The Accidental Aesthetic Anarchist

This is my second post for Get Woodworking Week 2016, on the suggested theme of how I got started in the craft. Some of this writing originally appeared as a comment on the Lost Art Press blog, in response to a post on answering the key questions of our craft.

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Across the Great Divide

The toughest part about leaving Chicago for San Francisco nine years ago was — after the people and affordable housing — leaving my wood shop. It was about 1300 sq ft., on the block across the street from my condo, and cost $400/month plus utilities. The rest of the shop belonged (and still does) to one of the best woodworkers in the world, who taught me a great deal.

Before it became a furniture shop, the building was a post office and a bowling alley. The floors of my shop were bowling lanes, pin insets intact. Every time I needed to put a bench or a power tool in a level spot, I set it on a bowling lane: perfect mahogany, perfectly level.

Since moving west, I’ve done very little woodworking. (I have, at least, done a great deal of knitting, spinning, sheep shearing and writing.) I look at the first Shaker style end table I made, at chairs I made, and don’t like that I see so few of these things.

Who is this younger, thinner person with her first table, this person who made so many more things?

Who is this much younger, thinner person with her first table (and a very old computer), this person who made so many more things?

A wise old rancher once told me that life is like a roll of toilet paper: the less you have left, the faster it goes.

So it goes.

What drew you to hand tool woodworking? Why do you do it?

I began working with hand tools strictly out of necessity, both financial and contextual. I could not afford power tools nor did I have a place to put them. I lived in a small, one-room, kitchenette studio. When I slept on my futon, my toes touched the refrigerator door.

I could not find a single affordable, well-made coffee table to buy. I found American-made things at Crate & Barrel but, if the quality was acceptable, the price and/or style were not. I cringed to see mid-century modern coffee tables embellished with a ludicrous 1980s style flower.

Estate sale furniture (where I eventually found a beautiful $15 table) inspired me. It was beautiful, well made, and stood the tests of time. If I didn’t like anything I saw in stores, and that was why I sewed and knit, then I’d just have to make my furniture myself, too. So I did.

My apartment had one, very small utility closet that was my shop, as inspired by Appendix E. of Aldren S. Watson’s book, Hand Tools: Their Ways and Working:

2016-03-25 15.26.31

I had a short bench top attached to the rear wall, inside of the closet. A light of the style shown above was attached to the inside of the closet door. With the door open, the light extended, and the bench top down, I could push my futon out of the way, cover the floor with a sheet, and quietly practice hand planing without disturbing neighbors. Power tool noise would have meant too much dust and probable eviction.

I quickly fell in love with the woodworking life this no-noise constraint had given me, how quiet hand tools were, that I did not need ear plugs and could hear classical music over my efforts. I utterly, viscerally hate noise, to the point that there is probably something wrong with me. I cannot function in a big grocery store, for example, between the beeping machines, announcements, talking ads mounted to shelves, conversations, and music. I want to crumble and bang my head on the floor.

I also appreciated how effective hand tools could be. They weren’t just simple, they were efficient. My few hand tools were so compact, important given my single, 12’ x 14’ room. I could do so much with so little: a hand plane, a scraper, a rip saw, a hammer, a dovetail saw, and a single screwdriver. I did not buy more tools for years.

But consumerism is an insidious beast.

I was brainwashed to believe — basically without question — that once I could afford and store power tools, they would supplant my use of hand tools. A few years later, I took that path without a thought. I rented shop space from a woodworker fortuitously located one block from my apartment (fate?) and from whom I’d taken classes. I immediately bought a table saw, disc sander, and router. I set up a router table on the table saw extension.

I did not love it.

I did not even like it. The pay-off did not nearly meet the expense. I hated the need for serious dust collection, the energy my tools used, and the energy bills that came in the mail. I hated having to wear ear protection and the vibration. Power tools combined with the act of making several copies of a single item made me feel more like a small-time manufacturer than a woodworker.

One year later, I gave away or sold all of my power tools.

A decade has since passed. I work in a one-car garage so tiny that only a Mini or Fiat is short enough to park inside of it. I have to move our car to the street in order to work. My garage reminds me of my one-room studio apartment (and is strikingly similar in size). Once again, hand tools suit my small shop context perfectly.

I work with the garage door open. Neighbors come by because they cannot hear me working, think the garage door has been left open, walk over to tell me, and are surprised to see me working away.

About that accidental aesthetic anarchism…

A fundamental knowledge of our world is rebellious. Hands-on familiarity with our surroundings, materials, and process in a time when these things are deliberately hidden and supplanted by the digital is rebellious. The design of today’s things actively tells us not to be hands on, to refrain from touching anything lest we violate a license agreement, to not investigate the slave labor and suffering beyond our instant gratification.

I hate cheap crap. Always have. I hate slave and underpaid labor, and avoid things made on its back at all costs. I hate all waste strongly and equally, whether it’s food, water, energy, or “disposable” goods that are cheaper to replace than to fix. I hate that we have no standards and that so many people accept all of this as normal.

Modern ways of making and consuming deliberately hide and remove the maker, and thus human agency, because our system depends on that. Corporations do not want us to know who made something because that person is, almost always, a person being taken advantage of, with little to no human agency.

When we hide a human being, we hide their agency as well as our own. We minimize the fact that our actions can impact the physical world. When a maker is not hidden, on the other hand, we have to face both them and ourselves. The maker and consumer become more human and, hopefully, more humane.

My ancestors were all Polish carpenters, cabinet makers, finish carpenters, seamstresses, lace makers…

My Dziadz, expert architect, home builder, finish carpenter, mason, tile worker, benevolent soul, and aesthetic and economic anarchist.

My Dziadz, expert architect, home builder, finish carpenter, mason, tile worker, benevolent soul, and aesthetic and economic anarchist.

I didn’t overlap in time and space with most of my ancestors and, if I did, it was not for long. But their values were those I was raised with: Be beholden to no one. Grow and cook your own food. Make your own things. Crap is not worth your a second of your time or a penny of your money. Take pride in yourself and your skills. Have as many skills as you can: you’ll need them.

Though I did not have a name for this value system, I do now, largely thanks to Christopher Schwarz. We have a right to our own tools, our own minds, our own bodies, and to the products of our labors. If this is somehow revolutionary, that’s sad. If this is aesthetic and economic anarchism, so be it.

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