words and wood

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

i’ve loved reading woodworking magazines since i was a kid. actually, i’ve loved reading instructional magazines in general — fine woodworking, popular mechanics, national geographic, popular science, pc magazine… you name it, i was always excited when a new issue came out. now the rise of the internet has turned much of what shows up in magazines away from being instructional and explanatory to demonstration and showing off. which is a bit sad for me. but i know that’s where the money is — take a look at woodworking channels on youtube and you’ll quickly discover the ones that do best are the one that just show someone building rather than actually explaining or teaching how to do it. i honestly don’t care about watching someone work in their shop. what i care about is hearing them talk about why and how they did it. maybe i’m just weird. ok, i’m weird. but that’s what i am.

the only magazine i regularly read, though, as i solidly enter middle-age, as is one of the ones i started with — fine woodworking. and, oddly enough, it’s probably better and more instructive now than it was when i was little. maybe that’s because i’m more capable of using the information in a meaningful way but i think it’s that the writing and editing quality has increased. speaking as a writer, editor and rather-more-the-i-ever-imaged-published author, that’s not the way the trend has gone the past few decades.

this is my disclaimer for what i’m about to say. because there is one area where i think traditional woodworkers and the general trend of advice in modern woodworking magazines and guides has completely gone off the rails — note-taking. in the rush to get things done and be efficient and traditional, we have allowed the thinking process to descend into the results that were common in an age before reading, writing and standardized education.

let’s take a concrete example — the much-praised but awkwardly-ridiculous carpenter’s triangle. let’s say you have four boards you want to glue into a table. you joint the edges and put them next to each other, ensuring they fit correctly. then you draw a triangle on the face and imagine that will keep them straight. it might. but there’s all the reason in the world it won’t. will those legs line up or will you simply get them out of order because a single pencil line says absolutely nothing to the modern eye?

there was a time when we were tuned into those details as individuals. but school and writing and reading has detached the meaning from lines and transferred it to letters. we can bemoan this and blame education for our lack of specific visual-acuity or we can just embrace it and use the progress to our advantage. and this is what i think we should do.

i won’t even go into how easy it is to fuck up the orientation of table-legs if you draw a simple triangle on the engrain with those legs held together — if you’ve ever tried this technique and not ended up with at least one leg facing in the wrong direction, this isn’t skill — it’s absolute blind luck. unless your triangles are randomly awkward, there are so many positions that will get the lines almost exactly in the right places to make a triangle that are totally not the original orientation, it’s amazing the technique ever became popular.

actually, let’s talk a little about how this technique became so popular in the first place. there are two reasons — cost and education.

the cost reason is quite simple. it’s not easy to write with big pieces of chalk and pencils and ink in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are not cheap. so you work with what you have. japanese joiners wrote notes to themselves using the cheapest of substances — charcoal from their heating or cooking stoves. western joiners took a different approach. rather than writing themselves notes using a cheap material, they got stingy about the expensive ones. not ink, though. pencils. they got a single pencil and tried to ride that thing until the very end with minimal usage. instead of marking all the joints with their pairs, they drew simple triangles. in a modern context, this doesn’t make any sense. a pack of mechanical pencils will cost you a dollar and last, well, realistically until you lose them. if you’ve ever had a cheap mechanical pencil in the shop actually run out of graphite before you lost it, you’re paying far more attention to the things than i am. i buy those things in packs of a hundred for almost no money and whenever i need a pencil anywhere in my life i just grab another. they cost realistically nothing and work every time. yes, i have a couple of really nice ones i use for actual writing and i keep one on my desk and one on my bench. but the disposable ones? i treat those like they’re free.

but here’s the real motivation — education. while in the east there was an expectation of basic education for all people involved in the trades (no, i don’t mean high school — but they could read and write because not being able to was just as shameful then as it is now everywhere), the west lagged behind, as the west has continued to do in all things education-focused. while this isn’t really a recommendation to take your kids to japan or korea or china for their schooling, if you have that opportunity, do it. education in north america is nothing beyond mediocre and in the united kingdom and australia education would be improved if they simply closed all the schools and gave every student a tablet that could only watch youtube instructional videos and read wikipedia until they reach sixteen.

western joiners generally couldn’t read or write. not because they were stupid but because they simply had no access to basic education. of course, there were exceptions. but there was absolutely no expectation to be able to master the literary arts because it wasn’t necessary for the construction process. rudimentary (and in many cases not just rudimentary) mathematics, engineering and even materials chemistry was taught as apprentices became journeying tradespeople and eventually masters. there was no shortage of information and knowledge and understanding. but there was a shortage of letters — both in the literal and broader senses of the word. they didn’t just miss out on the (painful) experience of shakespeare and bronté and keats but the actual exercise of reading and writing individual latin characters on paper — or, more to the point — on wood. let alone words. even individual letters were often beyond the ability of many of the people who made the finest furniture we now take as examples of mastery in the past.

