Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Intelligent Hand, the 863, and David Savage

(Cover image is linked to directly from Lost Art Press

As excited as I was to read and talk about The Intelligent Hand, I had to digest it for a while before I could really write anything that felt right. The recurring thought, to be brutally honest, is that this is the book that I desperately needed 11 years ago when I decided to hang out a shingle and make furniture for a living. Or, maybe even 14 years ago when I first started at North Bennet.

The book is not aimed at dilettantes, or hobbyists. Savage is very up front about that, and so is Chris Schwarz, who wrote the foreword. The book, like Rowden, (the school David founded to teach aspiring professional woodworkers) is aimed at people who are 'bleeding from the neck.' (His phrase, used to describe people who wouldn't be there if something wasn't already wrong.)  People who would have been one of the 863.

I had to edit that last paragraph, because I initially started it with "this book isn't aimed at beginners." But perhaps it is, provided they're of a certain stamp. As much as I hear about a lack of qualified tradespeople, I think there's an abundance of individuals who won't be pushed, cajoled, bullied, or bribed into doing things they don't want to do, or pretending that they're someone that they're not... and are 'bleeding from the neck' as a result. These people are blessed with a bright, potential future of swimming against the current in a brutal, callous world. They will deal with bullies, jerks, and other types of naysayers, until they realize that The Opinions of Small and Worthless People, are Small and Worthless Opinions. With luck, hard work, guidance, hard work, mentoring, even more hard work, and a Willingness to learn, these blessed children will go on to inhabit incredibly fulfilling existences.

That said, guidance and mentoring are sometimes in short supply. And so those beginners should read this book immediately, and keep coming back, because the lessons between these covers will reveal themselves over time, with repeated exposure. Some of those lessons will only make sense after your first big failures... when they will perhaps be needed most.


The beginning of the book is incredibly approachable. David talks a bit about his life and experiences as someone with a speech impediment, and how he learns to move past it and express himself. He talks about going bankrupt, and the clients who helped him move on, and try again. He welcomes you into the experience. If that level of resilience is something you can relate to, and not something you pity, you'll get a lot out of the rest of the book.

He talks at some length in the beginning about his experiences working as an artist, about running a furniture shop that ultimately went bankrupt... and how he recovered from that with the help of some very patient and forgiving clients. He ultimately came to the understanding that the three legs of doing this whole woodworking successfully, are "Making, Design, and Business Management."

He skims the bare surface of the topic of design in a chapter that talks about drawing, and proportion, and tying together numerous threads while trying to come up with something new. All of the old ideas are there, but one has to get past them to see a new idea. That could be getting past old design styles to create a new kind of furniture. It could be getting past the ideas that follow bankruptcy, to see a path forward again. It could be seeing a way forward on any of a number of other fronts that have challenged you in the past, once you get past the baggage of your previous ideas or misconceptions. Proportion deals with the relationships of the different elements in a composition, to present a balanced, beautiful piece. This should be that long in relation to that, this needs to be emphasized here to break up the tedium... and that sense of proportion is well hidden, but present throughout the book. Whether you're designing a piece, and balancing the dimensions, or running a business that balances "Making, Design, and Business Management," (The three legs of his business.) that deliberate management of proportion needs to be developed and nurtured.

One of the other themes of the volume is that once you get started, You Have to Trust Your Ability.  Know that you are able to truthfully see, to boldly draw, to accurately build, to courageously sell, and to live such a life as this without apology or excuse.  Surviving is hard enough, and bankruptcy is always there as a backstop. Making, Design, and Business Management all go hand in hand, and in proper balance and proportion. This is not the time to commit, because once you're in business for yourself that ship has already sailed. This is the time to get real, and get to work.  There's no time left for second-guessing.

Better to know Victory, or to know Defeat. Either is better than mediocrity. Seeing and thinking and doing are all intertwined, and if you can't act accordingly, a corporate life might just be the thing for you.

It's a lesson that is mirrored in details as simple as sharpening. My take away lesson from the topic of sharpening wasn't how to sharpen... I already know how to do that. It was that even a simple thing like sharpening should be approached with the understanding that there's just no time to waste. You do need to understand how to sharpen, and what sharp is, but the point of the lesson was to get to the stones, get it done, and get back to work. When they interview makers who want to work at Rowden, one of the things that they look at is your tools... and they don't hire you if it looks like you're still fussing around with jigs.


I'm embellishing the 'hard road,' concept a little bit, because these are issues that will face anyone who wants to escape the tedium of corporate life. A small business is still business, even if you're romantically doing 'meaningful work with your hands.' I met a few of these folks at North Bennet 14 years ago: They came to school, they got out, they went into business, went bankrupt, and went back to corporate life. I met a number of long-term woodworkers who had moved into their shop at one time or another.  The importance of Business Management can't be overstated, because you only get to do this sort of thing if you can make it work and make it stick.

I've been having conversations about the real nature of this sort of work with other people lately, and one of the things that I've realized is that the work itself can be part of the problem. The idea of the "Big Job" is always really exciting, but it's a killer. Big jobs are hard. They're labor intensive. And anything that requires those long hours at the shop means you're not spending time running the business. You're not mentoring new people. You're not looking for the next job, or touching base with the clients who may very well bring you that next job. You're not crunching the numbers on what that next job will cost, or how long it will take. You're just trying to push the Big Job out of your shop. And if you're working alone, even small jobs can be Big Jobs, just because you're working alone.

David's approach of running a shop with multiple talented people, and making good use of their insights and experience, while running a small school to train still more made a lot of sense to me. Again, you don't get to do that sort of thing, either, if you don't know how to make it work, so I'm sure there's a lot more under the surface. But it made sense to me.

This is the no-BS book I needed 11 years ago when I set up shop. And it's the book I wouldn't have understood, because I was a beginner, with some romantic idea of how it was all supposed to work. It's not a question of not understanding the language, it's an appreciation of context. It's akin to someone who's never had a romantic entanglement, talking to a new parent about the challenges one faces in raising a family. If you haven't even successfully managed dating, let alone a long term relationship, you're going to have a hard time understanding the world the other person inhabits. The language may be the same, and gravity will affect you both in roughly the same way, but the lens through which you view the world will be different. And the lens I used 11 years ago is not the one that I'm reading this book through today.

This is also the book I needed 5 years ago when I took on the Big Job. But at that point I was living down 6 years of focusing on Making, with some attention to Design, and only paying attention to Business Management when I absolutely had to. No attention to balance or  proportion whatsoever. I just wanted the Big Job to work out.

I know a few people who have managed to stay in business in a creative, thinking way. I knew a lot more who didn't make it. The persistent narrative was that it's a hard road, and not everyone survives. Getting word back from the front that someone figured a way to make it, and make good, is a breath of fresh, and hopeful air. It's a book I've already started to re-read, because there's just so much experience between those two covers, and so much to think about.

There's no easy way to tie off this review, because there's so much more to the book than the little that I've written here, and trying to capture it all would be pointless. Go read the book. I heartily recommend The Intelligent Hand to anyone who wants to sink their teeth into woodworking as a business, or into opening any kind of bespoke enterprise. It's not written for everybody... but not everybody would follow this road to begin with.