“The Intelligent Hand” is entering the final stages of print production at the plant in Tennessee and we are on track to ship the book in mid-October.
Until the book ships, we are offering all customers who purchase the book a free pdf download of the entire book at checkout. The pdf is hi-resolution and searchable. Even if you don’t enjoy reading books on a screen (and I do not), the pdf is handy for taking along on a trip or for searching.
Also, like all our digital products, we offer it without DRM (digital rights management). So you can easily integrate it into your personal library without passwords or having to be connected to the internet when you read it.
As of now, the hardcover book and pdf cost $50. When the book ships, the price for the book plus the pdf will be $62.50.
For those who might be unsure if this book is their cup of tea/coffee/Red Bull, we offer this hi-resolution excerpt of the first section of the book. It’s short, but will give you a good taste of what this book is about. It is, by the way, a massive book – 302 pages – and a visual treat of photos, line drawings, watercolors and historical images. Click the link below, and the download will begin:
Because of my deep personal interest in this book, I was the art director and page designer for this title. As David poured his heart into the text, I went all out with the images and page design to create something I am (and I rarely say this) particularly happy with.
This is a tricky topic to discuss. Good teaching can resemble abuse – at least from the outside. But I don’t think that good teachers ever actually abuse their students. Instead, I found that my best teachers were both scrupulously fair and uncompromising. For me, as a student, that was the combination that worked.
During my first year at Popular Woodworking, I spent every free moment in the workshop. I’d blast through my editing duties during the morning, and by lunchtime I’d be helping out the other staff or working on my own projects. Jim Stuard, one of the junior editors at the magazine, was a long-time professional woodworker and had excellent hand skills. He was always in the shop. Naturally, I latched onto him like a puppy.
Jim took teaching seriously and imitated his German masters when it came to doling out instruction. When I screwed up, he yelled “You’re fired!” and would walk away. This happened almost every day. He wasn’t a fan of answering my 100 questions about why something was. He was just there to show me how to do it. How to get through the day.
And occasionally, he was there to open my eyes.
There are a few points in the craft where you feel like you have turned a corner. Jim offered me my first corner. I was cleaning up the edge of a circular Arts & Crafts tabouret, and Jim came over to watch my progress. I did my best, but Jim rolled his eyes, sighed and pushed me aside.
“See these?” he said, pointing to some machine marks I had completely missed. “These have to go.” He cleaned up one quadrant of the tabletop and put the scraper down.
“Do that,” he said. “That’s craftsmanship.”
I was grateful that he didn’t “fire” me that day. That tense exchange unlocked a keen awareness and sensitivity to surfaces that has only become stronger and more refined every year. That day started me down that path, and I am forever grateful for the kick in the pants.
Why am I telling you this?
When I spent my two weeks at the Rowden Workshops run by David Savage, I was delighted to see that same sort of teaching style in evidence. The students were tasked with the impossible: Please do the work of a high-level professional. Right now. Right here. If they failed, they had to try again. David, like all good shop owners, was always there at the worst possible moment when you had really mucked something up. His staff was there to guide you to the solution.
I got to eat several meals with the students and listened to their begrudging admiration of the whole process. They were grumpy because they were always on notice. They were stressed because their work was constantly being evaluated. And they were wondering if the whole experience at Rowden was worth it – because we should all question our sanity at trying to make money at woodworking.
I thought about telling the students that they would get some perspective in time. They would see how much better they had become compared to other young woodworkers. But that’s like telling a teenager that life is short. They simply aren’t ready to receive the message. So why bother?
So I just listened.
If you would like a dose of this hard truth, salted with failure and seared with difficult trials, I recommend “The Intelligent Hand” to you. This book by David Savage contains the core ideals from Rowden, but without the hard looks or the glorious teatime. The print version will be released in mid-October. If you order it now, you will receive a pdf of the book (for free) at checkout.
Several friends who have read the book have sent me private messages, such as this one:
I opened up David’s book last night about 11:00 to take a quick look. Could not put it down til I got maybe 40 pages in. It may not appeal to everyone (though I think it will to most people) – but it is ***** awesome. My initial opinions are always tentative, but this is on a very very short list of best overall books on craft that I’ve ever opened.
Seriously. It is incredible.
I can’t let myself open it back up til things settle here, because it’s a total black hole for my attention. But it really is the book I wish I could have written in another 20 years or so. I met and liked David briefly last year – but I can understand exactly why you’re so taken with him. I truly cannot praise it enough. For ME, this is in the three or four best things LAP has done.
