At the Amana colonies, I saw what was possible. I saw that there was a whole community of other people who thought these old hand tools represented something worth preserving. People who saw the romance and beauty of an individual’s skill embodied in a piece of furniture or a turned bowl. I spend most of my life inside the heads of 19th century Americans–reading their words, trying to understand how the stories they told then are still steering the ways we live now. And here were a whole bunch of other weirdos like me. When I got home, I went to the big box store and strapped a load of lumber to my roofrack. Continue reading “The Bench”
I’ve already written a little bit here about how I stumbled into woodworking (short answer: lots of time in libraries+philosophizing about knowledge, skill, and education+a love of old trade knowledge and physical stuff). But now, I want to try to narrate my own experiences of the last 18 months by hanging it on the narrative conceit of a woodworking voyage. The basic question I’m trying to answer for myself is: how did I get here? What has happened?
You see, a lot has changed in my life in the past 18 months. Not all for the better, not all for the worse. But it’s been far outside the bounds of what anyone might reasonably call “normal.”
So, as good a starting point as any would be my visit to Amana, IA last spring for the Handworks gathering. I live in Lincoln, NE these days so Amana is an easy morning’s drive–something a little over 4 hours. On top of that, my girlfriend at the time had work on the far side of Iowa that week, so she joined me.
Handworks was the first step in cementing that this woodworking thing I’d been half-heartedly pursuing was worthy of a wholehearted effort. Patrick Leach’s tables (I didn’t know who he was at the time) had more sorts of tools than I would have ever dreamed of. The vendor’s tables had hands on demonstrations. One bearded old guy in suspenders taught me how to use a backsaw–bracing my body, letting my arm move free (“Like the piston of a locomotive” he said as if that were an everyday metaphor for clarifying it all) checking the angle in the reflection from the saw plate. It felt almost effortless.
Jarrod Stonedahl (I think…) was turning bowls and cups on a pole lathe, others had shavehorses set up for Windsor chairmaking (the examples were impossibly delicate yet sturdy), and we saw a beefy framesaw in action. I got a “newspaper” with information on how to fold it into a hat, and describing the geometry of sawteeth. The highlight of the trip was a dovetail race between Mike Siemsen, Frank Strazza, and Anne Briggs (Anneofalltrades). Frank won in dramatic fashion, though Mike certainly won the taunting war. I was hooked. I bought a few chisels from a fellow in a vest and and flat cap much like mine, and determined to build myself a workbench before the end of the summer.