A revolutionary tradition

Woodworking is a craft that has been around as long as there’s been people.  There is no other natural material with the strength, workability, and ubiquity of wood.

I read a lot.  That pile of woodworking books is but the tip of the iceberg, since that’s only what I could afford.  I have those books because the local metro library system didn’t have them (I’ve read most of what they own too).  Add to that all the material out here in cyber-land, and all the video, and there’s a Augean mass of material on the craft.

If an academic has an idea or a hypothesis, it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to check “the literature”.  There exists a body of knowledge, and it’s wise to plumb those depths before setting off on a quest of one’s own.  Woodworking is no different in that there exists a body of knowledge.  But many times it seems that someone is puzzling over something that has been explained in our own literature.  This craft has existed as long as there’s been people.  And people have been writing about it almost as long.  If you look for the old paths, you’ll probably find it unnecessary to reinvent things.  Most of what we do has roots in antiquity.  From the tools to the procedures, joiners have had a remarkably stable craft.

This idea of looking at the old paths can help you as a craftsman because you don’t have several centuries to experiment on ways to do things.  But you have available the collected works of dozens of master craftsmen, working across the entire globe, over hundreds of years.  And who knows what you might find.  A lot of the innovations that have surfaced (like a Moxon vise), are because of researching old texts.  Seek the old paths.

At the same time, be willing to improvise and adapt.  When I carried a rifle for a living, we used to ruefully say that our motto was “Semper Gumby”: always flexible.  Sometimes, in the absence of any other available experience, you have to experiment.  And maybe you might believe that everyone else is deluded and this new way is better.  Try it!

Who would have believed, at the turn of the 19th century, that commercial whaling had less than a hundred years left on the clock?  No one would have!  It was the dominant force in the lighting industry.  If you had tied your entire fortune and livelihood to the business of whaling, you would have done pretty well at first, then everything would have evaporated with blinding speed under the assaults of kerosene lamps, gaslight, and finally electrics.

On the other hand, had you been prepared to adapt to new trends, perhaps you might have bought into Titusville, just to see how this new “rock oil” worked.  Perhaps, instead of spending more resources on a declining market share, you would take some of your ships and convert them over to carry cargo instead of render whales down.  And so on.

With woodworking, we can get trapped into doing things a certain way “because we’ve always done it this way”.  And tradition is important to us.  But on the other hand, not too many people are riving out oak to make pegged chests ca. 1620.  Somebody had to start muddling over this whole sawn boards idea.  And dovetailed casework.  And so on.  Things change over time, and failing to allow for that change can lead to extinction.

And so there is a constant tension between the weight of tradition and the impetuous pull of innovation.  From this conflict comes technical competence, grounded in the old masters and able to rise with the tides of change.  This is the dualist tao of woodworking.

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