Woodworking for older artists

Posted in Age by LBM on January 3, 2012

For my twenty-second birthday, my brother signed me up for a woodworking class. The classroom was in a suburban strip mall and all of the participants were men over sixty. While we whittled our first piece of wood, the instructor told us that the instruments were very sharp and we should be careful.  Immediately after he said this, one of the men in the class nicked his finger. I secretly chuckled. Not a minute later I also cut myself. I clenched my finger and went to the bathroom. It was much worse than the other guy. Blood was spraying everywhere. I rushed out of the classroom and never returned.

Now that I’m twenty years older, maybe it is time to think about woodworking again. It seems to do wonders for some of the older artists I admire.

Robert Adams says: “It becomes mysteriously central and helpful to your health of spirit. It’s mainly just a wonderful way to relate to the world in another way. You can remember things in your hands and you can know things with your hands that you can’t know with your head.”

David Lynch says: “I really love wood, the texture of wood. I like to saw wood. In fact I love to saw wood. I like to put a saw against wood and cut the wood. I like the resistance, not too much resistance, just the right amount of resistance, and then the saw blade opens up some kind of fantastic smell that comes from the wood. It’s just a fantastic, beautiful experience.”

15 Responses

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  1. al saulso said, on January 3, 2012 at 10:02 am

    thats funny!!!

  2. Kate Wilhelm said, on January 3, 2012 at 10:13 am

    I imagine making bread by hand would be similar.

  3. peter said, on January 3, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Brian Duffy, an iconic 60’s and 70’s photographer threw down his camera at the peak of career in 1979, and became a noted restorer of 18th-century furniture.

  4. osagegelder said, on January 3, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Nice to make something real, that has physical consequence in the world. Whether blood or smashed thumb, there’s something at risk. Also something to gain, a satisfaction that is truly felt. I got a tool-belt for Christmas, and a 20-ounce framing hammer, a carpenter’s square, a small bubble level, and a tape measure. There’s a tree house somewhere in the 2012 future.

  5. Jeffrey Shevlen said, on January 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Oh yeah, woodworking is fine. I just got the front porch built before the cold hit up here in Southern Ontario. Great, great experience. Parts of the old porch will become picture frames of a kind, so there is an economy that I also find pleasing. And as Adams and Lynch allude to of course: the mysticalness.

    Hope all is well with you. By the way all this talk of getting old, it’s not good for you!


  6. Mathieu asselin said, on January 3, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    I need to say that as a photographer I am bless to have access to amazing wood shops, few of my best friends owns beautiful wood labs, where fine furniture, toys and any type of things and shapes you can imagine gain form.
    I often lost my self on the towers of wood, machines and endless tools, daydreaming about constructing and snapping useless things.

  7. Tim said, on January 4, 2012 at 4:17 am

    Reblogged this on Camera Works.

  8. Jason Hobbs said, on January 4, 2012 at 4:31 am

    Hi Alec,

    My girlfriend and I need some new book shelves for our ever growing photo-book collection. Fancy knocking some up for us?


  9. Eduardo Sepúlveda said, on January 4, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Sorry, sorry, very about this… I just imagine my poor little finger singing me ‘knock on wood’ like Eddie Floyd or Amii Stewart!!

    It was my grandpa who bought some wooden boards, nails and saw to make a nice birdhouse…

    Alec, always a pleasure to be here.

  10. Bob Black said, on January 7, 2012 at 12:53 pm


    my favourite wood-widdler…..i hope you know his work…enjoy :)))

    a hero of mine…the incomparable Martin Puryear,or.r_gc.r_pw.,cf.osb&biw=1920&bih=1018&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=n5QIT7mHDeLj0gHE4OXLAg

  11. Steve McElrath said, on January 8, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Hi Alec,
    A few years ago i decided to build a shed. I didn’t want something that looked like it came from Home Depot. I bought a few books, and went for it. In the end I made something that should last longer than me. I didn’t know what I was doing but I learned along the way.
    The video link shows most of the construction — two years later it’s still not quite done, but that’s life.

