I graduated college in the winter of '07 at the age of eighteen, and immediately started my career as a graphic designer at an advertising agency. It was the job I dreamed of having throughout my time at university, a hip company with interesting clients, office in a restored paper mill in the heart of the big city; equal parts wooden exposed beams and modern steel, going to expensive awards parties and high profile meetings with banking executives. I was a member of the world of the mad men. Since then, I've had a few other jobs and freelance projects to fill in the cracks, but it was early on that I realized that something vital was lacking. There was something missing, like a hole in the middle of every piece of work I did, something I envied of other men.
I began to realize early on that there was nothing tangible about my work. Sure, it could be printed, but every pixel I poured my intellect into was a series of ones and zeroes that was uploaded to a cold, emotionless computer somewhere in Texas, and after a matter of months, those bits and bytes would cease to exist. Deleted in a matter of milliseconds... disappearing into the ether without ceremony, to make virtual space for another arbitrary sequence of ones and zeroes. I could not touch this creation, only see a representation of it on screen, and even that is merely a vision of what does not truly exist in the physical world. Every creation of mine takes up no more space in the world than if it had never been created. It is simply a microscopic switch turned either on or off.
This realization caused a deep feeling of emptiness in my chosen vocation, and prompted months of soul-searching and wrestling with this truth in my mind. How could I call this thing I do "work" when my hands are not calloused and there is nothing that exists in the world after a day of my toil that was not there before I began? How can I say that I'm doing a decent thing when the sole purpose of my career is to rearrange binary code in such a way that it persuades others to spend their money on things they don't need?
I began to envy the men who, at the end of their day, had produced a piece of furniture, like a table, that will take up residence in someone's house, dutifully serving its simple purpose, receiving dings, scrapes, and water stains as a symbol of gratitude for its service. I envied the craftsman who constructed a flight of stairs that, through simple physics and engineering, will offer its service in helping to carry a small sleeping child to her bedroom late at night, squeaking quietly like a fond lullaby, familiar and constant.
There is an undeniable romance in physical work, molding materials, bending them to the will of the craftsman for a specific purpose. There is an intimacy in knowing each species of wood for its fitting use, hickory for an axe handle and its swift trauma, oak for the bedframe and its quiet longevity, pine for the dark-stained floors, dutifully bearing the wounds of a cast-iron kettle dropped in haste.
Getting down to business
The more I considered these things and the lack of longevity in my line of work, I set out to find my own place in the physical world, and I resolved to taste a morsel of that life I coveted. On Christmas day 2011, after gifts were opened and the smell of turkey and stuffing began to fill the house, I walked out into the woods behind the house with my axe, found a moderately sized poplar tree and chopped it down without much ceremony at all. I drug it in to the workshop, and set myself to work, cutting the tree into manageable lengths, splitting it into 4 inch by 4 inch sizes, each quadrant 4 feet long with rough wood on two sides, and a round circumference of bark on the opposite sides.
This is where the rough work ended and the hard work started. I put an old Woody Guthrie album on the record player and set to work with my hand plane, removing bark and excess wood, thoroughly enjoying the monotony of the task, listening to old folk songs and the constant scraping noise of sharp steel against soft wood.
It gave me time to think about life and the value of working with my hands as the pile of wood chips under my boots grew thicker and deeper. I learned every grain of that old poplar tree with each stroke of the plane. I learned that this tree stripped better from one direction, but not the other. I learned which knots would take special care and attention, like strong-willed children.
Some of its branches were far apart where the year brought much rain and much growth between branch levels. Some of its branches were closer together when the rain was scarce and the growth small. I learned the story of the tree's life, grain by grain, knot by knot, chip by chip, and I knew this story was different than any other tree in the forest, like a fingerprint developed over years of rain and drought, sun and wind.
Before I began, I spent most days looking at the chairs I came in contact with, to know what kind of structure would support my weight and the weight of the wood. I developed an intimate relationship with almost every chair I met, looking above and below and all around to see how it was constructed. I found more respect for the craftsmen of some chairs than the craftsmen of others, but in the end, my eyes were opened to a world I never knew existed. I found the average of all these chairs, understood the way I would construct it and what would hold it together, and made a list of necessary lengths and breadths of lumber, and I fabricated all of these with only hand tools without the aid of gasoline nor electric. Each piece was carefully measured and lovingly coaxed into existence with nothing but my hands and a blade of steel.
Doing things the hard way
As far as I was concerned, this was the only way to be true to the real spirit of my endeavor, the only way not to break the laws that I had set up for myself. The real enjoyment in crafting a work from wood is in the process, and to shorten that journey would be to cheat that process and defeat the purpose. The process was long and grueling sometimes, yes, but the sense of accomplishment I felt at the end was the true reward. I had birthed a physical and useful object into the world by my own hands, a chair that was once a tree and was now something that would stand the test of time as it provided service to anyone who sat in it. It was something that would not have existed had it not been for my involvement, and I was in command of the entire process. Not a single dimension of that lumber was molded by anyone else's hands but my own, and no other fingerprints touched its frame until it was transformed from tree to chair, and that was perhaps the greatest gift of all. I was able to intimately control the process that brings a living tree into submission and makes it into useable material... this is a relationship that not even the most avid woodworker experiences when he chooses his wood from the lumber aisle in the hardware store.
This was the true purpose of my mission. To set out to do something that I had never done before, and see if after I had put time and thought into it, if I could not do what I set my mind to. I believe that with enough effort and practice, we are able to do anything within our will, it is only when we give up believing that truth that we fail, but it is only in testing that truth that we learn what we are capable of, and come out stronger and more determined after having completed the task.