“Who do you suppose has it easier? Ones with religion or just taking it straight? It comforts them very much but we know there is no thing to fear.”
— Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940)
When you tell people you’re into hand tool woodworking they look at you like you’re in a cult. From an objective stance, they’re not completely off base. The dominant religious belief in woodworking is still fueled by electrons coming from the wall and, the dominant faith tradition in our society is still consumerism. The hand tool woodworker is a weird duck. An outsider. A glitch in the matrix.
I’ve always had more books than shelves on which to store them because words and ideas are important to me. We are all storied creatures. We live, move and have our being in the great narrative of time where the right word at the right moment might just change your life. This week I received my copy of “The Anarchist’s Design Book” in the mail nearly one year to the day after opening a similar package containing “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” and so it seemed like a good and fitting time to stop and reflect on my own conversion experience and my first year as an aesthetic anarchist. A task easier said than done.
What you are reading now is (at least) the fourth time I have tried to write this story. The first draft read like hagiography, the second was philosophy and the third was autobiography. This version, I think, is the most honest. To be fair, though, this story didn’t really begin with The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. It began two years ago in March when my father died suddenly at 62. His death came, in part, because of a lifetime working in a factory he didn’t love for a company that considered him disposable. His father died at 62 under nearly the same conditions (albeit a different factory) and was put in the ground the day his first Social Security retirement check made it to the mailbox.
That sort of thing is apt to make you more than a little reflective.
I spent a lot of time during the year following my father’s untimely demise thinking about my own life, my aspirations and the things I was passionate about. The question loomed large in my mind: “If I knew only had 27 years left above the dirt, was I going to be satisfied with the way they were spent?” By the time “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” arrived in my mailbox the revolution had already begun.
I come from a family of capable tradespeople. My maternal grandfather spent his career as a journeyman electrician, but he was also a jack of all trades around the house. When I was a boy I would sneak into his workshop and wonder at the tools there. The massive cast-iron table saw was juxtaposed against the brace and handsaws on the wall, and I can still remember the acrid yet sweet smell of 3-in-1 oil mixed with sawdust hanging in the air. It was there I learned to tinker. To break things down and to create new things. I learned how to hammer a nail and saw a board more or less straight. I learned to design and create. I learned the power of my mind and the capacity of my hands.
Life has a way of taking over though, and some of those early lessons were lost to time and choice. During the next few decades I continued to work with wood on occasion, but if I’m being honest, confidence often outstripped skill, and I’ve made a fair amount of furniture that I’m not proud of. Some of it is still in use around the house, some of it has been relegated to the garage and some is waiting to be deconstructed and made into something better. At best you could classify most of the joinery as “inventive.” Nearly all of it is finished in “honey pine” stain.
Out in my shed you can find the remains of a queen bed I built using only a circular saw, chisel, jigsaw and router boasting what might be considered distant cousins to mortise-and-tenon joints. It saw almost a decade of use, but it isn’t anything to write home about. While building that bed I bought my first handplane — a newer model Stanley jack plane purchased at the local big box home store. It was clear I had no idea what to do with it and If you were to sneak into my shed right now you could still see the tear-out it left on that bed. A friend “borrowed” it and never brought it back. “Good riddance,” I thought, and I went out and bought a table saw. Like most hobbyist woodworkers, the idea had been implanted in my brain that if I just had better tools and a well-lit place I could produce world class furniture. But my skills leveled off, my heart wasn’t in it and I continued to make junk. Usable junk to be sure, but nothing I would be proud to pass on to my children.
“The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” and my ensuing journey into aesthetic anarchism has taught me more in the past 12 months about joinery and cabinet making than the preceding 35 years combined. It has helped me to understand that my work never improved because I was focusing on the wrong things. I was a consumer of my own work. I just wanted the finished products and didn’t really want to spend time developing skills. Rather than seeing each new project as an opportunity to learn something I saw it as an opportunity to acquire a new tool, but we all know that buying new tools to become a better woodworker is like buying a new pair of running shoes and believing that you’re healthier. What I really needed was fewer tools and more time understanding how they worked. Some people have that capacity with power tools. For me, at least, I needed to strip things down and start from a different place.
The past year has been an evolution for me from a power tool dominated shop to a hand-tool-only mindset. I began by setting aside my orbital sander and tuning up an old Stanley jack plane that I found languishing in an antique store. This plane worked immeasurably better than the one I had purchased new and I was amazed as I spent hours making shavings out of every scrap piece of pine in my shop. I was fascinated by how the blade interacted with the wood and how I interacted with the blade. The visceral and intimate connection this tool gave me to the work was intoxicating, and so it is not surprising that when the motor of my (admittedly underwhelming) table saw burned up while re-sawing some wood, I didn’t give it a second thought before carrying it out to the curb and seeking out a decent set of rip and crosscut handsaws to replace it.
I read “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” at least twice in the month between its arrival and the arrival of my third daughter in April of last year. Then, for the first few weeks of her life I would sit up at night rocking her to sleep with those new ideas swirling around in my mind, binge watching old episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop.” Somewhere in the middle of all of that, enlightenment rested upon my heart and I finally listened to the lesson life had been trying to teach me for some time: My primary motivator is process not product. Something in my soul finds peace and purpose in each individual stroke of the saw and pass of the plane. When I focus on the product all I can think about is getting it done, but I take far more joy in how a thing gets done than gloating over the finished product. From the cradle to the coffin, delight is found in the pieces that make up the whole. The net effect of all of this enlightenment on my craftsmanship has been measurable. The work is more meaningful and the end result is far beyond anything I had previously done. I might almost call it good.
I still get concerned looks from time to time when I start talking about handplanes, clocked screws and breaking down stock with a handsaw, but I’m OK with that. Owning and naming my own tendency toward aesthetic anarchism has been refreshing, exhilarating and most certainly liberating. It has given me the courage to renounce my allegiance to many a falsely held belief, to call out bullshit where I see it, and to name beauty when it is apparent. I have been both challenged and encouraged by these books and this philosophy, but I have also found a community of others on the same journey and I have finally found my way back to a place where I can almost smell the sawdust and machinist oil in my grandfather’s workshop again. It’s not always a safe place, but it is a good place, and I’ll settle for that.
— Jim McConnell, The Daily Skep