comes as a result of performing the habitual act. If you're reading too much, working too little, and the act of working doesn't bring the results you were hoping for, it's going to make a habit of working very hard to establish.

Regardless of the chicken and egg thing that’s happening, I think the fact remains that It’s critical to develop skill and understanding side by side, letting each inform the other,  to get the most out of both. And once that process gets started, it will start to sustain itself.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On the joys of the Internet

I know that I go on and on about getting away from the internet, and going to work at the bench. And I mean it... that's where the real learning takes place. Information out of context and un-applied still won't help you get anything done.

That said, I ran across this blog entry this afternoon, and it reminded me that, for all that the internet can be a time-sucking rabbit hole of esoteric and frequently useless information, it can do a good job of purveying information.

"I think of all the craftspersons who have learned from each other on-line. Popular knitting blogs for instance have taken that old past-time of grandma's and made it mainstream.  Before Etsy and the like, where would a person sell the scarves and hats that they made besides the occasional craft fair?  I mean, a family only needs so many scarves, and then the knitting needles were put away. Communities on the web not only serve as a place to share work and ideas, but that also serve as shops to sell your product worldwide, creating a reason to make more, and to try new, crazy ideas. Kind of incredible."

So that, at least, is a good thing.

Monday, February 13, 2012

More on shop logs

In an earlier post, I wrote about the value of writing down what I've learned, every day.

Tonight, I was reviewing logs from last year, and I learned something, again. It's important, even though you're writing to yourself, to write as though you were writing to someone who wasn't familiar with what you were up to. I ran into a few examples that referenced entries or incidents that had happened earlier in the week, or earlier in the month, contemporary with those entries... and I really had to scratch my head to figure out what I'd been talking about. I also found some sketches that were a little too rough to figure out exactly what was being illustrated. How embarrassing...

But I've also learned that I need to take more time to detail what I'm working on from day to day, just because you never know what's going to happen. I'm in the middle of streamlining a process for building mitered boxes, but it's been interrupted frequently by some issues that I've had to deal with lately in my personal life. So this particular batch of boxes has taken a lot longer than it normally would have... and I don't remember everything that's happened, or how much time it took.

Clearly I need to spend more time on my shop logs.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Perseverance versus Productivity

This past week, I managed to push through and publish my website. It was a triumph of sorts, since I had to work my way through understanding enough of Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and Photoshop, to make that happen. I'm sure the site needs work, and I'm sure I'll need to revise it some more as time goes on. But I've got a decent handle on the basics, I think, and hopefully it will get better from here. I really wanted to bitch about how hard it was to somebody, but having just written about the hassles of learning something new, I really felt like I was being childish. It's life. We have to learn and grow and evolve. And that involves learning new things.  

I got a magazine in the mail this week, and the cover article was all about perseverance and grit, and how this was an essential element for most big success stories. The argument (which I agree with) is that intelligence or skill or any other given advantage will give an individual a head start in whatever regard, but that anyone who was determined enough to climb can still get past that level if they work hard enough. Malcolm Gladwell mentions a rule in his book Outliers, that it takes basically 10,000 hours (around 10 years) of concentrated effort and practice to really become an expert at anything. It takes grit to get to that point, regardless of your starting point on the destination. And those hours of practice, even if it's doing something you enjoy, won't necessarily be enjoyable. 

As a counterpoint, I was reading an article this week about a hand-held CNC machine that an MIT student had developed, to get around his own lack of skill in carving. The notion of the thing rubs me the wrong way, because I believe that the process of learning to do skilled work is very important: In part, because it helps to develop that grit that I was just talking about. But the truth is that the person who came up with the thing had to be pretty skilled to make one in the first place, no matter how I try to turn my nose up at his work. And getting into and surviving MIT takes a lot of grit.

I once heard Brian Boggs describe the motivation behind good jigs and fixtures in his shop. The phrase he used was that jigs saved time, in the absence of skill. He had developed a body of skill over 25 years of building chairs. His employees hadn't, but he still needed them to help him produce good chairs. To do that, they needed good jigs to use. So I can understand how a hand held CNC tool could be as useful in an industrial setting as some jigs are in the shop. But it still bothers me. And I think I’ve finally put my finger on why. 

