A couple weeks ago, I posted about making a new carving axe from an old carpenter’s hatchet. The axe has gotten quite a workout since I made it, and I couldn’t be happier with it. One curious feature of this old axe head is a couple of dimples on its right cheek. I’ve seen similar dimples, years ago, on the back of a chisel. I can’t remember who first told me about their purpose, but I suspect many of my readers already know.
One clue about their purpose lies in the form of a faint color change in the steel about 3/4″ from the cutting edge. This line demarcates the change between hardened steel and the softer steel.
The hardened/unhardened steel combination is found in many tools, from chisels to knives to plane blades, but it serves an absolutely critical function in a striking tool such as an axe. The cutting edge must be quite hard to remain sharp after repeated blows into wood, but unfortunately there is a positive correlation between hardness and brittleness. If we made the entire axe head hard enough that the edge stays sharp, we also increase the likelihood that the blade will crack during use. On the other hand, if we make the steel soft enough that brittleness is not an issue, we also resign ourselves to a blade that will not hold an edge for more than a few minutes. The solution? Combine a soft but malleable steel body with a hard but brittle edge. The softer steel supports the harder steel to create a superior tool.
There are many ways to accomplish this task. Traditionally, a blacksmith would forge weld a piece of tool steel within a wrought iron sandwich to make an axe head. This works well and yields a robust blade, but it’s also labor intensive (and therefore expensive). The modern method is to forge the entire axe head of tool steel, then harden only the outer edge of the blade. This is the method that was used for my axe.
So what does this differential hardening have to do with the dimples on the axe cheeks?
Notice in the picture above that the smaller dimple is located well within the hardened steel area, while the larger dimple is located just on the other side in the softer steel.
Those dimples are the vestiges of hardness testing done by the manufacturer to confirm that the axe head was hardened to certain specifications. In modern parlance, we tend to refer to steel hardness on the Rockwell scale. The higher the number, the harder the steel. Chisels and plane blades may measure around 60-62 Rockwell hardness. Axes will be a bit softer to remove some of the brittleness – 55-57 is typical for a well-made axe. Saws are softer still, since they must be sharpened by a steel file, rather than a stone, and “set” (that is, the teeth bent by a specific amount to either side), which a harder steel would not allow. A hardness of 50-52 is normal for saw steel.
Hardness is measured by forcing a very hard object (often diamond or tungsten carbide) of a specific size and shape into the object to be tested using a specific amount of force. The size of the the depression that is created provides a measurement of the material’s hardness. In the case of my axe, the depressions indicate that the object used for testing was spheroid, which means that a Brinell hardness tester was used. The formula for determining harness using the Brinell test is:
Which is a fancy way of saying: the smaller the indentation (Di), the harder the steel. So, looking again at the dimples in my cheek, we see exactly what we would expect. The dimple near the cutting edge is smaller (and therefore the steel is harder) than the dimple right behind it. It’s pretty intuitive, actually. Unfortunately, we don’t know the diameter of the indenter (D) or the force used by the test (F), so we can’t estimate the hardness using the information available to us, but still…Go science!
I can anectodally state that the steel in this axe head is quite good. I would assume that a manufacturer that cares enough to test its blades is probably more likely to be one that will make a good blade in the first place. So, do any of your cheeks have dimples?
This isn’t a cooking blog, but it is my blog, which means I can write about cooking if I want.
Our little island on the east Florida coast is covered up with citrus trees that brighten the waning months of the year as their fruits ripen when the winter solstice approaches. Alas, the only citrus trees in my yard are a couple of sour kumquats that might make a decent marmalade, but not much else. Much of the prolific grapefruit, navel orange, and lemon harvest falls unwanted to rot in people’s yards. I eye the fallen fruit jealously as I ride by, but occasionally some kind soul will fill a wheelbarrow with grapefruit to leave by the sidewalk with a handwritten sign that says “FREE” and that makes me very happy indeed.
This year, a co-worker found out that I was buying grapefruit from the grocery store and took pity on me, delivering a few grocery bags to my cubicle the very next day. One of the bags was filled with lemons.
