Woodwork Unplugged

This post is offered in response to Marian Allen’s writing prompt: “What is pleasant to one is unpleasant to another and vice versa. Write about a pleasant sound.”

Richard sighed as he released the composite slab from the clamps which had held it overnight. The various pieces of sugar maple, now held firm by the cured glue, would require a lot of sanding to obtain a level surface. He was angry with himself.

“Why did you have to hurry? If you had taken the time to add splines, this tabletop would be level. It would only require a light sanding.”

The boards had shifted in the clamps – until it sets, wood glue has a lubricating effect. Woodworkers have tricks to keep the boards aligned, but they don’t always work. Richard liked to use splines, or biscuits – thin pieces of wood let into narrow groves cut into the sides of the boards to be joined. They add strength by adding a mechanical component to the joint and by increasing the surface area the glue works on. They also tend to keep the boards aligned. Cutting the grooves for the splines takes time, time Richard didn’t have the day before. Friday night beer club was his weekly chance to catch up with his fellow retired teachers.

Woodworking is a time-consuming and solitary hobby. Solitary, almost to the point of selfish. Richard had taught Wood Shop for thirty-five years. He smiled as he wondered how many men might be enjoying their selfish hobby this morning. He wondered if they remembered the lesson he had stressed, the one he had ignored, that time spent in preparation is recovered in less time being required in later stages and much less time than required to fix your mistakes.

Still, he was retired. He laughed at his favorite self-deprecating joke, “what’s time to a pig?” Besides, he had every tool he needed to work his way out of the mess created by his laziness. His home shop was outfitted much like the school shop in which he had worked his entire career. The school building had been renovated several times during his tenure, but construction crews never touched his shop. Shop classes were being discontinued.

No one replaced him after he retired. Joseph Mills, the metal shop teacher took over, teaching a limited mix of both classes. When Joe retired, the shops were dismantled, and the equipment and fixtures were sold – his shop included one of the workbenches and a couple of small stationary tools – The shop spaces had been reconfigured to house classes and labs for computer programming, digital graphics, and Computer-Aided Design (CAD) electives were added to the schedule.

“They draw things. They design things. They teach machines how to build things, but they no longer feel it’s important to teach kids how to make things themselves. Those kids design things but they don’t even know if what they design could be built by a human.”

He thought about the other lessons kids learned in shop. He thought about the camaraderie when those boys, and in later years, a few bold girls, had to work together to unload a lumber order. He thought about how they learned to understand the responsibility of working with tools that could cause severe injuries – one of the reasons the classes were eventually dropped.

“Lousy insurance companies. They’re just as bad as the parents who think it’s every teacher’s job to hover over their children like they do. When do their children learn that they are responsible for their own actions?”

He shook his head. Those thoughts had been the subject of one round the night before. It was an old complaint, and he had shared it with the School Board when they decided to drop all sections of wood, metal, and automotive shop. He was proud that night when several of his former students showed up to explain how much various shop classes had helped them. One kid went so far as to say it was the only class that left him with lessons he used every day as an adult.

“Enough self-indulgence.” He thought. “You made a mess of this job and it’s time to fix it.”

He clamped the wanna-be tabletop onto his workbench between a bench-dog and his woodworking vise. The setup allowed him to traverse the entire surface without hitting or having to move a clamp. He started gathering the equipment he would need, a belt sander, a vacuum line, a dust mask and of course, hearing protectors. He would also put on his anti-vibration gloves, lest he aggravate his arthritis. Suddenly, looking at the tabletop on the workbench, and the collection of tools, he decided to work unplugged.

He put everything aside. He opened a drawer of his tool cabinet and reached for his twenty-two-inch jointing plane. The plane had been his grandfathers. It was over 100 years old. He would spend a few minutes touching up the blade, then set the plane for the depth required. Nice easy passes, probably a couple hundred, would do the job.

“There’s nothing like the sound of a hand plane.” He thought. It isn’t a sound you hide from behind hearing protectors. It’s a sound you savor. It’s a sound that communicates your progress and the quality of your work. It’s hard to describe, but woodworkers know when hand tools sound right. They know the smooth, continuous gentle sound of that blade slicing though the “rock” maple boards at a slight angle. No dust, no noise, no electricity, just a man and an ancient tool working in a quiet shop.