I understand that there are times when it’s more important to complete a project than it is to do it in a way that makes me feel like I accomplished something. Sometimes it’s more important to keep the doors open than to make me feel like I’m a better woodworker than I am. There are some projects that would still be in the shop right now if my perfectionist tendencies were given free rein, and I have to make allowances for that: Not every project can be done to my perfectionist's standards, and on time. And if any of you tell my wife that I admitted this in a public forum, I'll have you shot. 

I still try to keep the fight alive. I know that I won’t learn if the work isn’t a challenge. And I know that I really want to keep learning. So, I continue to look for projects that challenge me and make me learn. I think that automated tools like the one I’ve been talking about would keep me from learning, and growing, and evolving... even if there are times when it might come in handy.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

If at first you don't succeed... Eat your words.

I wonder sometimes if adult learning is so hard, simply because we're used to feeling self-assured in whatever it is that we do on a regular basis.

I've been dealing with this issue for the better part of the last day or three. I'm trying to put together a website that I'm happy with, but I've been having to learn a lot from scratch. And I have to say, for all of my talk about Ruskin, and learning new things, and making honest mistakes, I've really been eating my words.

My mistake was an obvious one: I bit off more than I can chew. And the only two options when you bite off that much are to spit it out, or work your way through it, and try not to choke.

I had an idea in mind of what I wanted to make and there's a that I've had to figure out. Individually, I was able to make the parts work. But assembling them all into a cohesive whole has been a little more challenging. This is why I usually tell everyone to start small, and work their way up to more involved projects. As a 'grown-up,' I'm so used to being able to tackle larger, more involved projects, that I forget sometimes what it's like to start from scratch. I'm used to acting like a grown-up.

I need to challenge myself like this more often.

Batteries not included

I ran across a weird article on Gizmodo the other day, about using a 9V battery, wired across your skull,  to boost learning performance. I don't know yet myself, but maybe it'll help with learning manual skills, too...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Work, work, work.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

-Ira Glass

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Producers and Consumers and Esoterica

One of the reasons I really have a hard time learning anything about woodworking via the internet is that esoterica abounds. And some of the discussions just don't die.

Sharpening is probably one of the worst rabbit holes to fall into. Sharpening media alone is a real head-bender: Oil stones, water stones, man made, natural, diamond paste and lapping plates, ceramic water-stones, or just sandpaper on glass... what to use? Then there are methods: free-hand or jig? Camber or not to camber? Back bevel? Secondary bevel? And just how sharp is sharp enough, really?

Then there's the question of how the blade is then being used. Bevel up? Bevel down? What angle was the tool sharpened to? What pitch is the plane bedded at? How wide is the throat on the plane? Maybe it's not really any of that, maybe you're just using a notoriously tough wood, so you need to look into a different kind of steel, high speed or tool steel or maybe something in a Japanese style... Well, that takes us into the realm of both sharpening angles and edge-retention properties of different kinds of steels, typically measured exhaustively with microscopes and charts and things. And that last part there is when it finally becomes clear to me that very little of this is going to help me be productive at all.

Whenever charts and statistical analysis come into the picture, I tune out. If people are so obsessed with how the steel performs, and they don't work for a tool manufacturer, then chances are very good that their hobby really isn't about working with wood. For some folks, they've found a hobby that they enjoy: they're searching for Excalibur. They're looking for that one perfect tool that will cut anything that it comes across, that they'll never, ever have to sharpen again.

[Tangential Rant]

The Excalibur phenomenon isn't uncommon, and it's by no means restricted to woodworking. People these days want things that work incredibly well, that they don't have to maintain, and they want it for less.

This seems a little stuck-up until you realize that so much of our country is populated with people who don't know how to maintain things anymore, don't make much money, and they're tired of the marginally functional crap that they've been able to afford to use so far. But that's why so many of us get into woodworking... to make something better for ourselves!

The irony is that I've seen some astounding work made by people who don't care about the latest and greatest, because they sharpen their tools often enough that they've become very, very good at it, without using a jig.

[/Tangential Rant]

In the context of a conversation about woodworking, esoteric stuff ceases to be relevant when it becomes a hindrance to progress.

