Saturday, September 11, 2010

I quit carpentry for a life of enlightened poverty

When in the coarse of a renovating people's homes, no matter how carefully I describe the time line and the coming chaos - they end up treating the enterprise, and me as it's embodiment, as if I personally, was the coming of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Why is that I wonder? Just because I destroy walls, dig up parts of their floors, rip down parts of their ceilings. Just because every time they see me they know the air will shortly be filled with toxins, noise levels will rise to levels that injure hearing, and large parts of their home will become unrecognizable. Just because of that they begin to hate me for some reason. :)

Stressed smiles reveal twitches that momentarily express venal hatred. Offers of morning coffee come heaped with guilt.

"No thanks" you eventually learn to say, "I've already had one."

The less said the better. Let them alone with their coffee - they haven't slept in a month.

Is it just me? Do I hate my chosen craft so much that I project all this onto every job? I'll admit this renovation stuff is not what I had in mind when I signed on. So what was it then that I signed on for?

The craft of carpentry, of woodworking is full of meaning, especially in this western, christian culture; what did I see in the iconography of 1960's North American culture that was so attractive?

Someone says, "Jesus was a carpenter you know."

Yeah, I know, and he quit to help topple Rome; how much fun could he have been having?

I know I'm not a modern day Jesus, I'm just a modern day carpenter, but in the Bible, Jesus was a carpenter not out of happen-stance, but because of the powerful meaning that surrounds carpentry then, as now. The bible, as I read it, is chalk full of metaphors, and very strong ones, timeless ones - it's why the book remains. Carpentry is a metaphor, carpenters build shelter first - that's a metaphor for civilization, stability against the darker angels of our nature; conquest, war, famine, and death - the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

I wonder if 2,000 years ago, some technological innovation came along like for example, Ikea. Ikea took waste wood sawdust pressed into boards with glue, and combined that with a large investment in design, flat pack packaging, global marketing, and easy credit. The home furniture market is now dominated by 5-10 year disposable furniture that is made in a robotized factory with no joinery carpenters. A new kind of carpenter, a 'Machine Carpenter' now watches while machines do the work. Worse still, more and more, wood is being replaced with plastics.

I ask you, what would Jesus do?

The Ikea Prototype Carpentry/Upolstory Shop. From what I could see in the video I'd say a maximum of 5 carpenters work in a shop this size.

I was lucky when I started carpentry back in 1983, I worked under a master carpenter who's father and grand father were master carpenters. If there was a better start I can't think of one. His name was John Murphy, an exiled Irishman.

In my first job with him we ripped out a double brick structure down to the brick - and then rebuilt it. We leveled ceilings and floors, framed new walls, installed new windows, ran electrical and plumbing, dry-walled, trimmed and painted. We built flat roofs and peak roofs, decks and stairs and laid interlocking brick to complete the landscaping we'd done.

Later I worked in new home construction in Burlington Ontario, slapping up 2,000 square foot homes, one every five days with a small crew. Outside cladding in the building code dropped from plywood to press-board. It was so busy that developers were abiding yahoo crews who were working to 1/4" spec., rather than the 1/8" that is standard in new home construction. Later in downtown Toronto I worked solo in home renovations. Later still I worked under maverick, self taught master carpenter genius, Elo Jensen and learned cabinet making, film set carpentry and commercial display carpentry. Still later I taught myself joinery and ran a design and build solid wood furniture building studio where I specialized in recycling solid wood which I found in the garbage.

Maybe it was that last one that did it, the beautiful wood being blindly thrown in the garbage like it was just another five year old Ikea desk. Only it's not disposable, it's really the legacy of our forebears, who built stuff to last generations, heading for landfill to make room for the new, new.

That this culture places so little value on the skills in my hands is the reason I gave up carpentry for now - and took up my other life long love - writing; and with it the commensurate poverty.

Here's how Ikea stuff is designed, built and shipped:

Here's how it is done in a small shop somewhere in your community today.

Master Carpenter Norm Abram builds furniture, (program changes every so often) from the PBS show "The New Yankee Workshop". (sorry no embed available)

This is how it was done before the electric grid came online - 1900-1930.

PBS's "The Woodwright's Shop" with Master Carpenter Roy UnderHill

Roy UnderHill builds a Hancock Pedestal Table with water or steam power, but mostly elbow grease. (sorry no embed available)


"Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" image from the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Library.

Ikea 'How it's Made' video from djscubasteve55's Youtube Channel


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