If you’ve never seen lemons growing on a tree, it would probably be quite a shock to find out that they’re not all the uniform kiwi-sized yellow fruits that you find in the grocery store. The smallest ones are golf-ball sized while the largest are easily bigger than a baseball. If the lemons don’t come from a managed orchard, they’ll no doubt be tarnished with gray sooty mold. Don’t worry about it. And don’t try to wash it off until you’re ready to use them – that’s a rookie mistake. Washing the fruit just breaks open the pores and causes the oils in the skin to dry out, which causes the fruit to rot more quickly. They should stay good for a month if you handle them properly.
When life hands you lemons, I say screw the lemonade. I want a lemon pie. Not a lemon meringue pie, mind you, but a real lemon pie. I’d never had one until last winter, but once I had my first slice I was hooked. I got the recipe several years ago from a woodworking book. What was a pie recipe doing in a woodworking book? Good question. Apparently the pie was first made by the Shaker communities of the Midwest. The book was about the furniture of the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village near Lexington, Kentucky. Kerry Pierce, the author, found the pie too good not to mention in his book. I was intrigued.
Fair warning: this pie is not for the easily puckered. It is as tart as it is sweet, with a hint of bitterness. The rinds don’t get very soft, so the texture is chewy. And it is powerfully lemony. I’m the only one in my family who will eat it, but let’s just say that it doesn’t bother me a bit that I don’t have to share.
2 medium lemons
2 cups sugar
Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie
4 eggs, beaten well
1/4 teaspoon salt
Using your sharpest knife (now is the time to show off that armhair-shaving honing that you perfected in the woodshop), slice each lemon crosswise, as thinly as possible, into paper-thin circles. If you can drape them over the knife blade like the clocks in a Salvador Dali painting, you’re doing it right.
Chop the thinly sliced lemons coarsely, so that the largest pieces of lemon rind and pith are less than an inch long.
Add the sugar to the bowl of lemons, and stir to mix them together really well. Cover and set aside at room temperature, for at least 4 hours or better yet overnight. Stir occasionally to mix everything together well.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a 9-inch pie pan with crust, leaving at least an inch of overhang.
Beat the eggs well, then add the eggs and salt to the bowl of sugary lemons. Stir to mix everything evenly. Pour the filling into the piecrust.
Use a little water to wet the top rim of the piecrust. Roll the remaining dough into a 10-inch circle and place it carefully over the filling. Trim away the extra piecrust, leaving a 1-inch overhang extending beyond the rim of the pie pan. Fold the crust up and over, and crimp. Cut a few steam vents in the top of the pie.
Place the pie on a baking sheet and place it on the middle shelf of the oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees F and bake until the filling is bubbling and thickened, and the pastry crust is cooked and nicely browned, 25 to 35 minutes more. Let the pie cool to room temperature for the juices to set up (if you can wait that long).
Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Then write me a long and gushing thank-you letter. You’re welcome in advance.
Bonus tip: Everything tastes better on a wooden plate.
You’ve probably seen them stuffed piles in the cluttered tables of an old antique store or flea market. Kicking around your grandpa’s barn. Maybe you keep one in your camping gear (like my Dad does) for driving tent stakes and splitting kindling. I’m talking about the once-ubiquitous carpenter’s hatchet. These little guys were useful for trimming odd bits of wood to size or driving the occasional nail, but most carpenters these days wouldn’t know how to trim a piece of wood with a tool that didn’t have a cord or a battery pack, so these things mostly languish unused in forgotten corners.
I’ve had a carpenter’s hatchet head kicking around my toolbox for who knows how many years, always meaning to put a handle on it but never quite getting around to it. I’m glad I waited, because I finally figured out what to do with it.
For the last five years, I’ve been using a Gransfors-Bruks hunter’s axe that I picked up for $50 (used) for spoon carving. It’s a great little axe, but the handle is about six inches too long so I always have to choke up when I use it. It’s not a convenient length for packing up when I want to do a bit of spoon carving away from home, either. Something needed to be done. I though about buying a new, smaller axe, but good ones don’t come cheap. Then I remember my old carpenter’s hatchet:
It’s a terrible shape for spoon-carving. The hammer head places the balance too far back, the wide blade gets in the way of your fingers when you want to choke up on the handle, and the straight bevel makes it difficult to carve curvaceous spoon profiles. No problem though; I own a hacksaw.
