(actually, books and blog)
February 16, 2018
Today I have something to say.
It stems from a realization that, after a lifetime working with both my hands and my head, that a life without both is missing something deeply important.
On Thriving in Life
From everyday activities to the heights of craftsmanship and technology, working and creating with our hands defines our humanity as much as mind and language do.
Our ancestors came out of the trees and stood upright, freeing their arms and hands to be used for more than locomotion — toolmaking became our ticket to survival and thriving as a species, language and consciousness perhaps a consequence as much as a cause of that newfound capacity. Hands are not just the manipulators of tools, but full partners with the mind and the eyes in the way we learn, understand, and communicate with each other.
The prejudice against the capabilities of the hand in favor of the mind has a long history. All developed societies distinguish blue collar from white collar professions. While such specialization and hierarchy have given us many advantages and accomplishments, it has also left our professions more at odds with our nature. Judging hand work to be menial, simple and easy does all of us a huge disservice as it fractures our basic humanity into intellectual managers and manual laborers. We give up half our humanity when we are allowed to think but not make, or make without thinking.
Consider the rates of depression, anxiety and general dissatisfaction with life in our modern world. Consider the size of the self-help book section of your local bookstore. Are you perfectly happy with your life, work and role in society? If you are, you’re a statistical rarity. Or, like the majority do you live with constant stress, uncertain of your place in a company and your role, perhaps unhappy in the knowledge that you could do your job better, but can’t for various reasons? It’s not so much the question of whether you have stress, but whether you can find truly satisfying and enduring ways to relieve it.
Hobbyist (and many professional) gardeners, cooks, woodworkers, mechanics, knitters, and musicians know the profound satisfaction of creating beautiful, useful and unique things. Many find their work gives them a different perspective on life, unavailable otherwise. Their work is often deeply connected to their identity, even the defining term. To create involves the expression of individuality within a community—we make objects that are unique and yet designed to be integrated within another person’s life. It also involves knowledge through problem-solving—the “handy” person we love to have around the house seems to have a magic relationship with objects: able to fix them, coax them into cooperation, and make them contribute rather than detract from our lives.
To create also involves an understanding of the importance of beauty and usefulness, esoteric concepts that we nevertheless consider in everything we do. Usefulness is the primary quality of an object toward survival, or simply living easily, and the fundamental quality of any tool (and what object is not a tool of some kind?). The beauty of an object is a more elusive idea, found in its pleasurable presence and easy use. Beauty speaks to an object’s seamless social integration. While these qualities are difficult to name, we all know when something “feels” right, looks right, or is “the best”: the graceful teapot that’s a pleasure to use, the perfectly balanced kitchen knife, the shawl that’s both warm and beautiful. Living with well-designed things is a pleasure; however, creating them leads to knowledge and understanding that can’t be obtained otherwise.
The satisfactions involved in making something go well beyond simple pride in accomplishment. The use of our hands creates a feedback loop of learning. That is, improving hand skills also improves understanding which in turn improves our ability to create. Through this kind of work, it becomes easy to find a sense of integrated yet individual purpose that I call thriving, an enduring kind of happiness in the knowledge that you create unique useful objects that give people pleasure.
Few corporate positions offer this kind of feedback loop, or satisfaction. Few manual labor jobs offer either.
Enduring happiness is a byproduct of thriving, which comes from successful engagement with our environment and fellow humans. To thrive in life, we need to integrate both hand and mind work in our everyday lives. In short, what makes us human is inseparable from our hands — thriving in life is simply a matter of being fully human, accepting it, and getting on with it. Define happiness as a mental and hopefully static state — just how we feel at any given moment with no relation to what we learn, do and make — and we will forever wander the self-help book aisle looking for a new fix.
This is the seed idea for a book on acknowledging our basic humanity, both physical and mental, as a platform for living well. The book will be about adversity, problem-solving, individuality and creativity as great sources of happiness. It’s about the satisfactions of community, common enterprise and friendship. It will be about life as learning, growing and engaging — not towards some static state of perfection, but as an iterative process. It will be about dissociated modernity and what we can, as the clever little apes that we are, do about it to have our cake and eat it too. This book is from what I’ve learned and how I got there. It’s from what good friends and others have learned and how they got there — by working with our minds and our hands. I hope it opens doors to find ways to thrive in life.
