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The Editors Mailbox

Why do you work wood?

comments (23) February 10th, 2012 in blogs

MKenney Matthew Kenney, special projects editor
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Over the past few weeks I've been thinking a lot about why I like to make furniture. And I've come to realize that what I find appealing is that woodworking allows me to be creative, and that wood is a wonderful medium for artistic expression. I'll explain what I mean in greater detail, but before I do that I'd like to explain something.

What I'm about to say is not meant to be critical of those who don't agree with me. There are many reasons to work wood and make furniture. And there are many ways to take pleasure from the craft. I'm going to explain my personal perspective. It doesn't invalidate yours. So, I'm only explaining why I love making furniture, not passing judgment on why you do. As a matter of fact, I'd love to hear why you like to make furniture (and I bet others would, too), so let me know in the comments below.

I thought about all the stuff involved with furniture making: designing furniture, finding and picking lumber, milling, joinery, finishing, tool maintainence, buying tools, learning technique, etc. I realized that I enjoy all of these things, but not to the same degree. And some have nothing to do with what motivates me to make furniture. For example, I really enjoy using handtools, but I would still make furniture if they weren't available to me. And I don't make furniture so that I can use handtools. (I use them so I can make furniture--the making is more important to me). And I'm not too worried about technique. What I mean is that when push comes to shove, I don't care how I get something done. I just want to get it done and get it done well. In the end, whether I cut my dovetails by hand, by power, or by some combination of the two doesn't really matter to me as long as they look good and the joint is strong.

And while I was thinking about technique, I realized that I choose how to cut joints, make parts, etc. based on the piece of furniture I'm making. I design my pieces without any regard for how it's all going to go together. When I'm happy with the design I start figuring out the  joinery and how I'll cut it. Sometimes handtools and traditional joinery are best. Other times I pull out the vacuum bag, flexible plyood, and veneer. And if I don't quite know how to pull something off, I figure it out. I don't want tools, technique and materials to limit what I make. So, part of what pulls me to furniture making is that I want to create beautiful objects. And truthfully, if all my work didn't result in attractive and useful furniture, I'd be tremendously disappointed.

At the same time, I do enjoy the process of making furniture. I enjoy cutting dovetails by hand. I enjoy smoothing wood with a No. 4 handplane. I enjoy shaping parts at the bandsaw. Hell, I even enjoy milling lumber. And I love going to the lumber yard (or some backwoods sawyer's place) to pick out lumber. I love tools, both using them and talking about them. The act of creating with woodworking tools is wonderful and it gives me great satisfaction.

What does that all mean? I think it means that I love creating and expressing my artistic vision. Wood is my chosen medium. Perhaps in parallel universes I'm a painter and a poet (probably bad ones), but in this one I'm a furniture maker. That's how I express myself. That's why I do it: to give physical form to my understanding of beauty (which involves both physical attractiveness and utility). And that trumps everything else for me. I might not be very good at it, but it does give me great satisfaction and reaffirms the fact that I'm not just another animal.

So, that's why I make furniture. Why do you?

PS: I'm sure that to some of you, I sound like a flake, but what do you expect from a guy who spent most of his life studying and teaching philosophy?

posted in: blogs

Comments (23)

aguywhosews aguywhosews writes: I love to make things.
Posted: 3:20 pm on April 26th

hzwerling hzwerling writes: Woodworking is less expensive than regular visits to a psychiatrist, but not by much.
Posted: 8:54 pm on February 20th

RKindle RKindle writes: Working with wood is a great stress reliever for me. Just going into our woodworking shop and "piddle" around rearranging things or cleaning up sawdust from the last project is like a comfort zone. Growing up I watched my father build amazing things with just a few tools and would be amazed at what he could do with the few woodworking tools he had. His workshop consisted of a few tools and some sawhorses he would take where ever he needed them. I guess he was what was known as a shade tree carpenter. Now when I look around our little shop I just think of what he could have done if he had these tools though I don't really think he would have changed. But for me making something out of wood is a wonderful feeling when it is completed whether it is just something to sit up or something useful for our home. My wife and I always say that when the kids are gone and I retire we will open a little woodworking busines selling little items we make. It is a dream we have but a dream that I hope and pray comes true. Having a wife that supports your hobby's and dreams is a true blessing.
Posted: 3:39 pm on February 16th

