Building houses costs a lot of money, and one of the first things to fall by the wayside is extraneous decoration. I think that’s a shame. With just a bit additional effort we can add a little beauty and whimsey.
Social media and the internet allow the once-cloistered craftsman an enormous window to the world of fellow makers — an opportunity for instruction and inspiration and a forum for discussion. A recent thread of craft blog writing following close on the heels of a carving master-class I was fortunate to attend has gotten my critical thinking/writing all fired up.
Here’s where it all starts: #Realcraft
Hashtags can be frivolous, but their larger implications, the “meta-” content of the entire conversation related to the hashtag, can carry some real weight. Examples here, here, and here. We know that words matter, and that we can use words in a powerful way to help to shape our sense of self and our place in the world.
The meta-conversation with #Realcraft seems to have started in late 2014 with a British designer named Chris Eckersley and an essay written for a show called Real Craft . A response to Eckersly’s essay by English woodworker Robin Wood added a counterpoint. Jarrod Stone Dahl is probably where I initially picked up the thread, via his blog and Instagram. The most recent conversation has been mediated and motivated by Joshua Klein of “Mortise and Tenon” magazine, here, and here. Finally, some interesting input from Peter Follansbee.
Each of these writers engages honestly in the conversation at hand and in their own way works away at what appears to be the crux of the topic: What exactly can be meant by this word/nonword “#Realcraft”? I found some insight for myself at the confluence where this theoretical discussion intersects with my own recent experience at Greenwoodfest, and a subsequent intensive carving masterclass, with the Swedish woodworker Jogge Sundqvist.
Jogge Sundqvist is well known especially among woodworkers interested in green woodwork — work done typically with freshly felled, wet trees as raw material. He is the son of Willie Sundqvist, who, via the guidance and interest of Bill Coperthwaite and Drew Langsner introduced the Sweedish sloyd (slojd) woodworking tradition to the United States.
Jogge is a tremendous ambassador for traditional craft work, and is an impressive teacher. His personality is infused with curiosity, passion for his craft, and more than a little rock-n-roll.
This was entirely in evidence when he presented a jaw-on-the-floor multimedia performance on the first night of Greenwoodfest. Entitled “Rythem and Slojd”, it began with Sundqvist roughing out a portion of a birch log with an ax to the driving beats of blasting techno music. When he had worked the birch far enough in a rough state, the music came down, Jogge sat down, and, while simultaneously working away at the project in his hands, began to define for us the tenets of his craft: slojd.
Slojd, he said, could be represented in the mind as a room with four walls, each necessary to hold up craft: the wall of tools and techniques, the wall of materials, the wall of tradition, and the wall of people and folk craft knowledge. Use of the proper tools, applied with skill to wood whose origin and qualities you are intimately aware, worked within and with awareness of the traditions and past practices of those who have come before and an awareness of the needs and desires of those for whom your work is intended, all integrated with the desire and responsibility to pass the skills along to the next generation, to foster the love and awareness of the work and the working life. This, to Sundqvist, was the definition of the word Slojdare, similar to the english word craftsman, if that word could be intended with all the foregoing implications.
This, in turn, is how I would suggest #Realcraft be defined, in the evocative, multilayered language of the slojdare.
Eckersley and Wood focus largely on the longstanding handmade/machinemade, artwork/craftwork conversation. It’s an important conversation, but works along the edges, is unsolvable, and as such, doesn’t break much new ground.
Klein shoots straight for hard boundaries, using his own strong opinions, a dictionary, and David Pye’s problematic definition of the word “craftsman” in relation to the workmanship of risk. I think there’s too much “If this, then that” to Klein’s analysis, too intense a focus, and as a result, he needed walk his initial essay back a bit. Credit is due for jumping in with both feet, however.
Follansbee gives himself an out, with the caveat that he “doesn’t usually get involved” with these types of conversations, and that the “heat has fried his brain”. I think he’s being a bit obtuse initially, picking up on the literal “real” vs. “unreal” crafts, poking at Jarrod Stone Dahl’s use of “real” as a marketing ploy, and his assertion that the way other people work “…means nothing to (him)”. Follansbee’s cagey though — if you’re aware of his work, his devotion to teaching his craft, and his place in the lineage of american craft tradition you know he’s pretty #realcraft.
