Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why work with wood?

A while back, someone asked in the comments section why I worked with wood. I thought it was a pretty good question, so I tried answering it. Trying to answer that question was as hard as I imagine it would be for someone else to explain why they have faith, or don't

I enjoy the learning process, because I'm a brainy, geeky type, but that's not a viable explanation for 'why' the topic grabbed me as strongly as it did. Psychologically, I am who I am, and there are biographical reasons for that, but nothing in my personal history is a reason for why I do this, either. It was, is, and remains an active part of my life, and an active choice.

In part, I blame North Bennet. After seeing what two years of regular practice can do to build skill and enhance learning, I was hooked, and chose to follow my bliss. Woodworking as a topic is almost boundless, and the field is so huge, that I can run as long, hard, and as fast as I want. From design history or design process, to tool making and maintenance, skills and techniques, manufacturing and production theory... The more I learn, the more I realize that there is more to learn around working with wood than I will ever completely understand. That's intoxicating, and it lights up my world. Still... that's a reason to dabble, it doesn't explain why I've tried so hard to turn it into a lifestyle.

In part, I also blame some of the larger lessons that I've learned from reading about efficiency and productivity. The Toyota Way has shaped the layout of both my shop, and my kitchen. Adapting Getting Things Done has helped me to minimize downtime in my shop, organized a lot of my day to day business, and minimized the time I waste on household errands, which ultimately gave me more quality time with my wife. The slow but steady methodology of Sloyd has helped shape me over the past decade, both personally, and professionally, and has been the compass that guides me when I get lost.

That slow but steady progress is not for the faint of heart. I've made a lot of mistakes, learned hard lessons, and paid dearly for my obsession several times over. It's a hard mirror to look into, and there have been times that I really thought it wouldn't work out. But I've been rewarded with insights into skill, craft, and into my own abilities after taking those long, hard looks.

Ultimately, the reason that I continue to pursue woodworking as a career is that it's proven to be more personally and philosophically fulfilling than anything else I've ever done. Aside from the hard work, the learning moments, and the various leaps of faith that I've had to make, the process of making a useful object demands a lot of thought. When I try to work in a space that's cluttered or disorganized, it takes me forever to get anything done. When I try to rush through a job without thinking out the details, that thoughtlessness is reflected in the end result. When I work without paying attention, that inattention is reflected in the end result.

But when I take the time to create a purposeful space, understand what I want, and when I work with care and attention, it enhances everything I do.

Maybe trying to be a better woodworker has helped me become a happier, better person. Or, maybe it's the other way around, or both.

I work with wood because I'm compelled to. It's a tactile, aesthetic, visceral thing that I really can't quite explain.

George Nakashima heavily emphasized the spiritual side of working with wood, and his reverence for the material. Sam Maloof emphasized that it was work, it was his job, and that while there were some pieces of wood that were beautiful, it was a working relationship for him, and that he knew there would always be more wood that came through his door. I find myself in between those views. I love wood, and there are days when I get to work with some really beautiful stuff, and some truly awesome tools, and it makes me happy.

At some point, there's going to be a companion piece to this entry, that talks about why I decided to work with wood professionally, (as opposed to remaining a basement hobbyist) and to struggle with being a small businessman in manufacturing. But that answer will take some time to figure out, too.


robert said...


That was very cool.


JW said...


10 years in, it's been very cool for me, too. Challenging, harrowing, inspiring, heart rending, stimulating, borderline abusive at times, and altogether thoroughly worth it.

Here's to 10 more...