I had the great privilege of working on David Savage’s new book, “The Intelligent Hand” – yet I confess it flummoxed me on my first several editing passes. After years of writing and editing straightforward, linear woodworking how-to articles, I couldn’t from a dispassionate technical viewpoint wrap my mind around what I eventually came to know as a weird and wonderful book. To realize that, I had to turn off at least in part my left brain and approach the book mostly with my right brain (the side that hears music real and metaphoric, and absorbs art emotionally rather than analyzes it). Doing just that is a lesson David imparts throughout. It took me a while.
So I got through the technical sentence structure/grammar/English spellings stuff, then read it again with my literary, not technical brain. And there it was: A book that forces you to consider your own motivations/reactions/work as it reveals in a sometimes-coquettish style the thought and design processes of its author. Like David’s furniture work, it is altogether unexpected, yet altogether delightful and inspiring.
I don’t think I’m yet among his 863 (see below); I’m still too scared by my lack of a corporate safety net (with its attendant health insurance and regular paycheck). But I’m getting closer; books like David’s help.
I need to take you back in time to the beginning of the 20th century. I need to do this in order to explain what I think has happened to us, and why.
As Henry Ford set up his first production line in America in 1913, the Arts & Crafts Movement was being established in the sunny fields of England. Ford developed an existing (brilliant) idea to “bring the work to the worker.” In truth, it was more complex and more revolutionary than that. What Ford was did was to create a system of activities.
Until then, vehicle manufacture occurred in small workshops and factories with relatively skilled engineers doing varied and various work – the stuff we celebrate. What Ford did was analyse that work and break it down into a series of steps. Each step could then be carried out by a relatively unskilled person. The steps were put in sequence, and the partially complete vehicle was brought to the worker.
This is one of the most famous examples of what was to become a major management process in 20th-century industry, not only in the factory but also the office. The “Knowledge Engineer” systematised skills and created processes that became the management’s property. All that was left after their passing was the script and the process.
To fill 100 jobs on his new production line, Ford was forced to hire 963 skilled workmen and women (863 did not stay on). And he had to double his wages to achieve his goals. Rather than hissing and spitting, Ford described this as one of his best business decisions. The extra cost for wages was recouped straight away by increasing the speed of the production line, instantly doubling, and later trebling, production. This was new. Before this, paying extra for piecework didn’t increase production and may in fact have decreased it. Ford had workers working at a speed he could choose. This could not have been achieved just by paying people more money.
The 863 who could not stomach Ford’s new factory are, for me, the interesting ones. Where did they go? History consigned them to the rubbish dump of the past. Like buggy whip makers in the age of the automobile, they were no longer needed. But my hat is removed in honour to their instincts. I would have been amongst them. For they knew that their skills and knowledge were part of a balanced and well-lived life.
This was called “scientific management” and was outlined in the monograph “Principles of Scientific Management” (1911) by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor writes:
“The managers assume the burden of gathering together all the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by workmen and then of classifying, tabulating and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws and formulae…. All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centred in the planning and layout department.”
In this way, Taylor, whose work was hugely influential in the early 20th century, was able to encourage the concentration of scattered craft knowledge into the hands of “the process managers.” The “time and motion analysis” was born. The objective was to create a process that, once designed, needed no further thought or tinkering. In that situation, skilled workers could be replaced at machines by unskilled ones. Labour and cost were thus reduced as production increased. Skill once observed and analysed was no longer needed.
Soon after this, the age of consumer spending was upon us. Thrift and avoidance of debt – a mark of prudence and good management – was to become a thing of the past. Consumption engineers such as Claude Hopkins, one of the early leaders of marketing, sought to bring consumption under the hand of scientific management. Now we could earn money building cars, and maybe, if we paid over 10 years on the “Never Never” (aka an installment plan), we could drive one as well! Aren’t we smart all of a sudden! All we needed to do was to give up the personal skill we earned over 10,000 hours. Plus, the personal pride in the achievement of making, of doing something complex and difficult and doing it well. For there was no real skill required on Ford’s line – just hard manual work, day after day, after day, after day. The 863 who could not take up Ford’s offer could not do that. All hail the daft old 863!
Who can deny the enormous prosperity and economic comfort that this scientific management has brought us? We work, we earn money, we have holidays and we pay taxes. Then we get a pension and die. And don’t think that being a smarty in an office will save you. The same “expert systems” are coming your way. In the book “The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers are Transforming the Office of the Future in the Factory of the Past” (1989, Penguin), Barbara Garson writes:
“The modern knowledge engineer performs similar detailed studies, only he anatomizes decision making rather than bricklaying. So, time and motion study has become a time and thought study…. To build expert systems, a living expert is debriefed and then cloned by a knowledge engineer. That is to say, an expert is interviewed, typically for weeks or months. The knowledge engineer watches the expert work on sample problems and asks exactly what factors the expert considers is making his apparently intuitive decisions.
