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A Whole Lotta Woodworking with Nothing to Show For It

a couple of years ago

Every Saturday from May through October you will find me in the woodshop at The Steppingstone Museum. For 3-5 hours (depending on event schedules) I am making shavings and talking to visitors about woodworking with hand tools and the history of the museum shop. I meet a lot of great people, dig up old memories (tears have been shed), and even ignite some new passions. This year especially I have seen many repeat visitors who caught the bug one week then came back for more in subsequent weeks.

I usually greet people and exhort them to come in and make something. Invariably visitors are hesitant thinking that there is some mystical velvet rope that they are not supposed to cross. Once past this invisible barrier they stand with their hands at their side as if afraid to touch anything and get in trouble. I start shoving tools into their hands and asking questions. Some spook immediately and head for the door but those remaining brave few get a twinkle in their eye as the feel of an old tool sinks in and (hopefully) the endless possibilities of the tool arise.

Let’s face it, we love tools not so much for the form itself but the things that it can help us make. Certainly, tools are beautiful in their right, but it you remove the function would we find them as intriguing. I find this especially true for the uninitiated. These are the random passersby that stumble into a shop with no preconceived notions who has never seen an infill plane or vintage ebony and ivory plow plane. They see an object meant to make something and this is what they find most appealing.

The real magic happens when you coax them to use the tool. When they bore a hole with an ancient T handled auger, or peel a shaving off a board with a bench plane, or sigh with satisfaction at the sweet sussurus of singing saw (sorry alliterative Tourettes incident). It is at this moment that the beauty of potential become kinetic and both tool and user are happy. It is a powerful thing to watch.

All of this is just an explanation or a rationalization as to why I work constantly for half the day each Saturday and never seem to make anything. Though I do make a lot of big pieces of wood smaller. I like to think that even if I don’t make woodworkers, I’m making lovers of making. Even if my visitors never take up a woodworking tool again but rather go home and make pottery or (gasp) knit a sweater, that moment with tool in hand was the catalyst for a making renaissance in their own life.

Perhaps I’m deluding myself and the moment they leave the shop, this experience falls out of their head entirely.

Regardless, I made this little video to show what I did this weekend. It is the day in the life of a museum volunteer: full of sound and fury and signifying nothing…or maybe not?

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