I have no publisher yet. It is a hard concept to sell, straddling worlds. So for now it will live as a seed of an idea until it finds the right soil.
January 11, 2018
Dovetailing has a peculiar romance to it. To the uninitiated, they're a little visual puzzle, raising smiles and wonder at how the pieces of wood go together. The practiced woodworker knows, but still holds them in awe as they can be challenging to make, especially the smaller they get, whether with power tools or hand tools.
I've always cut mine by hand. It's just that I don't know how with a router. They're noisy tools, expensive and I don't think they can cut the pintails that I prefer in a box.
Slightly apart, the mystery of the joint and how it goes together is a bit clearer.
When together, the eye can get tricked into figuring out what goes where. Oh, the wood is figured American beech.
I learned to cut dovetails during the summer of 1986. I was strictly instructed to label each joint with a letter, and circle it. Why, I'm not entirely sure any more, but old habits die hard. I suppose I could use numbers or hieroglyphs, but the fact is the system I started with suits me fine, and I've learned none better. Why? Well, when you cut a box, you have four corners. It's mighty easy to mix them up as you go.
I've taught dovetail classes many times over the years and watched as the uninitiated cut their first set and apprentices move towards mastery. What's remains remarkable to me is not the mystery of the joint, but how quickly and easily cutting them can be learned, and what gets learned from them. The brain and the hand are truly partners in the learning process, not one instructing the other. And what they gain working together is not just hand skills. But this is a topic for another day.
November 26, 2017
This commission was for a 6 ft. 4 in tall man who needed a standing desk for writing, possibly computer work.
The design challenge was to fit a 19th century Federal style room. Nobody was interested in making a period piece, pretending standing desks were common then. Nobody wanted an outrageous modern furniture ‘statement’. The room breathed tradition, but it also needed something to relive the plan white walls, white wainscoting, white built-in bookshelves and light blue carpeting. Everyone wanted something made to last, both in terms of design and construction.
Into the bag went walnut, the most noble of American woods. Also went Shaker, the little black dress of furniture design as it goes with every occasion, and a little whimsy because human beings would use it.
The project began as a large flitch of very nice walnut—wide boards, a little curl in places, almost no knots, very little sapwood. It just had one problem. It was over 20% MC. Sometimes I forget to bring my moisture meter to the yard, and sometimes it’s just dry enough that it doesn’t smell wet, feel heavy, or give any other sign of trouble.
So I had the extra fun of cutting all the parts to rough dimensions first, then kilning them in my sauna. I’d like to say I could sit in there with the boards, but they preferred 110 degrees, and I like it hotter. Also, the smell of wet hot walnut is pleasant to sniff, but not so pleasant to breathe for a long period. The walnut got to cook on its own.
Tilting the top would reveal the insides. Rather than look down into the contents of the drawer, I figured the piece needed a second top under the top. I could have just doubled it, attached a breadboard top to the carcase and then put the tilting breadboard on top, but that seemed inelegant. So I revealed and hid the joinery at the corners in the tops of the legs, and fitted the top frame with flush panels.
Here's another view of the top of the case below the tilting top
OK, and another. This photo shows how the carcase sides float. They're only attached to the top stretchers. Internally, I used the drawer stretchers to connect the whole carcase together, as the members are mortised and pinned into each leg.
The drawers were in pin oak which came from the owner’s property. For a variety of reasons too boring to get into, I did not want to make the drawer sides flush with the fronts, but overlapping. So I cut extra deep half blind dovetails. Here they are in process. I later trimmed the pins even with sides, but left the drawer front wider and longer. I don't have a photo of the finished drawer sides.
And aside from the little quarter round details on the legs, the other whimsy I added to lighten up the Shaker lines was a little door on one side. This opens to reveal... well, I shouldn't say, as it's a secret. But yes, someone lives in there.
That side of the desk still looks quite sober at a distance, but I think the little door adds just enough interest to avoid monotony.
November 19, 2017
Oh, No, Art Nouveau!
