‘The Intelligent Hand’ by David Savage


Editor’s note: For several months I’ve wanted to tell you about a book that furniture maker David Savage is writing for Lost Art Press called “The Intelligent Hand.” But each time I tried to frame the book in words, I stumbled. It’s not a how-to book, but then it is. It’s a book about why we do things, though that’s a laughably weak description of it. It’s about working wood at the very top limits of design and craftsmanship, though it will appeal mightily to beginners.

And so I decided to cop out and share with you a small section of the first chapter – the part that really grabbed me. OK, that’s a bit wrong as well. The first paragraph of this book might be the most arresting thing I’ve read in woodworking. So we’ll save that bit for later.

David is working hard on the book and a good deal of the text has been fleshed out. I don’t know when it will be complete. Like all Lost Art Press books, it will be done when we can’t improve it any more.

— Christopher Schwarz

Way back in the early 1980s I read books by James Krenov that inspired me to take up working with wood, making furniture. He inspired a generation to hug trees, love wood and make as beautifully as one could, but from the position of a skilled amateur. Jim never sought, I believe, to make a living from this. That was my madness. What Jim did do, however, was touch upon the reason that is at the core of this book. Why do we go that extra mile? Why do we break ourselves on that last 10 percent? This is the 10 percent that most people would not even recognise, or care about, even if it bit them on the leg. This is the bit that really hurts to get right, both physically and mentally.

But get it right, deliver the piece and she says: “Wow, David, I knew it would be good but not that good.” Get this right, over-deliver and soon you don’t need too many more new clients, for she will want this experience again and again. We have been making for the same clients now for most of my working life. They get it, they like it and they have the means to pay for it. Your job is to do it well enough to get the “Wow David,” have the satisfaction of doing it right, get the figures right and feed your children. Not easy I grant you, but for some of you it will become a life well lived.

This is the quality thing at the centre of our lives. This is the issue that brings people to Rowden from all over the world, each with some form of bleeding neck. Each knowing they can do more with their lives. They come with a damage that they feel can be fixed with a combination of physical work and intelligent solutions. Both are essential.

Work is unfashionably sweaty. We generally now sit at terminals in cool offices. We are bound by contracts of employment that would make an 18th century slave owner look benign. The only exercise we get is the twitching of our fingers and the occasional trip to the coffee machine. Our bodies, these wonderful pieces of equipment, are allowed to become indolent and obese. We feed up on corn starched, fast food and wait for retirement. Exercise, if we take it, has no meaning. We don’t exercise to do anything we run or jog, but we go nowhere. We work out in the gym and get the buzz, the satisfaction of the body’s response to exercise. But we don’t use the energy constructively to make stuff.

White collar work has become what we do, almost all of us. It pays the bills and keeps us fed, we get a holiday and our children are kind of OK. And that is fine for most of us. But there are some of you who know that something is missing. Something creative, some way to spend your day working, physically exercising your body and your mind. Thinking and revising what you are making, as the consequence of the quality of your thoughts. This is intelligent making; this is The Intelligent Hand.

This then is written for you. This is to help, encourage and support a decision to leave a world where thought and work are separated. This is for the brave souls who need to plough a contrarian furrow, where intelligence and making exist together, and you are in control of your life. Don’t be scared but don’t expect it to be dull or easy. But a life well lived never is dull or easy.

— David Savage

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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29 Responses to ‘The Intelligent Hand’ by David Savage

  1. I like it……. keep going…..

  2. studioffm says:

    Well thats nice of you to say Chris thank you

  3. Mark White says:

    Is David trying to tell us how to make a living from furniture making? Is he telling us this is what he does? If he is, is he speaking from experience, I really don’t think so, David makes a very comfortable living from employing good makers to teach people how to make, could his furniture and design business stand on its own feet, could he survive solely on this, from what I’ve heard it could not. Perhaps a more apt book from him would be how to subsidise your furniture making business.

    • jelwell82 says:

      Sometimes I have thoughts that I decide not to write down…

    • gilgaron says:

      Well sure… in the blurb he’s (primarily) extolling the joy of making stuff, not the joy of owning one of his pieces.