47TPI 47TPI writes: I fell into wood working by getting a job in cabinet working when I was going to college. I then moved to Montana from California, no jobs in Montana at the time in my field of education so fell into a job in homebuilding and loved it. I then went on to have my own Homebuilding Co. for several years. Now my only desire is to work with wood in the area that I have missed out on and that is furnature making.I can't leave this world without knowing how the dovetail works and is made and all the other fasinating areas of joinery that work together to make a piece. It's totally different than driving a nail and using a skill saw.I'm working on developing a modest home shop to play in. I think it's wonderfull that woodworking is returning with new blossom and wide spread interest.
Posted: 10:03 pm on February 14th

vwdiesel vwdiesel writes: I work with wood because I work with cars all day. Working with wood is so entirely different than what I do for a living. Because it's so different I get to enjoy a whole different aspect of working with my hands. Still with tools but so different. My day job doesn't create anything, I only repair. Working with wood allows me to create something from scratch and then I finally get to personally yell at the engineer who designed it if it doesn't work out well.
Posted: 12:28 am on February 14th

pizza pizza writes: One other thing though.

Part of working with wood also involves my connection with my late father who also was a carpenter. That connection follows me and surrounds me like a warm blanket whenever I'm in my shop working some project or another.
Posted: 11:33 am on February 13th

pizza pizza writes: Ditto. I'm with you and I couldn't have said it any better.

Posted: 11:27 am on February 13th

MrPhil MrPhil writes: When I was a young boy of seven or eight, my family moved from an old rent house to our first home. As my mother and brothers unpacked at the new house, my father and I stayed at the old house where he could keep an eye on me while he repaired and refinished our old oak pedestal table & chairs. He had but few hand tools and he showed me how to get the most use out of each one. It was a special time for me and the beginning of a love for woodworking that he and I shared for the rest of his life. I do wood working because I want to leave a legacy for my sons and grandchildren.
Posted: 9:12 am on February 13th

RabbitSkins RabbitSkins writes: For me it's both stress relief and therapy. Though I’m not the craftsman I’m sure that many of your readers are, it's good to get home to work in my shop after work and be 100% responsible for my own work without anyone looking over my shoulder micro-managing.
I’m also learning the quality of patience as I try to apply new things that I’ve learned, a quality that needs to be applied in other ways as well.

Posted: 5:26 pm on February 12th

RabbitSkins RabbitSkins writes:
Posted: 5:05 pm on February 12th

pipecon pipecon writes: I have a sressful job. Woodworking allows me to be in my blank box. Nothing on my mind except wood. I make furniture for my daughters, beds for my grand childrem, grandfather clocks to sell,toy boxes. Nothing makes my life more rewarding then the smiles I receive. Wood is a medium that can be changed into the most unbelievable carved objects, most inspriationale, the most puzzling toy, the most useful and most creative. What else gives that much variety and is that much intriging?
Posted: 2:09 pm on February 12th

Schwe Schwe writes: I couldn't have said it better myself. The only motivation that I might add is that I like the idea that the things I make might be around for 100's of years to come. I could never be a snow sculpter and my medium will never be sidewalk chalk. Stone masonry interests me but I produce more with wood. With so many options it really is the perfect material.
Posted: 1:18 pm on February 12th

RalphBarker RalphBarker writes: Woodworking - the best way to dull chisels and plane irons, so you can sharpen them again. ;-)

I don't consider what I make to be art, but I try to be as crafty as possible in design and construction. For me, the attraction is making practical, useful things by hand that also feel good to the hand - some combination of utility, visual appeal, and tactile appeal.
Posted: 10:49 am on February 12th

JPFH JPFH writes: For me it is stress relief. Because I am dealing with really sharp things that move really fast you have to pay attention or you can lose bits of yourself. So for an hour in the shop I have to forget everything else. Which means work goes away as does stress. The fact that I get useful things at the end is a bonus.