Note: I was thinking of my high school wood shop teacher, Richard Paulsen when I wrote this. This is not a new topic for me, but it’s the first time I tried to express it in a story. For a more nuts and bolts explanation, see my second blog post ever on this blog – a few of you read it in July 2011 – thank you for encouraging me to keep at this project. I’ve included a second gallery of some photos from previous post showing the tools mentioned above.

PS – if you want to know more about biscuit joinery, visit this post. There should be a picture in the gallery (if I remember).

65 comments

  1. I enjoyed your story very much. I felt for the skill needed to do a good job.

    I agree that schools are no longer teaching much of anything that requires hands on learning. They built an amazing home ec building on our campus 33 years ago. The teacher taught sewing, cooking, and art. When she retired the new teacher exclusively uses it for a drawing class. Even the kiln room has been abandoned.

    I think that might be why I enjoyed creating lab activities in my science classes. Students love hands on labs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so sad, Lauren. There are so many kids who would excel at sewing, cooking and pottery. I had learned the basics of woodworking from my father, but being able to escape into the wood shop or metal shop during the school day was something I always looked forward to.

      As for labs, the first time I stood at a chemistry lab bench and proved in practice what we had learned that week, I decided I was going to college for chemistry. I never worked as a chemist (long story – it’s out here) but I enjoyed the experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this story.

    I left school over 30 years ago, and even then there was only 2 of us opted for the “technology” class which combined all aspects of practical skills (woodwork/metalwork/electronics etc.) with so little interest, the school cancelled it for our year – to my knowledge, it was never offered after our year.

    I am still very good friends with the only other person that wanted to do it despite us living in different countries for the last 30 years!

    The point I wanted to make was more about the teacher who would have thought it. He was my physics teacher, the best teacher I ever had, he died last year. While I learned the basics of woodwork, and my love for doing things myself from my father, it was the knowledge, kindness and generosity of that teacher – inviting me and my father to visit his home workshop to machine some parts for me – that showed me that it is possible to have a career in one area and also be passionate about a hobby that many would see as a trade.

    I can hear in my head the noise your jointer plane makes truing up that tabletop as I sit at my desk wrestling code for the 21st-century healthcare world – for this moment of serenity, and the memory of my departed teacher it brought about, I thank you

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for this comment, Les. Those few teachers that stand out in our memory were amazing human beings. Despite there being over 730 kids in my graduating class, there were a few teachers who saw something in some of us that was worth nurturing. My shop teacher planted a seed that is still growing. The notion that if you don’t have something, you can build it was first given to me by my father and reinforced by this teacher. That lesson served me well for 42 years, developing systems. Still, on any given day, I’d rather be in my workshop.

      I hope you have a great week.

      Like

  3. It seems the days of Home Ec., Shop, Music, and Art are no longer taught in our schools. What a pity. We learn more from the “hands on” projects sometimes than we do from books…..or now, the computer screen. Those were the teachers we bonded with. It’s a shame schools can’t provide it all. It’s a shame for the kids who will never get to benefit from that kind of education.

    Dan, who knew you were hiding an author inside? Good job!
    Ginger

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this, Ginger, When our daughter was in high school, they had a tech-ed teacher that worked to rejuvenate the shops. He had the kids help him. He taught them how tools worked, how to repair them, basic electric theory/practice, etc. When he left, I think they abandoned that idea again. The school partnered with a nearby technical college that offers courses in welding and fabrication. It’s great for kids who want that for a career, but shop class could be for anyone. 45 minutes on your feet, working with your hands – it was wonderful.

      The author that has been hiding, has also been working. Some writing projects will be unveiled (I hope) in the spring.

      I hope you have a great week.

      Like

  4. You just gave me about two thousand things to think about, like the connections among heart, hand, mind, teaching, and tools. Sometimes the classroom is in a school building, and sometimes it’s in the home. And, as we apply those lessons learned, we bring back those who taught them. Speaking only for myself, I think that the great de-stressor of life (aside from dessert) is working with my hands. Much as I envy those who have computer skills, the computer keyboard can never do what the piano keyboard can do, or yeast dough, or a paint brush, or a pencil, or a trowel. Unplugged can be good. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Maureen. I spent over 40 years “making” things via a computer screen. It’s not the same. It’s an accomplishment, for sure, but it’s almost a stress-inducing process. Even cleaning my shop distresses me. When I taught our daughter the basics of wood and metal work, I taught her how to use hand tools first. I think you have to know what the machine is doing before you can appreciate its function. I have power tools, but sometimes, I put them aside and do it by hand. It’s a wonderful feeling.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your story brought back memories of my woodshop teacher too. I took woodshop until the 8th grade. It was the best time spent. I loved the teacher and the experience. When I use some of the lessons learned I always think back to him. Thanks for the memories, Dan