The hammer head is the first to go.
Next I turned my sights to a nice cutout for my fingers when I need to choke up on the handle:
At this point, it’s still pretty rough-looking, but twice as functional as it was 15 minutes ago. I couldn’t resist prettying it up a bit with some work on the belt sander and some 220-grit hand-sanding. I also re-ground the straight cutting edge into a gentle curve:
That shiny look is nice, if that’s what you’re into. I know better than to think it would look like this for long, though. A clean metal surface like this is a magnet for rust when carving green wood. I gave it a soak in diluted vinegar overnight to tone down the shine.
Much nicer, in my opinion. All that’s left to do is give it a handle. I shaved some riven hickory to an octagonal shape, then dried it in my kiln for a couple of days before hanging the head. I also darkened it up a bit more (and added some more rust protection) with some cold gun blue:
Not bad. But how does it work?
Very nicely. Very nicely, indeed.
I’ll admit, it will take some getting used to the shorter handle after 5 years of used a sub-optimal size. I think once I get the hang this one, though, it’ll easily be my favorite carving axe.
So, what have you got to lose? Hatchet heads like these are $5-10 at flea markets and on eBay. Maybe you’ve even got one in the junk drawer of your shop (like I did). A couple hours of work is all it’ll take to turn that forgotten tool into a fine carving axe!
That’s a wrap. The chair is in the books. Last weekend, I burnished the last coat of black milk paint and oiled the chair with walnut oil. I may yet go over it with a few more coats of oil, because the finish is a bit duller than I’d like, but that won’t change the appearance much except to add a bit more shine. Last night, I got out an old white table cloth and my wife’s SLR and tried to take a few decent pictures. Hopefully they prove that I am at least as good at building chairs as I am lousy at taking pictures of them. Thanks to everyone who followed along and offered encouragement and kind words. And thanks especially to Peter Galbert (author of Chairmaker’s Notebook and the Chairnotes blog) and to Curtis Buchanan (creator of tthis awesome YouTube series on Windsor Chairmaking). I defintely couldn’t have done this without their help.
I’ve never tackled a project that required so much patience, research, and preparation before. I am prone to dive headfirst into a project, even a big one, with the assumption that I can just figure things out at I go along. Usually it works out fine. Occasionally it ends in frustration. There have been a few points over the last few years where I’ve walked out of the shop with a half-finished project and refused to go back in for weeks or months. Or at the very least, I’ve put aside a project and continued on with other things, sometimes for years, until my tools or skills caught up to my original vision. I can’t think of many things that breed negative emotion quite like the sight of a half-finished project mocking me every time I walk into what is supposed to be my happy place, my temple, my cozy respite from the rest of the world. I know that feeling too well, and I’m glad that, in this instance, I knew better than to tackle this project until I knew I was prepared. There is nothing quite like the enthusiasm of youth, but I’m hoping this project marks the wisdom of age beginning to take hold.
I’ll leave you with a few picture of my new favorite thing:
I’ve mentioned a time or two the greenwoodworking group on Facebook. It took a few days to get adjusted to the barrage of spoons and other woodcrafts on my newsfeed, but my brain quickly started making connections between certain craftspeople and the work that they produced. One name that kept popping up repeatedly alongside gorgeously sculpted eating spoons was Derek Sanderson. I soon found myself looking at my own spoons, and I realized that they seemed quite dull and lifeless in comparison to his.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the same movement in the side profile that Derek has so clearly perfected. One can only learn so much from a picture, so I decided to order one of his spoons to see where the magic was. It arrived a couple of weeks later, and I was not disappointed. This little cherry spoon is a miniature sculpture, every little detail well-conceived and well-executed. It is, without question, The Best Spoon I’ve Ever Seen.
Let me lay out my argument. First, consider the top profile – very fluid and shapely, though it’s also the easiest part to get right. What’s not as easy to get right is the depth and shape of the bowl, but he nails this as well. It’s quite shallow but very comfortable, like a lollipop. I like how the heartwood/sapwood contrast splits the spoon in half – a very nicely chosen material.
