Perhaps not bad, but different habits

In my last post I ruminated on some habits of mind I’ve developed over the years that are not serving me well in guitar building. In software engineering or other “symbolic” construction activities, we can undo our mistakes with a keystroke. Writing a paper is a bit like shaping bits of wet clay into a form; revising and editing is like shaping fine details. If we don’t like how something is coming out, we can scratch it out and re-do it.

In woodworking and other crafts, there is no undo button. Recovering and re-working a mistake can be quite time consuming. As I continue my guitar build, I pass several points of no return. If I take too much thickness off a side or plate, I have to start that piece over. If I bend a sharp kink into one of the sides, it’s unlikely I can un-bend it smoothly, and have to start from scratch on that piece. Once both the top and bottom are glued to the sides, there is no going back to tweak the interior bracing. The real hold-my-breath moment will come when I’m trying to fit a finished neck to a completed body – if I take too much material out of that joint while adjusting the angle, I’ll have to build an entire new neck.

Guitar making calls for a particular set of mental work habits. Critical among these is careful planning and execution of individual work phases. But that doesn’t make the way of the software engineer “bad” – rather, it’s an inappropriate set of habits for the job at hand.

Modern software engineering paradigms depend upon rapid iterations of design-implement-test cycles, with lots of throwing-out-and-redoing of code. See, for example, Agile Programming philosophy.

Professional software engineers have reflected on how programming lies somewhere on the span between art and engineering. In the arts, the creator is in constant communion with the medium, be it a canvas, manuscript, block of marble or code module. S/he works toward a goal, but there are always opportunities for the work to reflect back “hey, I’ve got a better idea!”  Good artists listen, appraise, and change direction in response to new revelations. Agile programmers follow a similar process with respect to both their discoveries along the way and the changing needs of their clients.

Woodworking can sit in varying spots of this spectrum as well, in some cases being more linear in process (think building a house), in others smack up against the arts end of the scale (starting with a chunk of firewood on a lathe, and ending up with a bowl). In the case of a guitar, there are strict constraints on certain design elements – the frets have to be spaced just so to produce well-tempered intonation (but see the fan fretted guitar for a clever innovation – retaining the relative fret spacing string-by-string but scaling each string to a different length). But there is also wiggle for late changes; on my current guitar, I’ve decided to alter the original plan for the neck-body joint. Rather than use the classical Spanish heel, I’m designing a bolt-on neck joint. Totally non-traditional in the classical guitar world, but this joint affords a lot of fine-tuning at a critical phase of construction (getting that angle right). For a relative novice luthier, having this flexibility is a gift – I don’t have to get everything “just right” several stages in advance, only to discover weeks or months later the critical mistake that has killed any chance of getting a playable instrument from the process.

The bottom line:  I’m not “bad” for needing to learn a different set of work habits when I close the laptop and put on the shop apron. These different habits of mind serve well under the appropriate circumstances.

Gluing a flexible lining along the top edge of the sides, to provide a better gluing surface for attaching the top.

Setting an Arts Budget

I’m getting to my Sunday blogging a little too late, so this will necessarily be short. When I was in Maui last week I really enjoyed checking out the local arts scene. They have a Friday night open gallery every week, with food and musicians playing at galleries along Front Street in Lahaina. In the Whaler’s Village there are several high-end arts and crafts shops as well (e.g., Martin & MacArthur; Totally Hawaiian Gift Gallery).

I was admiring some exquisitely glazed tiles in one shop and then balking at the price. But after leaving and thinking it over, I thought to myself that I should treat the arts like I treat other charitable contributions or uses of disposable income.  I make regular contributions to a variety of causes, and those are budgeted out for the year. Why not do the same with arts?  A single tile for $150 may seem extravagant, but what if I budgeted, say, $500 for good art for the year?  I certainly believe in supporting individual artists – I’m glad such people exist and are able to make a living selling their art. But of course, they can only make a living if people actually buy it, and this can’t be the sole responsibility of “rich people.”

(Incidentally, it was eye-opening to come across a blog discussion among professional furniture makers about how they make ends meet. The consensus seemed to be “find wealthy clients.” Sad that most middle class families can’t or won’t afford well-crafted, timelessly designed furniture that could last for generations).

That’s my thought for the night – to walk the walk and actually commit to purchasing art I like that might seem “expensive” on the surface, but in the long run would make both me and the artist happy.

Rainy day blogging


Laminated Pen Blank


Ebony Ring glue-up

It’s a rainy Saturday, and I’m spending the afternoon prepping some gifts and products for my company’s annual craft fair. The top photo shows a lamination I’m preparing to make a couple of wood pens. Sandwiched between the walnut are layers of veneer (light-dark-light) that will appear as a sort of “pin stripe” pattern in the pen body.

