A New Project

Two of my bookshelves

First off, what an amazing and humbling thing to have such a great (okay, sometimes great and sometimes inflammatory to the point of seeming allergic) response to my essay in Full Stop. Reading the comments, both on the Full Stop website and on the Lost Art Press blog was by turns cheering, frustrating, and confounding. I won’t bother arguing point by point with various commenters, but I will say that I am encouraged by how much diversity of opinion exists among those who identify as woodworkers (esp. handtool woodworkers). One key thing I learned is that mentioning the name of Karl Marx (briefly in a several thousand word essay) is still enough to derail the whole argument for some. There’s a valuable lesson there–some ideas might suffer from attribution. But really, go read some Marx. As one commentor pointed out, attributing Communism and the acts of Lenin and Stalin to Marx is like attributing the Inquisition to Jesus. Marx was a deeply ethical, careful thinker.

But, back to my new project. The response to my essay, along with Nancy Hiller and Megan Fitzpatrick’s Instagram posts about their bookshelves and several wonderful emails, has gotten me thinking about my books. Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get me thinking about my books, since I’ve devoted my life to being a scholar of literature (a.k.a. “overeducated buffoon” to one axe-grinding commentor). I chose to go to grad school not because I thought it would be a plum way to get a living–in fact it means seven years of no savings, sub 20k salary, and constant stress. And chances are I won’t ever land a faculty job; less than half of literature Ph.D.s do (though it’s good work if you can get it). Instead, I decided to get a Ph.D. because I have a deep belief that our lives are driven by the stories that surround us. And I wanted–needed–to understand those stories, especially the ones from what still seems to be the pivotal moment in American history and identity: the mid 19th century.

At root, this goal of understanding stories stems from the premise that stories are fundamental. We want certain things because we have stories about them. We do what we do because of stories. That’s why we make things from wood. Because we have a story (or many stories) about what it means to make things from wood. That’s why we want to take vacations to Hawai’i. We tell ourselves that it’s pleasant there (and it is!). But we also know that going to Hawai’i has some social value–we have a story about “making it” that includes beach vacations, Mai Tais, and tan lines. We know the value, to ourselves and others, of having those personal and shared stories of joy and pleasure (after all, memories are just stories we tell ourselves, and psychological experiments has shown its not very hard to make memories of things that never occurred). So we have all these stories, most of which are given to us and all of which share a certain architecture, and then we tweak them and live them and try to realize them.

So my new blog project, for the next several weeks (while I’m not home with access to my little workshop) is going to be book reviews. I want to write a bit about the stories that my books have told me about what good work is. That might mean work with wood. It might be more abstract and philophical takes on work. You’ll get my little reviews of Jim Tolpin and Hannah Arendt, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher Schwarz. I don’t know where it will lead, but I hope you’ll check back.

Tomorrow: thoughts on Jim Toplin’s The New Traditional Woodworker.


(French) Anarchism, Reviewed


An essay I wrote (probably not terribly insightful, but I hope at least entertaining and informative) was published today by Full Stop Quarterly. Here’s a teaser:

But this past-focused woodworking community seems mostly unaware of a paradox at its center. The social network-based democratization of Instagram and blogs created a virtual space for community to form around this nostalgia. The very infrastructure upon which the supposedly independent community is built relies on surveillance and monetization of users by massive capitalized corporations. The ethos is vaguely Jeffersonian, yet most of the posts feel wholesomely apolitical, only trying to bring what was appealing about the past into the current moment and updating it to modern (and modernist) sensibilities. Perhaps for that reason, apoliticism seems to be what Lost Art Press is most insistent that hand tool woodworking is not.

Read more at http://www.full-stop.net/quarterly/



My studies and the rest of life generally have kept me away from the bench, and even more, away from this blog, for a while. But, since my little Popular Woodworking article was just published, I guess I ought get back to this on a more regular basis.

I’m in the midst of reading a biography of Henry David Thoreau right now, and learning how much woodworking/handymanning he actually did. We think of him as the patron saint of American environmentalism, and he was in many ways. Observation and appreciation of nature are at the root of his writing and life. But he also invented processes and machinery for the family pencil manufacture business (which was housed in a very modest building for the quantity the Thoreau’s were turning out in the 1840s). He was also a major fixer of things that broke in the Emerson household (Emerson was famously clumsy, his son Waldo once worrying that he would “dig his leg”).

This has given me the idea of further research on Thoreau’s knowledge of woodworking. While much has been written about the cabin, I’d like to do some more research on Concord’s carpenters and joiners of the period–and maybe try to figure out what other tools besides an axe Henry have borrowed.

