From the Wood News Archives
The following article was originally published in Wood News No. 18, Fall 1986.
The response to it was originally published in Wood News No. 19, Spring 1987.



Commodity, Firmness and Delight

by Wallace Macfarlane


The Devil Whispered Behind the Leaves
It's Pretty, but is it Art?

--Rudyard Kipling,
from The Conundrum of the Workshops


woodworking tools
The original Wood News in
which this article first appeared.

A pleasant man from New Mexico phoned one day and came by my shop. He subscribes to Wood News and knew me from having read a past article. We talked about wood, and I showed him how I make sawdust. He was twice as smart as I about collet, three-jaw, jam fit, cup and spigot chucks. He was informed about turning tools and sophisticated in their sharpening. As usual, when confronted by a dedicated engineer, I felt like a klutz. Until...

He asked if I'd like to see a sample of his work. He just happened to have one in his car. Of course I would. He brought back an object like an old-fashioned nut bowl with bark on the outside, a pedestal in the middle to put a nut on, and a little gavel for whacking it.

Oh dear me, it was a real dog. Everything was disproportionate, each part in uneasy relationship with the next. What was supposed to be smooth was not smooth. The pedestal was the wrong size. The decoration on the mallet was painful. The whole was vaguely offensive and unhumorously funny, like a stomach rumble during silent prayer.

A long time ago, friends showed us their new offspring with an upper lip from chimpanzee genes not too far down the line. My smart wife cooed "What an interesting face." Then she gave the full measure of praise, "That's a baby!"

I said "How interesting" to the man from New Mexico. Happily unklutzed, I learned things from him about lathe speeds and S-curve tool rests. He was bright and able and ept. The only trouble was, he did not have an eye for the work. He could not "see". You might say he had a glass eye. Still, the challenge of turning wood was technically fascinating to him. I suggested bowls. How can an engineer screw up a bowl? He wasn't much interested. What he had in mind - I think - was to make complicated artistic creations for friends to admire. I look forward with some trepidation to the pepper grinders and candlesticks he might just happen to have in his car next time. Poor New Mexico.

You can dry out drunks and wire bedwetters for a shock and doctors can cure most anything but the common cold; there are still no "eye" transplants I ever heard of. A glass eye is like a tin ear. Except under the law, men are in no way created equal. The handicapped can usually be helped, but the guy with the glass eye has got to want to see.

Young friends tell me I have a tin ear when it comes to contemporary music, and that's the way I like it. Most people with glass eyes like it their own way. They are the folks to assemble pre-cut grandfather clocks. They can do wonderful stuff as long as they have plans. They are often fine parents and model citizens and a force for good in their communities, but if you turn your back, in all innocence they are apt to make something on a lathe that will stink up the years.


Does the Woodworker have an "eye"?

What is this "eye" stuff? It has to do with "art", and there are not a lot of good definitions here. The Golden Rule the Greeks discovered as the proportions of the most agreeable rectangle for the human eye to rest upon seems to hold up. Sir Henry Wotton - in the time of the first Elizabeth - listed the desiderata of architecture as Commodity, Firmness and Delight.

Commodity means designing to a function: don't make a small box if you want to put a gallon in it. Firmness means that a translucent bowl is not the place to store old plumb bobs. And without the last essential item, all food in the world is cold oatmeal, barracks are the only efficient housing, and a masher is no better than a rock, instead of having the potential of an elegant shape to ravish the senses (as well as mash potatoes).

In real life, the best thing is to point at something and say "That's art." Imperial declarations aside, this is where disputation has occurred from the caveman on. At the lowest common agreement, every artifact is art, and after that the bloody war begins. "Arts and Crafts" is a division responsible for as much trouble as the War Between the States. People will draw swords and stick each other in the gizzard over "fine" and "utilitarian" art. Some claim that anything tainted by the mechanical is not art, and they will want to punch you in the nose when you ask where brushes and paint and canvas come from.

All this sort of discussion is flapdoodle. People who talk most fluently about art rarely commit it. The artist can be full of opinion not much better than the next guy's, but one of the indicators of an artist is that he gets some work done. Too often he also talks a lot, usually through his hat. Artists are better at doing it than defining it.

Before the second World War, I saw a woodturner on a sidewalk in Port-au-Prince. He had a kid working the pedals of a bicycle frame by hand to power his homemade lathe. He had a chisel made from an old file. The work he turned from lignum vitae and mahogany was handsomely conceived and delicately executed. I still have a box he made. I have looked at it with pleasure for 40 some-odd years. If the "role model" psychologists talk about makes sense, mine is that skinny black man in rags in the summer of 1938 in Haiti.

