Why We Build
I built my first coffin as an eight-year-old in 1952, a time when dogs still trotted freely in the street in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. They had full reign of the neighborhood. Sawdust and Timber, my two young beagles, slept in my bed with me. We had to jockey for space. At that age, I didn’t mind rolling over on a wet and slimy shard of chewed bone. One summer afternoon Sawdust ran under a speeding Buick Roadmaster. Trailing a few steps behind, Timber only heard the thump. My first encounter with death came the next morning when the vet called to tell my father Sawdust had died.
I was afraid to look at my dog. The vet put him in a cardboard box and carried him to our car. My father didn’t say much on the way home, but finally asked what I wanted to do. For the first time in my life, I saw he was uncertain, too. I knew we had to bury Sawdust in something better than an old produce carton from a grocery store. My father was not much of a carpenter, definitely not one who could do finish work. Neither was I, but I knew I wanted to make something special for my dog. I just didn’t know how to do it and recognized even at that young age I couldn’t rely on my father. I also knew I wanted to bury him in our back yard near the sour cherry tree whose bark I had worn clean and slippery from many climbs.
Sawdust’s gravesite was eventually transformed into a large rubble pile. When the planning commission’s wrecking ball destroyed our home many years afterward to make way for an inner-city freeway, I was not there to watch. For years, though, I imagined I had been. I became a young boy again trying to protect my dog or whatever was left of him. The crude coffin I made from a mishmash of scrap lumber scrounged from our neighbor was now part of the debris in that rubble pile. Giant earth movers and dump trucks raised clouds of dust where the dogs and I once played in the grass. I’ve only driven one time on the elevated highway that covers the footprint where our house used to be. The concrete support pillar is like the leg of a giant whose foot smashed my house flat. Looking down, I saw none of the front lawn I remembered. Just a smear of asphalt and concrete stretching unevenly, littered by beer cans and plastic bags blowing about. My once necessary and useful coffin was gone forever, along with its beauty and precious contents.
My father had an older friend named George, a retired engineer and now a craftsman who worked in wood and leather. George wanted everyone to call him by his first name, even a kid like me. He took me aside after he heard about my attempt to make a coffin for Sawdust. He wanted to know all the details about how I made it. Where did I get the material? What kind of nails did I use? Did I make it large enough? My father’s tool collection stopped at a dull saw, a heavy claw hammer, and various jars of mismatched nails. I told George that our next-door neighbor Mel gave me some scrap pieces of pine and helped my father and me cobble together a rough box. “I took an old shirt and tucked it under Sawdust’s head,” I explained to George. “Dad covered him with a towel. He and Mel let me have my turn at digging the grave.”
George had an orderly and clean workshop full of many tools. His chisels were always shiny and sharp. “Watch out you don’t cut your finger,” he warned. He taught me the meaning of tactile. I can hear the distinct click of his tongue when he lingered on the c. “Your fingers are important. You see and feel the beauty of practical and useful things through them.”
George was a widower. He had a droll sense of humor and entertained me with anecdotes from his life. He laughed hardest at one story about how his wife and another lady were mistaken for one another at an office Christmas party. Both of them automatically frowned when the boss thought they were married to different men. He remembered the scene with his wife shifting her weight and placing her hands on her hips. Her lips pursed and her chin jutted out. The other lady tried to speak up but simply sputtered. I learned to imitate his dry delivery. I thought of him as a grown-up imp, something I aspired to be.
“A coffin is a worthy project, almost as important as a bird house, and far better than just driving nails into wood for the fun of it,” he told me, speaking slowly and looking directly at me. “I regret not building a coffin for Marie. I know I had the skill to do it, but I just couldn’t,” he confided. He had no children, but he liked dogs, especially my beagles. He said he was sorry about Sawdust, but told me sternly to keep Timber and all things I loved and cherished safe. “Learn from what happened,” he told me in a rare moment when he took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye. “You’ll have more than a nodding relationship with death in due time.”
When I was a teenager, I took a girlfriend to visit George. He was sitting in an old overstuffed chair in his shop leafing through a copy of “Fine Woodworking.” Vicki surprised me by being serious and courteous to George. He liked her right away and eagerly showed her around his shop. He told her he wanted his tools buried with him, since he had a special thing going with them that other people would never understand. “I don’t want them to fall into the hands of some stranger who picks them up in a yard sale. When I see good, old tools lying in a box in the corner of an antique shop, I want to weep.” Then he laughed to break the silence and told her he wanted me to have his tools.