The side profile is really what makes this spoon stand out. It is so active and organic – almost as if the neck is under tension. The lower curve nicely mimics the upper curve, though less dramatically. And look how cleanly the neck was shaved – since the grain reverses direction here, this is the toughest part of a spoon to cut cleanly. There isn’t a single raised fiber here, and this is completely knife-cut. No scraping or sanding.
The curve of the back is lovely and lightly faceted. The curve of the handle mimics the curve of the bowl, which makes it very comfortable to hold. It also makes the opposite ends of the spoon seem cohesive. I’m not sure how to say what I’m thinking, other than both ends “match” one another – they are variations on one shape. I’ve always used strong facets and straight lines on the back of my handles, but I realize now that it is just not as comfortable. I’m going to start trying some curved backs now.
There is even a little bit of flourish at the tip of the spoon – a bit of chip-carving just adds some individuality. Also notice the very subtle chamfers on the sides. Those flow uninterrupted around the whole spoon.
One final parting shot: compare Derek’s spoon, at top, to one of my spoons, below. I was very happy with my spoon until I looked at it alongside a superior example!
If I had but one criticism about this spoon, I would say that the bowl is just a tad wide. It’s fine for me, but I have a big mouth. I doubt the spoon would be as comfortable for my wife. That hasn’t been a problem, because I’m greedy and I’ve been keeping the spoon at my office to eat my oatmeal every morning. My family is stuck with my good-but-just-not-as-good eating spoons, I’m afraid.
I’m not connected with Derek in any way, other than as a satisfied customer. If you’d like to own one of these, you’ll have to get in touch with him on Facebook or on Instagram – I don’t believe he has a website (at least not that I could find).
There’s no way around it: finishing a Windsor chair is a painstaking process. It can also be a pretty scary process, because the chair will look terrible until the very last step is complete. You just have to do your best and trust that it will all work out in the end. My finishing process seems pretty typical for modern Windsor chairmakers:
Stain the wood
Paint with milk paint
Sand the first coat with 320-grit
Another coat of milk paint
Burnish the second coat with steel wool or Scotch-Brite
A final coat of milk paint (usually a different color from the first two)
Burnish the final coat of paint
Seal the paint with oil
You might use more coats of paint, depending on the effect you’re going for, but the process will be more-or-less the same. I decided to use a black-on-red paint job to match a Windsor chair that I re-finished a couple of years ago. Eventually, I’d like to have a whole set of these things for our dinner table.
The stain that you choose isn’t particularly critical. It’s not supposed to show at all; it’s only there so, in case the paint wears through in a few years, you don’t see the fresh white wood poking through the finish. Peter Galbert uses a homemade brown stain made from walnut husks. I have a bunch of water-soluble dyes that a fellow woodworker gave me a few years back, so that’s what I used. I’m not even sure what brand it is, because it came in hand-labeled jars. You can just use whatever you want, but I would avoid oil-based stains, since they take so long to dry and could cause issues with the milk paint adhering if it isn’t fully cured.
As I said before, the chair will look like crap from the moment you apply the dye until the moment that you seal the paint with oil. Brace yourself:
Stain is unforgiving. It will hunt down your mistakes and highlight them for all to see. It will point at you and laugh. If the stain is meant to be seen, that’s a bad thing, but in this case, it’s actually quite helpful. I thought I had done a good job cleaning up the glue squeeze-out. I was wrong.
The water-based dye does not soak into the glue spots as it does on the wood, so they stand out prominently when the stain is applied. This gives me a chance to clean them up with a bit of sanding before I proceed with the paint. Next time, I’ll try to be more careful with the glue.
When the stain is completely dry, you can proceed with milk paint. Mixing milk paint is an art unto itself. Bottom line: Don’t use the directions that come with the package. Go read this blog post from Elia Bizzarri. My base coat is “Barn Red” from The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company. It’s really darker than I would have preferred for the base coat, but I had some on hand so it’s what I used. “Salem Red” would have been a better choice, but I forgot how dark Barn Red was until after it was dry.
