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Desperate Endstage Monomaniac Spanish Shaker Goodness

Well, now. Dude’s hardcore.

I make furniture, of course, but I never have any sort of competitive feeling when I watch videos by other makers. I either find them interesting or infuriating, but the only way to infuriate me is to do worse work than mine, not better, and so waste my time. I can make furniture faster than anyone that can make it better, and I can make it better than anyone that can make it faster. Those are the damp, moldy laurels I rest on.

This video is plenty fascinating to me though. Guy’s working in Spain, I guess, since the video and website is in Spanish, but if my Spanish still works, he’s either from Austria, Holland, South African or Nigeria, or all of them. He’s making a very American, Shaker design, usually referred to as a “harvest table.” It’s cherry. I understand everything he’s doing, and I could be a docent for the whole thing, but that would ruin the aspect of this video that struck me as borderline sublime. No one talks. There’s no goddamn music. The light in that room is remarkable. I have seen a kajillion videos of people making things at this point, and this one has to be the ne plus ultra. No one else has the nerve to shut the hell up and make something with a camera pointed at them.

Un Trabajo Feliz, indeed. 

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother. Or Sister. My Chinese Brother Or Sister, Apparently

I scour the Intertunnel looking for videos of craftsmen of any sort that I can feature on this blog. I make furniture. But you should understand: I don’t LOVINGLY CRAFT anything.

That term is a running, inside joke between my wife and me. It’s shorthand for someone doing handwork as slow as possible, in order that the (sometimes imaginary) customer can tell all their friends they bought something that’s LOVINGLY CRAFTED. Most American craftsman featured on the Intertunnel are running little personality cults. They don’t make enough stuff to reach a threshold I keep in my head to be called a true maker of things. They are  performance artists; or wish they were, anyway. They LOVINGLY CRAFT.

As I said, I don’t LOVINGLY CRAFT anything. I make things with all the intelligence and effort I can bring to bear, as fast as I can, and sell it for as little as I think is necessary and as much as I can get at the same time. Finding that financial fulcrum is deuced difficult. If you charge too little you starve. Conversely, if you charge too much, you starve.

Why do I have to travel the Intertunnel to China to find people like me? These people are exactly like me. They are clean. They are “well-turned-out.” They are not slovenly in their appearance or demeanor. They are all sober. Believe me, I’ve managed hundreds of people at a time. I can tell at a hundred yards if you’re lit. They smile at work. They work really, really hard, and someone else ends up with almost all the money, but they make enough to keep body and soul together. I noticed, in the background, a young woman returning to work from outside, and she appears to be holding a better phone than I possess. There is a child hanging around the workshop. My workshop often has one of those.

That workshop has nothing that I don’t understand going on it it. It’s a very safe place to work, although the State of California would tell you that every single thing in it is known to give you cancer. But they say that about a glass of tapwater. The finish that the woman’s applying is shellac, which you can eat after is dries, and the glue pot is filled with hide glue, which is just horses that came in last, and most of the tools make wood shavings, not sawdust, and the sanding is done by hand, so the sawdust isn’t copious or particularly dangerous. No one in the video is missing a digit, or has any visible scars from working with their hands all day. They all have fans pointed at them, but that’s no doubt because it’s too warm for comfort wherever they are. That place is not full of toxic fumes. You’d pay money to smell the smells in there. Shellac and hide glue and wood shavings smell wonderful. I hear laughter in there, and people smile when a camera is pointed at them. It’s a sheepish smile I understand. They are not used to people being interested in their mundane life. No one is wearing safety glasses or ear protection, and no one needs them, either.

No one is LOVINGLY CRAFTING anything in the video, although the violins they make will be sold for huge money in Europe, and the customers will be told that their violins were… LOVINGLY CRAFTED. But then again, no one I’ve seen in five thousand LOVINGLY CRAFTED videos have one-tenth the hand skills I see demonstrated by everyone in the video. It’s important work to them, so they do it to the best of their ability. People that do things over and over get really good at them. I wish them all well — and hope on my best day, I’m as good as they are on their worst.

Wood. Working

I worked in an old-fashioned factory when I was younger. Timeclock. Bricks. Union. Job descriptions with labor grades that decided your hourly wage. I was eventually a labor grade eleven. There was only one labor grade higher than that: Toolmaker. That used to be a common pecking order. A person that can make things with tools is valuable. A person that can make tools is invaluable.

The tool handle he’s making at the end is for something usually called a “slick,” a big chisel common in post-and-beam construction.

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother; Chapter 11: Turning And Carving A Duncan Phyfe Bedpost

It’s easy to be impressed with manual dexterity. Play a piano. Hit a curveball. Pick up dumplings with chopsticks. Whatever. When you see a practiced hand do what it’s practiced a million times, fascination enters into it.

