Workshop Update: April 2021

First, the big news: I will be at Popup Raleigh on Sunday, May 16, selling an array of stools, spoons and spoonlike objects, and a few other small goodies. All my available time this month has gone into preparations: not only making things, but putting together a booth and figuring out the business end of things. To wit: I now own a Square reader. I also own 18 yards of chambray fabric that need to be sewn into table covers. The items on my to-do list keep bifurcating, but as long as they don’t reach period three, I think I’ll be okay.

I have signage, in case I forget who I am:

Among other smallwares, I’ll have carved ash chopsticks with jauntily painted ends. The ash is scrap from chairs and stools

I’ve made a taller version of the carved-edge milking stool that I was going to call a “work stool” but now think it may be too pretty for work. However, it is an excellent height for playing guitar. Should you ever find yourself as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, this is the stool you’d want to sit on while serenading Rosina beneath her window in the opening scene. I may call it my troubadour stool. (Should you find yourself as any character in Il Trovatore, however, you’re on your own.) The tapered octagonal legs have a secondary taper towards the foot, the seat is (as before) carved with a drawknife, and the stretchers are octagonal as well; it is 25 inches tall, and the stretchers are 17 and 19 inches below the seat, right where you want to rest your feet while you’re strumming. The finish is pitch black over salem red Old Fashioned Milk Paint, sealed with Tried & True original oil and wax finish.

I’ll have more to say about that stool, and stools more generally, when I get some time at my desk.

Meanwhile, it is spring, and the garden calls. I have limited space, and my preference is for intensive but relatively low-labor arrangements. For example, the herb garden mostly manages itself (here chives, which are perennial, and chervil, which reseeds itself); and I plant the mustard greens thick enough to choke out weeds, cut frequently, and let them keep growing back. This weekend I’ll carve out space in the mustard patch for a few cucumber plants; by the time the cucumbers need the space, the mustard will have bolted and I’ll pull it out.

Happy spring!

Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.”

There in my old-fashioned shop the new machinery had almost forced its way in—the thin end of the wedge of scientific engineering. And from the first day the machines began running, the use of axes and adzes disappeared from the well-known place, the saws and saw-pit became obsolete. We forgot what chips were like.... "The Men," thought still my friends, as I fancied, became machine 'hands.'...

Of course wages are higher—many a workman to-day receives a larger income than I was ever able to get as "profit" when I was an employer. But no higher wage, no income, will buy for men that satisfaction which of old—until machinery made drudges of them—streamed into their muscles all day long from close contact with iron, timber, clay, wind and wave, horse-strength. It tingles up in the niceties of touch, sight, scent. The very ears unawares received it, as when the plane went singing over the wood, or the exact chisel went tapping in (under the mallet) to the hard ash with gentle sound. But these intimacies are over. Although they have so much more leisure men can now taste little solace in life, of the sort that skilled hand-work used to yield to them.... The products of work are, to be sure, as important as ever... But it remains true that in modern conditions work is nothing like so tolerable as it was say thirty years ago; partly because there is more hurry in it, but largely because machinery has separated employers from employed and has robbed the latter of the sustaining delights which materials used to afford them. Work is less and less pleasant to do—unless, perhaps, for the engineer or the electrician.

—George Sturt, The Wheelwright's Shop (1923), 201–202.

The thin edge of the wedge of scientific engineering