    • studioffm says:

      You are dead right. I have always had the view that we needed different income streams to support the security of a business. I have written for magazines and there is a tradition in Britain taken fee paying students. This was very prominent in the Arts and Craft movement, the Edward Barnsley workshop for example took fee paying students. . However in the 35 years I have traded furniture making was always the main income and profit stream . it has only been since my mid fifties that I chose to not work with new clients and take more students.
      I am not saying we did a great job, as we didn’t, or that you should copy us. We made lots of mistakes. What i am suggesting is that despite all the wealth and security our age has given us there may be a few of you who don’t feel good doing it. There are lots of contrarian ways to get to feel better and live better this is only one feeble attempt at it.

      david savage

  4. Chris Decker says:

    Some of this is hard to hear because of how true it rings, to me at least. Today I will go from meeting to meeting helping GE factories around the world figure out how to transport jet engine parts quickly and efficiently. I will stand for 3-4 hours today, but only because I choose to. My body is present while my mind is constantly mulling over how to fix the wobble I recently noticed in my bandsaw. When I get home, I will play dinosaurs with my sons and dress-up with my daughter. I will love every second of it. I will hug my wife and with her have the only meaningful conversation of my day. It will last for 5-10 minutes before she leaves to work at my mom’s chocolate shop. As soon as the kids are in bed, I will be in my workshop, finally alive.

    • hgordon4 says:

      A lot of us are like that Chris. I’m typing this as I start my day – gutting through my 30th tax season. Every year I go almost 3 months without any shop time. I’ve owned my own firm for over 20 years now, and I remind myself daily to be thankful for what I have and what it’s allowed my wife (who’s also has a career) and me to do for our kids in terms of education and life experiences, and family flexibility (at least for 9 months of the year). That education (college at this point) is almost over. And things are going to change. Because as Savage writes, and you pointed out as well, it’s not really living. Kudos to you for standing 3 to 4 hours. I have a Versatables desk that allows me to sit or stand (actuator columns) and keeps me from becoming a total spud during these 3 months. And I have framed copies of Plate 11 and Chris Schwarz’s Anarchist Tool Chest plan on the wall next to me. As if I need reminding…

  5. Richard says:

    This extract and Mark White’s comment both remind me of Peter Korn’s book, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters. Sign me up. Looking forward to this one.

  6. Dan Zehner says:

    I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this book!

  7. pat520 says:

    What is life about?
    What is making a living?
    Isn’t, it all about being happy and helping?
    When are you starting a pre-order list?

    Be safe and enjoy.

  8. jayedcoins says:

    “Work is unfashionably sweaty. We generally now sit at terminals in cool offices. We are bound by contracts of employment that would make an 18th century slave owner look benign.”

    This paragraph, in its entirety, resonates with me in the sense that I write software by trade and was drawn to hand tool woodworking as an amateur because it was a way to build a skill with my hands and get me off of a screen.

    I encourage everyone to walk on by and ignore me if we disagree, but I’d regret not pointing out — LAP and Mr. Savage might want to consider how the final sentence in the above quote comes off. A paper or the whip? A non-compete clause on termination or literally being fed to the dogs? Hyperbole has its purpose, but perhaps you can see what I mean.

    • 100% agree; that is an outrageous comparison. I’m in the same boat. Digital forensics turns into long hours behind a screen and hand tools helps me get out of that mental space and into producing tangible objects. But to compare it to actual slavery it’s gross. For one, I’m paid for my work. My daughter wasn’t born into Digital Forensics and forced to work. I’m treated like a human being with dignity and safety of my own body and am not subjected to centuries long disenfranchisement.

      Maybe re-consider that line during the editing process…

      • studioffm says:

        Maybe you are right.
        However i have a close family member who recent had a job with a company paying less than minimum wage which was called Zero Hours Contract. They did not contract her for 40 hours but as many as they wanted, or did not want. They demanded in the contract that she be available to work weekends or evenings when they wanted her. This effectively prevented her taking other part time work. They monitored every moment of her day, listening to every phone call seeing and commenting upon every e-mail . She had targets to meet and the stress of failure. She was free to leave but would then face the issue in a small community of a bad employment reference. And this is in a “progressive” country.

        I maybe wrong but think there were some more benign slave owners who treated their slaves better than this.