Le client, c’est moi
Over the years, I’ve had customers ask for original designs in nearly every style. I’ve made Arts-and-Crafts buffets, Art Deco armoires, Bauhaus bookshelves, Ming Chinese tables and Colonial chairs, and even a Biedermeier jewelry armoire. They’ve also asked for something “different,” so I’ve mixed design elements to end up with Deco pieces that are really Arts-and-Crafts trying to be cool, and Arts-and-Crafts pieces that are really Contemporary with a nostalgic attitude. The list is long and confusing. But it all seems to work and everyone’s happy.
But what I rarely get asked to make is anything Art Nouveau. Very few of my customers like it. This wouldn’t be an issue, but I love it. It’s my favorite.
In my design work, I tend to start with the customer: what they like, how they live, to figure out what will be useful and beautiful to them personally. I look at what else they have in their house and I ask them about it. Then I put together something that I think looks good and will work for them –- within my capacity to build.
So, to make Art Nouveau pieces, I have to act like a regular designer, but with myself as a client.
I’ll guess that you will say it’s very nice. Even “interesting.” You might note that it has a bit of Giger’s Alien to it. It’s also a bit modern in its simplicity too. So perhaps it’s a Shaker interpretation of Art Nouveau, or “Shaker Giger.” But as nice as it might be, I’ll bet you’d hesitate about putting it in your home.
Do you look at this wall shelf and says to yourself – not in my house when I come home late at night, because in low light it will freak me out, thank you very much. A bookcase that looks like it might slither off the wall of a sudden and lunge at you with hooked tentacles doesn’t contribute to that home-and-hearth feeling that, say, Arts-and-Crafts does. Even the severe lines of Shaker are more welcoming. It’s far easier to negotiate a stern Shaker side table looking at you judgmentally. But that Art Nouveau thing may kill and eat me. Or at least require an herbicide to stay in the hallway. And we can't have that with children around.
But for me, I do want it in my home. I do want to come home late at night and feel threatened by my furniture, that it has grown out of the floor or wall, or may continue growing. And might need pruning in the Spring. I think straight lines and square ends are all fine and nice, sometimes even interesting. But the organic curve is what inspires me. There's life in those lines, and good life at that (Hogarth called the S - curve “the line of beauty,” and I agree). That leads me time and again to Art Nouveau designs.
November 15, 2017
So I have a new book out, Doormaking: Something Something. I forget the full title as it's long and descriptive and you're not reading this anyway, just looking at the picture below, where all the info you need is available.
Yeah yeah, "doormaking" probably isn't even a word, but neither is WTF. Do you get the idea what the book is about? End of discussion.
Even if you have no plans to replace that crappy hollow core bathroom door your kids have trashed with something beautiful that you made yourself, the book is a good read. I'm a repressed writer, don't you know, so I tend to put work into the words as well as the woodworking.
Of course it's for sale. You can buy it on Amazon here for cheap. In this case you'll be funding Jeff Bezos's ambitions in space, which I think are great, and I'll get about 30 cents for my blood, sweat and tears. OR you can buy the book directly from me for a little more, maybe even cover price? Is that too much to ask? And shipping? Well, I know I'm being pushy, but a guy's gotta survive and I'd like to live to write another book, so just make me an offer. Give me a ring 203 770 5240 and I'll even sign it, if you like. And of course I answer my email email@example.com. Sadly, I don't take credit cards, luddite I am (even use hand tools).
June 8, 2012
OK, I don't update this website as often as I might. Full admission -- I get distracted by life. Mondaugen's Law has suffered a similar fate and remains un-updated in ages. However, at any moment I will launch back into a life of writing blog posts. I just need less distraction. Until then, we will remain an ossified site -- nothing new for those who have been here before, but a veritable wonderland (albeit dated) to those who haven't.
February 18, 2011
If you haven't noticed already, I've added a section on kitchens to the blog. My limited Dreamweaver skills, however, mean I haven't quite figured out the linking thing. You can get there from the homepage, but also by clicking here.
An average day in the shop.
If you enjoy making boxes, please take a look at Traditional Box Projects, either here, which is Amazon, or here which is the Taunton Press, the publisher.
I keep a travel and sundry blog at www.mondaugenslaw.blogs.com. I highly recommend the archives for some good adventures in India and Japan.