Most of the time, woodwork is a pleasure for me. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. Nevertheless, looming deadlines for commissioned projects can make my hobby less than enjoyable. That’s when it’s healthy to step back and reflect on why I take on so many woodworking tasks at all.
I began working wood while I was a poor graduate student in need of simple, sturdy furniture. I especially needed bookshelves that would not collapse under a full load of hardcover books. I took a couple short classes, bought some basic hand tools, and went to work.
Now that I am a slightly-less-poor professor, I still make many things that I could not afford to buy new, including tool boxes, footstools, side tables, bed frames, and yes, more bookshelves. While we woodworkers like to joke about the tool acquisition habit, my budget has forced me to exercise a lot of restraint in adding tools to my arsenal.
As my family has grown, my hobby has had to become more self-supporting, so I have had to learn the discipline of making do with what I have. It has always been important to me that my shop produces more than it consumes. I cannot afford a hobby that is a constant drain on the household economy.
When I took my second woodworking class, the instructor asked each of the students why we were taking the class. I said that since I worked with my brain all week, I wanted to learn to work with my hands on the weekends.
Several years later, I still feel much the same way, although I now know that good woodwork often requires significant brain power of its own. And yet, it is still important to me that I work regularly with my hands. Professionally, words are my stock and trade. Even though words are physical things (vibrations in the air, ink on a page, light from a screen), it often seems as though I work primarily with abstractions, especially when teaching at the college level as I do.
Working with my hands balances my life. It frequently diverts my brain from obsessing over the minutiae of my specialization, and it encourages a healthy skepticism about some of the more absurd abstractions of academic life. Along with yard work and gardening, woodwork grounds my mental life, sometimes literally.
A few years ago, I could not have foreseen the extent to which woodwork would permeate my life and shape my identity.
At first, it was a useful skill I was learning, and I was excited about the hobby’s potential for making me more useful around the house. It certainly helped me think through a lot of house repairs, but I tended not to talk about my hobby with non-woodworkers. After all, how many people really care whether a smoothing plane’s iron should be cambered or not? (And for that matter, who cares whether I call it an iron, a cutter, or a blade?) Gradually, I became more open about my obsession with woodwork, and after I started this blog, I became known to my family, acquaintances, and students as an avid woodworker.
I frequently repair wooden objects for friends and family, and I point out interesting features of wooden furniture and architecture to anyone who will listen. When I am away from home for even a few days, I miss my wife and children of course, but I also miss my tools. I know their feel, and I am accustomed to having them in my hands. I will sometimes sit in a dull conference session in a strange city imagining the heft of my 2″ chisel (with a handle I made for it) or the graceful movement of my spokeshave over a piece of pecan. If I am prevented from working with my hands for a long time, I begin to feel not quite myself.
Admittedly, my personality has a compulsive streak. My mother has always called me a “compulsive reader.” I will read anything that’s put in front of me, whether it’s a cereal box or a book of German philosophy. I just can’t help reading. I think woodwork has become like that for me now. I work wood because I just can’t help it.