The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Sometimes wood just ain’t enough.


After several years of following the world of woodworking through the internet, I’ve noticed that a fair number of woodworkers were/are musicians. I’ve always equated woodworking and music because I was once a musician myself, and it is my belief that the disciplines needed to excel at both fields are similar. Lately, I’ve discovered something similar about my feelings towards both woodworking and music that has actually bothered me.

Roughly 20 years ago I was in a band that would play usually every weekend, an average of 4-6 gigs per month. The anticipation and excitement of setting up the stage with the band equipment, knowing that for the next 4 hours we would be playing music for hundreds of people, was generally offset by the less exciting proposition of breaking all of that equipment down at 4 a.m. with the knowledge that I would be lucky to get 3 hours of sleep. It was a lot of practice and hard work for what was essentially a few fleeting moments of joy. Even worse, music began to feel empty to me.

Most musicians who rise to the level of playing professionally or semi-professionally were born with an ear for music. That could range anywhere from the gift of ‘perfect pitch’ to the basic ability to recognize intervals. Either way, those abilities need to be developed no matter what level of ability you were given at birth. I studied music deeply for many years, to the point where my theoretical knowledge eclipsed my ability to play. I began to listen to music in parts rather than a whole; I began to analyze music rather than enjoy it. To this day, when I listen to a song, I no longer hear a completed piece of music, but a lot of individual instruments, and that to me is sad. So twelve years ago I decided to give up music in order to get married and hopefully start a family.

Now, with woodworking being my hobby, I’m starting to notice a lot of eerily similar parallels. The pleasant thought of spending a few hours in my garage is tempered by the not so pleasant thought of cleaning up afterwards. I often worry more about the parts than I do the whole. Woodworking theory has become more important than building.  I’ve found that woodworking, like music once did, has become a series of fleeting moments that are fun while they last, but nothing more than brief interludes which mean less than they are made out to be. I once thought that our hobbies defined us, and maybe they do to an extent, because I do believe that in some ways our hobbies choose us as much as we choose them. But even if they choose us, I think it is a mistake to let them rule our choices, and our time, because they do not last.
How many Springtime days do we get?

How many days do we get when the sun is shining, the air is warm, and we have nothing else to do but enjoy them? For me that answer is ‘very few’. Moments of fleeting joy, by their very definition, come and go. Yet, a two hour walk in the park with my daughter, her hand in mine, and her subconscious mind knowing that while she is with me her only concern is to enjoy the day, is  far more important to me than any song, tool, or piece of furniture. Those moments, while they are indeed fleeting, as all of our lives are, do not fade, and in fact strengthen with time. As much as I enjoy many aspects of woodworking, I can say with certainty that there will not be a time when I look fondly back on sawing a tenon. And as much as I enjoy furniture, and what it means, it is how that furniture is used, and not it’s shape or grain which gives it relevance. Thirty years from now, God willing, will I look back upon the Spring of 2015 and remember what I made, or not even what I made, but the “process” of making it? Will those “processes”, which woodworkers are told mean so much, mean anything at all? I’m not asking anybody, because I know the answer for me is “no”.

Thirty years from now, will my fondest memories be of a song, or a tool, or of a dovetail joint? Or will they be remembrances of time spent walking hand in hand with my daughter through a sunny park on a perfect day, not caring if the note was perfect, or my tools were sharpened, or my joints crisp? Will a set of tools, and the things I made with them be the memories I choose to carry with me? Or will a father’s love for his daughter, and the memories of the time I chose to spend with her on a perfect Spring day be the enduring legacy of my life? I’m not asking, because I already know the answer.

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14 Comments

  1. Kinderhook88 says:

    I can only speak for myself when I say “balance is the key”. I have always said that I’m reluctant to turn my hobby into a profession. Having said that, it’s what I’m about to do. Only time will tell if it’s the right choice or not.

    • billlattpa says:

      We all need to work obviously, and if we have to we might as well be doing something we enjoy, so more power to you.

      As far as woodworking is concerned, I very nearly bought into the notion, even as a hobbyist, that I need to dedicate my life to it in order to enjoy it. While dedicating your life to woodworking (in the sense of a hobby and not a profession) is hardly the worst thing a person can do, I don’t think I could dedicate my life to it and my family at the same time.

      The other day the yearly carnival rolled into town and my wife and I took our daughter. I had actually planned to stay home and woodwork while they were at the carnival, but decided against it. Long story short, we had a nice time, and I managed to win my daughter a large stuffed animal because even though I’m not a kid anymore, I still have a decent arm. After the fact, I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t gone. Sure, I could have woodworked for a few hours, but look what I would have missed. I’ll remember that Saturday with my daughter for a long time. I can pretty much guarantee you that if I woodworked on Saturday afternoon it wouldn’t have been one of my lifelong memories. My point being, I will never allow a hobby to take me away from my family again. We don’t get too many springs in our life times. My daughter will only be this age one time, and shame on me if I don’t take advantage of it.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  2. Kinderhook88 says:

    Indeed. My daughter is grown and married now, and unfortunately there was time lost. Treasure it while you can.