Thoreau’s woodworking (and his writing about it) could also be compared to Walt Whitman’s (they met and enjoyed each other’s company and writing). Whitman worked as a house carpenter (like his father) for a time and of course wrote “The Song of the Broad Ax” in 1856. Both of these literary figures have had a lasting impact on the way that American culture talks and thinks about the relationship of work to the world around us. I suspect the role of working wood probably hasn’t been much explored–the ways that woodworking metaphors and metonyms pervade our common language and understanding of self, for example. That might be because scholars aren’t usually woodworkers, and woodworking scholars don’t usually turn to literary figures.




A Toolbox and Disaster

A Toolbox and Disaster

All through the fall of 2015, I puttered. I was supposed to be reading for my comprehensive exams, but the more urgent work of teaching kept draining my mental energy away. I started teaching projects and events as procrastination. I was afraid of engaging with my own work because it might turn out that I would not live up to my own expectations. I didn’t get much reading done.

I puttered through a relationship that was slowly unraveling into a dead-end, despite our best intentions. I puttered through my evenings on small, low stakes projects. I made a Roy Underhill tool tote from a library book (it took me the first half of a football came to resaw the pine board). I watched Paul Sellers on youtube and tried to build my own little rabbet plane (with mediocre results). I fashioned a new walnut spacebar to replace a cracked plastic one on of my typewriters (yes, I have two). I started making a tool chest with the dimensions of the full Anarchist’s Tool Chest and the simple joinery of the baby version from the Anarchist’s Design Book. Everywhere I felt vaguely alone: no seminar conversations in the evenings, lukewarm and guarded receptions on online forums, Grubby “networking” conversations at academic conferences. I struggled to understand my own academic work or its value. It seemed like there were unspoken expectations everywhere I turned, and I wasn’t meeting them.

I did get that project functional in time for an event that I was hoping would kick me into gear a little bit. I tend to look for outside circumstances to change as a way to help me change internally. In this case, I was moving into a new space. Instead of my north facing third-floor apartment, I’d be sharing a bright little 110-year-old house with a new roommate. It was in a different neighborhood. It was cute where my apartment has been functional. I’d have stairs, nice furniture thanks to the owners, and incredibly cheap rent. It offered me space for a study/library in which to write, and small workbench sized space for a shop (in addition to a basement). It seemed like maybe this would be just what I needed.

Moving is never fun, but my wonderful friends helped me haul my shabby grad student possessions over to the new place. That included the knockdown workbench and the unfinished tool chest. It was the last day of February. At about the same time, I remember watching The Revenant and feeling that movie’s crystalline cold merged seamlessly with raw violence. The world felt icy and malevolent, and I was at a loss. I looked out at that world and tried to understand. I tried to plan for how I could contribute–how I could resist the greed and violence that seemed to be lurking just under the surface. I read Thoreau, I taught my students about Wikipedia and the power of a sentence. I looked everywhere for hope and kindness–finding it in brief moments, but still struggling to get up in the morning.

A couple weeks later, I had settled in enough that I decided to paint my tool chest. I unloaded it, photographed all my tools spread out on my workbench, and followed a recipe to make my own milk paint from scratch, with vinegar to curdle the milk, and lime leftover from a friend’s backyard oven plaster. It was St. Patrick’s day. That night, my dad sent the family a picture. Construction crews had just placed the first girder of Broadway Bridge–a project we were jokingly calling his magnum opus. He was set to retire in just over a year.

That night I was woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call from my mom. She said it was a butt dial. I went back to sleep. The next day I woke to see three more missed calls from her. I called right back. She explained that my father was missing. He had never come home the night before. She’d been out looking for him all night with my aunt and uncle. There wasn’t any sign.

After she hung up to continue her search, I called my dad. No answer. I sent a desperate text, telling him that we were all worried about him. My mom called back. My dad was dead.

He was 57 years old. He had died on his way home from work, from what would turn out to be a heart aneurysm. He had time to pull over, turn off the truck, and reach for his phone. He never made a call.

My tool box sat on the kitchen floor, where it had dried overnight. I put it in the workshop, and thought–I will never get to show my dad.

I last talked to him two days before he died. It had been unseasonably warm in Nebraska, and I rode my bicycle to a professors’ house for a meet and greet with an important guest. But I’d gotten the time wrong and arrived an hour early. So I sat on a park bench and called my dad, and we laughed and chatted for that hour, comparing notes on the weather, sharing stories of our work, making plans for the coming summer. His work ethic, his care for what he did, had inspired me again. I’d hung up feeling good, feeling energized.