“Eventually, hundreds or thousands of rules of thumb are fed into the computer. The result is a program that can ‘make decisions’ or ‘draw conclusions’ heuristically instead of merely calculating with equations. Like a real expert, an expert system, should be able to draw inferences from ‘iffy’ or incomplete data that seems to suggest or tends to rule out. In other words it uses (or replaces) judgment.”
My wife, Carol, worked recently in an office in Bideford. She spent her day on the telephone reading prepared scripts to prospective clients, who were owners of holiday cottages. Carol has a degree in economics; she has worked on the trading floors of some of the world’s most famous investment banks. Carol could sell ice to Eskimos. But their scripts were what the company wanted spoken; Carol was only a mouthpiece. Her ideas of what they were doing wrong and how it could be improved were of no interest to the company. She was cheap local female labour that came and went while the system controlled by the company remained intact. Its image as a small family company remained unchallenged, but the truth is very different.
I do not suggest that this is bad. I cannot ague that this systemisation, this splitting of thinking and doing, has not resulted in huge economic benefit. We are all vastly more wealthy and more secure than previous generations. This is good; nobody can argue with that. But there is a type of person – and I see them coming to Rowden year after year – who does not quite fit this pattern. Someone who wants a bit more from life than a job, money, holidays and a pension. She wants something else; she wants to use her head and have responsibility for what she makes. She wants to make a thing about which she can say, “That’s mine; I made that.” And she wants to sell it for money, decent money.
“Well Mr. Savage, I am sorry to tell you the results of your tests are not good. If you play your cards right you may have two years, three at best. Play them badly and we are looking at months not years.”
So, I begin this book with the hope and intention to reach the conclusion before you do.
I wasn’t always going to be a furniture maker; that journey is for later. For now, I want to share with you a pair of cabinets that have just been finished. They will help tell a little about who I am. They are made in American cherry, highly figured and among my more successful pieces. However, both the selection of the species and the wonderful figuring are complete mistakes for which I can claim no credit. I wanted these pieces to be made in English cherry. It has a greenish-golden heather honey colour that has an elegance very suitable for bedroom furniture. I am pretty sure I said “English” to Daren, who ordered the wood, and I was sullen and grumpy for a while when the American cherry arrived.
“I can’t get English in these thicknesses,” he said. “This is all I can find, and we are lucky to have that.”
So, we carried on – no point doing anything else – and didn’t things turn out well! I could easily say how hard we looked for this highly figured stuff and how important it was to the concept, but that would be hogwash.
For most of my life I have made furniture for other people. Like the cobbler with poorly shod children, we have furniture in our home that has gone to exhibition but did not sell. What we don’t have is a handmade dining table and chairs or a pair of bedside cabinets. Storage in our bedroom is a moronic piece of furniture design from Habitat that closes two large drawers together and catches them in the centre. Push, just there, and maybe the catch will hold. Push anywhere else, and this aircraft carrier of a drawer springs out toward you, whacking you in the shins. But now we have these made-to-measure cherry lovelies.
They were largely made by Daren Millman, who is the senior cabinetmaker at Rowden. Rowden is our workshop in Devon, where we have been for nearly 20 years. Rowden is also a teaching school where we cover hand-tool techniques, machine techniques, drawing, design and business skills. Rowden is a farm owned by Ted Lott, who has retired and let out the farm buildings to us. During those 20 years, we have built up a workshop with an international reputation for making fine modern furniture to order. Before Rowden, I was in a workshop in Bideford for about eight years where I did much the same, but not quite as well. The end of that, and the beginning of this, is also a story for later. (Juicy one, that is.)
Not made fast, these cabinets. When asked how long these took, Daren would give his standard answer for any serious piece: “Oh, about 400 hours.” Whether it is a dining table set, or a cabinet with secret drawers, 400 hours seems to do it. Estimating times for making jobs is at the very guts of making a living in this biz, and Daren is spookily accurate.
We do price estimates in two ways. I have an arm-waving, general feeling gathered after 40-odd years of making mistakes. “Oh, it’s about three months,” as I visualise the piece being made from timber arrival to polishing. And I do the estimating in days or parts of days. Cutting those rails will be about half a day. I know this, for I have cut similar rails and seen others doing similar rails, and that’s how long it took!