Posted: 5:33 pm on February 11th

JPFH JPFH writes: For me it is stress relief. Because I am dealing with really sharp things that move really fast you have to pay attention or you can lose bits of yourself. So for an hour in the shop I have to forget everything else. Which means work goes away as does stress. The fact that I get useful things at the end is a bonus.

Posted: 5:33 pm on February 11th

timrowledge timrowledge writes: ...because I make and fix things. It's just what I do without needing any more reason than 'because I do'. I build in wood, metal, words, bytes, pictures. If I don't have anything to build I'll debug something. Can't help it.
Posted: 3:59 pm on February 11th

woodfirst woodfirst writes: For me it is to see what is inside the bark, considering I travel the west coast offering a milling service. YES we all need to reduce our carbin foot print. I want to stop as many city pubilc works managers understand the value of "WHAT IS INSIDE THE BARK" Like over this last month at the Oakland zoo we did land clearing of a vast number of Black Acacia and a few other types of trees the dept of urban forestry gifted them a grant to have local childern plant native oaks and wanted to see the larger trees put to a better use and not chipped. That's where my services come to play with the wood. Now when all these trees are mill some will become a new conferance table for the zoo's new vet school, built by woodworkers coolaborating with my company. The look on peoples faces give me joy when they first see wood and handle it and the WOW factor is worth all the hard work.
I did understand how to get the best cuts for each type product my clients desire. Park benches for the city of Redmond Washington or the Oregon Parks Dept. Then now next weekend I'll be working at U.C.Davis saving a great Oak tree from firewood. Yes to "see inside the bark" most woodworkers never get that chance, so I left a 30 year home restoration company I built myself doing decks with no screws or nails showing to fencing polished like a quality piece of furniture designing and or restoring million dollar Estate home. It all starts with The gift of the life of a living tree. I konw wood from how the tree grow I love how a another woodworker see how I operate. So day we'll stop letting our trees go to the waste stream all across the earth yet until that time I wish you all will help childern around you see inside the bark.
YES as AJ stated It might be hard to express why woodworking means so much to me, but it is who I am - on a daily basis. A real part of my identity let's just say a way to leave a legacy for others to remember us by.
Posted: 12:28 pm on February 11th

dandegennaro dandegennaro writes: There are three Morris chairs crammed into my living room, which I made out of local California oak trees. Last night as I was talking to a friend I noticed he was running his fingers over the through tenons, just as I have seen many people do. I remember carefully shaping the tenon ends with a wide chisel, slowly forming the rounded curve, using the chisel to shave thin layer after layer off until the shape was perfect to my eye.
After sitting in these chairs for a while I realized that the plywood under the cushions had to go. I replaced the plywood with rubberized webbing. Now they are chairs whose smooth wide arms can easily hold my coffee cup (or beer bottle), and can hold me for hours comfortably. Okay, it's starting to sound a little weird, but because I made them they are still in process in my thoughts. When I make more for friends or clients I'll keep these thoughts in mind and my chairs will evolve, as will my skills.
That's why I love woodworking.
Posted: 11:39 am on February 11th

dandegennaro dandegennaro writes:
Posted: 11:10 am on February 11th

AJCoholic AJCoholic writes: I consider myself to be in a very fortunate position. I get to go to my shop each day, and work on custom furniture, cabinets and millwork - in my own shop with some of the best tools I could imagine. I have been fortunate enough to grow up with a father who did the same thing. But, when I was a kid I didnt appreciate what this trade was all about. It took me years to figure out why my dad loved his "job" so much.
Woodworking to me is a creative outlet, where you get to be artistic. It involves math and engineering. It is a lot materials science, and wood is one of the strangest materials to me since it is always moving. It is just the PERFECT job - and after 20 years working full time, I still learn something new each and every day, and try and improve my technique, style and overall approach to my trade with every job. Woodworking is something that continues to grow as much as you want it to. Not many careers are like that.
Myself, I enjoy working on the heavy machinery - to working fine details with my hand tools - it is all enjoyable. And, I even enjoy sanding! (and really cannot for the life of me understand how so many who consider themselves woodworkers seem to hate this necessary part of the job).
The best feeling is when a new piece is completed, and delivered to the customer and seeing that they appreciate a hand made, quality piece in a world today flooded by a lot of crap. And knowing years from now, something I made will still be a functional piece of furniture for others to use and enjoy.
It might be hard to express why woodworking means so much to me, but it is who I am - on a daily basis. A real part of my identity and I wouldn't want it any other way!
Posted: 9:28 am on February 11th