Vicki asked if she could have one, too. She had her eye on a pair of pliers that were lying on a nearby table. George was delighted in her interest and told her he would be happy to part with something. Then he paused and said she would be better off selecting a tool other than the pliers. He told us he was never completely satisfied with any pair of pliers he ever owned. “None of them felt good in my hand,” he said. “Just not the right fit.” He then pointed to the pegboard on one of the walls. All kinds of tools, from screwdrivers to wrenches, hung there in neat order. Under a table were a number of open boxes. They stored wood finishes, turpentine, glues, old and new sandpaper, and dried out rags used for buffing. He even had an assortment of cords that had become separated from their machines. Other boxes held books of directions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and French. George finally pulled out a surprise box and made us guess what was in it. He enjoyed stumping us, and then revealed a rich mix of “useless gadgets that seemed like a clever idea when I bought them.”
George guided Vicki toward his collection of hand planes, a small box of good chisels wrapped in cloth, several double-edge Japanese Ryoba saws, ideal for deep cuts both across and with the grain, and his favorite screwdriver that never let him down. “I’ve retired it. It’s driven and backed off a legion of new as well as nasty old rusted screws. It’s always done the job. But I don’t want to set it for failure, particularly now that we’re both getting old.” All these years later, I remember what George said about this simple screwdriver, which was really about respect, friendship, devotion, and ultimately fidelity. Vicki looked at everything and finally went back to the Japanese saws. George immediately presented her with a short Ryoba saw.
The last time I saw George was at my university graduation. He was an old man by then who needed help walking. He said he had no gift other than to encourage me to keep making things with my hands. He told me to continue studying the grain of wood and to trace its patterns with my fingers. “Memory lies in touch as well as sight. It’s like braille. Understanding comes as much from what you feel as well as what you see.” he told me. “The construction is invisible. Choose your wood well and your furniture will shine; choose poorly and you’ll end up with a piece that can’t be saved no matter how crisp and tight the joinery is.” As he held my hand, he reminded me, “Be careful, pay attention, plan ahead. Don’t cut yourself. Better yet, don’t even have any close calls.”
George died later that summer. Soon after the funeral, I learned he left me his tools.
Over the years I have had workshops or access to them wherever I lived. Even in my wanderings through foreign countries I found myself hanging out with crafts people. In Japan I watched how local furniture makers use their Ryoba saws to cut hard or abrasive woods such as maple, oak, and teak, as well as exotic hardwoods such as cocobolo, purpleheart, and bloodwood. The men pull the blade through the wood rather than push it as Western saws are designed to cut. In Austria, Helmut, a well-known craftsman, showed me some of his tricks cutting beautiful dovetails. I paid more than I could afford for one of his walnut desks, and I still have it in my office. I forgot the price long ago. In a village in the New Territories outside Hong Kong, I squatted alongside some men who were building a complicated bedroom suite using only basic tools. They marked their lines precisely and cut the wood cleanly. Some of the Chinese craftsmen looked at plans lying on work benches, others had the picture in their head.
Some of the best furniture makers I know choose their wood first and then design around it. Will is a musician and likes to work with wood that has its own deep and beautiful voice that he wants to amplify without turning the volume up so loud it screams. He selects wood that stands up to prolonged examination. Your eyes just can’t leave it.
Like anything beautiful, the grain pattern or figure in his furniture flows seamlessly. He looks for highly figured wood such as curly or bird’s-eye maple because of the unique design, texture, color or markings on its surface. He also likes to turn bowls from wood with random swirls of dark patterns caused by infestations of ambrosia beetles. Such colorful streaks of beauty come from the scat the beetles leave behind as they break the wood down into dinner for their larvae. One of his bowls made from a burl of red oak is a crazed roadmap resembling overpasses colliding with underpasses. The abstract art in it arrests me every time I see it. I want to reach out and caress the lines hoping they will lead me further into the mystery of form and feature.
I had the good fortune a few years ago to make some Shaker boxes in a weekend-class taught by a serious man named Chris at the John C. Campbell Folk School in far western North Carolina. In the short time at Campbell, a special place of “big magic” as my friend Robin describes it, a small band of us nestled around another instructor to learn a bit about the Shakers and their belief in living their lives in the simplest ways. They were traditional people who saw more value in forming community ties than in promoting their individual selves.
Seven of us signed up for this short class, four men and three women. Two Catholics and a Buddhist declared their religion. The rest of us were noncommittal. Most of us had some woodworking skills, but Laurie was by far the best. Chris called on her and Betty Sue, two former students, to demonstrate what we would be doing first thing Saturday morning. Laurie pulled a box-knife from her apron pocket and used it like a surgeon, cutting distinct “fingers” in one end of the translucently-thin band of maple that was eventually steamed and wrapped around an oval form. She then drilled holes for the tacks to secure the band once it was moulded into an elliptical shape. She proceeded to taper the other end of the band to provide a smooth transition where the veneer overlaps.
