Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Brief History of Shop Time

Whenever I build a piece of furniture, I keep a log of the time I spend at each step in construction: 60 minutes to glue the top, 75 minutes to cut the mortises and tenons, 30 minutes to remake a munged-up apron.

The reason I keep this record is a bit of mystery to me. I immediately pitch the chicken-scratched log when I purge the shop of the shavings, scraps and screw-ups at the end of a project. But before I cast the log into the burn pile, I always add up the minutes I’ve marked there and marvel at how few hours there are in my life that are spent actually woodworking. I spend most of my days dealing with woodworking: writing about it, reading about it, answering questions about it, thinking about it. But when it comes down to counting the minutes I spend with my hands on the tools, I always feel like I’ve been cheated.

Now I don’t like to get too philosophical about something so physical, but the hours (even minutes) that I spend at woodworking are some of the best waking moments I have. And recently an acquaintance named Brian Welch passed on to me a passage from chapter 18 Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” that seized me by the shoulders and shook me good. Some part of this passage is certain to end up in the next issue of Woodworking Magazine, but I wanted to share the full text with you here:

“There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, …?It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.’

“He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work.

“By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with  precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?”

This afternoon I got in my truck on my day off and braved the traffic to go to the office (which is by Kenwood Towne Centre , the center of all things commercial in Cincinnati) to do a little work on the leg vise for my English Workbench.

I logged only 75 minutes, but it was the best month of the entire day.

– Christopher Schwarz

4 thoughts on “A Brief History of Shop Time

  1. Ken Bryant

    There is a sobering corollary, though, in a saying much quoted out here in Canada’s Gulf Islands, where everybody is eternally either building or rebuilding a house: "House finish, man die".

  2. dave brown

    Thanks for another great installment. I’m really enjoying your style as you wade deeper into waxing philosophical about woodworking and how it relates to many aspects of life.

    BTW: what is that thing attached to your plane? Is that perchance a fence from Lie Nielsen? (people love looking at pictures for hidden bits of information) 🙂

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