But Daren is much more meticulous. He will settle down with paper and pen to plot the progress of components and processes through the workshop. Like me, he will begin at the beginning with timber ordering, visiting timberyards, making a cutting list. Right through to polishing, packing and delivery. Each will have a time allocation. That time allocation, again, will be based on nearly 30 years’ experience. He will be better than me, but I will have got there faster. So, if I need a quick price, I will use the arm-waving method and I may even ask Daren to wave his arms about. A serious job enquiry needs pen and paper, a nice comfy stool and a tidy bench. And about half of an expensive day.
But this wasn’t being made for a customer so none of that mattered; we won’t be getting paid for the time spent. I was once accused of being very concerned about money by one of those gutless anonymous internet trolls. This stunned me because all of our work has been for pay, but that was always secondary to making something that was special. If we could survive doing it, I would always want to make it as best we can – but to do that you need to know your numbers.
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 and to love wood, and to 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 and deliver the piece and she says, “Wow, David, I knew it would be good, but not this 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 what Perry Marshall would call “a bleeding neck” (something is wrong, or they wouldn’t be here). Each knowing they can do more with their lives. They come with damage that they feel can be fixed with a combination of physical work and intelligent solutions. Both are essential.
Physical labour is unfashionably sweaty. We generally now sit at terminals in cool offices. We are bound by contracts of employment that would make some 18th-century slave owners seem 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 with 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 do anything.
We don’t use the energy constructively to engage our minds and our hands to make stuff.
White collar work has become what we do, almost all of us in the Western world. 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 while exercising your body and your mind. Thinking and revising what you are making, as 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 the world where thought and work are separated. Where they no longer exist together. 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. A life well lived never is dull or easy.
— David Savage
“The Intelligent Hand” is available for pre-publication ordering in our store. Customers who order it before the press date will receive a PDF of the book at checkout.
My father and I were very close. But there was one point of friction in our relationship: My career.
He thought I could do better (he was probably right), and he insisted I would make a good lawyer. So in 1993, I applied to law school at Ohio State, was accepted and enrolled. But instead of attending law school, Lucy and I moved south. I took a woodworking class at the University of Kentucky, and here we are today.
My career remained a sore point, and it was the only thing my dad and I would argue about (aside from where to eat dinner or how many appetizers to order).
The thing that would relieve this pressure – oddly enough – was meeting David Savage.
I’d long admired David’s work as a designer, builder and writer. On all three counts he is fearless, and it seemed to me he would build, write or say whatever was on his mind. And he didn’t care if people liked it or not.
He invited me to an early dinner one day when I was teaching in England, and the idea frightened me out of my wits. (It also frightened my students. One commented: “You know, he took took that surname of his for a reason….”) I wouldn’t have been surprised if David had showed up wearing a cape.
Instead, during that dinner, David became an immediate father figure for me. And that’s a totally weird thing to happen to me – I don’t latch onto people quickly or easily. David then invited me to teach a class at his shop in Devon and to take a class there on veneering. I accepted.
During my weeks at Rowden Workshops, I slept in a nearby inn and would bum a ride to the shop each morning. When I couldn’t get a ride, David would pick me up, sometimes in his Morgan. With the car’s top down he’d blast through the sunken Devon roads as I silently prayed that a huge truck (lorry) wasn’t speeding our way around the upcoming corner (sometimes it was).
Somehow we got to talking about my father, who was fighting cancer at the time – a fight David had yet to commence. I laid it all out.
After a couple minutes of silence – just the wind and the roar of the engine – David said: “He’s proud of you. Don’t be silly.”
And that was that. Hearing it from David made it real, and I stopped worrying about it. Occasionally I wonder why that clicked. In some ways, David and my dad were incredibly similar. Both came from humble beginnings and went “all the way” in society. My dad was the first person in our family to go to college. He became a physician, which was a stunning leap of caste for our family of brickmakers and paper salesmen. David went to the Ruskin School at Oxford, then the Royal Academy. Both are highly opinionated and frustratingly good at everything. Snappy dressers. Artistic, with a good eye for color and design. And both had little regard for what the world thought of them.
So it made sense when David told me about his cancer diagnosis and his desire to get this book done by the end of summer (a timeline that is like evolving a camel into a thoroughbred in a few months’ time) that I immediately replied: “Of course.”
And here we are with David’s book, “The Intelligent Hand,” off to press. For obvious reasons, I’m too close to this project to offer you a valid opinion. But I don’t regret a single minute of the last six months we worked on this. Or the anxiety of not getting it done in time. The priceless drawings that went missing for awhile. Or the (I won’t bore you with them) technical difficulties.
Through this book, some of you might see the same thing in David that I saw years ago when we met. It’s not something everyone is looking for. It’s a high, almost unattainable, standard to which to aspire. It keeps you up at night, sketching. It makes you destroy any substandard work from your hands. It makes you want to wear a cape (just kidding about that last part).