But there’s more. The fellow in the video is a scholar. What you’re doing is as important as how you do it. He’s copying another’s design — Duncan Phyfe was scads more scholarly than someone that can reproduce his designs, of course, but it may very well be that old Duncan couldn’t make the things he designed as well as the guy in this video can. Most all the big furniture design names people might recognize — Hepplewhite,  Chippendale, Sheraton, Phyfe, Belter, Stickley — they were designers and directors and businessmen. They decided. Approved or rejected. They would seek out helpers whose skill exceeded their own to produce objects whose design was beyond the hands-on people’s ability to conjure.

Our hero in the video isn’t designing anything. But I imagine he could shake his sleeve and out would pop a ball-and-claw Chippendale leg, or a fumed quartersawn white oak mission table, or maybe a veneered Sheraton card table. He is a juke box, not an orchestra. It’s a different sort of skill, and a very important one. It’s not design.

Everyone thinks they’re qualified to design things. I hardly ever met an owner of a home that didn’t think they were qualified by their pulse to design a home. They’d ask you to produce bizarre and unlivable surroundings, and then excoriate you for listening to them. “That’s not what I wanted.” No, but it’s what your ordered. You went to McDonald’s but sent your meal back because you wanted Chinese food.

But the average person is capable of understanding good design in homes and furniture and soft goods and clothes and so forth. The problem is there are rules. You need to understand the rules before you can produce variations on them. The approach of understanding the rules first, and then using your understanding to work within the framework they produce is an alien concept, mostly because of the public school systems’ approach to learning. Drill in fundamentals followed by more sophisticated use of what you learned is verboten. You’re just supposed to morph over time into a good speller dropping subjunctives subordinate clauses here and there like a Rockefeller handing out dimes. They treat you like you’re a single-celled learning animal when you start, and the same when you end — you’re just bigger.

The idea that if they don’t treat you like you’re Shakespeare when you’re in Pre-K, you’ll never be able to become Shakespeare, is nonsensical to me. You need to learn to write properly first if you’re ever going to be able to write at all, never mind transcendently. (It’s useful to note here that the spell-checker for the utility I’m writing on doesn’t recognize the word transcendently I just used, and importunes me to spell it some other way)

Duncan Phyfe was an extraordinary person. Furniture makers whose style is definable enough to carry their name long after their death are very rare. And Duncan didn’t really invent anything. He was simply a very highly skilled syncretist (oops, confused the spellchecker again) of neoclassical forms. But there is no really new way to make furniture after a short while. If you’re making entirely new designs, they’re bad designs, because human beings have certain physical needs that vary very little. A square wheel is original, for instance; but it achieves its originality by being a bad wheel.

The turner and carver in the video isn’t making any square wheels. Good for him. The world’s chock full of square wheels just now. And they vote.

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother, Archive C, Shelf 7-B: Making A Jarvi Bench

Reader and commenter and all-around swell guy Leon suggested we might like this video. We do, don’t we? It’s one of the better looks into real work in a real shop I’ve seen. There’s lots in it a civilian might not get to see much: steam bending, portable sawmill, and various other barbarous arts and crafts.

I love Mike Jarvi’s energy. That shop has elbow room I could use, too. And three-phase power, I think. He puts it all to use. There’s mad scientist/insane bartender finish mixing at the end too, which I like.

It’s funny that the bench is called “Contemporary” style. It’s like the appellation “Modern.” To me, it suggests a style about eighty years old. To everybody else, they just see the words contemporary and modern and think it’s contemporary and modern, not Contemporary and Modern. It’s just a few years removed from Victorian, really.

So let’s salute Mike Jarvi’s bench making.

But I must warn Mike, I’m sort of a jerk, and I have an impenetrably high opinion of my own work, which boils down to this dare: I can make a bench faster than anyone that can make one better, and I can make one better than anyone that can make one faster.

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother, Chapter XVII: The Roentgens Are Not Related To Me Or Any Other Regular Human Woodworkers

So my friend Gerard, who lurks in the opposite top corner pocket of the continental US, and imparts his English as he indulges in his pixel Jupiter Complex from there at American Digest, raining well-deserved bolts down on various varlets, sent this little trifle along. The Roentgen’s Berlin Secretary:

My old familiar Ben Franklin is erroneously credited with saying that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Of course the actual quote, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy,” is infinitely more elegant, but the point stands either way. What is the Roentgen cabinet in my email inbox proof of?
I make furniture, after all. That, that –that thing–in the video is just like furniture, in the same way that a Victoria’s Secret catalog is the same as a date with Tom Brady’s wife. Or as my other familiar, Samuel L. Clemens once observed, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So I must struggle to find le mot juste, or more accurately, les mots juste. Here goes:

The Roentgen Berlin Cabinet is proof that God hates me, and that Gerard wants me to take my own life with my own hand.