Maybe he would have done better with a fancy lathe and five different kinds of chucks. I don't think so. By the magic of the spinning shaft and cunning hand, the wild and inexplicable mystique of woodturning generated an artifact which has given me pleasure for nearly a half century. It is the same mystery involved in any endeavor when all preoccupation narrows to now, and later on you wonder where the time has gone.

At that, my Haitian woodturner had an advanced sort of lathe. Some folks power a lathe with a cord pulled by a big toe. Complex or simple really doesn't matter, the toe lathe or a Hegner. What is of course consequence is, does the turner have an eye?

woodworking tools
The 1955 Nash Ambassador, in all its awkward glory.

I've never found a better term than "eye" to describe this attribute, talent, function, ability. Some people are cooks, others are poets or mathematicians, some have the eye and others do not. I disagree heartily with the philosophy of an extraordinarily creative neighboring artist, but he has the eye. All the writhings and convolutions of his glass and bronzes are right in relation to themselves; they belong. An object at home with itself and integral, is one of the places where art begins. An automotive example of dissonance is the 1955 Nash Ambassador, or the pregnant whale Buick of the same era. The executives responsible for those designs had eyes like dead codfish.


The National Geographic once made a TV program called "The Living Treasures of Japan". What the treasures turned out to be were the individuals who hand-made paper or dolls or whatever. Intentionally or not, the common shot in all the sequences was of the artist looking at what he had done. This is how you get the eye. You look around a lot. You look at what you're doing and cut a little here and a little there and when it's done you look some more.


Developing Your "Eye"

There is no handy-dandy book called "How to Get an Eye", but it's possible to approach the subject and look at it a little: all things have a proper size. If you are not a midget or a basketball player you are the right size. I once worked at a desk next to the second tallest man in the United States. He was the wrong size.

From past experience, here are some ranges for "the right size" for a few turned objects:

A rolling pin including the handles can run from 10 to 18 inches long and should be about 3 inches thick. I made one 24 inches long and 6 inches in diameter. It was much admired but nobody bought it, so I gave it to my son, who needed a house gift for people who like too-big things. French rolling pins - those tapered ones, are about an inch in diameter and I've never made one; the kind I make are plus-or-minus 3 inches thick at the midpoint and up to 20 inches long. A pastry cook bought four, one after another, for his friends.

*

Foot rollers are from 9 to 12 inches long and 2 inches-plus thick. Anything less is skimpy and anything longer is too much.

*

Culinary mashers can run from 6 to 24 inches, with either end of the scale a little specialized.

*

An ostrich egg is too big, but hen and goose and turkey egg sizes are acceptable for darning eggs or as elegant ornaments. I sent away for a catalog from people who make wooden eggs, and after that I could tell my hostess the koa egg I'd brought her meant she could put a dollar value on my pleasure ($14.50 retail, not counting sales tax and postage).

*

A bowl can be a salad bowl for two people or a church social size, for holding chips or chocolates or contact lenses. Bowls are as variable in size as the needs they meet.

*

Boxes are the same. I ask people what they're going to put in them and some people know: jelly beans and keys and cotton balls and matches and coins. An extraordinarily nice anthropologist told me she coiled her harp strings in one, so boxes are for whatever they're used for.

*

A 30-inch Lazy Susan is a dumb thing to make out of redwood for the hell of it - does anybody need one? 12 to 14 inch diameter seems to be right for most purposes.

*

A champignon, for mashing stuff through a sieve, has a handle of handle size but the working surface can be from 2 to 6 inches in diameter depending on what you want to push through the interstices. They're an elegant tool, but the demand for them is underwhelming.


Shape and Finish: The Other Senses

To close in on this subject of what-is-right from another direction: the wood should feel good. A friend with a store wanted to sell my things. He put some in a case and sold hardly any. While I try to make shapes as seductive as possible, there are a lot of folks not seducible by shape. The Coca-Cola bottle is not attractive to Pepsi fanciers. When my buddy put my treen in the open where you could cop a feel, he sold a bunch.

It took awhile to find out how to finish. A lot of it is personal preference. Smooth, bare wood feels great, but is subject to affliction in everyday life. It attracts dirt like buzzards to a flat rabbit. Blackberry jam and ink jump at it. So I tried salad oil first. It wasn't nice. I rubbed in Danish oil and a lot of proprietary embrocations. Tried tung. All the oils were labor-intensive dust magnets. High maintenance besides. You had to oil and buff the stuff all the time.

