True story, Word of Honor: Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer now dead, and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?” And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.” And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?” And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.” Not bad! Rest in peace!
Every shop I’ve worked in had a set of built-in aphorisms – things that are said when you encounter a moment of truth at the bench or when the clamps come off. Michael Dunbar’s chair shop probably had more than 100 sayings that he and his instructors had developed. Taking a class there was like living inside Confucius’s “Analects.”
We have some at our shop. Some of these are said out loud. Some are muttered under one’s breath. Others are too private to speak.
“Let us all now drink to the success of our hopeless endeavor.”
This is a Russian dissident toast that I learned in college. I say it to myself as a little prayer any time I begin a challenging project, which is just about every time I begin a project.
“For those people and that money.”
I’ve heard this one a lot in workshops. It’s said when you botch a job and decide not to fix it. I’ve turned it on its head and say it when something goes really right, or when a piece turns out as expected. It is said as a reminder as to who is the customer.
“If you have to ask the question, then you know the answer.”
I’ve published this one before. We say it whenever someone asks “Should I fix this?” “Does this assembly need to be remade?”
“You have to build a shed-load of furniture.”
I picked this one up from David Savage (rest in peace). I say it to students whenever they despair that they’ll never improve.
“Furniture makers have been hiding mistakes from rich people for thousands of years.”
I first heard this one from furniture maker Jim Stuard. He said it whenever he made a flawless repair to a piece.
“By all means read what the experts have to say. Just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking.”
This is a John Brown quote. And I love it. I say it whenever we do something that goes against prevailing internet/magazine/book wisdom.
“La carrière ouverte aux talents.” (The tools to him that can handle them.)
This quote, attributed to Napoleon, I never say out loud. I say it to myself on the rare occasion when I get something exactly right – a joint, a tool setup, etc.
“The things I make may be for others, but how I make them is for me.”
A quote from Tony Konovaloff, I say this when I do things the hard way instead of the easy way on a project. Or I do something that the customer will never notice.
“Sharp fixes everything.”
I say this to students when their tools are dull and they are struggling.
“Don’t make a clock out of it.”
A German workshop expression shared with me by Peter Lanz. We say this whenever someone is making something far more complicated than it should be. And for no good reason.
The time came this weekend to divide up my parents’ cremains among the four children. After my dad died in 2018, I put his ashes in a campaign chest until we could decide what to do with them. Then my mother died unexpectedly in May, and I had two sizable boxes of ash to watch over.
The process is essentially like dispensing flour or (I suspect) selling narcotics. You scoop some out from the plastic bag and weigh it so we all get equal parts mom and dad. I wasn’t squeamish or emotional about the event. For me, at least, I carry my parents in my heart and genetic code. But I wanted some way to humanize this odd, plastic-bag process.
So I walked down to my workshop and quickly found my favorite wooden spoon, which was carved by Peter Follansbee.
My dad loved Peter’s work, and my mom always loved every wooden spoon that came into her kitchen. So it somehow seemed right.
The spoon is short, so it was easy to control its motion without shaking off the contents. The narrow neck up by the bowl was perfect for gripping it and keeping everything steady. It was like Peter had carved this spoon for this very operation.
I sealed up the eight bags and took the spoon back to the shop to be cleaned.
It still has a lot of life left in it. And some more joyful tasks ahead.