As I type this, my left pinky finger is still numb and the back of my elbow aching from days planing, chiseling and sawing during my first week at David Savage’s Fine Furniture School, aka ‘The Atelier’.
A childlike humility is the overarching theme of how I felt this week. I, just like many others, thought I knew how to use tools and how wood ‘worked’. But I don’t – not in the way that matters, at least. Like squinting through the door as you emerge into the bright sunlight outside, the brilliance of this craft is blinding at first but after letting your eyes adjust, the depth of field before you is incredible.
Situated on a small dairy farm near Shebbear, Devon, England, the drive to the school from our new home town of Bideford couldn’t be more ideal for a day in the workshop. The 10 mile serpentine road follows the tidal muddy River Torridge, then through narrow hedged lanes, over stone bridges and around quilted countryside to deliver you at a courtyard surrounded by the farmhouse and three converted barns. With a total of 12 students and three teachers present, there is slight background hum of chat mixed with a diversity of the sporadic sounds of metal on wood.
I have not made any furniture yet. In fact, I learnt I won’t be making anything remotely living-room friendly for at least six months. And that’s just as well too. Let me introduce a concept that has come crashing home to me in in full force: ‘tolerance’.
Slightly thicker than a human hair and just thinner than the length of a dust mite, the dimension 0.2mm has developed a whole new significance for me. This is the ‘tolerance’ – i.e. maximum permissible deviation from design – that my hand work must conform to if I am to call myself a fine furniture maker. When working at this tolerance, an array of all sorts of considerations make a difference. One of the less obvious, for instance, is that if your work isn’t left rested on battens, then when you return to what you thought was straight and flat, you’ll find it – under scrutiny of the straight-edge – to be ‘out’. The atmospheric humidity change over even just half an hour is enough to affect the moisture content unevenly to twist and bow your precious work.
While being exposed to exacting standards of tolerance, there is a different dynamic at play too. My engineering has taught me to lean more towards the binary and the discrete, but now I feel the early onset of change as I start to trade more in the continuous. The pressure you apply through your hands on the tool can’t be calculated, measured or binned to then be written up in a manual, rather it can only be felt and learned through practice. When honing the blade of a plane, to a point that “no light lands on the edge”, there is still no better tool commonly available to measure sharpness than the end of a thumb and the thousand yard stare as you feel for the edge, or the burr. This marriage of ‘continuous input’ to generate a ‘discrete output’ creates havoc for the novice.
I can also sense that my eyes too are starting their long journey of recalibration. The pinpricks of infinitesimally small slithers of light under a straight-edge or set square actually mean something. In my first art class, we were told to draw the mug on the table not how you think it should look, but how you actually ‘see it’. There is a refreshing feeling in realising how to use your eyes in these ways, and not just as two-dimensional scanners of pixels on a screen.
Of course there is also the new vocabulary I am drowning in, as well as the workshop vernacular such as ‘straight off the saw’ and ‘bruising the edge’. FEWTEL (Face, Edge, Width,Thickness, End and Length), just like the math mantra SOHCAHTOA, is the new chant that comes into my head when presented with a rough-sawn piece of timber, ready to be shaped.
I still use databases, but now they aren’t stored in a spreadsheet, but as fuzzy categories blended in my mind such as families of tools, species of timber and their workability, colour, texture, etc. We have daily presentations (over tea and biscuits of course) on all things furniture. This week we learned about a small group of exotic hardwoods. Macassar Ebony, for instance, comes only from the small Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Timber harvesters are only allowed to cut down what they can carry out on themselves. The rarity of this timber is self explanatory – so too the price tag, which is at the top of the list.
I feel physically drained at the end of the day and my soft hands are taking a battering. Sometimes I’m dismayed at my poor workmanship, too, and the ignorance I have over such trivial matters. It’s taking some time to get used to being judged so clinically by my teacher, as he clasps in one hand a piece representing days of painstaking work, and in the other the merciless jaws of the micrometer slide rule. However, I wouldn’t change it for a second. Even in these toughest moments I can take joy in the learning process and sense the seeds of what will come to be.
As Mr Miyagi says, wax on, wax off.