    Liked by 1 person

  6. One Saturday, for lack of anything to do, my husband and I went to a Woodturners club meeting in town. Their website describes them as a ‘dynamic’ group of individuals. Were they ever! Shame of it is there were only older gentlemen there, showing off their wares, demonstrating what tools were used, even slide shows. It was fascinating. Sad to think that working with wood is a lost art to the younger generation.
    I think I’ve told you this before but a guy I worked with made beautiful things from wood. He even had his license plate custom: WDWRKR. One woman got so angry about that until he asked her what she thought his plate said. She responded: “Widow maker.” He did not laugh but set her straight: “No. Woodworker.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha – widow maker – how on earth?

      2019 was the last time we had a woodworking show come to the area. My daughter and I always go. She had been looking at scroll saws in previous years – I have an inexpensive one that I bought from a neighbor after he husband died, but Faith likes it more than me. Anyway, in 2018, at least three different companies had scroll saws on display. In 2019, there was only one, but there were three companies that had computer driven router setups on display. Design and have a machine do perfect work, instead of cut a slightly imperfect piece yourself.

      It is sad.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a lovely story! I love the sound of a wood plane at work, too. My mother and I used to watch NCIS, and we always enjoyed the scenes with Gibbs using only hand tools to build things — usually boats.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a lovely story! That is absolutely the best way to teach me. And I do remember the sound of a hand plane. I didn’t do it often but I loved the whosh as it slid across the wood and the pull in my arms when I used one. Thanks for the memories!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Pam. The pull in your arm is the feedback sent from the plane. You can tell exactly how good or bad that cut is from that feeling and that sound. It’s absolutely amazing how well it works.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What a great story, Dan. It is regrettable that so many of those kinds of classes are no longer taught in the schools. I learned to sew in Home Economics. They don’t teach that anymore. Thank you for sharing this story and the lessons in it. Love the line, “What’s time to a pig?” I always heard it as “What’s time to a prisoner?” Both apply. :) Great photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jan. It is very sad that they don’t offer these classes. When I was in 7th and 8th grade, they were required. They were electives after that, but I took them right through my senior year. I’m happy you liked this post.

      Like

  10. Dan, based on the length of the individual comments, your story struck a chord with many. Now that’s fine praise. Congratulations. Your teacher would be delighted to know that he inspired so much in you.
    A “solitary hobby” is not self-indulgence when it provides so much self-care. Something we all need. Yeah… I know… I’m a fine one to talk. LOL.
    Hugs on the wing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Teagan. Woodworking is a wonderful hobby. Like many DIY hobbies, it rarely saves money, but there’s a satisfaction that you can’t put a price on. I’m glad so many people liked this post. I’m smiling at the thought that Mr. Paulsen might be pleased. He was a hard man to please, but he was a wonderful teacher.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What a great post, Dan. I have such a love of tools and spent so much time with my grandfathers and my father as they used many of the tools you mentioned. My husband has many of his father’s tools and still uses them today. If wood shop had been available to girls when I was in school, I would have been first to sign up. I will always hear Norm Abram’s voice in my head – “Measure twice, cut once.” (I had to go look up anti-vibration gloves. We have Mechanix brand gloves, but not anti-vibration gloves. I think my husband needs those for the forge.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Maggie. I figured you could relate to this story. I use AV-gloves mainly when using a router and handheld power saws. They really do absorb some of the annoying shock. If he doesn’t want to be confined by the full glove, get him a pair of weight-lifter’s gloves. They’re fingerless and padded in the palm. I wear those all the time in the shop and while working outside with tools.

      Like

  12. That was a great story, Dan. It made me think of my one and only quarter in jr. high when I had the required wood working class. I was terrified of the saws, but enjoyed the lathe, and the plane. I could almost hear your main character’s plane running along the wood and smell the freshly shaved wood as it gently curled up and fell to the floor at the end of the run.

