"A Labor of Love"

As I guarded our “Apprenticeship : Tables” video while it exported and uploaded (at rural Maine internet speeds, this can take many hours), I reflected on a phrase that Joshua and I have heard quite often as we represent M&T at various woodworking shows and events.

If you’re a hand-tool woodworker, you’ve probably heard it before. I’ll present the scenario: You might be giving a tour of your humble workshop to an acquaintance, or showing a little side table you made to some friends. You get a smile and some complimentary words. Further conversation uncovers the fact that you build using only hand tools. You sheepishly confess that you don’t even own a router.

The whole tone of the encounter changes, as if you’ve admitted to not having indoor plumbing or that you go without shoes during a New England winter. There may be a rueful shake of the head, a low whistle, and then (wait for it) here’s the phrase:

    “That’s a labor of love, for sure.”

We, of course, know what they mean. They mean that we are quaintly idealistic, engaged in this outdated and labor-intensive pursuit – emphasis on “labor”. It is simply romanticism, a thing whose time has come and gone with the advent of the industrial age and, you know, AC power that comes right into your house. Hand-tool woodworkers work harder, not smarter, apparently.

The obvious answer to this statement is always a loaded one. It will either lead to a deep engagement about the whole mindset behind hand tool use, or will just awkwardly end the conversation.

   “Well, it is.”

The last time I heard Joshua use this answer, it accomplished the latter. The man watched a couple more chops with the mortise chisel and sauntered off.

A couple of questions implicit in this statement might be drawn out by a more persistent individual. Questions that can engage our 21st-century culture with both a wide focus, and a narrow one.

(Wide) Is the whole point of technology to make life easier? And, are we better for it?

(Narrow) Why labor at something you don’t love? 

The wide focus is more of a societal soul-searching. I’m not going to begin to tackle that one here.

The narrow one is better fodder for an individual’s rainy day thoughts. That’s where I’m going.

I’ve found myself digging into this one many times over the years. Rather than applying it to a current vocation or life decisions, I’m thinking strictly in terms of woodworking. Frankly, as we’ve said often, using a table saw or router table can be terrifying (and should be) . It wakes my kids up at night. It makes my basement workshop look like the surface of the moon.

Sawing by hand, as Jim eloquently expresses, is work. Rather than using nuclear or coal-plant powered machinery, though, I am cutting boards on pumpkin-pie power (‘tis the season). Those boards are surfaced with a 150-year-old plane that I bought for $9. There is a tactile connection to the work that using old tools (worn down by the hands of the past) and old methods brings. Technology may seek to offer a more precise surface, or make a process certain and predictable with a minimum of skill necessary. But at what cost?

 Working wood with hand tools generates sweat. Sure, there’s labor involved. But we love it.

If you love this kind of work like we do, we think our new "Tables" video will be right up your alley. "Apprenticeship : Tables" is now available for digital streaming and the DVD will be shipping soon. This has been a long time coming, and we're delighted to finally have it out. Hope you enjoy it!

~Mike Updegraff


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