Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Ruskinian Epiphany

“The highest reward for man's toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”
- John Ruskin

I have always been a sort of tool fetishist. As someone who has been making things all my life, I have routinely used all the power saws, drills, and gadgets common to standard construction.

The summer I spent carving a timber frame cabin changed all that. I was introduced to new tools, new for me at least. Some changes were simply a matter of scale—a 17” circular saw, for example, makes one look like a five year old with Daddy's Skilsaw. Other changes, however, drove a deeper and more fundamental change in my relationship with tools.

While the power tools we used were huge, fast and accurate, in many cases the joints needed to be finished with hand tools. The finish saw of choice was a Japanese pull saw which had a simple, long wooden handle, bound with rattan, and a very thin blade, often with crosscut teeth on one side and rip set teeth on the other. These saws required a completely different engagement with my body than a western saw. I would often finish my cut, sitting cross-legged on the workshop floor, gently pulling the saw through the fresh pine at a surprising pace. The change in motion, the less aggressive grip, the more passive motion of a pull rather than a push, being able to comfortably move all around the cut made me more aware of the movement of the blade through the wood. The focus was at once on the movement of your body in space, and the feel of the wood as the extremely sharp teeth cut through. There was a connection with the cut, the tool, the wood, and my body.

The structural system also called for a level of precision that could only be achieved with a simpler, sharper, and more primitive tool: the chisel. The timbers were laid out to the 32nd of an inch, pencil marks were too rough and were marked more precisely with a knife. The chisels were beautiful things. Some, Barr timber framing chisels, were nearly 18” long and 2” wide, while slicks were even wider and nearly three FEET in length. Kept scary sharp, it was rarely necessary to pound with a mallet, most often the chisel was carefully pushed through the wood, paring down to the knife mark. Again the focus was on the motion of my body, the feel of the chisel as it cut through the fibers of the wood, trying to keep the chisel flat, parallel, perpendicular or at the proper angle.

I think my tool epiphany came when I spent most of a day sharpening chisels. After grinding out the few dings and chips, I began flattening the backs, ten square inches of very hard steel, using Japanese water stones. The tools were large enough to preclude the use of guides; I had to use my whole body to try to get the very flat polishing motion, moving in a perfect plane. These motions follow through a series of finer and finer stones, ending in a 12,000 grit water stone that, if properly done, leaves a mirror finish on the blade. In polishing, one is entirely focused on the feel of the grit, however fine, pulling grains of steel from the blade; trying to keep exactly the same movement again and again. It becomes meditative, full of only movement and feeling, a process you can loose yourself in. Indeed, the nearly six hours I spent tuning our chisels seemed to pass unnoticed.

Since then, I am tending to go to the hand tools first, to work in a gentler, quieter, more precise way. Hand tools, because of the level of precision they can achieve, require a more intimate level of care, protecting edges, keeping them sharp and clean. I think at last my toil with tools has changed me, giving me Ruskin’s “highest reward”.


Colin said...

What do you think about CNC in timber construction? I'm sure some things are lost, but don't you have greater possibilities in a 9-axis mill than with a hand chisel? Check out this cool post on Treehugger.

Tom Westbrook said...
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Tom Westbrook said...

Those are very cool joints, and you are right, they would be difficult to produce if not impossible do carve with a chisel and saw. One possible problem may be with wood movement over the life of the building, the checking and cracking you get as the timbers dry. Also most folks interested in a timber frame like the hand cut (or even hand hewn) look of the cut timbers. However in modernist timber construction, where sticking to tradition is not key, these joints could make for an interesting building.