Whatever you put on bare wood, including water, is going to change the color and feel. Because I live in an area where the air sucks water from kiln-dried wood from the coast, I had to have a finish to deter wood movement, to retard the moisture exchange between wood and atmosphere. Shellac didn't make it. Varnish was nasty bright - if you want to disguise wood as plastic, try spar varnish - but satin polyurethane came close, especially after I found out how to avoid drips and sags and brush marks. How I learned was cleaning up my mistakes. Every once in awhile, as Eve was tempted by the serpent, I think about a baby spray paint outfit. So far the idea of cleaning up the equipment has saved me.

I read an expert who deplored satin finishes because of the sludge in the product to make it less bright. He said to use gloss and hit it with steel wool to blur the sparkle. Uh-huh. I used the rest of the gloss on the concrete floor to make sweeping easier. I worked a long time to cut the glare on my treen.

What I ended up with as a finish was two coats of satin polyurethane, both steel wooled, and a coat of Johnson's paste wax to finish it off. It has a nice sheen, feels dandy and is durable. When you get people fondling the stuff with a far-away look in their eyes, kiddo, that's it.

Part of the game of wood is to work with as little effort as possible. I have power sanding tools, but I always seem to end up with sandpaper rolled around a roll of cloth. I keep trying new things that don't work for me, like grit on a sponge or a bar of bubbles blown in glass, and here I am, old efficient me, sitting on the bench with my feet on the old Shopsmith, wearing down medium steel wool, thinking there must be an easier way. None of this 4-aught stuff. I want action. Coarse steel wool scratches polyurethane and fine doesn't blur quickly enough. No question, I don't get the mirror finish so highly regarded by piano top makers. What my finish does is protect the wood, enhance the patterns and slow the attrition of time.

There are devoted people who want positive air pressure in a sterile room for finishing. I paint polyurethane at an outside bench under shade. The wind sometimes blows sawdust. 100-grit sandpaper and medium steel wool solve that problem. Finish afficionados who swap notes about rottenstone and oils from exotic places often make wonderful things to use with reverence or keep in a glass case. What I make is treen for everyday use. You also get feelies as part of the package.


A Delight to Work With

Delight, Sir Henry Wotton's last item, is the one for which you need the eye. A good solution for the glass-eyed is to borrow Mr. Chippendale's eye. You can buy first-class plans lots of places. If you get your kicks in the production phase of woodwork, you very likely will make better chairs than I.

woodworking tools
Examples of 'treen'.

Where it's at for me is in the shape of things. Bounded only by considerations of commodity and firmness, an unending world of delight is open. Always has been. Always will be. In Monte Alban out of Oaxaca, the museum is full of 600-year-old pots and bowls in shapes you can buy from any potter today. Each is different. Some shapes are more shapely than others. As a test of that reality, set a dozen pots in a row. Or your own bowls. Arrange them in order of price or preference. You will find you have standards you never looked at before. Rearrange the bowls until they're right and come back after lunch and check again. If you mark numbers on the bottom and scramble the order, you can test your consistency a week later.

Delight is a matter of the first consequence. It is rarely discussed because it's hard to pin down important things. School boards may spend ten minutes on curriculum and two hours on the layout of the toolshed. It is much easier to approach the blueprintable, and avoid intangibles that squirm like quicksilver when you put a finger on them.

This is where the eye comes in.

This is where delight lives.

This is why I make treen.

I bust my gut trying. I've made ugly things, but it wasn't for want of good intentions. I turned an Art Deco box of silky Chinese elm with a deep groove in the edge of the lid and a couple more at the base and a cone-shaped knob to lift the top off. Nobody would touch it with a barge pole, nice finish and all, until a man came by and he bought it because he wanted it. Did he have all the discrimination and taste of a hungry dog? Was his discretion frozen in time? Or was the design inherently good? I can't answer any of the above. However, I haven't made any more Art Deco stuff. That I can tell you.

Sometimes I get tired. I think I've made all the kinds of boxes there are. Treen is blah, and then mysteriously a new shape swims to the top of my head and I turn it three dimensionally on the lathe. And walk out to the shop at bedtime to look - sometimes with delight - at how it turned out.

Anthropomorphism means ascribing human characteristics to things not human. I have made clever bowls and bland bowls and sexy bowls. I've done boxes that want to be cuddled and austere boxes and boxes that keep secrets. I once made a breadboard with button plugs - somebody gave them to me and I've since thrown the rest away - and that board did not like me. The feeling was mutual. Someone else had to sell it. I hope it found a compatible home - perhaps with the Addams family - or was burned.

