Wisdom of the Hands


David Esterly (1944-2019) with his piece Quodlibet #7, 2012. Photo: Bernini Poussin

I never had the privilege of meeting David Esterly (1944-2019), who died last month after a battle with Lou Gerhig’s disease. Esterly was a giant in the world of carving. Not only in his technical skill but in his ability to transmit ideas in a beautiful and lucid manner.

His book “The Lost Carving” is not a woodworking book per se. And it is definitely not a book from the “why we make things” genre, which tries to bridge the gap between people who make things and people with “big thoughts.”

Intead, it’s much more of an autobiography of someone who has utterly devoted his life to a craft and can explain what that feels like from the inside. Even if you don’t carve, I highly recommend you read it.

For me, “The Lost Carving” helped resolve many of the frustrations I experience when trying to communicate about woodworking. On the one hand, woodworking is deeply technical. So you have to deal with that. But the technical nature of the craft (tool steels, wood movement, finishing chemistry etc.) is a tiny part of what I think about every day at the bench. Anyone can learn the technical, tacit stuff. That’s what books, magazines and classes are for.

The important stuff is what Esterly wrote about in “The Lost Carving.” Here are two short excerpts, one of which Joel Moskowitz also referenced in his obituary of Esterly.

In the usual way of thinking, you have ideas, and then you learn technical skill so you can express them. In reality it’s often the reverse: skill gives you ideas. The hand guides the brain nearly as much as the brain guides the hand.

The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them. To carve is to be shaped by the wood even as you’re shaping it.

— “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making” (2012)

This is the real stuff. This is what it feels like for me when working by hand. One example: Years ago, my hands taught my brain how to flatten a board by hand. Before I’d ever heard of Joseph Moxon or I had met anyone who worked by hand, I had boards that needed to be dressed flat with handplanes.

The instructions I had were from modern books – stuff from the 1980s. And the techniques were woefully complex. I knew the task couldn’t be as difficult as described. So I took my jack plane to a warped piece of work and just messed with it. After some with-the-grain missionary-style planing, I tried things that (I thought) were no-nos – planing diagonally, planing across the grain, pulling the tool, taking short and localized strokes.

Within a few hours my hands had some ideas. Then it was just about getting the ideas into my brain so that I could explain the process to myself. Why did diagonal stokes fix warping? Why is traversing a board so effective on the bark face of the board?

I’m sure that all of this seems obvious to the peanut gallery. But that’s because someone probably offered you a good explanation at some point.

The act of sawing is another example. I have learned more about sawing from listening to my hands than to any person, dead or alive.

After I realized that explicit knowledge – the book stuff – isn’t as important as the deep-tissue stuff, I changed my tack as a workshop writer. Starting with “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I tried to dial down the technical information in my books and replace it with text intended to inspire confidence in the reader and cause him or her to pick up the tools. (Whether I succeeded or not is a thread more suited for LumberJocks than here.)

So you have Esterly to thank for that (or not).

If you wish to learn more about Esterly, here are some great links:

His obituary in The New York Times.
A nice profile in Harvard Magazine.
A sweet piece with a sad ending on CBS Sunday Morning.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. The title of this blog is a hat tip to Doug Stowe’s blog. Doug’s life has been dedicated to preserving skill through teaching children at the Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs, Ark.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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16 Responses to Wisdom of the Hands

  1. Pascal Teste says:

    Thanks for the links to another interesting craftsman. Far from being a very experienced woodworker, but not a beginner, I do appreciate that in your book you leave us figure out some of the technical stuff. Also I find that in conjunction with the text, your photographs give many clues on how to proceed with a task, and being visual, it works well for me.

  2. boclocks says:

    “The Anarchist’s Design Book” changed my whole idea about woodworking, and other things as well. Your intention worked well with me. That needs to be said here, not in the LumberJocks blog.


  3. John Mak says:

    First time heard about Mr. Esterly, the Letter Rack just stunning. Thanks for the post.

  4. Rick says:

    I love this Esterly quote “I never had a sense of getting better, but my earlier work gets worse and worse.”

  5. His V&A exhibition on Grinling Gibbons back in ’98 was absolutely outstanding.
    What’s stuck with me from “The Lost Carving” is that you can be an absolute master of your craft and there’ll still be someone along to tell you that you’ve got it all wrong – and there’s more than a hint of academia looking down on craftsmanship, in Esterly’s particular circumstance when writing that book. Of course, the irony of such an attitude when it comes to the historical study of someone involved in, yep, craftsmanship should be seen from outer space…

  6. Bob Easton says:

    As Finn Koefoed-Nielsen said, “…there’s more than a hint of academia looking down on craftsmanship, …” The gulf between academia and craftsmanship is often huge and sometimes rancorous.

    David Esterly had one foot planted firmly in each camp, and brought them smoothly together. His research work, knowledge and teaching about carving as an art form could match or exceed that of anyone in academia. At the same time, his down to earth work as a carver is agreeable to, and approachable by, any craftsman. He truly brought both together. I had the pleasure of knowing him only slightly and am grateful for his kindness and warm kinship.

    It is sad to see him go. Yet, he tells us (in that CBS piece) not to feel sorry for him, that he’s had a long lucky life, an astute reference to Lou Gehrig’s 1939 speech: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/3/lou-gehrig-luckiest-man-speech-full-text/

  7. Jim Blank says:

    Bravo Chris. A fascinating article about an equally fascinating man.
    Many thanks.

  8. nrhiller says:

    This is a fascinating introduction to someone who had been off my radar screen. Thank you. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

    I also want to put in a good word for those with “big thoughts” who write about making things. Their writing, too, is valuable–not that you were denying this, but the quotation marks got to me, especially as I’ve noticed that you’re admirably sparing in using them. It’s easy to forget that there was a time (not long ago) when working with your hands was not seen as worthwhile, meaningful or cool, but considered a reasonable path for those who lacked the intellectual potential for a career in the white-collar world. This is not to suggest that I needed Matthew Crawford or Peter Korn, to cite a couple of these writers, to justify my path in life; long before I read their books I’d had many of the insights they elaborate, thanks to my unstoppable internal arguing while working at the bench or contorting myself while installing built-ins on jobsites. But each of them added new perspectives to my appreciation of the work we do in shops, whether we’re making things or fixing them. (And as with any thought-provoking book, each of these also elicited a hearty gag reflex at a few points.) Credit where credit’s due!

  9. John Jenkins says:

    That CBS Sunday Morning piece is a gem!

  10. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    Never heard of the man. Thanks for the tip. Very interesting! Isn’t a lot of this also similar to what is called tacit knowledge?

  11. jpassacantando says:

    Good one Chris, really good.


  12. josef1henri says:

    There was also a very nice obit in the Economist magazine.

  13. Thanks for this. It’s always amazed me that so many woodworkers had never heard of David Esterly. His work is just out of this world.

    I got started in woodworking shortly after the original big thought woodworkers became wildly popular. Folks like Sam Maloof and George Nakashima wrote a lot about working wood, and inspired a generation. I admit that their ideas didn’t affect me much. I didn’t really identify with their philosophies. It was nice, and I had no problem with it, but it didn’t speak to me. I felt like the guy listening to someone quoting Italian poets while everyone else chuckled in a knowing way.

    But Esterly’s thoughts on his work, and craft in general, really appealed to me. He expressed ideas that I all ways felt, but could never express. I had countless moments of “Yes! Yes!” while reading “Lost Carving.” Thanks for making more people aware of him.

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