The first coat looks pretty good from a distance, but while I was applying it, I noticed that it seemed unusually grainy. Apparently the sieve that I used wasn’t fine enough and I failed to get all the dregs out of the paint. Bummer. Have a closer look:
The first coat required far more sanding than I was anticipating to get all of that crap off. For the second coat, I used a re-usable mesh coffee filter to strain the paint, and the results were much better.
After letting this coat dry, I burnished the paint with a Scotch-Brite pad and proceeded with the final coat of paint. This time, I used “Arabian Night” from The Real Milk Paint Co. Peter Galbert spoke highly of this company on his blog and in his book, so I decided to give their paint a shot. I found that there was much less of the coarse material in their paint, so it didn’t require filtration like the paint from Old-Fashioned Milk Paint. It’s always nice to cut out a step, so I’ll be using their paint from now on.
With a black-on-red finish, the red milk paint is supposed to show through just a bit – you don’t want too thick of a coat. But it does need to go on evenly. The trick is to put it on a bit thicker than you want, then use the Scotch-Brite to rub it off to the desired level of show-through.
The black paint looks terrible when dry, with some of the chalk rising to the surface and drying with a grayish cast. This is as far as I’ve gotten, so I’m crossing my fingers that a bit of burnishing and a coat of oil will make all right with the world. Wish me luck.
Now that the fantastic insanity of the holidays has passed, my son has recorded three weeks outside the womb, and I finally have a phone again, I’m happy to resume my regularly scheduled Wednesday programming. In this week’s edition of Woody Wednesday, we’ll take an in-depth look at yet another southern forest resident that has been decimated by a foreign invader. Not as romantic as the stately chestnut (already gone), the ubiquitous and eminently useful ash (on the way out), the picturesque hemlock (give it a decade, at least in the South), it may be one you’ve never heard of: the redbay (Persea borbonia).
Redbay is the wallflower of the southern coastal evergreen hammocks. It does not grow to the impressive architectural proportions of live oak and southern magnolia. It does not have the fragrant white flowers of sweetbay and loblolly-bay. Nor does it have the bright red berries of American holly or yaupon. If you weren’t specifically looking for it, you’d scarcely even know it was there. However, if you are on the margins of a coastal plain wetland anywhere from Texas to North Carolina, it’s likely that you’re not too far away from one of these diminutive evergreen trees.
What redbay does have is a powerful and pleasant spicy aroma in the leaves, bark, and wood. It shares this trait with practically all other members of the Lauraceae family – bay laurel (a European species from which we get bay leaves); sassafras (sassafras tea, anyone?); spicebush (a native bush that lives up to its name); camphor-laurel (an Asian species from which we get camphor); and cinnamon-tree (another Asian species that produces cinnamon). I use redbay as a substitute for bay leaves when cooking beans and chicken stock. In fact, it’s a required ingredient in authentic gumbo.
So what is the pest that is killing off this little-known tree? It’s a one-two punch, actually. The Asian ambrosia beetle Xyleborus glabratus bores into the stems and carries with it its symbiotic fungus, Raffaelea lauricola, commonly know as laurel wilt. The fungus grows and spreads in the tree’s xylem, eventually cutting off the flow of water between the roots and the leaves. According to the USDA’s Recovery Plan for laurel wilt, the disease “is now well established in the southeastern Atlantic Coastal Plain region of the U.S. and eradication of the vector and pathogen in this region is not feasible. Continued dramatic reductions in redbay populations are anticipated, although survival of redbay regeneration in the aftermath of laurel wilt epidemics suggests that redbay will not go extinct.” Super. So we can probably expect to redbays to exist as short-lived seedlings and sprouts, only to be ravaged by the foreign intruders once they reach a reasonable size.
I suppose the best thing we can do as woodworkers to preserve the heritage of this tree is to make useful things out of it that will last longer than the trees themselves. And since we’re all woodworkers here, what we really want to know about is the wood. There’s not much information about the wood in the public domain, and frankly most of the information that is out there is generic, misleading, or flat-out wrong. Hopefully I can correct some of that nonsense today. The USDA silvics manual says that redbay wood “is heavy, hard, strong, and bright red, with a thin, lighter colored sapwood.”