    — Steve

  12. Michael Serra said, on January 9, 2012 at 11:30 pm


    I am often bored by photography and as such, I am driven to working with my hands. I think that the latent perfectionism or a sense of the capturing of the untouched that often pervades the act of photographing is a difficult barrier to becoming a poor artist in other mediums–the only way that one can actually begin to learn those skills and crafts that do not come naturally or easily.

    I recently starting working with large pieces of driftwood and stained glass to fashion hang-able lamp-like lighting constructions. Glass and the idea of creating something which illuminates from its interior is something which continues to bring me wonder and a sense of mystery.

    I think the best way to begin working with wood on your own is to restore a piece of elegant furniture that has seen better days, an old wooden view camera that needs lots of love, or something else made of really beautiful wood that almost begs for the redemptive act of restoring something to its beauty again. You can teach yourself and it does not require the arduous training of learning to build.

    Sanding older wood that has lost its characteristics of beauty in an aged finish—wearing away all the nicks and scratches (or letting them stand to preserve marks of the piece’s own history) treating it with care, gentleness, and love, is a great act of patience, but one whose value and joy is yours, and the process of recovery, your own.

    There is a sense in which much of photography does not elicit that sense of ownership that working and fashioning something directly with your hands does (perhaps work dealing with constructions like Demand’s, Letinsky’s, etc. is able to offer this). However, this lacking, of course, adds a peculiar grace to the practice of the medium, which in many ways allows the discovery of a compelling photograph as a surprising gift.

    Sanding wood, rubbing oil into it, and sealing it with beeswax seems an unbelievable prescription for the renewing of a nuanced attention and discovery of the fecund world around you, but for myself, I believe.

  13. tom hyde said, on January 10, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Well sure. I designed and built my own home, cabinets, shop, and office. And I especially enjoyed the intellectual aspects of it, the design, the problem-solving, the ability to actually sleep at the end of the day, and often the work itself, most certainly the reward of creating something tangible. But nothing compares to seeing, ever.

  14. Jan Staller said, on January 13, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Growing up I was introduced to woodworking and photography by my father who was a serious hobbyist with both. He had a small wood shop and darkroom and I learned rudiments of both crafts from him. My father taught me how to use hand and power tools and I was thrilled to make various projects including wood turned bowls, candlesticks and electric lamps. But at an early age, I imagined that I wanted to work with metal.

    As an adult, I eventually acquired an obsolete vertical milling machine and an engine lathe. Having mostly learned metal work by the seat of my pants, I find immensely more satisfaction working with metal than wood. Starting with raw stock, measuring tools and selected fasteners, taps and dies, I can with methodical and careful technique construct an object which has precision and solidity.

    Photography and metal work are very technical operations and I am attracted to both for that quality. The precision nature of machine tools is the same as precision made photographic equipment. And of course machine tools were used to manufacture photographic equipment. Working with machine tools offers the possibility of perfection which is very much like the possibility of perfection that can be had in a well made photograph.

    Working with lathes and milling machines is very clean and dust free. The metal shavings are never airborne. Some dust is raised when finishing metal on the sanding machine, but far less than a wood shop. The worst effect might be the whiff of burning cutter lubricant. My first milling machine was right behind the sofa in my loft- occasionally aluminum chips might be found on my socks, but by and large the living area of the home was unaffected by the work.

    Working mostly in aluminum, a favorite finish of mine is anodizing which is done at the few remaining factories still found on the outskirts of New York City. When the parts come back and are assembled I have the satisfaction of having made my own “factory made” lamp or piece of furniture. More often than not, my machines are idle, but whenever some camera or enlarger needs modification or some metal object needs repair, its very easy just to alter or make a part. And quite often it would be difficult to find someone to affordably make what I had in mind.

  15. Mario Strim said, on March 24, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    This is so true. Woodworking is good for the soul and the mind.

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