Recently, a simple question was posed to a group of wood workers, of which I am a member: “Why do you do woodworking?”
The answers—humorous and heartfelt, pragmatic and profound—came forth easily. The idea of using raw natural material to make something useful and beautiful was one common response. Having an escape from the pressures of daily life was another. But above all, there was an overarching theme of reverence—for the wood, for the absorbing experience, and for the creative process. Wood people speak of it in a way that most of us simply don’t speak about our daily working lives.
My own response, as a luthier, was multifarious. First and foremost, lutherie is sensory smorgasbord. The sounds of the workshop are the music of the craftsman—the tapping of the chisel, the rhythmic whisking of the plane across a length of wood. And there are all the delicious smells of the various woods—the syrupy sweetness of Spruce and Maple, the dark earthiness of Walnut and Mahogany, the tangy pungence of Cedar and Cypress. This is the sacred incense of the workshop.
It reminds me of my father and his immersive, van-Gogh-like oil painting process, wherein he would proclaim in the midst of an energetic brush stroke: “I love the smell of the paint! I could just eat it!” This was always followed by his pantomiming the act of ingesting the paint off his palette.
Then there is the notion of being a conduit of beauty–taking something of raw natural beauty, shaping it into something new and beautiful, and passing it on to someone who then creates something beautiful in turn—music in my case. Beauty begetting beauty begetting beauty to share with the world. As Spanish luthier Jose Lopez Bellido once told me, the experience of seeing one of his guitars in the hands of a masterful player was like seeing his own son triumph.
But there is something more. Something deeper, more profound. Perhaps even spiritual, especially when working with old-fashioned hand tools in “unplugged” fashion. There is an inexplicable feeling of connection to the work and to the wood. It feels ancient, timeless — and in fact, many are the days in my workshop in which time ceased to have meaning, and the hours whisked away like so many wood shavings until I realized the day had long ago ended, and I had not even stopped to eat.
Perhaps woodworking–and really, all artisanal work–gives us clues as to the answers to unspoken questions we cannot find in daily modern life, with its technology-rich, mega-corporate modes of employment and endless sources of passive entertainment. Perhaps it connects us to what we are doing in the moment in ways that our 21st century jobs cannot. Perhaps, as Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman–the authors of The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world–wrote in a recent article on Smithsonian.com, “Our constant itch to combat routine makes creativity a biological mandate. What we seek in art and technology is surprise, not simply a fulfillment of expectations.”
Perhaps it ties us to those ancient ways of being human that we so desperately crave, without even knowing it.