I find the strongest affinity, language-wise, with Jarrod Stone Dahl:
There is something about meeting new folks, carving together and sharing stories about life and craft that strikes a deep feeling in me. These experiences solidify the many facets of what I call Realcraft. It’s the people, food, stories, skills, life, the sharing, etc.. the real life backstory to the images on your favorite social media platform or “how to” video on Youtube, blog, etc… that defines Realcraft for me.
…I know this may seem to be quite a story, but craft objects and stories go hand in hand and as makers we tell our part too. If you ever listen to folks talk about there prized wooden spoons, wooden bowls, hand thrown mug, hand made knife, basket or what have you, telling stories are part of it. If folks have taken a workshop were they make things with their hands, telling stories is very much a part of that too. There is always a story, a memory.
The story is what makes these things, the handmade, an inseparable part of our very human existence. They are a part of us in this way. There is also something imparted into the object itself too. It’s the Handmade. They are steeped in the story of the maker, the thoughts, feeling while it’s being made. They are steeped in the thoughts and feeling of the owner or owners as well.
There’s earnestness, awareness of tradition, concern for the future of craft, the continuing thread of craft through life and work, the people making and using. I think Jarrod’s slojdare for sure.
Heady stuff, up there in the theoretical ether, but brought home in a meaningful and direct way for me in the days immediately following Greenwoodfest as I had the opportunity to work with Jogge Sundqvist over two intense days in his class Distaff: The Passion of Carving.
The distaff, a traditional implement used in spinning flax fiber into linen, was the vehicle via which I came to begin tounderstand what it means to be a slodare, and as a result, develop these thoughts about #realcraft.
The object itself would be a commonly found, handmade, household tool. In Swedish craft tradition a common object might be elevated in significance through additional care and intention in making to the status of “loving gift”, a gift given to woo, to show care and love, to indicate through your personal attention that you were “not uncrafty”, suitably skilled.
We were shown and learned to select and process a birch log with an ax and froe, to create a regular, symmetrical form with a drawknife and shave horse , to carve and pierce with a knife and brace, to embellish with carved decoration and color.
This class integrated tradition, skills, materials, and people — theory actualized in the real world. For someone concerned with craft, with the working life, with learning and teaching, living fully and happily, I can see how the meta-conversation revolving around #Realcraft, a crazy collaboration between traditional craft knowledge and contemporary social media, could help to open the doorway to the integration of theory and form in life by helping us to see that we’re not alone out there.
This won’t be news to big-time homebuilders in the tract-housing trenches, but for a small-time, detail-oriented construction firm in a small market, using pre-manufactured components on our current project has really improved our efficiency and, frankly, our quality of life as carpenters.
The architects for this project spec’d truss joists, and it is the first time that we’ve installed this product. Because of the engineered load-bearing nature of this type of floor system bearing walls and beams are eliminated in favor of clear-span floors — significantly speeding up the vertical progress of the home. The definition of lightweight construction, 24 foot joists are light enough for a single carpenter to maneuver around the site. The plumbing and electrical contractors will appreciate the open nature of the truss construction, speeding installation.
Roof trusses are, again, nothing new to most builders. However, given the low overall project volume of the company that I work for, we’ve had occasion to frame roofs traditionally as frequently as to use trusses. While their outright size and weight necessitate having a machine on site to lift the trusses to the top plates, this inconvenience is mitigated by the speed with which the roof framing can be accomplished. We’re framing a house in January, in the Northern Adirondacks, so speed and simplicity are a real bonus. Even given the less-than-ideal consistency from truss to truss they are less aggravating to install than sawn 2×12’s.
Finally, another new product to our crew, pre-cast concrete footers. The overall design of the home is very straightforward — it’s a rectangle. The home does have a bump-out mudroom, breezeway, deck, and screen porch, however, and all of these “exterior to the footprint” components are supported by piers. On past projects we would have set sonotubes and mixed concrete by hand: tedious, time-consuming work. While the number and location of piers was significant and complicated, the work could be accomplished quickly and accurately by one person (in this case, the boss) and a small back hoe. Further functionality and efficiency will be realized while framing on top of these piers as threaded anchor nuts are cast in place.
I’m writing about my day job here because this topic furthers my interest in best building practices and efficiency in my work life. In this case the company performing the work is not Guenther Woodworking, but Crowl Construction, of Keene, New York. Brian Crowl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re looking to build in the greater Keene region of the Adirondacks, this is the company to call.