  3. Greg Merritt says:

    A hobby should never take priority over family. I know folks who do this on a regular basis. I refer you to the aforementioned “Jack Wagon”.

    I’m personally driven to create. Drawing, knot work and woodworking being the outlets that I choose. If I don’t fulfill that need for creation I become a miserable SOB to be around. My family knows this all to well and affords me time to create. I, in turn, try not to be greedy and take too much time for myself.

    I stopped obsessing over the minutia of woodworking quite a while ago and my enjoyment as well as, IMHO, product improved dramatically. I try new techniques and strive to improve but it’s not life or death. It’s just wood! While I enjoy the process of woodworking, my true joy comes from seeing the things that I have made put to use.

    • billlattpa says:

      I agree, and I know some of the same people, not woodworkers, but the mentality is there.

      Like you, I enjoy creating things, possibly more than any other single thing in my life. Lately, my little hiatus has nothing to do with any pressure from my family, but from my own personal experiences. I realized that I had been missing out on a few things that I shouldn’t have been, and that isn’t necessarily putting the blame on my hobby, only the mentality behind it. Two moments in particular from the past month stick in my mind, times when I very nearly went into my garage and woodworked, but instead spent the day with my daughter. Maybe it was the long cold winter that has lead to this change of heart, but I don’t want to define it because I don’t need to.

      I used to woodwork partly to unwind, and I still do to an extent, but as I improved I did it less to unwind and more to create. For the past year and a half I found that going to the gym 4 or 5 days a week is a much better way to unwind for me than woodworking is. As you said, woodworking now fulfills my need to build.

      Maybe the most frustrating part of woodworking for me is my lack of a dedicated workspace. I’ve talked about it before, and people seem to think I want the New Yankee Workshop. I’d be happy with a 10×10 shed that was solely dedicated to woodworking and nothing else. As it is now, the 10×6 section of my garage that holds my woodworking stuff needs to be set up like a jigsaw puzzle in order for it to function. My wife parks her car in the garage, my daughter has her bicycle in there, there are lawn and garden tools, toys, recycling bins, and a host of other things you would find in any garage. More than half of my time woodworking is usually spent setting up and cleaning up. And don’t get me wrong, I am by nature an organized person, but that doesn’t mean I want to do nothing but figure out ways to arrange my little work area so it doesn’t affect the rest of the garage.

      I’ve also lately come to the conclusion that there are certain aspects of woodworking that I do not enjoy. I enjoy using hand planes, chisels, as well as keeping those tools tuned. I look at sharpening as a means to an end and nothing more. I used to enjoy sawing joinery but I don’t so much now. Once again, I don’t hate it, but to me it is just another means to an end.

      I like seeing my own designs come to fruition, and I like using a tool that is working exactly as it was meant to work. For me, and I speak only for myself, those are the two traits that make me a “woodworker”. All the other stuff, “enjoying the process”, “the sound of a handplane”, etc. I have nothing against, but those aren’t the things that I care about. There seems to be an unspoken rule that you must enjoy those aspects if you want to be a woodworker. I don’t see it. Though others may believe those things to be the reason they woodwork, I can respect it, but it’s not what I do it for.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  4. Polly Becton says:

    How incredibly sad and (IMHO) misguided!

    If your personal reward system is limited to the technical aspects – either of music or of woodworking – you miss all the actual art.

    It is beyond doubt that you cannot hear your music with your audience’s ear, but then why would you wish to? Most of your audience will hear your music with an unschooled ear than “knows what it likes.” But then again, if you can’t listen to music in an integrated, blended whole, you’ve stopped your schooling of your ear at an immature and incomplete point. For the complete musician, the technical ear you describe is a way point along the path to artist.

    In woodworking, the art is not in looking at your tenons, or cutting your tenons. In the end, tenons are invisible. Much of the very best joinery is invisible. At the other extreme, putting furniture to use is a pale reward; the utility can just as well be realized by assembling a flat pack from Ikea. (At least for a couple of weeks before it breaks apart.) That can’t really be the point of your woodworking. The art is in the design of a piece and the realization of your design. Until you progress to the realization of a good design, you haven’t fully attained the artistry that rewards deeply.

    To attain artistry is a long and sometimes arduous path. As in “practice, practice, practice.” But when you can finally produce a performance worthy of Carnegie Hall, you’ll find the greater rewards it seems you’ve missed so far.