So does that mean that redbay could be a domestic substitute for bloodwood? Hardly. In fact, redbay is neither hard nor heavy nor strong. Though the heartwood is indeed reddish (similar in color to cherry or mahogany), it does not begin to approach “bright red” in color, nor is the sapwood band particularly thin. Was the technician who wrote this stuff just making shit up? If you want the straight dope regarding a tree species, you can do no better than to listen to urban forestry professor extraordinaire Kim Coder [from his publication Redbay (Persea borbonia): Drifting Toward Oblivion]:
Redbay wood is difficult to find in the commercial lumber or hobbyist marketplace, and then only in small pieces. As such, redbay has only limited local use as a wood material. Heartwood is redcolored, fine-grained, brittle, water resistant, works moderately well and polishes very well. It was traditionally used for tableware (like spoons), furniture pieces, boat and interior trim, and cabinets. It was gathered for boat trim in the live oak maritime forests during the live oak gathering days of early sailing vessels.
Alright, that’s a little more informative, and it’s definitely more accurate. Redbay is pretty common in the woods here on Amelia Island, so I’ve been carving spoons with it for the last couple of months, and I’ll share a bit of my personal experience with it as well. (By the way, how cool is it that Dr. Coder mentions that the wood was traditionally used for spoons? Score! It is indeed a fine spooncarving wood).
The wood is very much unlike most temperate hardwoods in that it combines large pores with a diffuse-porous wood structure. Typically, large-pored temperate hardwoods tend to be ring-porous or semi-ring porous. It definitely has the appearance of a tropical hardwood. In fact, it would easily pass as African mahogany (Khaya) to the untrained eye. Or shoot, even the well-trained eye.
It’s easy to see why this wood was favored for the interior trim of boats. Not only does it have an attractive appearance, it works quite well also. The density and hardness remind of Honduran mahogany or butternut. Which is to say, it is not very hard or dense at all. It carves very easily and takes a nice polish straight from the tool – as long as you’re cutting with the grain. It does tend to tear out around grain reversals, and the grain can be quite wavy.
Probably the most unfortunate thing about redbay wood is the fact that it does not have a significant amount of heartwood until the tree gets to be quite large in size. A 12″-diameter tree is likely to have a hardwood core only 8-9″ wide. Since larger trees have mostly been killed off by the laurel wilt in many parts of the South, this means that you’ll likely be relegated to working with the sapwood.
Not all is lost, however. As long as you are working with fresh wood, the sapwood is creamy white and attractive, not unlike walnut sapwood.
If the wood sits around for a couple of weeks or more, however, the pores begin to turn brown, which gives the wood a grayish pallor when viewed from more than a few inches away. I waited a bit too long to carve these eating spoons, and it shows:
Luckily, all eating spoons begin to take on the same brownish tint with age, so all I have to do is use these and eventually the color will improve.
So there you have it. Redbay is a disappearing tree, but it’s a fine tree for woodworking. I can personally vouch for its pleasant nature for carving, and historically, it was commonly used for cabinetry and trim (especially in boats and ships). If you happen upon some, why not try to make something from it? It’s one way to preserve this stuff for the next generations, who may not be able to enjoy the trees in the same way that we do. I’d certainly love to get my hands on some trees that are large enough to mill for lumber, since a well-built piece of furniture is likely to last longer than my wooden spoons, but my window of opportunity seems to be rapidly closing.
I’ll leave you with a few more words from Dr. Coder:
Redbay is a biological, ecological, and cultural treasure of deep woods on the edge of an ecological precipice. People of the Southern and Southeastern coasts of the United States have been blessed with redbay along wetland edges. Coastal development, forest changes, and new pests are placing redbay under more stressful conditions. This burial tree of Native Americans, this historic wood of polished trim for captain’s cabins on Yankee clippers, and this special food and home for several rare butterflies is being pushed farther into oblivion.
This unique tree species is now under attack from new pests which could destroy this old flavor of Southern gumbo. Understanding how redbay grows and how to identify the tree may help to combat threats as well as appreciate what we have always had but may have overlooked. Care is needed to sustain our redbays for the next generation.
