A Kind of Order — from ‘Honest Labour’

Editor’s note: For the next several weeks, we will feature some of our favorite columns from “Honest Labour: The Charles H. Hayward” years, along with some thoughts about why these particular columns hit the mark.

This column from 1960 is so timeless and relatable. There’s the inner nagging we all experience when a workshop or tool chest or pantry or closet has become disorganized, full and unmanageable. And then there’s the quiet scolding we all feel while organizing — “I will never let this happen again.” Next, the sweet satisfaction that accompanies the completed work. (Have you ever, later, stepped into your workshop or opened the closet door just to admire the tidiness?) Then the promises, the resolutions. But seemingly always, life gets in the way, as life does, and the whole cycle repeats itself.

Another reason I love this column? In it, Hayward peels back the gloss and reveals something he struggles with and even discloses some enviousness. For as much as I adore Hayward and his Chips from the Chisel columns, sometimes, especially if I read many in one sitting, I feel, well, exhausted. How could one person be so good at all the things? But here, Hayward recognizes his more human side, allowing him to pass along a lesson with empathy.

Finally, there’s his bit of jealousy. How wonderfully perfect is his discovery that all is not as it seems when comparing his workshed to that of his friend’s? And how often do we all do that, tenfold, now that we have social media showing us only the best of the best of everyone’s lives? For every beautiful piece of furniture shown there was the hidden heartbreaking split. For every organized workspace posted on Instagram you didn’t see what it looked like three days prior. For every smile, you didn’t know about last week’s anguish. And yet, Hayward recognizes the importance of reality — “after that I felt much better” — but also uses the experience to ever-push himself — “although the vision still leads me on, not so much now with a feeling of guilt as of an objective to be attained.”

— Kara Gebhart Uhl

A Kind of Order

We need to achieve a kind of order—that will enable us to keep an eye on things

There are few things more immediately rewarding than having a grand old turn out. It produces a feeling of satisfaction that is positively Jack Hornerish, if it was indeed that nursery-rhyme character who said “What a good boy am I,” at least in anyone like myself who never clears up his workshed until driven to it. When I can find no more space for anything or, more shameful still, when the right size screw of which there should be plenty somewhere simply refuses to come to hand, then I really start in. It is an event more or less annual, usually at this time of the year when home activities are getting well under way again. And never, never does it happen without my passing good resolutions to do this more often in future and, what is more, when dirty, tired but happy I stand back to survey the spick and span result, that at least I will in future keep everything in its place and a place for everything. Alas for good resolutions! Sooner or later one comes up against the time factor; things have to be put away in a hurry, odds and ends accumulate, and the whole business starts all over again.

I can confess this the more openly because for years the standard of tidiness always nagging at the back of my mind was the one glimpsed in the workshed of a friend who had recently moved into a new house. As I stared at the tools neatly ranged in position, garden tools hanging on appropriate nails near the door, carpentry tools in racks above the workbench, I felt awed. For John is an artist as well as a first-rate craftsman, a man whose creative gifts keep him in a state of almost perpetual ferment so that time ceases to have any meaning for him. And yet he could achieve this. What a beauty there was in such order and what a lesson there was in it for me. He beamed when I said as much.

The memory remained with me like a conscience, giving me a dismayed feeling of “What would John think of this!” when my own lot got out of hand. But it was not altogether without fruit. Little by little, after every grand turn out, small improvements began to creep in: there would be an additional shelf, extra hooks, even partitioned trays for those elusive screws and nails and small tools (cheap wooden or plastic cutlery trays, with partitions added as desired, are handy for this when time is lacking, as it usually is over this kind of job), so that at least a certain order began to persist through the bad periods. But how it lagged behind John’s I had ruefully to admit. And then, after an interval of some years I met him again and somehow the subject cropped up. He and his wife stared at one another in blank astonishment. “John’s workshop tidy!” she cried. “Oh it can’t have been his you saw. Why, it’s always in a hopeless mess.” Firmly I recalled the time and circumstances of the vision I had seen and they both burst out laughing. It must, they said, have been the one and only time it had ever been tidy.