        • A slave owner cannot, by definition, be benign. They are taking ownership of a person without their consent and stealing through violence their labor.

          That said, this likely isn’t the correct forum for this discussion and we’re like to run afoul of the mod’s leniency here.

  9. Chris,

    As I sit in my studio I can for a short time look at 4 pieces made by David Savage! Each beautiful and amazing. Each so inspiring and breathtaking. That 10% he is talking about is what I am noticing as I drool over every detail. I’m so exited to see this book is going to happen. I can only hope and pray I get to meet David sooner than later. Thank you Lost Art Press for publishing hands down the best books in the field of lost art.

  10. You might also want to look at the book titled “The Thinking Hand” by Juhani Pallasmaa by John Wiley & Sons. Looking forward to reading more about The Intelligent Hand.

  11. jaredtohlen says:

    Wow. Such excellent and relevant words! Will be looking forward to this. What David seems to be talking about here is precisely why I’ve taken up woodworking and other productive physical activities lately. I’ve called it “analog time” since it’s in heavy contrast to my endless screen time in the day job.

  12. charlie says:

    This is some pretty heady stuff here.
    It makes me wonder why LAP doesn’t publish books like “10 Easy Weekend Projects You Can Build”?

    It would make things much simpler.

  13. lignumvitay says:

    One copy please

    Dean Hummel

    Sent from my iPad


  14. Mark White says:

    A while ago I had a conversation with the furniture making course leader of one of our colleges here in the UK, he made reference to the rise in “gentlemen makers” a term he used to describe the growing number of people who quit their highly paid highly stressful jobs in order to become designer makers, this life and career changing decision made secure in the knowledge that their bank accounts were fat and the pension pot substantial, what affect if any would this have on your average apprentice?
    In my opinion the affect is adverse, what chance does your average school leaver have of gaining a position in one of the UK’S leading furniture making company’s, the choice if you are the employer is this, pay a trainee to learn with little or no return within the first two years with no guarantee the trainee will turn out be any good, alternatively get paid upwards of £15000.00 per year to offer tuition to a number of people and if one shows outstanding promise could take up a full time role in your company, no risk there.
    After our conversation I did a quick Internet search of a few of the UK’S leading furniture making companies that offered tuition, I found only one who would pay to employ a trainee, ironically it was the Barnsley Workshop who have a trust set up by Barnsley himself, if as David states the UK has a tradition of fee paying tuition it equally has a tradition of employed tuition through the City & Guilds system, I just wonder how these apprentices will fare in a market place awash with well healed designer makers who do not have to rely on what they produce to make a living and what the knock on affect of this will be, good or bad.
    I would also be interested to know how many of these gentleman makers actually stick to it, if I was parting with £18000.00 for one of David’s courses I think the first question I would ask is what are my chances, the second being how long will it take to recoup my fee.

    • Mark,

      I’m going to ask nicely for you to refrain from your uninterrupted personal criticism of David. After reading all the comments you have posted during the last couple years, it seems to be your thing.

      You have your own blog. Perhaps your readers would be more receptive to thrashing a fellow craftsman.

      David doesn’t need defending. His work and long history in the craft do the talking. But I will say that I have met hundreds and hundreds of talented furniture makers all over the world during the last 20 years as part of my job. I have met people who run schools because they are burned out. Pros who know little more than most amateurs. And very successful rip-off artists.

      David is none of these things. After being embedded at the school for two weeks and interviewing students (former and present), I can only say I’m envious of his talent.

      And if I were starting out as a new student in woodwork, I’d save up the money and go to Rowden. No question.



  15. Lee B says:

    I agree with the criticism of modern jobs. The problem is that they’re necessary if you want a modern lifestyle. I think there’s a contradiction if we’re meant to escape these jobs and do woodworking in order to earn enough money to live the sort of life made possible by other people doing these jobs.

    If humans aren’t meant to be in those environments or to do that kind of work, the solution I think is to give up the things that necessitate it. If we all lived a simpler life, working up a sweat in the crafts and small scale farming and other jobs more in line with our own nature (and our environment) we’d do away with a lot of nasty side effects of modern life; but we’d also do away with the massive energy and resource surplus allowed by a modern industrial economy and with it the demand for high dollar furniture pieces and the like.

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