Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The abyss

If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
Friedrich Nietzsche

I hadn't posted anything on this blog for six months until last week, mentioning in passing that it might seem that I had disappeared into an abyss and promising to explain.  There were two reasons that my hand tool woodworking stopped.

The first reason was anticipated.  We bought an older house last fall that is in need of substantial maintenance and repair.  One of the things it needed badly was exterior paint.  Turns out that scrubbing, making siding repairs, replacing lights and outlets, scraping and brushing on two coats of paint on a 3,100 sq. ft. house with five gables takes a long time.  The paint is guaranteed for "up to 25 years" and I am trying not to focus on the fact that one year would satisfy the guarantee.  :-(  The to do list keeps growing, though at a reduced rate, so this will be a continuing issue.  

The second reason isn't as good.  The Guild of Oregon Woodworkers, of which I am a proud member, had wanted a workshop for some time.  Last fall, the leadership chose to lease a high-end cabinet shop that had ceased operation and was available machines included.  It had an extensive complement of massive commercial woodworking machinery:  4' wide belt sander, 16" jointer, 2' wide planer, a gigantic sliding table saw for sheet goods, a large resaw bandsaw--all this and much more.  Unfortunately, though, provision for hand tool woodworking is extremely limited.  Even though I am a committed hand tool woodworker, I confess that my head was turned by the impressive machinery.  I also wanted to help out the Guild, which does a lot of good things for woodworkers in the Portland area and for the community.  The Guild needed volunteers and I offered to help.  Predictably, there have been hiccups which it isn't necessary to recount here.  As far as using the shop, loading my stock into the truck, driving a half-hour, doing whatever stock preparation I had in mind and then loading it back up to drive another half-hour home was more trouble than it was worth, particularly in the rain.  That wasn't the biggest reason it was a mistake though.  Woodworking is a hobby for me, not a vocation.  I will never work in a commercial cabinet shop and I will never own machines like these.  Their great advantages are speed and volume.  I am not in a hurry and I don't work in high volume.  I am not trying to make a living as a woodworker.  They are very costly to own and operate, which makes the cost to use the shop expensive for members.  I am in the minority, but I have come to the conclusion that a former large commercial cabinet shop and a woodworking club's shop needs are not a good fit.  To each their own; I wish them well.

I spent a lot of time finding out something I already knew:  I really like hand tool woodworking.  To answer a question posed by Ralph, the Accidental Woodworker, no I haven't finished my son's desk but I am back at it.  Of course, the predictable has happened.  Things that were second nature to me six months ago aren't now, leading to mistakes and detours, but they're starting to come back.  Bit by bit, the muscle memory, the instinctive order of operations, all of the things you take for granted, are returning.  For the first time in awhile, I am really enjoying woodworking.  Next week I'll post a progress report.

I don't want to be hypocritical.  I may well use the Guild shop on occasion, to break down sheet goods for a large cabinetry project for example, or to support a Guild community project for another.  I have some woodworking machines in my shop and I will continue to use them, mostly when I lack a needed tool or knowledge about how to do something with a tool I do own or, being weak of spirit, a repetitive operation seems too tedious.  That said, they can never substitute for the pleasure and satisfaction of working with hand tools.  It's really good to be back. 


  1. I feel the same way after using a machine and then finishing with hand tools. It's a good feeling knowing that it's me and not a "tool" that determines the outcome. Good to read you're back Andy.

  2. I knew I didn't delete this bookmark for a reason. Glad to see you posting again, it's always been a pleasure reading your site.