Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Kick back

I woke up edgy on Sunday after a poor night's sleep, and I carried the feeling with me out to the shop, where those twin gremlins, Vexation and Hindrance, awaited me. I'd been working on the glue-up of the top for the woodworking bench, and it hadn't been easy.

Bench tops are usually made of quarter-sawn wood--that is, you cut your eight quarter wood into strips:

...then turn the strips on their sides so you can glue the faces together:

This makes them more stable and resistant to warping (think "butcher block"). The trouble is that it is a pain in the ass to get it right because the faces have to be as flat as possible when you glue them in order to get a seamless joint, and the piece of junk toy machine I had to work with to do this was wholly inadequate to the job:

Nevertheless, I persisted, milling each strip to get it as flat as possible, then gluing them up in twos:

...which I then glued together to make planks of four or five. I then put the planks through the thickness planer to clean the surface:

It sounds easier in print than it was in practice, and much fulmination and malediction filled the hot summer air. Plus, in the midst of all this, I stabbed my finger with a chisel trying to clean some glue squeeze-out from a joint. It bled a lot. More f&m.

But finally I had all my planks ready to go for the final glue-up on the morrow, when I'd fit all the planks together to create the top. On the whole, it had been a hard day, and not especially pleasant. If I'd started the day on edge, by the end of it I was tighter than a corset after Sunday dinner.

Sunday night I tossed and turned in my bed. An ill wind had blown into the bench adventure, I could feel it in my bones. What had happened to my happy project? The base had gone so smoothly, but the top, lordy lordy, the top...

And it was going to get worse, for the really complicated part was scheduled for the next day. I needed to drill the rows of dog holes (Difficult!), and there was the dado cutout for the stop to be done on the radial arm saw (which still scares me a little--Worry!) before the final glue-up (what if I forgot and glued it up first? Disaster!), and I had to figure out how to align the bolt holes that would attach the top to the base (Trouble!)...

It could all go so wrong. So very, very wrong. It was going to go wrong, for hadn't it already gone badly? Hadn't it already been harder than hard? I could screw the whole thing up and then every time I'd look at the bench in the future, I'd be reminded of my failure as a human being.

Plus, my finger hurt where I'd stabbed it with the chisel.

Toss and turn. Toss and turn. Finally, around 3 AM, I gave up on sleep. I sat up in bed and reached for my Kindle. I'd been determinedly plowing through Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft, knowing that I should be interested in the argument it makes, but finding myself strangely disengaged with its pontificatoriness. But in my restless, anxious fog that night, I read something that gave me pause. Crawford was writing about the fractiousness of early motorcycles, and the way the user had to be cognitively engaged with them in order to get them to run. In other words, one could not simply sit on on a bike, turn a key, and go, as (presumably) one can do today. There was a choke to be fiddled with, oil and gas to be mixed precisely according to the temperature of the day, and a kick starter that might or might not work on the first, or second, or eighth try. It took some learning and skill to make it start. (The motorcycle in this instance is part of a longer argument he makes about the intellectual value of working with your hands.)  He writes:

"One was drawn out of oneself and into a struggle, by turns hateful and loving, with another thing that, like a mule, was emphatically not simply an extension of one's will. Rather, one had to conform one's will and judgment to certain external facts of physics that still presented themselves as such. Old bikes don't flatter you, they educate you.

As every parent knows, infants think the world revolves around them, and everything ought to be instantly available to them. At an early stage of technological progress, I am sure that contending with a motorcycle, like contending with the farm animals that likely inhabited the same barn as the motorcycle, helped along the process of becoming an adult (emphasis mine). When your shin gets kicked, whether by a mule or a kick-starter, you get schooled.

...It seems to require that the user of a machine have something at stake, an interest of the sort that arises through bodily immersion in some hard reality, the kind that kicks back."

The kind of reality that kicks back. Crawford argues in his book that this is a good thing. By kicking back, the task reminds us that we have things to learn yet. And, he further suggests, by choosing to learn and master them we claim some agency in our lives.

I'd decided to build the bench in part to practice some of my woodworking skills and here it was kicking back. Just like it was supposed to. Bumping up against something that doesn't immediately bend to our wills teaches us stuff. That is, I was growing some skills because it was hard. The way to mastery sometimes travels through misery. If it was going to be hard the next day, so be it. I'd relax, take my time, and embrace what the bench was trying to teach me about adulthood.

And with that realization, I was calmed. I put the Kindle down, turned out the light, and went to sleep.


  1. Ah! And when I started, I thought I was reading about something I wasn't interested in. Discoveries, gifts!

  2. Bless you, James. How have you been?

  3. What a great post! It makes me want to pick up the book - which I feared might be full of pontifications. You also made me think of some of the benches I saw at the Berkshire Botanical Garden ( yesterday. I saw those beautiful wooden tops and thought - oh how wonderful that something so beautiful is so easy to make. Well, they did look easy, but thanks for the correction.

  4. Have you ever read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"? That's what your post reminded me of. You are wise and getting wiser. It's all about the process, right?

  5. And you better hurry up and finish such summer projects because SCHOOL BEGINS SOON! Noooooo.

  6. Commonweeder--It's a pretty good book, although I think he keeps making the same point over and over.

    Barbara--I have read it, though many years ago. I confess that I can't remember much about it. Maybe I'll pick it up again. And you're right, it is all about the process. You're kind of wise yourself, you know?


  7. "The way to mastery sometimes travels through misery." How true! I like when my garden kicks back, a little bit. It makes me feel like I've earned it, so to speak.

  8. Carol--You are exactly right about it making you feel as if you've earned it. If it were easy, we wouldn't having any to about which to feel proud.

  9. I just picked up "Shop Class as Soul Craft" from the library - my husband had heard about it on NPR and asked me to order it. He is currently reading it and then I will have my turn at it.

    I am repainting my kitchen - cabinets and all as they were not in good enough shape to simply sand and refinish.

    I am sanding, drilling, taking things apart and putting them back together, painting - trying to do this in a logical and orderly fashion.

    Although Milne wrote the following it was Christopher Robin in "Winnie the Pooh" who said:
    “Organizing is what you do before you do anything, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up.” ~ AA Milne.

    I have been frustrated by all my planning gone astray. I guess I need to write down my "organization" plan before I begin so I don't lose focus and go off on a different path which is what I have done. Thus, today, I must do a lot of sanding and touch-up on the cabinet doors because I was not as organized and neat as I should have been.

    Point being - even something as simple as sanding and painting can kick you while you're down and not paying attention.

    Never forget, lessons learned. (Someone said that but I have forgotten who - perhaps it was Ram Dass?)

  10. Lindy--I organize, and organize, and organize...and I still mess up. It is the way of the world. :-)

  11. My first thought at the top was, "damn nice tabletop!" But anything beautiful is richer with a story and a little blood entwined.


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