    Yesterday, I drove 90 miles to buy 190 proof alcohol to mix my shellac, because Borg alcohol has too much water in it and doesn’t work as well. Then 90 miles home again. Inconveniently, it’s illegal to sell 190 proof alcohol (at retail) in my home state. I’m not yet as good at joinery as I need to be, but my accomplishments in finishing can very effectively camouflage a lot of my joinery flaws and imperfections. And that’s rather rewarding. My joinery is getting better and better, so I hope to attain the status of artist someday soon.

    • billlattpa says:

      My desertion of music as a “profession” doesn’t bother me in the least. It wasn’t the music that drove me away, but the life. The life of a musician took everything away from the simple joys of music. I stopped listening to songs because I liked them, and only listened to them to learn them. I was lucky enough to be born with musical ability. I won’t sit here and tell you that I am JS Bach, but I was easily good enough to play at many of the clubs in the Philly area. But being born with the ability, and even honing that ability, did not make me want to dedicate my life to it. Of course I did what most half-decent musicians do and got a degree and taught lessons, but I found myself unsatisfied with it all. Now, I teach my daughter what I can, though I’m just a shadow of what I was 20 years ago. But that is all I need from it, and I still play, but it’s in my family room.

      In woodworking, I find joy in the building of furniture, but I found that I could care less about the “process”. If there are people out there who find pure joy in sawing a tenon then that is their business. For me, the fact that I made all of the furniture in my living room, and it gets used everyday, is what makes me happy to have made it. When I see that furniture in use, I can say in all honesty that I don’t get all warm and fuzzy remembering every little aspect of the building process. Once again, there may be people who do find joy in those memories, but I don’t, which means little either way.

      At this point in my life, I am a decent woodworker, maybe even better than decent, but to move forward I would have to give up what I don’t want to give up, and that is using much of my free time to build. I spent the last few weekends spending time with my daughter doing things that I’ve missed out on in the past. I’ve found that those moments have become far more important to me than any hobby, as much as I love that hobby. Right now, I’m trying to make memories, and making furniture will have to wait.
      Bill

  5. dzj9 says:

    All artists analyze/ reverse engineer the works of their competitors.
    They are quite pragmatic when it comes to this. I’ve yet to meet a violinist who after listening to his colleague play didn’t think to himself: “My grandmother could play that Joachim cadenza ” or “His harmonics suck” or “There he goes playing flat again”…
    (They wouldn’t admit to this, of course.)
    Only people who aren’t artists can relax and appreciate art holistically.

    • billlattpa says:

      Every serious musician I’ve ever met, both amateur and especially professional, has experienced what I was describing at some point in their life as a musician. Anybody who has ever played music for a living will say that a vital skill to learn is the ability to listen to a song and break it down to its individual components so as to learn it quickly. And ‘quickly’ is the key word here, because contrary to popular belief practicing songs with a band is one of the things a professional musician does least. Most pros are practicing on their own, taking lessons, and more importantly, giving lessons to make extra money. A working musician who wants to make it simply does not have the time to rehearse with different bands for hours on end. When I was 25 I was playing with 3 different bands and giving lessons at least two nights a week. Like most working musicians, I also had a “day job”, AND I was in school taking courses. Rehearsal with a band, if it happened, was a welcome break more than anything else.

      I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. If you’ve ever taken any college level music theory courses you likely would have been actually graded on your ability to listen to a song, be it Rock, Classical, or any form of Jazz, break it down, and notate the music. When I took the courses they were called Chromatic Harmony and Diatonic Harmony, and there were four semesters for each course. Once again, I’m probably telling you nothing new, but some people don’t seem to understand it.

      Otherwise, I am attempting to describe the paradigm shift that occurs from hobbyist, to serious hobbyist, to professional, and how it can end up affecting your personal life. As much as I love to woodwork, I am just not ready to take that next step, not because of skill level, but because I know what I need to give up all too well to make it happen. I made the conscious choice to give up music on a professional level in order to get married and start a family because I knew that I personally could not balance both worlds. I made that decision with no regrets, and that was not only a hobby but also a paying job.

      I was taking woodworking too seriously and letting it dominate too much of my time and thoughts. Once again, I love it, but I won’t let the love of a hobby come between me and my family, in particular my daughter. As I said, I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But some people may not get it. As I said many times before; this blog probably isn’t for them.
      Thanks
      Bill

  6. glen d huey says:

    I’ll add my thoughts. I spent years working side by side with my Dad. I think about him and my Mom many times a day. But the thing that I find to be so special is a lowboy he built as he began woodworking.

    It’s now in my house and every day I see that lowboy and think of my Dad. That’s what his woodworking brought to me. That daily reminder is so much stronger than the memories of days spent being together.