In the end, one thing matters: can you do good work with your tools?

If you can't, the question then becomes, is it possible to figure out how to do good work with your tools if you're second guessing everything; from your methods to your stones to the actual steel in your tools? Without a baseline from which to experiment, the answer is no.

If the internet is to be useful as a source of information, a new woodworker (or an aspiring artisan in any other craft, for that matter) really needs to exercise restraint when taking in new information form outside sources. 99% of the most useful information you'll receive as a new woodworker will come from your own two hands. Your hands and your results in the shop will tell you more about how the process is going than anything else. Practice really does make perfect. (Or at least, better.)

Even though I can talk trash about the internet until I'm blue in the face, the fact remains that there's all of this weird information out there. And it's really tempting to get mixed up in, because, well... everyone seems to have an argument about all of it. So what gives? If being a new guy means ignoring all of these seemingly important arguments, and if my theory is right  that most of it really isn't useful anyway, then why do the arguments continue to go on?

The answer is surprisingly simple. The arguments self-perpetuate because it's entertaining. It's perfect fodder for consumerism. People keep coming back to the argument because it's still going on. And eventually they'll try whatever it is, or buy whatever's being talked about to see for themselves. And then they have a rightful seat in the conversation.... how exciting! And even if it didn't work the way they thought, that will get bounced around, too: Maybe it's not the stones, maybe it's technique or something else... it becomes a social club for people who have bought all of this stuff. It becomes a trap for people who don't know better, and a marvelous co-dependent for people who just want to buy more shiny new stuff that they feel good about owning.

Addressing some of the comments I got on the last post, this is part of my problem with bandwagons: sometimes it seems like some people are jumping on, just so they can be on the bandwagon. I worry that they're more interested in being on the bandwagon than they are in where it's going. That's the essence of consumer culture, and how apropos that I'm writing this an hour before the Superbowl: Do I really care about the game? Not really. But I know that people are going to be talking about those stupid commercials, so I know I need to watch them if I'm going to be part of the conversations this week.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Producers and Consumers

I was sitting in a pub with a good friend of mine named Rob the other night, talking about life, and things, and stuff. Rob's an editor for a textbook company, working primarily these days on online content. And at one point in the conversation, he made a tangent to point something out about the iPad.

"I won't get one. Period. They're purely and primarily for consumption. There's no USB port, nothing else, it's just for inhaling the internet, and playing media. And all you need to play music on it is [At this point he made a hand-mashing motion on the table.]"

He makes an interesting point. I'd thought about picking up an iPad because it would make writing more portable for me. But really, it's unnecessary. My laptop is huge by laptop standards, but it's still portable. The lack of something smaller hasn't kept me from being productive, and it's not really clear that an iPad would actually be a functional writing tool.

I've been writing more lately, because the shop has been pretty quiet. It's the calm before the storm right now, I know there are going to be more clocks on the horizon, and probably a few other things. But at the end of the day, I know that my time in the shop is spent producing, not consuming.

One of the things I've noticed about my time in the shop is that it has influenced other areas of my life, and it's enabled me to be a better producer, whether I'm working in the kitchen, or in the shop, or writing here at home or on the train. And it's a good feeling.

But I've noticed a weird trend among other woodworkers, and that is that it's become a sort of consumption via production hobby. Everyone buys the book, and then they build the Roubo Bench, or the old school Tool Chest, or whatever else is in vogue at the time. You can't necessarily go out and buy any of these things, you have to make them yourself, but it feels like these things are still being consumed en masse. There are other projects out there, too, but this is something I've started to wonder about. It's definitely a more interactive and productive form of consumption, and I think that in time it will lead to more people being more involved in working with their hands, which can only be a good thing. Maybe this is just a phase that many people are passing through where they're basically paying for a basement apprenticeship of their own. But in the end, I don't get the same vibe from some of these me-too project trends that I do from other people who are doing even the simplest of original projects. I have to apologize, because I feel like I'm unintentionally throwing stones here, but I'm not sure at what, or at whom.

I'd like to know what else people are working on, though, if they're not building something inspired by the latest woodworking trends. Please, in the comments... what are you working on these days? What would you like to build, or what's been pre-heating in the back of your mind?