At this point, Betty Sue took over. She had her hair tied back and told us to remove all jewelry from our hands and around our neck before working with any of the machines. Saws and sanders and drill presses were only so happy to reach out and grab loose ends and bits and pull hands and heads into their sharp teeth. She had a natural grace in the shop and demonstrated how to soak the strips in the steamer to make them bend without breaking. It all looked so easy.
As the ladies talked us through the steps, Chris weaved in stories of the Shakers, one of several religious groups that formed in eighteenth-century England. They were part of the new communities of “charismatic Christians” and were officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Begun in 1747, the Shakers worked together and believed that they served God by approaching every task with care. This care resulted in a distinctive Shaker style of furniture and everyday practical tools and kitchenware such as bowls, spoons, and churn buckets. Everything they made was meant to reveal the traditional Shaker values of simplicity, utility, and fine craftsmanship.
Next morning we gathered by the sink and steaming corner over by the bathroom. After some sanding, cutting, and beveling, our strips took a steam bath in the long metal-lidded box. The hot water spa relaxed the wood fibers enough to allow us to bend them around the forms.
Despite the demonstration the night before, we quickly discovered that the oval containers didn’t assemble themselves. The “simple” boxes were anything but simple as we labored to bevel, trim, sand, and taper. Brad, a lawyer from Memphis, couldn’t keep his wood from splitting. Robin stepped in to help and curved it with his hands so Brad could get “fingers” the way he needed them. George’s hands were a bit shaky so he needed some assistance cutting a straight line. At last everyone had their ends tacked securely. After they dried, we fitted them with lids and bottoms. We marveled that we had actually made our own Shaker boxes.
As we went through the steps, something else was happening that we were not aware of at first. The Shakers were communal people who put their individualism aside when necessary to help one another. Two classmates, Andy and Camille, made Shaker boxes before so they took some control and became secondary teachers. Before long, we were all assisting one another as we formed the shape of the boxes and made them secure. We were learning the Shaker way of reliance, working together rather than against one another.
I wanted to know more.
A few years later I met Peter, a furniture maker and teacher, who also thinks about his craft in a Shaker way. He sees the object he plans to build clearly in his head before he starts. But he also sees something else. He approaches each new project as an opportunity to challenge what he thinks he knows. He wants his imagination to soar. He’s seeking a fresh look at what he thinks is true, what is embedded in his own narratives. He tries to instill in his students the driving desire to rethink their worlds in their own special ways.
When I sat in his classroom for the first time, I had a glimmer of what he meant. But I needed more. I thought I understood, but I needed to see the results. He wanted to talk about mind/body wholeness. Equally amorphous offshoots linking craftsmanship with spirituality started sneaking into the discussion. I knew I wanted to make things as well as possible, but I wasn’t yet able to wrap my mind around how working with our hands related to our humanity and self-transformation. I needed to listen closely to hear the Shaker craftsmen speaking.
With Peter, I hoped to learn about more than just making precise cuts to make practical objects. His catalog beckoned me to go deeper into Shaker thought. He supplemented the photos and descriptions of the classes with narratives about the Shaker way of life. My curiosity was piqued about the meaning and rewards of their sustained creative effort. I wanted to explore his ideas about putting our minds as well as our hands to work making a lovely table with precise joinery. The school promised to teach us more than just how to design curved pieces of hardwood that meet in perfect joints. It wanted us to delve into what art is and why it matters. Teaching went beyond sharpening a chisel. It held clues to how to live a better life.
After breakfast the next morning, the six of us donned our aprons and found our work stations. The shop was not all that large but big enough not to be cramped. Various table and band saws, planers, sanders, and joiners were sited for efficiency. Tools poised from hangers along the wall. The well-lighted room invited us in.
Peter greeted us and immediately asked if anyone had ever heard of the Great Cartesian Divide. The lawyer couple among us, Lucy and Robert, kept looking down at their work stations; George, the retired teacher, started fiddling with a chisel; and Alexi, the musician, began humming. I had no answer, either, and started to think that we were all the dunces in the third grade.
Peter sat at a high stool with a white screen to his back. He’s in his sixties now, tall, thin, and balding. We discover later that he’s a cancer survivor. Twice in his life he came close to dying from the disease. Once as a young man and a second time just a few years ago. As he pointed to details on the slides, he explained that right through the late Middle Ages there had been no historical distinction between fine and applied arts. All the trades were accorded relatively equal merit. Only when the Renaissance began to elevate the life of the mind over the life of the body, approximately six-hundred years ago, did hierarchical distinctions begin to emerge.
