Stubbornness is a Skill

It’s 5 p.m. on Sunday, and almost all of the students in my “Precision Handsawing” class are packing up their tools to head home after two punishing days of listening to my drivel while trying to perfect their handsawing.

But in one corner of this picturesque Kentucky classroom, Michael Rogen refuses to stop laying out his half-lap joints. He refuses to lay down his tools and quit. Michael above all refuses to lay down, give up and wait to die.

Things are getting worse for Michael. His degenerative disease – its name is unimportant – has claimed most of his mobility, nearly all of his natural dexterity but absolutely none of his stubborn will to be able to saw, plane and chisel furniture-quality joints by hand.

These tasks are hard enough for a grown man in good physical condition – most of my students from this weekend are probably still recovering from sore feet and forearms. But when you add on the fact that Michael can barely stand without two canes and has virtually no grip in one of his hands, it makes you ashamed to be so dammed healthy and lazy in comparison.

I’ve known Michael – a former actor – for a few years now. He started asking my advice on buying some tools and bit by bit has worked his way into my life and the lifes of other woodworkers, tool makers and woodworking instructors.

Despite the advice of his doctors, Michael traveled to Indianapolis last year to take my “Introduction to Hand Tools” class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. He was in better shape then, but by the end of the week I couldn’t believe that the guy was on his two feet and pounding out mortise after mortise with a mallet and chisel.

As we parted last May, Michael said, “I think this is it. I think this is my last class.”

Hardly.

Michael went on to take a class in building a blanket chest at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking. Then he took a class in making moulding planes from Larry Williams and Don McConnell followed directly by my class in sawing.

For the class, Michael took the bench next to mine, and while he had to have a little assistance with knifing a couple notches, he stubbornly declined other offers of help. He insisted on cutting his stock to rough length on a sawbench (I don’t know how he kept his balance), and he plowed through the project at a steady and slow pace.

At the end of the first day of this sawing class, I held a contest. I asked each student to make the best tenon he or she could manage with handsaws and a chisel. The tenon had to be consistent in its thickness and have clean shoulders.

Then all the students wrote their birthdate on their tenons and tossed them on my workbench. I left them there overnight so I was certain to forget whose tenon belongs to whom. On Sunday morning before class, I sorted through the joints, marked up their good points and bad and decided on a winner.

To everyone’s surprise (and delight) it was Michael’s tenon. For a piece of hand-cut work, it was solid. The tenon varied in its thickness by only a thousandth of an inch (or maybe two). The shoulders weren’t dead-nuts perfect, but they could be cleaned up with a shoulder plane easily and they outclassed many of the other tenons on my bench.

Michael (who lives in New York) was naturally suspicious that I had rigged the contest.

No so, my friend. You beat us all. Not only on that day, but in many other ways that have nothing to do with cheeks and shoulders, or tools and joinery.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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11 Responses to Stubbornness is a Skill

  1. Steve Kay says:

    Suddenly, my tennis elbow (#2 Phillips Screwdriver elbow, actually), which is preventing me from finishing my Holtzapfel bench, doesn’t seem like a big deal.

    Steve K.

  2. Jason says:

    Good entry, Chris. Keep up the inspiring work, Michael!

  3. Neil says:

    What is it about the character of woodworking that brings the best out of people!!!!! Hey Michael……pins or tails first??? Keep kick’in it!!!!

    break-a-leg….Neil

  4. Michael Rogen says:

    Chris,

    As I sat here reading your very kind words, I was fighting back the tears that began to flow freely and audibly. I lost that battle and my 10 year old son Zeke came in to see what was up, and I pointed to the screen. Zeke who is wise beyond his 10 years smiled and said "that is really nice, did you call Chris back and thank him?", I said not yet and that I’m sure that he probably left work for the day. He then wanted your phone number so he could thank you for writing about his daddy.

    Well I’m touched by your words and I thank you for you for them. For one of the few times I’m having trouble putting what I feel into words but as I had said sometime late Sunday that the reason that I can still get my body to a class is because of the people involved. Chris and Kelly, who I know longer but also Don and Larry, who I got to know, it is your kindness, caring, genorosity and knowledge which you have showed toward me that has been so genuine, it is what makes it a little bit easier to get to the class. I don’t think I would be able to do it without you truly wonderful, gifted and caring people. I thank you all and will see you again.
    And Chris, I need your phone number so Zeke can call you and thank you himself.

    Thank you all,
    Michael

  5. Brian Whittaker says:

    Michael
    It is good to meet a genuine hero.

    Chris
    Thank you for introducing us to this splendid person.

    Perhaps the next time you build a workbench, you could try for something that is rigid and versatile, but does not require a Kentucky mountain man with a team of burly editors to assemble and move it. As your story shows, some woodworkers are developing skills and perseverance as their physical strength is declining.

    Brian

  6. David says:

    Woodworking seems to have a great number of adherents that fight long odds to do what they love. Michael is one that you’ve noted, and I noticed that Larry Williams of Clark and Williams has some significant issues with shaking hands in his DVD on making traditional side-escapement wooden molding planes. I cannont imagine doing the sort of precise work that he does while being unable to hold my marking tools still to draw a pencil line.

    Sam Maloof is another – I’m not sure of his exact age, but I know it’s well into his 90’s, and he still goes to the shop every day. His example is very humbling when I want to complain about my sore neck muscles after a heavy day of carving – I’m (only) 44.

    David In Raleigh, NC

  7. John Clifford says:

    Very inspiring, Rock On Michael!

    John.

  8. Thanks for the inspiring post, Chris.
    And Michael, I wish for you many, many happy hours at the workbench.

  9. john says:

    Dear Michael,

    It is people like you that are an inspiration to the rest of us. The woodworking community is a great bunch of people. Then there are others who face a difficulty most of us can not fully comprehend. I salute your courage and will power. I have had the fortune to be around some people like you and I remain in awe and thanks to Chris for bringing this to our attention.

    John

  10. Larry Williams says:

    Chris and Michael,

    It was great to see you again, Chris.

    Michael; your humor, dedication and effort made our workshop the most memorable woodworking event of my life–Thanks! I’ll send you a copy of this photo when I get home. Here’s a link for now:

    Larry

  11. lilsue says:

    why am I not surprised?

    hang in there, babee.

    daKake

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