Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)

Intensity and Perception

 “Gentle to the touch, exquisite to contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn had said, ‘a substance with a soul’.” - Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood

Things I discovered this week: 1) I really enjoy woodworking, and 2) woodworking is really, really hard.

When our resident woodworker/stonemason/wisdom-dispenser Josh Buell laid out on the table the plans for the timber frame structure, my brain exploded. In a good way.

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There were angles and measurements and intricate joint designs. There were new vocabulary words like mortise and tenon and gable and top-plate and girding sill. There were massive, impossibly heavy pieces of milled white pine arranged on saw horses around the greenhouse, awaiting the pencil and chisel. A three-dimensional imagination was mandatory. It was a blast.

My brain understood the concepts, processed the new information, and was ready to put the plan into action. So when Nick and I walked over to the 16-foot long 8”x10” behemoth that we were going to turn into one of the building’s top plates, my brain was couldn’t wait to get going.

My hands, on the other hand, had no idea what they were in for.

A defining feature, it seems to me, of the “information economy” is that brain work is valued more than hand work. Analysis and diagnosis and problem solving and articulation are all prized skills. I like those skills, too. I like building and honing and using them on a daily basis. In fact, the varied mental tasks involved in farming - pasture rotation and vegetable botany and expense spreadsheets - were a big draw for me toward this career.

It’s beyond the scope of this little blog post to try breaking down why working with your hands is now just part of a niche market, why artisanal craftsmanship can be quickly pigeonholed into an “elitist luxury” corner. Probably has something to do with industrialization and efficiency and economic growth, I’d wager.

But really, what stood out to me this week, as I gripped a chisel and clumsily tried to chip out a precise mortise for the post to fit into, were the imperfections of the wood and the imperfections of my hands. Those imperfections, in the material and the tool, imbued the task with a patience and focus and attention to detail that transformed construction into art. Those imperfections make timber framing.

In our Intro to Timber Framing workshop on Tuesday, Josh used the term “vernacular architecture” to refer to any building method that uses local builders, local materials, and local traditions. In these New England woods, timber framing is certainly that. It was a style brought over by the English and the Dutch - although timber framing traditions are found in many places, including East Asia and Ancient Egypt - one they developed to make best use of scraggly lumber produced by the second-growth forests that predominated in northern Europe. The design was such that it would produce a strong and stable building using sub-optimal wood.

The results are durable, unique structures. In this stretch of central Massachusetts, many homes and barns are, upon further inspection, resting upon two- or three-century old frames. Chestnut and oak and pine beams hang over countless kitchens, shield countless tool sheds from the weather.

All made by hand, with intensity and perception, one hand saw or one chisel at a time.

For me at least, it flips predominant notions of efficiency and productivity on their heads, showing that our time frames are too short and our calculated costs too narrow. If we use patience and skill and attention to all the imperfections of the world, we may take longer, but we’ll make things that last longer, too.

Makes sense in theory, right? Well, I’ve gone back to my comfort zone here, the land of abstract thought and analysis. A big part of this year for me is moving beyond that realm and developing actionable physical skills for making something tangible. I’m plenty good at wrapping my mind around something. I need to wrap my hands around it as well.

The timber frame does have to be built, after all.

At first, my hands couldn’t cash checks that my brain was writing. I knew that end had to be squared off, but my saw was unsteady and slanted. I knew the brace mortise had to start 28½ inches from the edge of the post mortise, but apparently my hand flinched and I was off by an eighth. I knew the three-foot long scarf joint had to include a 60-degree cut at each end, measuring 2⅜ inches, but no matter how many times I re-drew the lines they never matched. I knew the mortises required a perfectly squared-off ½ inch notch, but that 90 degree angle proved maddeningly elusive.

It was frustrating and exhausting. Power saws and drills and screws were lusted for early and often. My hands didn’t know what they were doing. They needed help.

But, as happens, they got better. I got better. We all did, and after just a few days you could start to see parts of the structure come into place. A structure that’ll hopefully last for a long, long time.

I led off with that quote from Eric Sloan’s book, and the embedded quote by William Penn, as a bridge to what I wrote last week. Trees are marvelous organisms, and the wood they produce is an incredible material, a boon to humankind. Like all living things, they’re also imperfect, full of knots and curves and inconveniently located weaknesses.

If we give them the attention and reverence and skill those imperfections demand, incredible things can be made. Slowly but surely.

I really enjoy woodworking.


To see the rest of this week’s pictures, click here...

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