what did this mean? simply put, there was no way to write yourself a note on the board if you didn’t know how to make an a, let alone what it meant, or construct things into words or sentences. writing “surfaced” or “face” or “top stretcher” on a finished piece would have had exactly the same impact as drawing a stylized picture of a kitten on the thing and the meaning would have been much the same — language in its written form was nothing more than decorative and detached from reality for these historic makers.

this is not the case anymore. we have lost our ability to focus on symbols — there have been many studies, for example, that get children who have little reading and writing ability to differentiate ideographic characters (mostly chinese in the studies) and adults who have formal educations, who should be much better able to focus and pay attention, and the studies show the same thing every time. the children who haven’t had their minds shaped to function in latin alphabets are much more tuned in and capable of discriminating small changes in the hanzi characters. if this doesn’t tell you the rest of the story, i’ll spell it out for you. drawing triangles might have been effective at a time when people were able to see slight differences and remember what they were supposed to look like but misalignment doesn’t look wrong to a standard modern audience and these things that were obvious and praised in the eighteenth century are no longer functionally-useful to a modern, educated maker.

the solution, though, isn’t to learn chinese.

ok, learn chinese. seriously. the language is a modern language in the way western languages pretend to be and rarely are. if there was ever going to be a useful skill to pick up in your adult life, it would be learning simplified chinese and the mandarin spoken language. no tense, no number, no implicit gender, no agreement, no conjugation. this ain’t no french and spanish program from your nightmares of middle-school. honestly, if you ever find yourself with some time to spare, go find yourself a one-on-one tutor (i spent some time teaching one-on-one because i love helping people learn languages and got familiar with the platforms) somewhere like [italki] or [preply] and do a few hours of basic chinese and you’ll fall in love. i swear.

that aside, though, the answer is to treat your work like a memo pad. take notes. “this is the top and i have to surface it but it’s been jointed” or “top face, take 2mm off this edge then the rest off the other, prepare for surfacing tomorrow!”. don’t just write “top” or “left” … and seriously don’t just write “l” or “r” on the thing. your memory isn’t that good. mine certainly isn’t.

so when you think about these things, don’t imagine you’re going to understand what you were trying to say. imagine every day when you leave the shop you’re leaving for a year and have to come back. what would you like to leave yourself a note saying. don’t keep a notebook. take some photographs as you go along and it’s a great tool to remember. even take some videos where you tell yourself how a jig or setup functioned. but more than anything else, if you really want to improve your efficiency, write a sentence on the side of your boards explaining what’s done. if the part is surface-ready, write it on some painter’s tape and stick it to the board. if it’s not, just write that thing in pencil or pen and have at it with a sander before finishing and the notes will simply disappear — or, if it’s ink, even permanent ink, the denatured alcohol from your shellac or lacquer-thinner from your lacquer will take it right off even a surface-prepped piece.

so the upshot is simply this — stop making symbols, marks and historically-correct notations on your work. this isn’t the age of hieroglyphics and symbology and descents into the woodworking equivalent of the rosetta-stone. if you want to write your notations in ancient greek, make sure you actually read the language. and it’s not sufficient to write “lignum amo!” on the thing. it has to be meaningful and tell you what you need to know — remember my suggestion about “if i don’t come back to the shop for another year after i leave today, what will i need to know to pick up where i left off?” and make your notes accordingly. right there on the wood.

anyway, i started with triangles and squares and circles and other nonsense. as suggested in the almost-always-helpful pages of fine woodworking. but in time i woke up to the idiocy of what i was doing — reenacting arcane practices in a way i certainly wouldn’t in any other aspect of my life, certainly not one like language or i’d end up writing like shakespeare or byron and then i’d really have to take a plane-blade to my wrists because i’d have descended into the deepest hell of unmodernism. join me in the modern age of woodworking — an age where we all read and write and don’t have to think twice before using up the graphite in our pencils and ink in our pens. hope that’s given you something to think about. it certainly took me long enough to make the switch and i’ve been kicking myself for the delay since i did. maybe you won’t waste so much time stuck in the past. i love my prewar planes. but i want my post-millennial language. here ends the lesson. thanks be to bic. your eyes have been as appreciated as always — go in peace.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.