My Grandma West spent a large part of her life observing my grandfather, Joe, and my uncle, Tom, at work – either on a house or in the shop. Both were skilled woodworkers, among other things, but each had a different way of looking at the craft.
“Joe could look at a staircase or some other project and knew exactly how everything should go together,” she told me once. “Tom could look at the same project and knew exactly how everything could go wrong.”
When the two worked together, it was a struggle at times.
Though my DNA doesn’t indicate it, I inherited exactly equal parts of Grandad and Uncle Tom. The Grandad chain of DNA is the “hell yes we can build this just let me get my toolbelt” polymer that puts my feet on the floor every morning at 6:30 a.m. The Uncle Tom part of the double helix is what makes me draw out every angled joint in full size to see how everything intersects before I’ll pick up a tool heavier than a pencil.
Most times, it’s a good combination of traits. Grandad offers the “go fever,” while Uncle Tom keeps me out of trouble.
But other days, I’m immobilized. I can see everything that might go wrong with an operation. But then I wonder: Can I really see *everything*? Could I be missing something obvious? And then I go back over all my drawings and the cutlist. Twice. Thanks, Uncle Tom.
Meanwhile, Grandad is tapping his foot. He would be done and onto the next task.
This week, both men are working in my shop. I had an oak seat to saddle, and it was a riddle. The seat is made up of two boards. On one of the boards, the grain is mild. On the other board, the grain has a wild grain reversal right at the seat’s pommel.
Is this a good thing? A bad thing? I draw it out and try to figure out how the scorp should move. But I don’t know what’s going on inside the glue joint between the two boards. So I set the seat aside to think about it some more. Perhaps I should cut the seat apart? Get a look at the grain inside? And then glue the boards back together?
Grandad rolls his eyes, and scrounges for a Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookie in the kitchen.
That’s when I know I need to listen to another deceased woodworker, Joseph Moxon.
“Therefore you muſt examine the Temper of your Stuff, by eaſy Trials, how the Plane will work upon it, and ſet your Iron accordingly,” Moxon wrote in his chapter on fore planes.
This is one of the most important sentences in Moxon. And I think about it every day: “Easy Trials.”
I step up to the chair’s seat with a scorp and take the lightest cuts possible across the grain of the seat at various angles. I remove about 1/64” of material with each pass, but I can clearly see a difference in how the wood cuts as I adjust the tool’s angle.
It doesn’t look like I am accomplishing anything. But I am finding out everything that can go wrong. I adjust the tool and take off a 1/32” of material. Then I bear down harder and take 1/16”.
I find the rhythm that allows me to take heavier and heavier cuts. And I have a good roadmap of the work ahead thanks to my earlier “easy trials.”
And I am alone in the shop. With the work.
— Christopher Schwarz
21 thoughts on “Two Wests Inside Me”
Great post! Moxon’s quote would be a fun one to engrave on the bottom of the seat, a reminder that chairs are a great way to think through life’s ‘Easy Trials’.
This little article reminded me of me, and made me want to read Moxon.
A great essay, as usual. Thank you.
I loved this explanation. Both helpful and memorable. Thanks.
Go West, young man.
Are you really alone in the shop? Or, are grandpa Joe and uncle Tom there with you, observing and whispering suggestions?
I picture Grandpa, Uncle, and Joseph Moxon looking on like Jedi ghosts. . .
Very ably performed. Thank you.
This is great creative writing, entertaining and instructive to read!
I think you might have also been channeling little bit of Hayward while writing this post.
As a very young apprentice carpenter I remember staring, ” like a deer in the headlights”, at the hole left in a home by a vehicle impact. ” Just start, the rest will follow through” , my mentor said. Best advice I have ever recieved.
I often feel the hands of the past owners of my old tools guide me.
I find reading ancient medical Chinese poetry helps. Especially Tao Yuanming
I made my home amidst this human bustle,
Yet I hear no clamour from the carts and horses.
My friend, you ask me how this can be so?
A distant heart will tend towards like places.
From the eastern hedge, I pluck chrysanthemum flowers,
And idly look towards the southern hills.
The mountain air is beautiful day and night,
The birds fly back to roost with one another.
I know that this must have some deeper meaning,
I try to explain, but cannot find the words.
truly an amazing explanation. You earned yourself another follower!
Good article man. I often can feel my grandpa’s presence with me. He was an Amish shoe repairman. farmer, and from all accounts an able carpenter. And I miss him.
I’m often paralyzed by the aim, aim, aim, then aim some more syndrome. then i learned of the military approach find the 80/20 solution. find a solution that solves 80% of the problem. then move forward. adjust to get the other 20% as you go.
This is perhaps one of the best and most important posts on this blog, thank you.
You inly pass this way once so go for the best vision and procrastinating just leads to other problems.
You didn’t hesitate to create this essay, did you? Please keep sharing with the rest of us.
Man, I love how you write
Mmm sounds ALL too familiar. Only difference is i get creative with those heavy cuts after about 3 bourbons (or tequilas this week) on ice. Makes for some good cut fingers, dents in my bench, and perhaps a dent or two in my tool. Kidding of course, this russian-ancestry liver just keeps on processing–guess its like the Hulk! 😜Love you in AZ Mr Schwarz…. keep on a bloggin!
My grandfather and I share my shop. My father is present, too. Grandfather Claes immigrated to Chicago from Sweden in 1922. He was an architect, builder and developer. Although I saw his reverence for fine hand tools, I never knew him as a woodworker. He built a successful business building houses in Skokie that was destroyed during the Great Depression. He rebuilt the business, but never regained the fire. My father went corporate and heavily into power tools. Technology could do everything better. Dad collected and hoarded tools. He drew beautiful plans, carefully calculated and measured. Rarely, however, did Dad finish a project. I collect and hoard LAP books. I read them to connect to traditions, techniques and feel for the woodworking my grandfather learned in the Sjöld tradition and the rigors of his Architecture and Engineering education at Chalmers in Sweden. I also struggle to see a project through. I am challenged to solve the woodworking tasks I face with the (very many) tools I have, and not “needing” a specialist tool that will take 6 weeks to arrive. My shop would not be the same without these spirits. I celebrate the completion of each project with a sip of aquavit and thanks to these humans who made me what I am.
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