Three-hundred years after Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, the Enlightenment finally erected a seemingly invincible barrier between the mind and the body. The ideas of Cartesian dualism, a label that originated from the Latinized name relating to the early seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, made its mark and formally divided mind and matter into separate and unequal camps. Painting and sculpture happily snuggled into the chiseled category of mind while all other types of object-making were associated with the body, branded as “applied arts,” and banished to much lower rungs on the ladder.
“That little distinction, ladies and gentlemen, is why we’re here this week,” Peter boomed. “Before we go any further, we must agree that we’re no longer going to live in a lesser world.”
Thus began the days that raced quickly into the evenings. Breaks for lunch and dinner did not just find us sitting down making small talk as we ate. We feasted at a massive round table with Peter and his two assistants, Katherine and Stephen. We munched salad served in homemade bowls, delighted on main courses heaped onto sculpted plates of wood, and drank water and tea that flowed from hand-crafted mugs. We spent part of the week at the lathe, too, making more bowls, mugs, and plates. The last class had made these for us and we would make the same for those to follow. No plastic knives or forks, no paper plates. The food and drink were especially delicious served in their wooden platters and vessels.
After meals, we all marched back into the clean-up area—Peter, Katherine, and Stephen included—and washed what we had dirtied. Everything was cleaned by hand. No wooden objects ever came close to a dishwasher.
I found myself jabbering to strangers about what I had begun, where I was going with it, and what it all meant to me. Alexi had a lighter hand than all of us. The tapered legs of her table were elegant. Stephen was orderly and took pride in his precision. Only later in the week did he break loose from his self-imposed rigid restrictions and let himself follow a new direction. We peeked at what each other was doing. Before long, Katherine was showing me a better way to sand the underside of a drawer. George was quick to learn how to negotiate wood through the bandsaw and gathered us by his side to share some tips.
Over the next two weeks, I discovered the delight and satisfaction of designing my own small table. I first sketched my lines according to a plan that I followed step by step in an orderly sequence. A couple of days later, Peter came by, picked up my carefully drawn design, smiled, and tore it up. He then told me to draw it again from memory and embellish where I thought I might improve it. He kept smiling as he told me, “Seize the freedom to discover another way. You can do it, I know.”
I was learning that the creative crafts harmonize intellect, manual skills, and character. They all underscore the artificiality of the Cartesian divide between mind and body. When you add the creative component of design, craft becomes a fully integrated application of one’s capability. I took my plane out of my tool bag, removed the blade, and began sharpening it with my own oil and stone. I felt the deep centeredness in trusting my hands, mind, and imagination to work as a single, well-tuned instrument, a centeredness that touches upon the essence of fulfillment. The blade went back in the plane. I adjusted it and turned the lever to tighten it in place. The plane and I then proceeded to remove thin ribbons of hard maple. I thought what better way to inhabit one’s selfhood to the maximum than to exercise one’s innate human capability productively and powerfully. I was absorbing what Peter had talked about on our first day.
Our class rushed ahead as though it were only a day rather than two weeks. Too quickly, it came to its inevitable conclusion. We all succeeded in one way or another and were leaving as friends and fellow craftsmen. Most importantly, we inherited a bit of the Shaker creed of respect for the value of simplicity, integrity, and grace. Shakers relied on each other and knew they were better people because they worked together, not one against the other. And like them, we five people, who were strangers two weeks earlier with considerable differences in background, came together as a whole to appreciate that we were learning more in this short time than just making a beautiful and graceful small table. We covered ourselves in sawdust, bore some wounds, stubbed our toes, and suffered nicks to our pride. We also opened up, laughed, and learned from one another.
Each table we made articulated a point of view about life on many levels. Most of all, our efforts oriented us, consciously or not, to the Shaker view that domestic life and work should be lived as sacraments. Each detail implied, by what it is and what it is not, an orientation toward workmanship, nature, beauty, tradition, and human character. The details revealed an extraordinary investment of time, care, and skill in a functional and practical object intended for the home. They read as an argument for the value and dignity of what it means to be human.
George, my boyhood idol and first mentor, would have applauded.
Before arriving at the school, I thought I was already enjoying a full life, almost like a well-plotted novel that was reaching a satisfying conclusion. I had known deep friendships, true love, loss, and sorrow. I was learning to feel at one with myself in my new rural life, while still at home in urban settings. What satisfied me most now was discovering both a creative capacity within myself and an inner discipline to put it to work. I understood my good fortune. Throughout my life I have escaped serious illness and injury, but know how thin the wall is between sickness and health. Health is just a continuum, and I am blessed to be among the living.
It was at this point that I asked myself the critical question: How do I want to live the rest of my life?
I found the answer in a sign above Peter’s studio door that quotes the poet Stanley Kunitz, ”It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self.” I sniffed the possibility of happiness. I can live contentedly in that narrative.