The Windsor chair build is completed. Well, sort of. I still need to stain it, apply a couple of coats of red milk paint, burnish the paint, apply a coat of black milk paint, burnish that paint, then seal it with some oil or shellac. But the woodworking part? Yeah, that part’s done.
Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the uppercarriage assembly process. Those pictures disappeared a couple of weeks ago, along with my phone.
I did take a few quick glamour shots of the unfinished chair last night. Next time you see it, it will be coated in ugly blotchy stain (the stain always looks terrible, but it keeps from exposing stark white wood if the paint rubs off.
I didn’t intend to go two weeks without blogging. Honestly, I didn’t. We did have ambitious plans for traveling over the holidays to visit family. First Georgetown, SC from Dec. 22-25, then to Perry, GA from Dec. 25-26, then to Athens, GA until New Year’s Day. That’s a lot of travel, especially with three kids (including a newborn) and two adults in a jam-packed Toyota Prius.
Nonetheless, I had committed to putting up a few blog posts over the holidays to keep up the momentum that I had built over the last couple of months. I had dozens of photos of recent work all on the ready – Christmas presents for the kids, a couple of spoons that I bought from fellow spoon carvers, and I even managed to finish assembling my Windsor chair the day before we left (!)
Then, on the second day of vacation, I lost my phone, and all of my pictures along with it. I suspect it’s somewhere on a muddy dirt road outside of Florence, SC.
Thus began an unexpected two-week technological hiatus.
It was pretty annoying at first. The first couple of days, I found myself patting my pockets or fumbling for my phone at least every hour. Kids are doing something cute and you want to snap a photo? Driving somewhere and need directions? Cooking a meal and need to look up a recipe? Is the siren song of Facebook beckoning your subconscious? (The first three scenarios are perfectly legitimate reasons for owning a smartphone. But it’s embarrassing – or at least it should be – when you become aware that the latter is the most common reason for reaching for the phone).
As the week wore on, I began to find myself more relaxed and more appreciative of the moments, no longer reaching reflexively for the endless distractions that are typically available at my fingertips. On many occasions, I found myself sitting in the living room at my Dad’s house and noticing that I was the only member of the family over the age of six whose eyes weren’t glued to a 5″ screen. During those moments, I truly appreciated being disconnected from the digital world.
To be honest, there was no need for me to have a smartphone during those two weeks. I was with my wife and children at all times. We didn’t need to coordinate dinner times or evening schedules. I had a week-old son. I know from previous experience that newborns don’t stay newborns forever. My sister and brother-in-law and their four kids were visiting from Wisconsin. My brothers and their families from South Georgia as well. I won’t have many more days with my mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Everything I needed was right before me, and I think that my holiday was all the more special because I wasn’t distracted by social media and email and blogging.
The whole point of starting this blog was to foster connections with woodworkers and others who appreciate handcrafts. For a decade, I’ve drunk freely from the fountain of information that is available on the internet – forums, websites, and blogs have been a steady source of ideas and encouragement. Yet for whatever reason (nostalgia?) society maintains a very different opinions of books and magazines versus mobile electronic devices.
I’m not immune to it myself (I am, after all, a member of society). Last year, I was sitting on the boardwalk at the harbor of in my city, waiting for my wife and kids to meet me for dinner. I pulled out my phone and began reading Chris Schwarz’s latest blog post. Suddenly, I felt a twinge of guilt and embarrassment. There I was in a beautiful location, couples passing by hand-in-hand, boats pulling up to the docks as the sun approached the horizon, and here I was lost in my little digital world looking like a stereotypical millenial. Just as quickly, I realized that I wouldn’t feel so self-conscious if I were reading it printed on pulped spruce garnished with an artsy hardcover.
There is something romantic about curling up with a good book in a quiet public space, but the smartphone is too new for any romanticism to be attached to it. Oh well. It’s a tool like any other. It’s up to us to be the masters and not the servants when it comes to our tools. I think anyone who prefers hand tools can appreciate the distinction. I think there’s a beautiful bit of irony in the fact that the hand tool renaissance has been enabled by 21st century technology.
As always with matters related to science and technology, xkcd.com offers up an appropriate comic: