Leave the Gunk In

Selfportrait by Elsa Dorfman, Courtesy: http://elsa.photo.net/photos/elsa-disk26-0003.3.jpg 

Elsa Dorfman took big pictures.

Really big.

She shot 20" x 24" Polaroids – yes, you read those dimensions right – remarkable portraits of people like Allen Ginsberg and Julia Child. She lugged around a 200-pound camera: one of only six in existence, an “ad hoc machine made by camera junkies” designed to be operated by two or three people. She did it by herself, too. Dorfman was a small Jewish woman who inadvertently fell in love with taking pictures when a well-heeled acquaintance gave her a Hasselblad to take pictures as part of her work as an teacher in suburban Boston back in the mid-60s. Later in her celebrated career, it was Polaroids that seized her imagination.

And she insisted that when galleries pinned those Polaroids to their walls for exhibitions, they had to include the chemical goo left behind at the far margins of the Polaroid—the inkblot “fingerprints” left behind from when she tore the Polaroid pack apart to reveal the pearl of an image inside. 

“It sort of makes it more handmade,” she told one interviewer. “I wanted the gunk to show.”

Bruce Cratsley And Mr Muffit, Elsa Dorfman. Note the “gunk” at the top of the photograph. Courtesy: http://archive.elsadorfman.com/cratsley.html 

Most machines, of course, are designed to minimize gunk. (An ironic choice, of course, considering the literal gunk – those petroleum distillates of dubious origin – that keeps these machines going and maintains the machines that themselves produce our tools in factories.)

A period drawer bottom retains saw marks on the underside.

We especially don’t like gunk that shows. We don’t want any wormy sanding stroke marks, or any orange-peeling or blushing in a finish, or any planer tracks, or any tear-out, or any gappy joinery, or any glue that we don’t quite annihilate with little bits of 220 grit sandpaper wrapped around a dowel while chewing on the insides of our cheeks in frustration. So there’s this temptation, and I, reader, have felt it, too, to succumb to Gear Acquisition Syndrome, hoping that the latest Green Tool From Germany or the Yellow Tool from Germany can help any “mistakes” angelically evaporate from our work.

This problem isn’t unique to woodworking. Just about any hobby fanatically pursued by (mostly) people of means and (mostly) men has echoes of the same mania, particularly photography, mountaineering, cycling, golf, fly fishing, and sailing. The companies that service these industries are, naturally, ecstatic about this tendency.

A good machine, in some minds, should disguise that a) the piece doesn’t look quite like some Euclidean Furniture Thing floating in a disembodied SketchUp space somewhere, or that b) we screwed something up cutting joinery.

Zero gunk.

Accordingly, we invest hope as well as money in our tools. Hope, as Samuel Johnson tells us, is “perhaps the chief happiness which this world affords.” Many of us fantasize about how a yet-to-be-purchased tool is going to solve all of our problems and magically render a perfect surface with minimal effort.

A perfect surface is both clinically airless and joyless, though. We’re making heirlooms, not aluminum cans full of baked beans. Rather, as a woodworker, I continually struggle with finding a sensibility that manages to say something about my developing skillfulness and my fallibility, the amount of joyous labor that went into the object, and maybe even the state of the world when I make a piece.

I’m not advocating gleefully dumping a paint can over an otherwise meticulously crafted bombé chest as a nihilistic statement about the inevitability of imperfection. If you focus on the eventual heat death of the universe, you’re not going to want to do anything creative. What I want, though, is for a “show surface” to show—or at least suggest—the work of human hands that went into it. As it ages, a good piece ought to somehow speak, to intimate the hours of use and family togetherness and family not-so-togetherness and random accidents and slow passage of time that a patina symbolizes.

Nothing’s perfect, and I want to celebrate both the striving for that ideal as well as the ways I’ll never reach it as a craftsman. If I get really close to the inlay on the Federal card table I finished last winter, I notice the slight gaps where the 1/16" holly strips don’t quite meet perfectly, or where I got an angle slightly wrong despite spending hours squinting and paring and lightly sanding. When I first finished the table, it used to bug me, but now I kind like getting close enough to anal-retentively greet these old slight “mistakes,” since they encourage an ongoing familiarity with the things I’ve made and provide a visual index of my growth. (Jim McConnell has an outstanding piece back in Issue 3 of Mortise & Tenon that really pulls apart all of these contradictions about “perfection” in woodworking – it’s well worth your time, if you haven’t already read it.)

Therefore it’s worth spending your time running your hands over old pieces in antique stores and clambering underneath them with a good raking light. You’ve got to get close. As Donna Tartt puts it in her remarkable 2013 novel, The Goldfinch, describing how the book’s teenage narrator learns to really see old furniture from an expert antique restorer in Manhattan:

“Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture. . . . He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction: by wear that was too even (antiques were always worn asymmetrically); by edges that were machine-cut instead of hand-planed (a sensitive fingertip could feel a machine edge, even in poor light); but more than that by a flat, dead quality of wood, lacking a certain glow: the magic that came from centuries of being touched and used and passed through human hands. To contemplate the lives of these dignified old highboys and secretaries—lives longer and gentler than human life—sank me into a calm like a stone in deep water, so that when it was time to go I walked out stunned and blinking into the blare of Sixth Avenue, hardly knowing where I was.”

So leave the gunk in. For posterity’s sake.

Cameron Turner


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