My weeks have always been filled with making wood work in the building of pieces, they still are after 58 years of making every day of those years. The wood usually doesn’t make too much difference; each stick and stem I see of it represents possibilities no matter how big or small. I’ll buy a drop-leaf table for the vintage, often highly figured oak or mahogany panels or an abused or dropped and damaged desk to be restored or remade anew.
Taking the unusable to make something useful, pretty, handy, is my favourite doing. Writing about the tools still fascinates me and even the shavings draw my eye to see inside what was hitherto unseen by any human. Reading descriptions of the characteristics of woods by mere academics and writers seems more to narrow the mind to an emptiness of minimal value whereas now that I am older and know the woods more they just keep ever expanding. Now that I know which woods are absorbing and stringy, unyielding, brittle, soapy and more, I can describe them for myself and others with much greater intensity, using quite different adjectives instead. Can wood be translucent, straggly, I, fractious and receptive? The hardness and densities shift and change radically even in the same board a few inches away from one cut to another and we who work it know that. I listen out for Hannah’s descriptions. We talk about them often, seek for deeper understanding. If wine tasters have their own intimate vernacular using words that belong almost only to them in the description of their chosen ‘poison‘ do they also have unique words in conversations we are not privied to too? I mean words only they would use between themselves that they would never use elsewhere? In some ways, I feel that we woodworkers have never really developed such accuracy of wording that’s because music continued to grow through instruments played but woodworking became stumped by machining offered as an extension of growth but it has been the exact opposite and served only to stymy the art of working wood. Musicians that bend sound, stretch notes and then blend them for a unique taste, compress them to create new meaning for transmission of a quality they as players and composers and translators decided on. Each piece of wood is a new melody itself. The plane and saw make notes that can be struck, strummed, picked out as an isolated pluck and then too blown for the change of depth by cut setting that in turn changes the sound and the rhythm to create meter.
My last article was as much about such things as anything. We makers compose with colour, grain configuration and then textures too to add depth and substance to our work. We look for contrast and use intensity with care to consolidate our impression on the works of art we create. The basic making of single pieces can and should be a single composition and then too a composition of many pieces to build into three-dimensional beauty and possibly four and five-dimensional works too. Rather than using mouldings, I go for contrasts, contrasts with crossbanding as a facing stand in stark opposition to a main body of wood.
On my laptop desk, I used a frieze of crossbanding as a bridge between the two leg frames in the same way I escaped convention on the doors and each of the facets of the White House pieces. Crossbanding created a frame without a framing long conventional to doors as in stiles and rails. It worked. Book matching transformed my designs and captured my ambition to create exact reflections of the two identical opposites to stand either side of the door leading into the corridor to the Oval Office. Every bookmatched panel was sequentially cut to express the importance of what would be taking place in the Oval Office through the decades to come. I wasn’t tasked to do this. I chose it as my theme to weave into the richer tapestry of my wood as each piece was selected to both compliment and then stand in contrast in every face.
Wood has the capacity to make music, create harmony and sing as a silent voice to an audience or sole entity passing into and through a room. Can a dining chair do more than seat someone, hold clothes in a bedroom or work as a platform for a smaller child to wash dishes at a too-high sink? Just as human life becomes a composition in a family, so too the furniture pieces that make family work in a home.
I love the thought that we are indeed composing rather than just combining ready-mades. That we’ve moved from assembling those ready-made to actually making pieces that fit the spaces we live in in our different rooms and that each composition becomes a womb of creativity where we consider each piece for its relationship and functionality within the whole. I love to raise my garden filled with vegetables and have access to the garden to bring the vegetables into the kitchen for preparation for dinner preparation. It’s a composition for someone to use and live with and enjoy. The extension of all this is of course family gatherings and visits for friends at events like birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas times. Against the backdrop of our compositions, the work of our hands and minds, we find ourselves celebrating further with the composition of human life itself in shared space, shared events and the limited space in rooms we’ve composed at different times of day in mornings, noons, evening and night.
I’m privileged to have been a maker and a composer throughout my work life. Now I see others growing to reconfigure their lives too. Personally, I believe that everyone can be as good a woodworker and a furnituremaker as I am but not everyone can or want to or is meant to earn their living from it as I have. I see people engineering their futures for the widest range of highly meaningful things not the least of which is their own mental welfare and an awareness they never really related to or saw the importance of before. This has become an extension of my original goal to return and restore the art of crafting to men and women and families around the world where they can share the making of things for their homes and own use. My goal developed into something much deeper to become an ambition to help people to understand that making things from wood and fibres, clay and bamboo only serves to strengthen relationships. We might think that making something together in a garage or shed is just making some three-dimensional item from materials. Still, we are crafting human life in relationships when we decide to build together with another or with others. I make a coffee table or a dining chair and I build with those who work with me to share the building of it with hundreds of thousands around the world. `The videographers are filming and composing in the lens as I am in the workshop and then take that work to another who edits and composes the work further. So we see the significant composing in the truest meaning of the word.
My friend John has been with me since 2011, not full-time but for extensive periods. Last week he started composing something he’d only partially taken part in before. He held a workshop teaching people totally new to woodworking the art of joinery. Joinery takes its meaning from the root word harmos, where we get the word harmony. I saw men and women achieve something they never thought possible but I also saw how making simple things from wood drew them together in a harmonious composition. Sometimes we have to see what something is not to see what it really is. Life is like that! Life is what it is, a living and moving culture.