There are woodturners who would no more sell one of their creations than they would sell a child. I am the proprietor of an orphan asylum - easy come, easy go - and am pleased to sell any child to a good home. Or a bad one. Maybe it will improve the environment.

The marketplace is the final checkpoint. Oh, I know about old One-Ear Van Gogh. Never sold a thing. I also know about Pablo Picasso who kept what he pleased and peddled the rest and ended up a millionaire.

Treen is different. To me, treen means objects of common household use, made of wood. If it doesn't find a common household, obviously I've done no good.

I still don't know what "art" means or what "creativity" is about. What I do know is that my incipient woodturner from New Mexico should take up some other line of work, because he has an eye like Raggedy Andy. I am obliged to him because his example has encouraged me to refurbish my old prejudices and hack my way through a wilderness of opinion to establish some fixed points and guideposts and trees to climb for a view of what's good and why.

The only beginning for a unified field theory about wood I've stumbled over is not awfully inspirational, but it comforts me and may comfort you: there is no end to it. Keep trying.



Wallace Macfarlane, Santa Ysabel, California, woodturner and science fiction author.




Calamity, Frailness, Yet Delight

by Jack Tuberville

If it feels good, do it!
-Anarchist slogan

This article is in response to Wallace McFarlane's article "Commodity, Firmness and Delight", published in last fall's issue of Wood News. His theme was that there is some art in woodworking, and that not all people have or acquire the artist's "eye". Further, without the "eye", or guidance from outside, such as plans or models, the eyeless artisan will produce some rather unlikely "art".

Well, I guess I have to agree with him. Judging from his article, he obviously understands art, and I'm sure his work has both commodity and firmness. His writing is definitely a delight. All of this is important, especially if you are trying to make a living at it. But having voiced support for the value of the "eye", let me also say that whether you have it or not doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter if your work is "uneasy with itself", or even that it "stinks up the years".

What matters is whether or not, after having done the work, regardless of the outcome, you got more out of it than you put in. Was it worth doing, did you enjoy the process, and was all the work expended worth the pleasure of having done it?

That's called "return on investment", and that return can be figured in terms of pleasure as well as economics. If it sells, it's economically feasible. You should make more. If it feels good, it's emotionally feasible. You should do it again.

I don't believe anyone works in wood purely out of the profit motive. So it's not just "art that sells" but art that feels good in the doing. And as far as generating that unique, perfectly proportioned object is concerned, what I see in most craft shows and displayed in most shops is pretty much the same. Whether it's a unique design, elegant proportions, or just plain novelty, it is soon copied and becomes more or less standard, although some are more artful copies than others.

This is not to denigrate the woodshapers of the world. I have always ascribed mystical qualities to woodcarvers and other makers of sawdust. Perhaps that's because I recognize my own lack of artistic ability, or the determination to develop it.

Nevertheless, I've never let it stand in the way of working in wood, albeit with the guidance of plans. True, I've never been perfectly satisfied with the outcome of any project, but I suspect most artists feel the same way about their work.

For instance, I dabble in wood boats. When I'm sighting down a spar I wish was truer, or fitting a chine that doesn't want to lay just right, I head off frustration by asking myself, "Will it serve the purpose?" If the answer is yes, I let it go. You have to be philosophical. Mine is a utilitarian point of view. I leave the artwork to craftier individuals. And make no mistake, boat building can be artistic. I've seen boats I would not more trust to water than to fire. A boat can be a tool or an end in itself, and you can take equal pleasure in either its utility or eye appeal. No boat I build will ever win a beauty contest, but each one will have sufficient utility to get me, like the Hobbit, there and back again.

Some of the things I've done to wood lack commodity, firmness, and give precious little delight. But if you love the process as much as the product, it is enough. Not enough to sell, perhaps; maybe even unworthy of a place of honor in your home. But every project begins with a grand anticipation of what will be. Forget that the product doesn't quite live up to the promise. What counts is that you tried and, probably, some part of it turned out well; and, it is hoped, you learned something.

For most of us, the process is where it's at, perhaps because we lack the skill, the eye, or the commitment to excellence. If we can participate in the process, gradually improve, and occasionally bring forth something to be valued - then I believe that is enough.

Whether you have the "eye", aptitude, art, craftsmanship or ability, don't take up another line of work unless you really don't like what you're doing. You may end up with some odd-looking firewood, but you could certainly do worse.

Calamitous results notwithstanding, if it feels good, do it! Again and again.


The author is an amateur woodworker from Clinton, Tennessee.

Read more of Wallace Macfarlane's outstanding reprinted columns in Wood News:

And They Call Me an Artist by Wallace Macfarlane
Hustling Wood by Wallace Macfarlane

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