The second photo shows an ebony ring I’ve glued up. This will become a layer (an actual “ring”) in a walnut bowl I’m making. Some of these projects take several days, not because of the total labor, but because each gluing phase that will be subjected to any stress should dry overnight. The ring itself had three distinct gluing phases (pairs of sides, 3 sides into halves, then the two halves), each of which called for a pause.  Multitasking projects (and not letting my workbench become overwhelmed with clutter) is a must.

Meanwhile, I’ve been following Doug Stowe’s blog The Wisdom of the Hands.  If you’re interested in either education or the arts I encourage you to visit.  In addition to being a master woodworker and teacher, Doug has recently been shaping a coherent philosophy of education that emphasizes the role and benefits of “hands on” education.  We’ve had some e-mail correspondence around his ideas; in particular I’d want him on my short list of intellectual thought-partners if I ever decide to study this idea seriously.

Doug and I question what is lost when children do not routinely have a lot of practice manipulating real objects and crafting their own creations. It’s an interesting empirical question. For example, one psychologist has written a book titled Lifting Depression, based on the theory that our hands are hard-wired to the brain’s reward circuitry.  She claims that tasks involving manual dexterity (e.g., knitting, woodworking, etc.) can actually mitigate depressive symptoms. In my experience this idea has some merit; I’ve certainly felt my own seasonal blues recede after a few hours in the shop. So I’m interested in this hand-brain-soul connection. In particular, what happens to a generation that manipulates keyboards and game controllers rather than physical objects?  Perhaps it makes no difference; I guess we’re going to find out.

Being trained as a researcher can feel like a drag on enthusiasm sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the act of inquiry and shaping ideas. It’s the learned disposition toward skepticism that sometimes puts a wet blanket on creativity, perhaps prematurely. For example, I may have an intuitive sense that kids would benefit from bringing the arts back into education front and center (and arts education scholars such as Elliot Eisner have written thoughtful books on the subject, so the idea isn’t too far-fetched). The educator/activist in me wants to go forth and argue for the arts. The researcher in me, though, wants to gather evidence first.  How do Eisner’s ideas hold up empirically?  Did he base his thoughts on solid evidence? Am I (and he) paying sufficient attention to negative cases, where the arts don’t appear to have the intended effects?

I envy Doug Stowe for not being encumbered by this skepticism. He can see the concrete benefits of his work with students on a daily basis, and this evidence corroborates the ideas of other scholars of the manual arts. He believes in what he’s doing.

So I’m left with this question: what would it take for me to believe in a cause without first doing years of “due diligence” research?

Design is hard

I’ve been tinkering with a design for a pair of candle holders based on the symbol for the Tao (or the “yin-yang” symbol). The two parts are of a light wood and a dark wood, with tea light candles occupying the smaller holes within each half. (By the way, while drawing this out I discovered that I could construct this with only a compass and straight-edge, a la Euclid — the symbol can be drawn entirely with circles and half-circles). There was a bit of a technical challenge in constructing a template for each half so that they mated perfectly in the middle, and having accomplished that, I made a prototype out of some sapwood cherry (light) and walnut (dark).

I showed the prototype to a friend and the verdict came back quickly:  kind of boring.  I should know better than to be attached to an initial design, so after my little flash of defensiveness, I concurred.  The wood itself was not very interesting (no pretty figure or pronounced grain), so what I essentially had was a bare-bones yin-yang.  From a minimalist design perspective it was fine – the plainness of the wood left only the form as an aesthetic quality. But I wasn’t satisfied.

Then the frustra fun began. I thought about sandwiching layers of contrasting veneer to the top (a light layer on top of a dark layer for the light piece) – when the edges were rounded over the dark layer would show through as a dark accent outline. Great idea in theory (and I’d used a similar technique on a guitar head stock a long time ago), but when I ran the prototype through the router it just didn’t look right – the stripe outline wasn’t that pronounced.  The top piece, for one, was too thick (I didn’t use actual veneer, but some left over material from my dining chair splats).  Plus, the color of the top layer didn’t match the main piece exactly – I could tell they came from two different sources.  It was time to put the work down and do something with a higher probability of success, so I turned a nice pen out of synthetic turquoise.

So now that I’m relaxing on the sofa, what do I think of this process?  For one, I’m remembering why group critique is helpful.  I can only have so many ideas, and having a group both criticize and suggest improvements can carry the process forward when I’m feeling frustrated.  There are web sites out there devoted to crowd-sourced critique of each other’s work, and maybe it’s time to bite the bullet and try one.