I thought about luthiers who learned woodworking to carve and shape a range of bowed instruments using gouges and curve-soled planes. When I made my first cello I was a woodworker who was more expert at hand tool woodworking, furniture making and so on than most. When I finished, a leading symphony cellist who plays a Guarneri every day said it was absolutely beautiful and that it was hard to give it back. He played it for an hour. It didn’t make me a luthier, just a woodworker that could make a cello worth playing. The instrument was no less a composition than the sheet music it followed to play Bach’s cello suites. You see, it was the art of making with wood developed over half a century that gave me both the ability confidence to find nothing too difficult or complex beyond my ability to make a fine instrument and then with confidence too. I made my first canoe and kayak at age 15 so it would be the same for a strip kayak or a timber-framed building, a horse-drawn carriage or just about anything I wanted to make from wood. This then is composition and the composing of a man’s life, nothing less. There are no joints used in making a cello or a violin, just the bending of wood by heat and care and then the carving of the belly and back, the arching, the neck and the scroll. We have purfling to contend with which is a simple string inlay in black and white strips, two black and two white. Very lovely! Simple. Mostly the parts just butt up against one another, preferably gap-free, and a non-complex animal glue holds them together for three hundred years. The greatest challenge for me was there being no woodworking joints of any consequence anywhere in the union of parts. The second challenge came the day when I first realised something I had as yet not considered. I was carving an actual voice! The wood would be a chamber, not unlike a human chest holding everything that would speak clearly yet have the power to project itself and I was to do this without ever hearing the whole of it until the strings were stretched taut and the set-up was completed by the moving of a thin rod that stood by modest friction between the belly and the back that was allowed to self-move by the vibration of the played strings to centre itself on that perfect spot in perfect self composition. Such revelations are ours for the making of things wood.
A door hinged by hand to swing freely within its new frame is indeed a work of art. It’s a common enough thing seldom ever looked at by those that use doors daily and it’s doubtful to me that you ever look at a hinged door around its hinges. Aligning the made door with the made frame a man and a woman built with their hands can never be compared with any other method from mass making. Those recesses measured to an exact depth measured to allow for a 1mm gap all along the door twixt stile and jamb may well never be noticed or even known by people passing through or reaching inside whatever is hinged there and yet the equal 1mm gap all around — that’s head, and opposite stile, well, its is a wonderful sight to me when I see it.
We’re surrounded by woodworking compositions when we choose to look for them. They stretch back into centuries of our reliance on wood and those who say we should not cut trees that so enrich our lives miss the point. I can imagine the greatest composition of all in the mighty forests of the world but it is not woodworking that has so depleted our forests but the mass-made junk created for planned obsolescence not by wearing out and wearing down but by creating fashion style itself to wear it out. Alongside deleting clothes by fashion not wear, we continue to waste paper and paper goods taken from pulverising trees and console ourselves by saying ‘But paper and cardboard recycles and I always recycle!
Many things made to be discarded by fashion can be and indeed were once made to last for decades and even centuries. The violins composed and made by Antonio Stradivarius came to us sometime in the late 1600s or early 1700s during the peak of his making. This exemplification of making into longevity seems to me almost unparalleled and yet those we seem in awe of wear one dress one time and we admire them for it. How can it be that we no longer look for those qualities? Imagine fine instrument makers taking on the challenges of making more modern violins that equal or even possibly surpass that of Stradivarius, Amarti and Guanari that currently receive new and real acceptance and support and that still prove innovative and inspired in positive ways. One luthier site does practice agiesm in its promoting of young and gifted makers when there should be no separatism by age for any maker. I can imagine myself becoming an instrument maker beyond my furniture making because I might feel called to it and could indeed make excellent instruments because of my ability to work with wood but then being rejected for support articles because, well, I do look 73 years old. Not the image the promoter wants and so exclusivity continues by age alone. This prejudiced and jaundiced view explains many things and sends very direct messages too. When we preclude other age groups we exemplify and promote misconceptions about age. It no longer represents the composition of life from new beginnings and on towards the ending of life when we effectively cull out the elderley by restricting them in the diverse ways that we now can through media internet for this too effectively edits out and rejects the composition inclusivity allows in the accepting of changing ages.
Of course, this excluding of life in different ways effectively disables those who might better enrich a life in need of less complication; by that I mean add more relief in positive ways to what is increasingly less logical and far more complex than even 20 years ago, ways we might not even know to be possible. It truly disables so many ahead of their time when anyone is passed over for the younger or the older and for many, many other reasons too. Instead of what I see as greater composition by the inclusion of those who lost ability but not wisdom and knowledge of a craft we might well face a decomposition when we erase the elders or practice ageism as a means of creating space for young people. Is it really an either-or and did we have have all the answers when a gifted maker took in an apprentice to increase his and her circle of influence within their craft field and beyond. It was a man in his late 70s that taught me much by showing and not even doing. He listened to the file in the gullet of a saw and said too heavy, too short a stroke, too light, too fussy. The ability to sharpen scrapers was an art in explanation using words he carefully composed as he pulled the strokes and described where and when to apply pressure and then too what ‘weight‘ and strength to apply. I never treated those that taught me as my equal but always respected them for taking the time to train me into adulthood making. I’m sure I would have got what they gave me so freely eventually but who knows how many decades that would have taken. He taught me of the history of the square awl and a thousand other things but his knowledge was from real life as a country cabinet maker making his furniture and small cages from split and riven sticks if oak.
So here `i find myself teaching training, experimenting and researching to find new answers. I now sharpen my planes at a different angle to everyone in the world and have done so for a few weeks. I now know things I did not know two months ago. I have not laid my plane on its side since my apprenticeship when I started to work with the men who said, “What on earth are you doing that for?” in no uncertain terms. I stopped but wasn’t sure why. Later in life I researched it and saw in old photographs and books that no one laid their planes on their sides and then in a vintage book written for schools I found the answer. It had nothing to do with the trade of woodworking!