GUEST BLOG: Summer is a time many of us pursue hobbies, or at least dream about doing so. Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of someone who makes his hobby a year round pleasure.
Note from Anne: Sam sat beside me at the spectacular wedding of my niece last summer in Algonquin Park. Lucky me. Lucky bridal couple too; Sam was their best man. Best table companion too, says this proud aunt.
Play it again, Sam.
By Sam Oldfield
When you sand a piece of wood to make it smooth and soft to the touch, you are actually making the wood infinitely rough. You begin with a coarse sandpaper, making deep scratches that can be seen with the naked eye. Then slowly, labouriously, you go back over the piece with ever finer sandpaper, rubbing out the old scratches again and again with new, finer ones. Eventually your scratches are so tiny and covering the piece so completely, that your eye and your hand believes that the wood is perfectly smooth. I think about this a lot, as it seems like the perfect metaphor for something profound, although I am unsure quite what.
I first started woodwork as a way to try to reconnect with my father, who had passed away a few years before. I came across a collection of unopened tools while cleaning out his garage, and was hit with childhood memories of his failed DIY projects and quietly cursing to himself as he tried to put up a shelf that was at least level enough to hold a book or two. Now that I have been going a few years, I’m starting to feel like I’m finding my rhythm with it, although I’m still very much a beginner. I regularly turn pens and bowls on the lathe for gifts, and get equal enjoyment whether I’m making a basic chopping board or a rocking chair. The more I work with different woods, the more I am drawn into the complexities of grain and colour different species offer, and even the huge variation between different individual trees of the same species. I love that this means that the same project made multiple times will always be completely unique.
My introduction into woodworking did not go smoothly. When I first started, I have to admit I was mostly lured in by the exciting looking power tools, and the first tool I ever bought for myself was an extremely noisy circular saw, which I must have used less than five times in the two years since. This love of shiny things, coupled with no real knowledge of woodwork, quickly lead me down a slippery slope of spending money to compensate for a lack of skill, and I ended up with several large tools I could barely use, and only a few very mediocre finished pieces to show for my investment.
The project that turned my idea of woodwork around, and really made me fall in love with the hobby, was a simple set of bookends. They were a gift for a friend, and in essence a very simple idea: their initials in a simple font cut from oak.
To begin with, this project forced me to start thinking about design and sketching my ideas. It was one of my first pieces using hardwood, which is much more expensive than the construction lumber you can pick up at hardware stores, and I couldn’t really afford to waste material. This, coupled with the fact it was my first project which was completely designed by me, rather than copied or at least heavily influenced by what I had seen on the internet, meant I spent a lot of time trying to imagine the piece before I ever laid hands on a saw. As I sketched and re-sketched, I started to see all the ways I could adapt it to make something that looked completely different, and from here tailor the design to what I imagined the recipient might like best.
Happy with my sketches, and having spent time carefully laying out the design onto the wood, I eagerly proceeded to one of the larger power tools to cut the oak to shape and… it looked terrible. I couldn’t cut accurately and ended up with sharp, blocky, uneven letters similar to the handwriting of a child. I looked to each of my power tools in turn for a way to fix the problem, but each left me wanting. I certainly didn’t have the skill with hand tools to fix the problem, and so eventually I realised I was left with the great equaliser of woodwork: sanding. Anybody can sand a block of wood to whatever shape they like with minimal skill. All it really takes is a little elbow grease and the patience to slowly wear the wood away into dust: it’s so slow going that it’s difficult to make any big mistakes. It took three solid days for me to painstakingly bring the design down to my layout lines, round them over into soft curves, then sand and re-sand with finer grits of paper until the wood was smooth to touch. Although I expected to find the whole thing mind-numbingly frustrating, it is actually one of the happiest memories of my adult life. Slowly working a plank of solid oak to my will, once a tree at least a hundred years old, made me feel humble. Coming to know every inch of the piece as I wore it away millimetre by millimetre, made me feel incredibly close to it. Almost no technical skill went into the project, but I could not remember enjoying the labour of making something so much, nor having a finished project that felt so much like an extension of myself.
Since this project I have thankfully become a little more useful with handtools, so that I am not forced to sand all the way from lumber to furniture. I still use power tools to speed things along, but it is the slow, quiet precision of woodwork that I love and find peace from. I mark my slow improvement in skill by the margin of error I am willing to accept. When I first began, having a piece be off by 1/8th of an inch was no big deal. Then slowly I became frustrated when pieces off by 1/16th did not fit together perfectly. Now I will happily plane a piece shaving by shaving, measuring after each pass to try and be no more than a 64th of an inch out.
My day job, like most people’s, comes with its fair share of stress, and having mechanisms to let go of work, and ways to find release, becomes more and more important as time goes on.
I have always struggled with meditation and have had little relief from talking therapies, but for me, the slow, repetitive planing of wood, as shavings fall to the floor and the smell of the wood rises into the air, brings me a sense of peace and purpose that I have been unable to find anywhere else.
Sam Oldfield is a doctor working in England specialising in palliative care for children. He has dreams of one day hopping the pond and moving to Canada, but in the mean time keeps himself busy with woodworking and playing various musical instruments. He was born in Hertfordshire but lives in London.