Written by Brandon O'Brien on February 16th, 2015

With an initial investment of less than $100, I began a new hobby in 2015. A workbench, a dovetail saw, and a couple of flea-market hand planes have me set up to try my hand at traditional woodworking.

My accomplishments in this noble guild can be summarized briefly: I built the workbench (such as it is) on which all future work will take place. That is all. For the last couple of days I’ve been shaping a lovely piece of rough-sawn and locally sourced poplar into the proper dimensions, from 1.25 inches thick and slightly crowned to 1 inch thick and flat. If there is anything left of it when it’s finished—after I’ve shaved a little off this side then a little on the other side and then, well, a little more on the first side to keep it even and so on—it will become a bench for our foyer. That will be my second accomplishment.

This type of woodworking is traditional in at least two ways. For one, the basic technology utilized in modern hand tools is more or less unchanged since about the 17th century. (If the articles I’ve skimmed are to be trusted.) More personally, two of my great-grandfathers were craftsmen. The television in our living sits atop a chest-of-drawers one of them built decades ago. It is fashioned from repurposed crates delivered to the ammunition plant where Daddy Carl worked. (Handmade of reclaimed lumber. Daddy Carl would have made a killing on Etsy.)

The thing is, though, I am not using my great-grandfathers’ tools, nor did either of them teach me the techniques I’d need to know to use them. My tools are technologically primitive but really rather new. And I’m learning everything I know from videos on YouTube. The word “tradition” comes from a Latin root that means to “hand down.” What I’ve done is more nearly picked up something discarded and put it in my pocket.

But this is what “tradition” and “traditional” mean, for the most part, today. Few people I know learn traditional skills from their elders or in dusty workshops or well-lighted studios. We learn traditional technologies such as planing and canning through our new technologies—tablets and smartphones. Tradition isn’t binding or authoritative. It supplements our sense of tactile connectedness with the past. That’s one sense new technology really cannot satisfy. Tradition is today a selective recovery of artifacts—spiritual or material—carefully curated to complement our lifestyles. This is a definition of tradition previous generations would hardly understand.

I’m not complaining. When I finish my bench, I’ll snap a couple of photos with my smart phone. One of them, certainly, will feature a nearly translucent ribbon of poplar beside the planer and the other will show off the finished product in good light. I’ll post them on Instagram. Probably on #handtoolthursday.


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