I’m fascinated by craft, the uniquely human enterprise of transforming material and making beautiful and useful things. If you haven’t already done so, view the PBS documentary series Craft in America, and you will meet some amazing artisans and craftspeople.
Animals build things and use tools too. Birds build clever nests to impress prospective mates, and monkeys routinely use rocks to crack coconuts. Some even reshape one thing to do something else. That’s called tool making. But we humans make things for no apparent reason. We decorate ordinary objects. We blow molten glass, turn clay, shape wood. We paint, varnish, and polish. We play and experiment and ask “What if I do this?”
I believe this is part of our being the “image of God.” The first thing the Bible reveals about God is that He is the Maker of the heavens and the earth, the Master Craftsman of the universe, and we, made in His image, carry on this work of transforming and ordering the material world in wonderfully creative ways. A well-crafted table or chair, a cabinet or an elegant little box adorned with inlay and figured wood is wood exalted to something higher and more meaningful than itself. Utility gives way to beauty.
My craft is cooking, breadmaking, and woodworking. I got into woodworking about twenty years ago for completely utilitarian reasons. I wanted to build a cabinet stand for a fish tank in our church’s preschool. I borrowed the neighbor’s portable contractor’s saw, purchased some plywood and two by fours, and without knowing what I was doing, managed to build something with my own two hands leaving all ten fingers miraculously intact. It was incredibly satisfying. The stand continues in service to this day. I’ve since built bookcases, shelves, cabinets, an office suite, a wall of linen closet doors, a couple of coffins (caskets, actually), along with countless little boxes and clocks. At any one time, there are usually three or four projects on or near the workbench and several more in my sketchbook or in my head.
My current workshop occupies 95% of a 400 square foot, two-car detached garage, the other five percent being devoted to a freezer, a storage cabinet for household supplies, and five boxes of Christmas decorations. Our two cars have never seen the inside of the garage. My wife has never complained. She says she likes my woodworking obsession because she always knows where I am when I’m not in the house. She doesn’t seem to mind the dust and shavings I track into the house. I always try to build things she wants or likes. These are my “commissioned pieces” that pay for the machinery and tools. Sometimes I’ll pad a project with a tool that has nothing to do with the project at hand with the generic excuse, “I needed it.”
The shop has evolved over the years, becoming increasingly crowded with machinery and less room to do anything. Square footage is at a premium. Everything is on rollers allowing me to park machines like a valet at a busy downtown restaurant. The shop has its own dedicated sub panel, installed by yours truly in a fit of DIY electrical (all permitted and at or above Code, I assure you) so I don’t dim the lights in the kitchen or pop a circuit breaker firing up my table saw. There is no running water, sink, bathroom, or temperature control – that’s for the next shop.
Recently, I set up a 10×10 tent cover in the driveway in front of the garage where I assemble my bigger projects and execute messy procedures such as power sanding, hand routing, and spray painting, much to the delight of the neighbors. With the garage set in the back of the lot, the tent doesn’t diminish the curb appeal all that much, and given the current real estate market, it doesn’t really matter. I think it gives the place a kind of homey, farmers’ market look. I have a large four by eight knockdown table on saw horses under the tent that can be used to break down plywood or assemble large workpieces. It also serves as a BBQ/grill station, where offcuts of oak and cherry meet their final appointed destiny in smoking meat.
I’ve always sensed something “spiritual” about craft, a kind of priestly lifting up of the material world as a sacrifice of praise to the God who calls forth the trees from the earth. It’s the same with preparing a nice meal from scratch or baking a loaf of bread. Raw material, a gift from God, is transformed into something beautiful or delicious.
Woodworking is about transformation – life out of death. There is something vicarious about it. Something dies so that others might live off its death. Wood comes from dead trees. Unless we cut down the tree ourselves, we usually don’t know the cause of the tree’s death. Perhaps it fell in a storm or was cut down to clear some land. It may have come from someone’s front yard or from a cultivated forest. In death, the tree undergoes a transformation and becomes something greater. Even if it is left to rot on the forest floor, a new generation of trees has its birth where that tree has fallen. In the rain forest, they call these “nurse trees,” the next generation rooted on its fallen ancestor.
In the lumber mill, a dead tree is transformed into lumber as it is sliced into thick slabs like a split hog or a cow. An animal becomes meat; a tree becomes wood. Transformation. From rough sawn slab to refined boards, and finally to shaped, assembled, sanded and finished pieces of furniture or a jewelry box or a child’s toy, each step is a transformation, a new creation, life arising out of death.
OK, that’s a little head-trippy. I know. Woodworkers tend to be a somewhat introverted tribe, monastics who prefer the solitary company of tools and machinery to the complexities of crowds and relationships. They also tend to be somewhat introspective about themselves and their craft. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been drawn to the wood shop all these years. It is not only a place to create with my hands, it’s a place to think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I am most at home here. Problems are tractable; solutions are relatively simple and eminently satisfying. Much more so than the rest of life.
Doug Stowe, an Arkansas woodworker, fits my description of the woodworker-philosopher, someone who recognizes the significance of thinking through one’s hands and transforming raw material into objects of beauty and utility. I’m learning the craft of box making from his books and videos. I’ve never met him, but he strikes me as a kindred spirit in this world of craft.
As I head back into the shop, I leave you with this thoughtful little piece of his for your reflection.