Matt Crawford and Robert Pirsig introduced the idea to me of being humble and attentive before your work. In Crawford’s Shopcraft as Soulcraft, he says that fixing things maybe the cure for narcissism…I would argue that working the in the physical world in any way, either building or fixing has this effect (though he argues carefully about the differences between fixing and building). Pirsig too talks about the “egoless stare” in reference to fixing bikes–the need to look at a physical challenge wholly, without the expectation of what we need, but instead, what the machine needs (or the wood in the case of a woodworker). I may need to make a table quickly; the wood may require some additional milling, or perhaps a butterfly joint to sure up a crack, etc., before it is ready for its transformation from board to furniture. The tools have their own demands (more on that below)
The more I have thought about it, the more reasons I find to remain humble in the woodshop. The first is that the material is often 50-100 years (or more) in the making. It has experienced many storms and sunny days, and visiting/pioneering dogs who claim the tree for their country. These trees/boards then come to the shop, lie supine on the workbench, ready to be shaped into their next lives. This isn’t something one should enter into with haste or without care. The wood, though renewable in some ways, is a precious resource; impatience, or ego, or the lethal combination, will spoil the wood for anything but the fire pit…which is an unfortunate and rapid transformation for something so beautiful and potentially enduring.
Moreover, this beautiful old stuff keeps on moving in its afterlife (first time I’ve thought of wood as a Zombie, just throwing that out there). Many people don’t realize that wood continues to exchange water vapor/moisture, even after it has long left the forest…this moisture exchange results in wood movement. Understanding this movement is one of the first challenges woodworkers need to overcome: you have to design a stable product that is made of inherently unstable stuff. Here again, the woodworker is faced with the challenge of discovering/asking–what does the wood need? How can I meet its needs to meet my own?
Eventually, the woodworker grows tired of eating humble pie and our egos emerge. This emerging ego usually is present when I start saying things to myself like, “Ah, that’ll be fine”, or “That doesn’t look right, but I’m sure nothing will happen.” It’s this failure to remain humble that leads to things like not ensuring the collet on the router is tight…resulting in the ruined drawer side pictured here. Other times, it leads us down more dangerous paths…like the one I ventured on today.
I had removed the splitter and blade guard from my table saw for a previous project that required non-through cuts. Today, I needed to make some standard rip cuts. And I was trying to hurry…so I forgot to double check that the fence was properly locked down…so when I finished the cut, and moved the board ever so slightly out of parallel, the board road up on top of the blade and came flying back at me, probably at 0ver 70 mph (I was a catcher in high school, I’m using the pain from various fouls balls I caught with my body as a touchstone here) and hitting me in the abdomen. I was lucky–no major damage–I easily could have been seriously hurt.
For those of you that don’t know what kickback looks like (or feels like) you can watch this video (don’t worry, the only thing taking a beating in the video is another piece of wood).
All this as a reminder that we our subservient to our materials and our tools…they will demand our respect and they deserve it. Stay humble my friends.