    Woodworking is a great hobby (and vocation). Stay with it, and don’t sweat the small things.

    • billlattpa says:

      The furniture in my living room is probably the most special to me, not because it’s anything spectacular, but because my daughter has sort of adopted it as hers. For instance, when I made a hall table, my daughter specifically asked me to build a drawer to hold her things. Keep in mind she was 5 years old at the time, which to me made the request special, because her “things” were little toys and such, sort of like the stuff that is put in kids cereal boxes. But every time I open that drawer and see those things, which are still in there, I’m happy I made that table.

      Another commenter mentioned, in paraphrase, that the “use” of furniture is the least rewarding part of making it, and to have that mentality is “misguided”. To me, that couldn’t be more inaccurate. I’m not an artist, and I’m not selling furniture. I build furniture because I need it. I’m happy to say that every piece of furniture I built for my house is being used for its intended purpose. I’m sure there are many woodworkers out there who build furniture just to build it, or to make a work of art out of wood, and that to me is just fine as long as it makes you happy. I found that lately I’ve been woodworking just to woodwork. Now, there sure are a hell of a lot worse things I could be doing with my time, but I found that I was almost forcing myself into the garage and in the meantime missing out on the little things.

      Of course, I love woodworking, I love using and maintaining tools, and I love making furniture, but when I look at that hall table for example, there is honestly little I remember about the building process, meaning I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the build. That isn’t to say that I don’t learn from each project, but every time I picked up a saw or a chisel is not a fond or cherished memory. For me, it is much more the whole experience and not a lot of individual moments or “the process” as it is referred to, that makes a piece of furniture special. Much of that, when all is said and done, is earning the right to look at a piece of furniture I made and know that it turned out pretty nicely. That’s what I was referring to, or trying to do.

      Some time ago I let my love of music turn into an obsession, and I foolishly ended up ruining for myself something that I was pretty damn good at. I almost did the same with woodworking, and thankfully I caught myself before I did. I forced myself to take a step back, and luckily I did it in time.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  7. bloksav says:

    Hi Bill.

    I try to be there for my family, and luckily for me, sometimes my boys love to come to the workshop with me. It is not every time I am home that they want to do that, but then I’ll just do something else with them.

    I helped my daughter turn a small bird on the lathe some years ago, and it is on display in the house, I remember her being all exited about it, but now she is on close to turning 15, so being in the workshop is not one of her top priorities any more.

    Out here I like building stuff because of the process. It doesn’t matter if it is a chest or a small cabinet or something else. It is basically just to do something that I enjoy, in order to pass the time.
    At home I like to build stuff that we can use as a family. I am very proud of my kitchen that I made myself some years ago (before I started my blog).
    We use it every day, and I like that.

    To me it is a comforting thought, that something I have spent a lot of time building, is really cherished and used by the entire family.

    I think that the most important thing to me is that I have someone to build something for. I haven’t got anywhere near the same feeling for some of the stuff that I just build for my own sake to pass the time, compared to stuff where I have thought of someone while I have been building it.

    As an example. I made the horse mounting stool because my wife asked me if I could make one for her. She uses it several times a week, and it is kept on the riding court, so it is not getting any special treatment or priority position inside the house. That stool sparks something in me every time I walk past it. something like: “I was able to do something for my wife that she really appreciates”

    The last sea chest I made on the other hand doesn’t mean nearly as much to me. It took longer time, but it was basically built to help pass the time in a pleasant way while at sea.

    So what I get out of your blog entry is that it is important to make memories together with your family. And I can only agree with that. But the way each of us makes those memories will probably be different.

    Sometimes I make memories by going swimming with the family, and other times I make memories by splitting firewood with the boys or by making a special thing one of them has wished for (e.g. a holder for a saddle).

    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      We’ve had so much going on lately that it’s been hard to find time for anything. I’ve tried to get my daughter interested in woodworking, and though there are times she is all for it, there are more occasions when she would rather be doing something else. Once again, we had a very harsh winter, so I can’t blame her in the least for wanting to get outside and away from the house, as part of me feels the same way.

      Lately, both my wife and I have been working long and sometimes conflicting hours. More often than not it seems that when I’m here my wife is not, at least during the work week. During those times, when it has been just my daughter and I, we got to spend a lot of time doing activities we normally wouldn’t do together in the sense that it was just the two of us. It was a nice experience, and one that I sadly probably missed out on in the past without even realizing it. I hope that my love of woodworking didn’t cause me to miss out on some of those times. Even so, what is past is past, but I’ve come to the decision that I won’t let anything come between me and my daughter ever again, and I will have to learn to better budget my time so I can do things with her, and still woodwork occasion.
      Thanks
      Bill

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