November 30, 2007


Musings of a Dusthead

Dear Dustheads,

Another month has slipped by engaged in the most pleasurable of pursuits, woodworking. As I stand at my bench, planing, mortise chopping or other soothing endeavors, I often mentally wander and reflect on the value of what I am doing. What is it about this work that I find so engaging? Why do I/we value this work, it's tools and outcomes? Why do folks walk into my shop exclaiming, I love the smell of wood (dust?)? Is this really some past memory evoked by familiar sights from a distant time? The work is certainly securely rooted in tradition. Even the ancient Egyptians knew about the mortise and tenon. The fine woods are often eye catchers and bring up lots of questions and praise. Visitors love to caress and ogle beautifully crafted work. Opening doors and testing drawers seems to bring a lot of pleasure, that often translates into a ready check book. The fine hand tools that I work with daily, are rarely of interest to clients, but there are a few drawn to their presence in the shop. Often woodworking savvy they have questions about types of planes, or other esoterica.

What do I value? All of it. The fine tools certainly give me great joy. I notice the feel of a well shaped Stanley Bedrock or a Lie-Nielsen handle. I appreciate the flatness of their soles and the efficiency with which a well tuned plane can give a radiant surface requiring no further enhancement. I love a well fitted joint: mortise and tenon, dovetail, even a butt joint. All must be done correctly to fit. We all know when that is, whether we succeed or not. We know something is right/correct intuitively. I have always believed that when everything in a project is in harmony, even if a viewer is unknowledgeable about woodworking, they will be calmed in the presence of such work. They instinctively know that this is something of value. There is quality, even if they cannot define it. There are some projects that upon completion transcend the material and the craftsmanship and exude artistry, and excellence and surprise that was never planned for, perhaps could not be planned for.

Recently I built a series of stepstools. This was repetitive work. From my pottery days I recall reading in "A Potter's Handbook" by Bernard Leach, that after throwing the first 1000 cylinders, then one might begin to understand that seemingly simple form. I reflected on that, having made only dozens of stepstools. Maybe after a thousand I will really understand all the nuances of that simple form. My speed have definitely increased when cleaning mortises, for example. When all is properly prepared, then clean out and tenon fitting goes quickly and is a pleasure.

My most recent project was a saddle stand. This commission was acquired from my exposure at the Guild show. I pondered what the thing would look like for a long time. I did my Internet research only to find mostly shoddy or poorly designed work, but it did give me some parameters of scale.
The saddle stand has some interesting joinery: through wedged mortise and tenon at the feet. A tusk tenon or keyed tenon on the lateral brace. The bridle hangar is simply mortised into the stand leg. The top is lock mitered for strength. The material is Cherry and Cocobolo.

I will use a new found finish, Tried and True Varnish/Oil. They claim it is non toxic: no chemical driers. Suitable for food contact. Easy to apply. Looks great on cherry and other hardwoods. They also have a boiled linseed oil and beeswax finish as well as a pure linseed oil. Available from the manufacturer, or Woodcraft.

All in all this has been a fascinating year. There have been some challenging projects, interesting clients and a new employee. Business has been OK although not as consistent as I like. Perhaps that will change. After a quiet fall I have again been getting regular inquires about availability to work. There are some interesting project set for 08: a small kitchen with a Japanese flair; a cherry living room set and a small remodel at Island County's new juvenile detention center, among others. Plus we have had some fascinating gatherings at member shops here on Whidbey. Thank you all for making this a wonderful year for Whidbey Woodworkers Guild. You can all be proud to associate with such a talented group. And fun too!

Be well, and I will think of you from warmers climes. See you in 08.

May your chisels be sharp and your shavings long,
Rob Hetler

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