Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What James Krenov and Farley Mowat Have in Common

Last week we were shown a slideshow encompassing most of the pieces James Krenov made while working as an instructor at our school, over a period of 20 years or so.
The cabinets ranged from his traditional display cases mounted on stands, to some more wild and experimental pieces he made later in his career. David Welter explained how they were made and some of the thinking that went into the design and construction process.
But one of the photos was different, just an image of Krenov reading to the class from a book.
Photo courtesy of JamesKrenov.com (photo credit goes to David Welter)
It was explained to us that the book was “Sun, Sand and Stars,” the memoir of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French pilot and author who wrote “The Little Prince.”
Each year, David said, Krenov would read a passage where Saint-Exupery describes how he and the other pilots stationed with him in North Africa would keep an eye on the lanterns in their tents for signs of an approaching sand storm.
If new species of insects began to appear around the lamps at night, they knew they were being driven by a weather system coming towards the area, and to prepare for a storm.
Krenov used the passage to illustrate how we need to be aware of our environment, our materials and tools, and to learn to really see the changes taking place around us in order to become skilled, sensitive woodworkers.
I liked the story, and as a big fan of “The Little Prince” it inspired me to find Saint-Exupery’s memoir and read more.
The story also reminded me of the words of advice given to me by Farley Mowat, a legendary Canadian writer and environmentalist famous for writing about Canada’s Arctic people.
In the early 2000s I interviewed Farley because he happened to live in the small town where I worked as a newspaper reporter, and one of his short stories had been turned into a film called “The Snow Walker.”
It’s a story about a brash young bush pilot who only cares about himself and his machine, until he crashes in the Barrenlands in the company of a young Inuit girl, and has to rely on her to survive the harsh environment.
We talked about the movie, the book, Farley’s role, and then sat down to have a whiskey and cranberry juice along with Ted, the paper’s photographer.
Farley turned the tables, and asked me what was going on in my life. I told him it just so happened that I was about to head to Morocco for a year to volunteer with a Christian organization working in the region.
Farley, in his mid-80s at the time, almost jumped out of his seat: “You need to learn the lessons of The Snow Walker! You can’t go over there thinking you can teach people and change them and make their lives better until you understand them, their environment, and live alongside them!”
It was great advice and sparked a conversation about the nature of that type of work and the importance of being tuned into the things around you, the value of paying attention, seeing and feeling and being open to learn – things I now know James Krenov also valued, though in a slightly different context.
 In the end, I guess the goal for both Mowat and Krenov was the same. By being tuned into their surroundings, by always being willing to learn new things and become a student – they believed that their work, their lives, their interactions, became better as a result.
The fact that both of them produced incredible work right up until old age (Farley is still going strong), is one more reason to be inspired by their way of looking at the world.
At the end of David’s slide show, he said “and I thought you might like to see the real thing,” and casually brought out a Krenov cabinet – the first many of us had ever seen. It’s in the photo below…

Monday, November 4, 2013

In Woodworking it all Hinges on the Little Things

It seems I’ve been spending all my time and energy dealing with little things recently -- seemingly insignificant, unimportant challenges or problems that end up taking days or even a week to solve.

I recently wrote about the troubles I had getting the ‘wind’ out of my cabinet doors and ensuring they fit snugly against the sides with no rattle or gaps.

Then I moved on to hinges, and spent another week struggling -- cutting small pieces of brass, drilling and counter-sinking, pressing steel pins into the hinge leafs and striving for a smooth swivel action on a perfect 90* axis.
Bet these hinges don't look like they took 4 days to make. Or that they're garbage, But they did, and they are.

Those hinges finally got the OK (after an embarrassing number of botched sets), and this morning I started the week with a new task – making a ‘map’ of my cabinet and the doors in order to figure out exactly where the hinges will go, to ensure the doors swing open smoothly and close tightly.

Such a simple-sounding task, yet so crucial and fraught with so many potential errors. To minimize the chance of mistakes, we create a full-scale paper plan of the cabinet, complete with swinging cardstock to represent the doors, to find out where the pivot points need to be.

Once that relationship is established, we make a spacer that ensures all four hinges are set at the same distance from the sides. And finally we mark and cut the mortises for the hinges. My classmate Henry cut 30 test mortises on scrap wood before he felt comfortable enough to cut into his cabinet – it’s that tricky.

I don’t want to lose you in the details (if I haven’t already) but the point is that these little details add up. The reason it takes hours, days, or sometimes a week to accomplish something so simple, is that it needs to be done just right or the cabinet won’t be right.

And so, if it takes a week to make four simple brass hinges (that are made properly and work the way they should), that’s ok.

I wrote that as if I believe it, but I’m not sure I do just yet.

I still have that git-er-done mentality that fools me constantly into thinking I’m a failure and woodworking isn’t for me because I’m so painfully slow, and my mistakes are so glaring (at least to me), and I can’t simply Git. ‘Er. Done as I can in other areas of my life.

But there’s a quote by Samuel Johnson on the wall at the front of our workshop that I find myself turning to more and more in those moments of self-doubt. It says: “What we hope ever to do with ease, we must first learn to do with diligence.”

I’ve been taking comfort in those words and the truth they represent. Difficult tasks eventually become easier, but only after a lot of effort, pain, and even failure.

I’ve been trying to remind myself of that when I struggle through a hard week of seemingly constant failures, what I’m actually doing is learning “to do with diligence” the things that will hopefully, possibly, some day come with ease.
Finally, hand-made hinges that will work the way they're meant to!