Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Review of 'By Hand and Eye,' and meditations on the virtues of drafting by hand

For my birthday, (5/21) I was presented with a copy of By Hand and Eye. I'm enjoying the book immensely. But I'm taking my time, and trying to do most of the exercises, as described. I'm currently going through the process of drawing a Doric column.

As a necessary pre-amble, I should mention that drafting is a huge part of the full time program at the North Bennet Street School, so I've done my fair share already. The drafting requirements of the book in question are not such a huge hurdle to get past. For those of us who have gotten used to flipping through woodworking magazines for entertainment, the reality of going through the process in the book, and the mind-shift that it entails, is a minor hurdle on its own. But I think it's one of the hidden gems of the experience.

I've come to believe, over the years, that there are a lot of woodworkers right now who aren't interested in thinking too much. They buy what the magazines tell them to buy. They preach tool philosophies, or bench building philosophies, that are all in line with the latest of what the blogosphere and the message boards are chanting. And some of them, (I can say this, after 3 years of working in woodworking specialty retail) seem to think that owning the tools is enough, that they shouldn't have to think too much, or have to take the time to become too proficient. The tools should pretty much do the work for them. Many of them were seduced by the age-old siren song of woodworking for fun and profit. And they genuinely believe that the reproduction furniture that they see in their mind's eye is as good as theirs, once they own a router table, or dovetail jig, or whatever other pricey gizmocity. I wish that I was engaged in hyperbolic trash talking, but I've sold tools to these people. I've heard this kind of talk.

This book is not aimed at that kind of woodworker.

This is a book about learning to see, and about learning to think. And it's written for people who want to learn to see, and to think for themselves. It's not a spoon-feeding of theory and techniques, it's a guide to finding thought-provoking projects that will lead you to an understanding that you won't get by flipping through (and ignoring) the latest issue of any given woodworking rag. I'm in the second round of drawing the Doric column. And it's already sent me back to my library at the shop to dig out The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Director to look up the other columns.

Because I'm used to the magazines, I had half-expected to find a book in Hand and Eye, that would hold me by the hand and walk me through the process of doing some complicated stuff: A book that would thereby assure me that it was all within my grasp, was not something that I had to actually do, and in the end, might actually keep me from learning anything. What I found was a narrative that basically says "The treasure's buried over there. This is how to hold the shovel."

It's good work, pure joy, and child-like exploration.


While I was at it, I pulled out my father's old drafting tool set. It's a good compass and ruling pen set from Keuffel and Esser, probably circa 1960's, that I'm guessing dates back to Dad's days at MIT. I found it in a pile of stuff he was throwing away, and thought it looked cool enough to keep. But I'd never gotten around to learning to use the ruling pens, or the ruling pen compasses. So I decided that while I was going through the Hand and Eye book, I'd start inking my drawings as I went through the exercises. I wanted to give myself a bit of a challenge, learn something new, and start making good use of some really nice tools. (Like I said, I wasn't sure what to expect from the book.)

Side note: I also have a similar set at the shop that belonged to the late Tom Krueger, an art school grad-woodworker whose shop used to be across the hall. I've been using that now for drafting my project plans there.

What I've learned from the inking process has been huge. Quite simply, it's a pain in the ass, but the final product looks like nothing I've done before. It's a lot more crisp and clean looking. And it highlights every smudge and procedural sloppiness that happens along the way. To get a good final product, I need to keep the oils in my skin off of the vellum or paper, to keep them from smudging everything and making a mess. I need to be precise in my line work. And I need to be aware of the tools at all times, lest I drip excess ink onto the page, or tip over the ink bottle. (Yup, that happened.)

In short, doing the drafting this seriously is an excellent mental exercise. The focus and awareness required to take a finished drawing to the desired level is exactly the kind of care that pays huge dividends in the machine room, or at the bench. As a result, the drawing feels more like the warm-up that I want it to be, and less like a chore that I don't feel like doing. And because it's a physical act, I find it to be more engaging, and more thought-provoking, than using something like sketch-up.

As always, the magic is in the doing, not the reading. So, I have to recommend the book.

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