The Workshop as Play

I occasionally feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of uncompleted projects I have sitting around in my humble basement workshop. There’s that one corner where the old frame saw hangs, awaiting restoration and use. And that big slab of redwood over there – that’s going to be a table… eventually. When I get around to it.

And the funny thing is, that mental “to-do” list never really shrinks. I have this issue where I’m working on some important project at the bench (say, a drawer for our bathroom vanity), but get sidetracked with experiments in flintknapping or my kids’ plans to make a longbow out of a length of PVC pipe. The vanity drawer gets set aside for a bit. It seems to me that handcraft naturally lends itself to these kinds of tangents of exploration – because it's fun.

In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Peter Gray outlines five characteristics of play. They are:

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed.
  2. Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
  3. Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players.
  4. Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life.
  5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

These, to me, perfectly encompass what ideal shop time looks like. Play.

Dr. Gray notes, “The alert but unstressed condition of the playful mind is precisely the condition that has been shown repeatedly, in many psychological experiments, to be ideal for creativity and the learning of new skills.” When we are driven by results or the threat of being evaluated for our work, this aspect goes out the window. (Cameron Turner touched on these themes in his recent blog post.) It is an ultimate expression of freedom to have the ability to do what you choose, and the ability to walk away when you choose. My deadlines in the shop are my own (or whatever I’ve promised my wife I will do this weekend). That’s a tremendous gift we have as hobbyist woodworkers – one we shouldn’t ever take for granted.

In the immediate vicinity of my bench, I have the following projects pending: A carcase saw that needs sharpening and cleaning, a big framing chisel to tune up, and a lath hatchet, ice axe, and Kent-pattern axe to make handles for. These I’ve had to move aside to make room for gifts in progress, but I’ll be able to get back to them soon.

Can’t wait.



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