“The completion of the new altar canopy in St. Paul’s Cathedral in May of this year  was an event of considerable importance in the world of woodwork. This great structure is 54 ft. high by 26 ft. wide and is supported by groups of corinthian pillars, amongst which are four spiral columns with wreaths of bay leaves carved between the bines. Each column was built up of twenty-two sectors put together cooper fashion and assembled with Aerolite 300 synthetic resin glue.
“The job of turning great columns of this size had its own special problems, not the least of which was a lathe big enough for the purpose. Much of the spiral was cut by a device travelling in a slide rest. This left on a sort of spiral collar (see hollow nearest camera) in which the projecting bay leaves could be carved.
“The completion of a magnificent structure of this kind is an effective reply to those who claim that there are no woodworkers left in the country capable of tackling some of the fine joinery and cabinet work left to us by past generations.”
— “Windmills of the Skyline,” Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, July 1958
“A craftsman may have an excellent knowledge of the standard measurements for all ordinary articles of furniture and yet fail to produce beauty in his work because of the lack of that artistic perception which we call a sense of proportion.”
— “A Matter of Proportion,” Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1937
Niels Henrik David Bohr, a Danish physicist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his work on atomic structures once said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.”
It reminded me of something Jennie Alexander said during a recent phone conversation for our Meet the Author series, something I didn’t use: “Isn’t this interesting? I’ve only made one type of stool. I’ve only made one type of one-slat chair. And I’ve only made one kind of two-slat post-and-rung chair. And that’s it! I’ve never made a rocking chair. I’ve never made a piece of furniture. I’ve done the same thing over and over and over and it changes, changes, changes—when it’s ready to change. And that’s kind of weird.”
Maybe. But maybe not.
In 2004, while working at Popular Woodworking magazine, I visited chairmaker Brian Boggs (who, by the way, was inspired by Alexander’s book “Make a Chair from a Tree”). At the time of my visit, Boggs’ primary focus was chairs, specifically Appalachian-style ladderback chairs with a contemporary flair. And by that point he had dedicated years of his life to not only building them, but improving them. Improvements came in the form of design, yes, but also tools (Lie-Nielsen still sells the Boggs Curved Spokeshave), joints (his “universal joint” features double offset tenons and housed shoulders) and machines (his hickory bark stripper took 12 years to develop). All of this, simply to make a better chair.
I’m all over the place. There was the Christmas I asked for embroidery supplies. Come Valentine’s Day I tried to embroider my husband a single heart on cardstock. There was a lot of cursing involved, some blood and I don’t think I’ve touched the supplies since.
I rowed for two quarters at college. I took a short evening class on astronomy and spent a few years volunteering at the Cincinnati Observatory until I came to the conclusion that I enjoyed the poetry of stars much more so than the math. Every time I run I think, I should run a marathon.
I find many things to be fascinating. One look at Half Dome and I want to climb it. One meditation class and I’m looking up ashrams in India. One world religion class and I want to enroll in seminary, become a Buddhist and define myself as atheist, all at once.
I suppose this is why I was drawn to writing. For a short while I get to live vicariously in the life of another. And not always, but often, that other is being written about because of their ability to narrow their focus so much that they become an expert, even if that wasn’t their intention. Perhaps this is behind all brilliance.
There’s validity in trying it all. But I’ve also learned that there’s validity in finding a niche. There’s validity in devoting a large part of your life to 17th century joinery. And Welsh stick chairs. And carving acanthus leaves. And making macaroons. And growing the perfect tomato.
Alexander may only have made one type of stool. And one type of one-slat chair. And one type of two-slat post-and-rung chair. But her dedication to doing the same thing “over and over and over,” while allowing it to change and improve while also studying and theorizing and, dare we say, obsessing, has benefitted all those who point to “Make a Chair from a Tree” as inspiration. That type of devotion is why we can buy copper tacks from John Wilson. And moulding planes from Matt Bickford. And letterpress printed books.
I think all experts see what Alexander calls “the flash.” The niche, for them, fulfills. “There is a spirit of shaving wood that fills a place in me that otherwise is not filled as a person, as a thinker, as a human being,” Alexander says.
Coupled with, of course, hard work, dedication and simply showing up at the bench, again and again and again. As Charles Hayward wrote in a 1936 issue of The Woodworker magazine: “Continued application and perseverance do really bring mastery, and in these summer months, when practical work has been thrust into the background, we can still consolidate and even advance our work.”
“According to my experience, one usually makes the best kind of plans during a holiday, and not only, I think, because mentally as well as physically we have a breathing space. We are told that the sunken lanes of England represent the old trackways along which men’s plodding footsteps for two thousand years or more battered down the soil till the banks rose high on either side, giving shelter and protection but cutting off the view. Almost inevitably our daily lives get like that, following the routine paths it seems endlessly, till suddenly we are in the clear again and can see the buttercups in the meadows, the kingfisher flashing across the stream and the wide vault of heaven above us. At holiday times, as we move about the countryside, passing through small country towns and villages which have hitherto only been names to us, perhaps made famous in history or perhaps not famous at all yet with some flavour of the past, some magic of a word in them to link them with the dawn of our race, then something stirs in us; something that knows its affinity with the men who cleared this good earth and who laboured and built and passed on the work of their hands to us, and within it the inherent beauty that showed it was good. They built with chalk and flint and stone and wood just where they found them so that the homes they built fit snugly into the countryside as if they grew there, and everywhere we find traces of very ancient craftsmanship which has lived on in one form or another to the present. There is the ancient craft of flint-knapping which goes back two thousand years or more to the time when flint was used by the huntsman before ever man began to build their homes with it; and there is the thatch, the traditional roofing for humble dwellings long before the Saxons came; and there are walls bonded with brick courses in the old Roman style which, like the Roman roads underlying some of our modern highways, are caught up in a living tradition. We get these sudden glimpses of a remote past sometimes when we are least looking for them and they take us back to our roots as nothing else can.
“… There was a time when men, working with their hands, achieved grace and truth as naturally as they breathed because they worked soundly in a sound tradition. To-day we have to relearn these things and make our own standards. If we are willing to keep a high heart, if we hold fast to those moments of vision which we have received outside the bustle of living, then the skill which we learn will wed itself to the skill we have inherited, something older than ourselves which we can pass on to our children and, till heaven and earth pass away, the price and the joy of good workmanship shall not fail.”
— “Ancestral Voices,”Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1955
Nick Offerman, actor, humorist and longtime woodworker whose most recent book, “Good Clean Fun,” was dubbed part memoir/part technical guide with “zen-like life lessons” by Esquire, recently read Nancy R. Hiller‘s “Making Things Work.” And loved it.
“These poignant, honest, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious but always masterful stories are so much more than woodworking anecdotes – they are nakedly human moments, rendered with the hard-won sagacity of the purist. A necessary read for any aspiring craftsperson, but just as requisite for the clientele. I can’t decide in what retail section this book should be displayed – fine woodworking? Sure, that’s easy, but the integrity of Ms. Hiller’s voice, the tenacity of her principles, and the respect with which she endows honest, hard work compel me to suggest instead the shelves of philosophy, self-help, etiquette or even religion, goddamnit.”
We rarely carry books from other publishers in our store – we’re picky. But Offerman’s review illustrates why this book was an easy addition to our collection.