If You Build It, They Will Come. Or They Won’t

I very much like the internal gyroscope that hums away in people like Dimitrios.

He doesn’t seem to have ever done anything else in his life except carve wood. He’s done it on two continents for fifty years or so, so I don’t imagine he’s going to become a race-car driver or astronaut anytime soon. His mind must be as well-ordered as his shop.

When the layman sees people like Dimitrios, they can’t imagine that there could be a set of circumstances where he wouldn’t be in demand. A: He can do marvelous things. B: People who can do marvelous things are in short supply. C: People will make it pay for him.

C’s the tricky bit. And in it lies a lesson. Dimitrios has to begin on faith. He cannot know in the 1940s in Greece that he can make a go of it in Hampden, Massachusetts fifty years hence. He begins his monomania strictly on desire. He wants to do it. He trusts in something — God, man, commerce, luck, himself, perhaps; whatever — and he begins. His persistence was rewarded with a life-long livelihood.

The trickiest bit’s trickiest bit is the faith part. Life’s losers have the same faith in themselves. Insane people, for instance, usually have an impenetrable carapace of self-possession. Hell, business is a kind of insanity, considered dispassionately. I had a friend that ran restaurants and nightclubs. He once explained his work to me. OK, throw the best party you’ve ever been at. Now do it every night.

You have to go insane first, and then get people to go along with your delusion. Dimitrios has to say: I am a woodcarver, and say it before he is a woodcarver, or he’ll never become one. The deranged chicken must lay the crazy egg, and vice versa. There’s a guy on your bus that wears a prom dress and thinks he’s Marie of Romania. He has made the same kind of decision. Then again, it’s entirely possible that a guy on a downtown bus in a prom dress will make more money by holding court, and an empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup, than Dimitrios makes carving.

In business, we all have to wear the prom dress on the bus first. The fickle public will raise their hand to let you know when you’re Marie of Romania. Or they won’t.

[Merci beaucoup to Kathleen M. and Karen O. for supporting this blog]

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother, Volume 27: The Walnut Headboard

Sometimes one wishes for the quiet, contemplative life.

When you are concentrating on hand work, you can think of all sorts of things. I use too many machines, myself. There is no way around it. Besides, most of what a woodworker does is plain drudgery. Customers that require oak leaves, acanthus, and shell carvings are in short supply. Customers that want them and are willing to pay for them are rarer still.

It’s nice to know that someone still knows how to do the work if you’ve got the cake.

I’m Too Busy Making Things To Write, So You Get The Process Is The Product From 2011 Again. I Wonder If There’s Some Sort Of Meaning In That

I come not to bury Jacques Jodoins, nor to praise him. He doesn’t require anything from me, anyway. He is a watch with the hands and the stem on the inside, and the gears facing out. But he is interesting to me.

His workshop is perfect for the Intertunnel, isn’t it? The Intertunnel is just a big Jumbotron for us to act outrageous on, on the off chance we can get the camera to linger on us during a time-out. Indecent exposure or marriage proposal, doesn’t really matter what you do, you’ll have your moment on YouTube eventually.

But Jacques did not produce that midden of moil for our amusement. He wasn’t trying to get in Guinness or astound Ripley or even catch the woodworking world’s eye in the form of that video. He was amusing himself, first, last, and always.

And what’s wrong with that? Honesty is what you do when no one’s looking. He’s truly honest. He’s not going to take all that stuff down now that he’s been on the Jumbotron and start building the world’s largest train set in its place to take another bite of the attention apple. He was what he was, is what he is, and will remain whatever that makes him. He’ll die down there, and I imagine he’ll die happy.

I know what everything in that basement is. Every last thing. I don’t have 1/2 a percent of it, and if offered, I’d turn down the gift of most of it. And I make furniture every day, for a living.

Unlike most of the world, I am not allowed to have the Process be the Product. At the end of the day there has to be something tangibly different with the world or we don’t eat. Sometimes we don’t eat anyway. Most of the world we inhabit now is all Process and no Product. What is Twitter, or Tumblr, or Facebook, or a million other things you could name that consist solely of: This is how I go, when I go like this.

The federal government thinks the process is the entire product. The public school system can produce only public school teachers. The EPA is now supposed to protect the air from humans. The Department of Energy doesn’t make any, and would prefer you didn’t as well –or else. Cities like Detroit are trying to exist with no population now. Search your mind. You’ll have to search hard to find exceptions, not examples.

I have a tendency to notice things that others overlook. It’s not my fault I notice things; don’t be hard on me. There is no furniture of any kind, not even a component of a piece of furniture –there isn’t even any sawdust– anywhere in Jacques workshop.

He is happy there. Let us praise him. He is our God.

(Thanks to old StumbleUpon friend Maxismax for sending that one along. StumbleUpon. Heh.The process is the product.)

Tag: woodworking

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