Click to enlarge!
In early November I had the good fortune to head down to the neck of Cape Cod to take a weekend class in ash basketmaking with Peter Follansbee, a woodworker best known for his 17th century American woodcarving. I had the opportunity a few years ago to take a weekend carving class with Follansbee at Lie-Nielsen in Maine and so was prepared for his teaching style: informal, humorous, slightly curmudgeonly, sincere and encouraging without any trace of saccharine. A genuinely nice and interesting person to be around. He was exposed to basketmaking early in his career and has continued to practice the craft, although this was his first time teaching it formally. His blog is great, with lots of excellent instruction and images and is one of few that I check daily.
Saturday morning started cold, which was OK since we quickly got down to the difficult work of procuring ash splints from ash logs. Because ash is a ring-porous hardwood each annual ring is composed of both spongy early-year fibers and dense late-year fibers. This difference in density can be exploited by beating the log, or a smaller riven billet, with a heavy hammer, crushing the early-wood and allowing the dense late-wood to be peeled apart, year by year.
Splints fresh from the log then need to be refined. If thick enough, each annual ring splint can be scored and peeled into two halves, each with a beautiful, satiny, finished surface on the peeled face. Thinner splints can be refined by using a sharp knife as a scraper, drawing the splint past the blade while pressing firmly down onto one’s well-protected thigh.
Finished splints can then be coiled and allowed to dry, with an indefinite shelf life. Prior to working, splints must be thoroughly soaked and rehydrated.
Towards the end of the first day of class we began the process of weaving our first basket, one with a square or rectangular bottom and a top that would be either round, or the same as the base.
Wider, thicker uprights are interwoven working from the center out and leaving a not-quite-splint-width space between successive splints. An odd number of uprights allows for the weavers to spiral up the height of the basket. In order to achieve an odd number either one upright is slit along its length, or, as we learned, the first thin weaver can be left long as it is started, becoming an extra upright.
Getting the weavers started, and getting the uprights to “turn the corner” from flat to evenly-spaced vertical was frustrating. Once the vertical walls were established the weaving became more intuitive, relaxed, and enjoyable. I got to exactly that point about an hour after class had finished for the day, feeling accomplished but also zoned out from the physical work and the focused concentration required in learning a new skill.
The second day of class was much more of the same. Folks got directly down to work, either weaving baskets or creating more raw materials. Peter gave demonstrations on methods for finishing with either a riven solid wood rim or thick splints, and concluded with instruction on laying out and beginning a round-bottomed basket.
Being Sunday in New England, someone mentioned looking forward to watching a recording of the Patriots game, played at home, just up the highway from where class was held. Local knowledge of gameday traffic led to the suggestion that, were we traveling north, it might be best to beat the post-game rush. Having a five-plus hour drive in front of me, and zero desire to be encumbered by bumper-to-bumper traffic, I decided to forego the final hour and a half of scheduled class time and bug out directly. I lost out on having a critical eye look over an early round-bottom attempt, but was pleased to get some miles in before dark.
Prolonged warm weather so late into fall and winter has allowed me to stay busy at the homestead, and as a result, I’ve yet to finish my basket. Good luck and a little heavy lifting provided me with a lovely section of fresh white ash log; some of my late season work therefore involved getting out a great batch of nice long splint material to work with next summer. I also got a modest start on a round-bottomed basket; I feel like I understand the concepts well enough to finish, or start another.
I can’t speak highly enough about the relatively young arts organization that sponsored this class, and many more, in a wide variety of traditional crafts — PlymouthCRAFT. Please take a look at their website. The principals of the organization are all formerly involved with Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum of the earliest European-American settlement. To a person, they were kind, helpful, excited, and motivated. Great food, excellent location, creative energy, the entire package was outstanding. PlymouthCRAFT is undertaking an ambitious woodworking symposium in the spring of 2016, Greenwood Fest, bringing many of the finest contemporary specialists in green woodworking from around the world for a long weekend of instruction and camaraderie. An event not to be missed, and I’ll be there for sure.
I’ve been hoping to augment the blog with some of my recent home building work. The truth is, building houses is by-and-large boring, methodical work. Details are important, and careful work counts for a lot in contemporary construction. But two weeks of cathedral ceiling insulation? Boring.