    Your sunrise and sunset on Saturday were soft and pretty we were under clouds so there wasn’t any color.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Deborah. Power saws are scary. I ran my finger through one, so I know why they’re scary. I have a much safer arrangement now. I love doing lathe work. There’s a special feeling watching the shape you want emerge from a formless block. My favorite tool is my short block plane. I use it for putting a bevel on the edge of many things. I could easily use a router, put the plane is so satisfying.

      We’re under cloudy skies today and look to be most of this week. At least it’s warmer. I hope you have a good week.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Beautiful story well told, Dan. I remember wanting to take shop (like my brothers did) in school but not being allowed to because of my gender. Because I often helped my father out in his shop, I probably knew more about woodworking than most of the boys in the class.

    You have so many comments to read through so I might have missed a discussion about your former shop teacher. If he is still around, I encourage you to send this to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Janis.

      I searched for him online, but I didn’t come up with anything. I’ll keep trying.

      I wish you had been able to take shop classes. By the time our daughter was in school, they had been discontinued. She would have loved taking them.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Great story, Dan. I loved it. When my dad passed, my brothers divided up his tools. They spent many hours with him in his workshop. I wish schools focused more on life skills, so needed. Thank you for sharing and BTW, your photos are fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Gwen. My brother and I divided our dad’s tools after he died. He had a habit of buying duplicates (he had two workshop areas). I wish schools would teach practical skills. They really don’t understand the value of knowing how to use tools and perform basic functions.

      Like

  15. I LOVED this post, Dan, for all the reasons that were mentioned in the follow-up discussion. Your thoughtful post explored the essential need to be creative, to feel that we have accomplished something that came from who we are, and what we have strived to be as we walked our life’s journey. That our contribution made a difference. You also introduced remorse and self evaluation – “Why did you have to hurry?” Your approached the idea of aging and transitions, of what was and what is now. How life moves on and somehow we need to keep in step with the pace of change – or not! I will be coming back to reread this post. It was extraordinary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Rebecca. I’ve tried to discuss this topic before, using facts, observations and (what I considered) sound reasoning. It’s interesting to me that the point(s) were better received when I told a story (fiction, but still). Perhaps I just have more followers now. Perhaps we relate better to stories than facts.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for this lovely story and the visuals with it ( pictures of the tools). I remember being frightened for my girls everytime they had carpentry class in grade 7. I couldn’t imagine them working with a drilling machine. They however, said they enjoyed it. I think carpentry is an important skill to have- makes you more self-reliant.
    As for me, I did not enjoy craft or needlework or art classes in school and yet, two years ago,I began painting and I absolutely love it.
    Beautiful photographs of the weather at your end. Here,in Mumbai, we have sunny climes. The weather’s changed almost overnight from cold to hot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this. I began teaching our daughter how to use hand tools at a very early age. Do it safely, and you can have fun creating just what you need. Thanks for the comment.

      Like

  17. I hate to be in the same room or near the loud sound of a drill or saw. If I did work working, I’d probably prefer to use a hand plane with “… no noise, no electricity, just a man and an ancient tool working in a quiet shop.” Nice story.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Great post, Dan. They use to teach a few subjects that actually included common sense, the use of your hands, and skills that would last a lifetime. Not so much anymore, and now we have a shortage of craftsmen and women because students leave school thinking all they need in life is a screen.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Dan, is Richard Paulsen still alive and around? This would mean to world to him. Your story was terrific. I had to read it twice so I could smile, knowingly nod, and feel good. Really. There’s nothing better than hand tools. And, there’s nothing sadder than schools who scrap ‘shop’. Bravo, Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hi Dan – loved the story … I could relate it to my father and my uncles. I also could smell the sawdust … excellent writing … i think it should be a serial. Thanks for the photos and the plane from England … great fun – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I am very happy to tell you, DAn, that I know what a biscuit joint is and I’ve watched my dad make them. My boys had metalwork/woodwork lessons in junior school and my dad has also worked with them both, but especially Michael. I enjoyed your story very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Oh my goodness, Dan! I hate that I missed this post. What a terrific tribute to a man who likely changed many young lives before ‘the system’ ripped the humanity out of school. I felt that same way about the woodworking, shop, industrial arts and home economics classes they slashed after my kids were in school. You did a brilliant job explaining everything from his point of view. Woodworkers are gentle souls. It takes patience and vision to create beautiful things from hunks of trees. I think I would like that sound too. Those wood swirls would be great as firestarters! Wonderful post Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

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