Morrison216 Morrison216 writes: I agree with everything Mr. Kenney has written. I am very mediocre compared to Mr. Kenney but I love the challenge of moving out of my comfort level and building something more difficult. I am a kinesthetic learner, I love the feel and smell of wood. I find comfort in knowing whatever I made its the only one there is on this earth. Working with wood has taught me patience, to see details, and appreciate the beauty in natural wood.

Posted: 8:03 am on February 11th

nslewis nslewis writes: My favorite writer said he used to ask himself something like: If I washed up alone on a deserted island with no way off, would I pick up a stick and scratch words into the sand? When it came down to it, the answer was yes, and you can tell from his writing. I feel like this sort of drive is inherent in most people who strive toward fine woodworking, and continue to do so for many years, since one doesn't tend to get rich by rubbing out the back of a cabinet with pumice.

For me, it is all about the slow progress of a piece. I dry fit more than necessary, just so I can take a break from some of the more tedious steps and see what I've done, and where I'm going. It's the growth of a creation that I love so much. I prefer to work from rough sketches rather than measured drawings and figure out the joinery as I go. This takes longer for sure, but it turns the whole thing into a sort of constant adventure.

Sometimes there's a thrill when the plane is set up perfectly and there's no tear out, or even just the rhythm of picking up a drawer side and cutting a groove, knowing that they're all stacked the right way so you don't have to think about it, but you don't have to anyway, because you've come to know each piece, you've selected them and you know which side is the outside and which side gets the grove just by the grain.

And then there are days when you cut the groove on the wrong side.

And there are pieces where you put on the wrong pulls and that's it, the whole experience becomes less than what it should have been, less than what it actually was.

To come to the point, woodworking for me is a many-splendored thing. I put equal importance in coming up with clever solutions, clever ways of doing things, as I do in uncovering just the right piece of wood and arranging it in an artistic way. I put my all into each piece of furniture (I'm trying to make a "living" at it) and really it's about the total experience. I am talking about lying awake at night thinking about a piece of joinery, or waking up in the morning and looking at every stick of wood in the shop to find just the right one.

But yes, if the end result isn't something beautiful and useful (as much as I can manage), then I don't see the point in doing it.

Finally, I would never with a straight face call myself an artist, but I feel like this question is like asking somebody "Why create art?" There are a lot of different answers, but my personal favorite is always the one that nobody can quite articulate.
Posted: 9:56 pm on February 10th

Ed_Pirnik Ed_Pirnik writes: For me, it is at least in part, a response to a modern society driven more-and-more by experiencing life from within a virtual world-as opposed to a more tactile experience of life.

Very few people have the know-how to change their car's oil or replace their brake pads nowadays. How many folks do you know who can fix a leaky copper pipe or know how to navigate with a map and compass?

These sorts of talents/abilities are becoming more and more rare. And I'd say that is in large part to the way in which society has migrated from one in which folks largely "did things for themselves" to one in which we're more comfortable pretending to experience life throug the internet as opposed to getting our hands dirty and "doing" something. This sounds strange coming from a "web producer," I know, but it's a big part of the reason I enjoy building furntiure. I want to "do it myslef." There is a sense of victory that comes at the culmination of every project--a feeling that continues throughout life, every time you open the door of the cabinet you built or the drawer of the desk you assembled years before, you're feeling just a bit of that victory.

Posted: 2:11 pm on February 10th

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