Get Smart about craftsmanship

by DGO Web Administrator

In a world of versions and built-in obsolescence, let Jay Flanagan of Bare Hands Woodworking tell you about the satisfaction that comes from building something tangible from start to finish.

How did you start?When I was younger, I was cheap and instead of buying furniture, I would build stuff out of two-by-fours. I moved around a bunch and was such a tightwad that I’d give all of the furniture I’d built away and start over wherever I ended up. I’d be building a bed in the new bedroom. Dresser, nightstands, whatever. My roommates didn’t really care for that. [laughs] Eventually, I couldn’t justify power tools in my bedroom, so I bought a handsaw, some chisels, a hand drill, and in the process, realized how much I like it. It’s obviously not fast, but it’s a lot more fun. You’re making something with a tool that you control. It’s like playing an instrument.

Why hand-made furniture?Hand-made furniture has human curves in it. My arm can make an arc that a compass can’t because that compass makes an exact arc whereas mine is slightly off because of my arm and the way my muscles move. The furniture I make couldn’t be made on a machine because it’s not perfectly square or straight or round. It’s like handwriting. A computer doesn’t make good handwriting because it produces straight fonts. But when you write by hand, everyone has their own unique style. My furniture is me.

Does the wood dictate what it’s made into?So much of making fine furniture is using the right piece of wood in the right spot – getting the grain to match and things like that. In commercial construction, it matters less. If it fits, put it in there and you’re done. I lay everything out like a mosaic. The curve of an arm follows the grain of the wood, or the grain of the legs is following the same direction. I have an idea when I start, but the board dictates where it goes.

What’s your relationship with customers like?I get to know everyone that I build for, their likes, their dislikes, what the furniture is going to be used for. One of my favorites is a huge white oak table that I built for this young couple. They have three young kids and they told me that they wanted a really sturdy table that would withstand some rambunctious kids. It hit me halfway through building it that this would be the table those kids would grow up around. They’ll have their meals on it, they’ll do their homework at it. It hit me that I built something that is going to be a part of their life for a long time. That I was trusted to build something for their family that would be so central to their lives is a real honor.

Describe the satisfaction of building something from start to finish.A lot of people can’t say what they did to earn their paycheck. You make a spreadsheet, you yell at a guy. At the end of the day my knuckles are bleeding, my back hurts, I’m covered in sawdust and I’m just tired. But I know that something exists today that didn’t yesterday – and it’s entirely because of me. I get the satisfaction of seeing a load of wet, dirty lumber become a beautiful piece of furniture that goes into someone’s home.

Tell us about the tools.I use a pre-Civil War wood plane made by Stanley in probably the 1850s that belonged to my great grandfather, and a Diston brand handsaw, which was the premier brand of the late 1800s. It’s an amazingly designed tool made for professionals who would use it every day. It works as well as it did the day it was made. I’m a history buff, and I appreciate that tangible connection to the past.

Romanticism aside, this is hard work.The physical effort makes the results that much more valuable. It takes effort to run a table saw or a router, but it doesn’t take muscle and grit to use it all day long- and you really feel it by the end of the day sawing lumber to dimension. There are days I can’t lift up my arm, but it’s that good hurt, that good tired. So I guess this is my athletic pursuit! But it’s also sort of like playing an instrument. Using a hand plane, you get into a rhythm. There’s a certain nobility to having worked in such a way that affects you physically. It’s cool to have a job where people can identify what you are based on how you look. I take pride in having calluses on my hands and having strong forearms because they represent what I do and what I work hard at. I have that look about me that a lot of craftsmen get.

Do you have a guiding philosophy?I love the work of John Ruskin, this mid-1800s British author, who said “When we build, let us think that we build forever.” That really affected me and guides what I do. My biggest pet peeve is when I see things that aren’t built to last. I work really hard to make sure that the things I make are built to outlast me.

Cyle Talley is No-Shave Novembering, so if you see him, try not to laugh too hard. If there’s something you’d like to GET SMART about, email him at: [email protected]


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