That day, I collapsed on the floor of my that handbuilt house and sobbed. Nothing for the next month felt real. Writing this now, nine months later, it still feels impossible. The bridge he photographed that day is finished, and snow blanket it along with the rest of my hometown of Boise, Idaho. The world to me feels cold and worse off now than it was then.

His headstone is piled high with snow, and frozen sagebrush fill the vase. A surreptitious bronze plaque marks that bridge. His other bridges around the state don’t bear his name, and very few of those who cross them will ever have the slightest inkling of my father’s story.

It may be easy for some to sneer at all those elegies to 2016 as an annus horribilis. But for me, personally, it was. And for anyone with a sense of propriety and justice, things have taken a turn for the worse. The cold violence that always threatens to break through is that much nearer.

Hannah Arendt, one of the thinkers who offers me guidance in dark times, wrote about the value of work. By that, she meant the way that humans alter nature to provide a stable shelter for their lives. We create an enduring world, and when we care enough to make that world beautiful, our lives can be great and beautiful as well. My father believed in that idea, though he might not have phrased it that way. He spoke of engineers all too often suffering from “a poverty of the imagination.” He designed special platforms for nesting osprey on one bridge. He made sure not to block the view of a river. He wanted his bridges, all over Idaho, to be beautiful in addition to being safe. He didn’t want to add gingerbread. He wanted the bones of the bridge to be honest, clean, and pretty. He tried to find truth that was graceful, beautiful. He, unlike so many, worked rather than simply “making a living.”

I’m trying to work again, too. To seek and find truth and beauty in wood, in words, on the edges of America’s violent past. I’m looking for the light and life that holds the cold violence in check. My toolbox is full and slowly getting fuller. I was recently entrusted with some hundred-and-fifty-year-old tools. But I feel more like I stand at a beginning than an end. I now know the loneliness won’t fade. It will never be solved; it will never be healed. But that is why I must work: to keep that bright little flame that I’ve been given from sputtering out.


Anyone interested can read my dad’s obituary here. The Idaho Statesman also ran a nice story when the bridge opened.

The Bench

img_3701At 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”

A Woodworking Voyage: Prologue

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.dscf2575

Seeing Through Trees

Seeing Through Trees

So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am. Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish, too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses, an in not altogether unpleasant sadness–Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless!

I did not come to woodwork by experience. I did not grow up with a jack plane in my crib, or saws with blunted teeth for playthings. Instead, like many of the things that I love to do, I came to woodworking not through trees in the form of lumber, but in the form of paper: books. I grew up reading for adventure–tales of the sea, of wilderness survival, of romance and revenge. But some of those “adventures” were not all together beyond my reach, and reading about them taught me to love them. I read and gained some idea of models for good living, and how to feel about it. I enjoyed the reading, but it was the enjoyment of anticipation: I wanted to do it myself. But Henry David Thoreau doesn’t provide as many particulars in how he built his cabin as I would need as a complete greenhorn; he may have borrowed the axe, but he knew how to handle it.

Of course, Ishmael gave detailed instructions for whaling, but there is no market for whale oil these days, and Ishmael never really wished to be out killing whales at all, he just wanted to see the world; I don’t know 30 other sailors or any Quaker investors. So, since it’s hard to make a go of it on a sailing ship these days, my aspirations always circled back to handwork–not as a living, but to make the stuff that shelters and supports our lives. That includes the labor of the garden, and the work of making the goods of my daily world.

And at some point, probably while performing research for my MA thesis, I stumbled on The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz. I requested it by inter-library loan. As soon as it came in, I knew I was a fan. The material book was beautiful: bound in cloth and stamped like the few 19th century books I own. The contents were great too: Schwarz incorporates the historical perspective of scholarship that I admire. He writes personal narrative that uses particulars details of his life to draw general conclusions about society today. And he sprinkles in lots of GI tract jokes. Shortly after that book came in, I bought a beat up old jack-plane in an antique shop, and decided to start using what little spare money I had to buy tools that chanced by.

I knew I wasn’t going to get a complete kit all at once. But I had time. In fact, I had more time than money or space, so I just picked things up, $5 for a handsaw here, $10 for dividers there. Most of it came from junk shops. A few things from garage sales. Then I came to the Midwest and suddenly tools were everywhere. I farm sat, and was rewarded with a car load of tools that I fixed up. A neighbor called me over to help clean out a garage and said “take what you want.” So, after about 3 years of patiently storing and cleaning up the tools, I had enough to get started.

For the first series of this blog, I’ll highlight some of the meandering stories of my tools, and my meanderings through the books that are also important tools. My bookshelf and my toolchest are equally beloved.