After that I felt much better, although the vision still leads me on, not so much now with a feeling of guilt as of an objective to be attained. Common sense says that order in one’s work surroundings is an excellent thing, time saving and making for efficiency, in its own way carrying with it an inspiration to good work. Hard fact says that in an imperfect world where time is short and the demands on it fairly heavy, it is not always possible to do things the perfect way and, as always, we have to compromise. We need to achieve a kind of order, something that will enable us to keep an eye on things in general so that nails and screws are to hand if we want them, tools are kept in good, rust-free condition an oddments of wood protected from woodworm. It is no good storing those small choice pieces over the years if, when the time comes to use them, they are riddled with woodworm, liable to spread the pest all around and fit only to be burned. One of the “mucking out” precautions is a quick lick of wood preservative over any pieces that are likely to be stored for some time, and this is the time of the year when extra vigilance is most certainly desirable. 

Everything will not get done at once, but keeping at it, little by little and bit by bit, we do more or less keep pace. The high-lighted moments when we can look round at the perfect picture as we should like to keep it are few and far between, but how good when they come. And how good that we should have them, rather than let good materials go to ruin and the good tools deteriorate which our old faithfuls and the companions of our hands. 

— Charles Hayward

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11 Responses to A Kind of Order — from ‘Honest Labour’

  1. Andy Kevill says:

    I think I am looking forward to this book more than any so far from the LAP. It’s relatively easy to stock up on good books on the “how to” of woodworking but the prospect of one filled with intelligent musings inspired by woodworking is a great rarity and promises to be a treat. It may even be unique.

    I would venture only one microscopic criticism: you’re publishing it at precisely the wrong time of year! It should have come out in October when the nights are seriously drawing in. Then we would have had the prospect of winter evenings full of the fireside, the book and a glass of decent wine.

    • We did an audiobook, “The Joiner and Cabinetmaker.” And it was voiced by Roy Underhill. It was weeks of work for lots of people, and it turned out well. Despite this, few people bought it. We’ve made maybe $500 off it in the last eight years. I do love audiobooks when traveling, but I think the majority of the audience uses podcasts and the like for this sort of thing.

      • Joe says:

        I did not know about that – at all! I’ll head over to the shop part of the site (never visit it, you don’t ship to rightpondia). I like listening to audio books on the commute as well as in the wood shop (when cleaning up, or sorting stuff, looking for that small box of screws…)

  2. Gav says:

    In a cyclone there is a quiet spot, the eye of the storm. There is an eerie lack of activity as I have been told from those whom have experienced it. Then all hell breaks loose again, stuff gets destroyed and stuff gets done. Cyclone season comes around pretty regularly. The top of my workbench suffers the same transitions. You are not alone 🙂

  3. asarumcanadensis says:

    Aah… I feel better already! Reading the blog post by Kara (from Charles Hayward) gives me something all my effort at organizing my working space fails to: the realization that I’m not alone.

  4. Jeff says:

    In the wide world of psychology, there is one Law (that a majority of psychologists have never heard of) that approaches scientific law like say the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. It is Coue’s Law. Emile Coue was a French pharmacist who discovered that people got better sometimes in spite of the drug given them. His Law forms the foundation of drug efficacy. It is why we have placebos and double blind studies. My version of the Law is: Imagination wins over willpower, but only every time.

    For me, shop organization is a work of willpower that loses to my imagining the some say the finished project in all its glory, ahem. I just cannot imagine one of those shops where, like some gravel driveways, every stone is turned the right way actually being mine. So moons ago, I declared freedom from this law of shop organization. Everything does get to its place for about one night a month.

    But if anybody wants to have that pristine shop on ~30 nights a month, then the path is not via the exercise of willpower. This is obvious. How many New Years resolutions are actually fulfilled? The New Years resolution is another “law” from which I declared freedom moons ago.

    Now if I can just get my wife to quit imagining that pristine shop, then …

    • Jeff says:

      BTW, everything getting to its place on one night a month doesn’t mean that its all on the same night. 🙂

  5. Jeff says:

    I guess that I cannot leave this subject alone. A thought provoking article.

    The state of being organized is an illusion. Five minutes after achieving that state considered organized, you probably discovered some aspect that was not.

    In reality, you can never guess how a job will be done or an objective reached UNTIL … it is. Try it twice and the accomplishment will have occurred differently from the first time. This will happen certainly in minute detail, but often in macro, too. For example, the smoothing plane may have been on the workbench in the second iteration when you needed it. No matter your criteria for measuring organization, it will never be perfect for every project or iteration of a project.

    I think a better question is: What makes you come alive in the wood shop? I think a shop set up to facilitate that is of way more value than something like a scientific organization.

  6. Mike Siemsen says:

    Oscar Wilde quote: Without order nothing can exist-without chaos nothing can evolve.

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