Another difficulty for me is that this is essentially an aesthetic design challenge, not a functional one. I’ve written in a previous post about how I can feel “aesthetically challenged” at times.  When I’m engaged in functional design (say, a piece of software or even a research paper), I have somewhat clear criteria for what makes it “work,”  even if I’m not always sure of how to get there.  Sometimes on the 3rd or the 9th draft of a paper it just clicks and comes together. If an illustration I’ve created doesn’t convey the right information, someone can tell me that and I’m usually pretty clear on what to do next.

How do I turn something from “boring” to “attractive?”

I thought of drilling a series of decreasing diameter holes trailing the curve of the shapes, perhaps filling them with a mineral inlay. Pyrography to decorate the surface. Those don’t work for me though – the yin-yang’s elegance is in its simplicity.  It’s actually an iconic representation of an idea.  Decorative frills totally detract from that representation.

Hmmm… staring at the image again, I see that the lighter half of the image still has a dark outline – it would have to on a white background, or one would lose the shape.  I don’t think I need to do that in wood… one possibility would be to cut both shapes in dark wood and just add a thin light veneer to the light half…

No, I think I’m going to stick with simplicity.  I’ll try this again using “prettier” woods.  I’ve got some Wenge that is both darker and more dramatic than the walnut I tried, and I think I have some left-over curly maple – it polishes up to a nice, wavy reflective surface. Then, swallow my pride and ask for more critique. How else am I going to learn?

I was totally fascinated recently by a furniture design instructor who told his students to design 3 chairs over the weekend. Not 3 variations on a theme, but 3 totally different designs.  “Why?” the students cried, “It’s hard enough to design one chair!”  The instructor noted that if they only worked on one design they’d become too wedded to it.  Like Golum’s jealous pursuit of the Ring, they’d be clinging to “my precioussss” and defending against criticism. Having 3 different designs allows a degree of detachment from them. Perhaps it’s time for me to move onto other ideas for candle holders.

What an interesting day!

This blog is pretty quickly becoming about “lessons learned” writ large (although I have some woodworking updates to report).

Somebody called me an “artist” today, and something inside of me gulped! What was that about? What sort of stereotypes am I holding on to? Sure, I don’t make my living doing “art” in a straight sense (although I like to think I have an artistic approach to some of my work). And my woodworking, while satisfying and even at times attractive… art? Yes, I guess so! But my creative outlets (woodworking, photography, music), while “arts,” somehow don’t fit with my being an “artist.” Maybe “amateur” in the original meaning of the word (a “lover” of something).

So now I’ve got something new to ponder – why do I have trouble adopting the mantle of “artist?” “Scientist,” “scholar,” “teacher” – no problem. OK, some of that has to do with my day job – it’s easy to identify with one’s professional title. But I like to mountain bike, run, roller blade… does that make me an “athlete?”

In a general sense, yes and yes. We all have artistic streaks (and athletic streaks), and we should let them flow and grow naturally. I remember reading a book called The Artist’s Way, which was largely about how we learn to un-become artists in our childhood. Artistry is our birthright, and we shouldn’t be ashamed at our place on that learning curve. (and who exactly am I speaking to at the moment?)

So I’m not Sam Maloof or Lance Armstrong — nonetheless I have an athletic side and an artistic side. Maybe I’ll just let it rest there, rather than wrestle with the labels “athlete” and “artist.” (Just when does one cross the line from “non-artist” to “artist?”)

Meanwhile, back to my mirror. When we last left our hero he was highly dissatisfied with using maple for decorative plugs. So tonight I did cut some ebony plugs, and glued them in. As I feared, the alignment still isn’t great, but I think they’re subtle enough that from a distance, they shouldn’t stand out as jarringly crooked. When I’ve finished the mirror I’ll post close-ups and you can be the judge.

One interesting thing I learned working on my last hourglass is that after working through all the parts of a project once, a replication goes at least twice as fast. If I really wanted to (or I get really tired of looking at the mirror) I could always build another one and take a little more care around drilling the plug mortises. It actually uses very little material – probably less than $20 of mahogany altogether. And the glass, of course, is reusable, as long as I can make the frame pretty close to the same size again.

My wood for the dining table arrives tomorrow morning. I was hot and sweaty after running and then making the ebony plugs, so I didn’t spend a lot of time cleaning out space for it. I should be able to move some more things around in the morning. It looks like I can start milling and gluing up the first boards this weekend! All of the stock is 1″ thick, and I need to glue up laminations to get beams that are nearly 4″ thick for the legs. A lot of the early work is going to be basic milling and stock prep. I’m looking forward to it!

I’m taking Friday off to make this an extra-long weekend, but won’t spend all of it in the shop, of course. The weather is far too nice!

More later..