This past weekend I attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour as it came through Ellsworth, ME. The guys I’ve gone with for years always choose the ‘extreme sports’ night over the ‘culture’ night. Every year, we watch people climb rock faces in snowstorms, kayak off of waterfalls, and trek across barren wilderness just for the thrill of it. It’s wild stuff. I can appreciate it from a distance but it’s hard for me to relate to because I spent most of my childhood in art classes when everyone else was playing football.
Every year, though, I can’t help but think about what it is that motivates a person to push themselves that hard and take that much risk. Is it nothing more than an adrenaline rush? Maybe they’ve just got to see the unique vantage point of the summit? Or is it simply grasping for bragging rights to be the new record-holder?
I don’t think so.
Almost without exception, these films all spend a bit of time looking at the motivation behind these adventures. These athletes push themselves further, taking on greater and greater challenges, because it brings an incomparable sense of accomplishment. The frostbite, the broken fingers, the near-death falls… none of that is worth enduring if all they’re after is the view from the summit. It’s precisely the hardships of the journey that make the trip worth it. It makes them feel alive. For them, those adventures prove to be the most fulfilling experiences they can imagine. (For more discussion on motivation in work see this excellent TED Talk by Dan Ariely.)
As I’ve reflected on this, I thought about how the rest of us might relate to this in some sense. Even if risking life and limb is out of the question, we all grow when pushing ourselves to accomplish what appears out of reach. Some of you are runners. You pound your feet on the pavement for miles, sweat dripping down your head until your knees get wobbly and you are exhausted. It feels good to push yourself. Some of you go the gym for this exercise. Maybe, for you, a simple walk in the woods pushes you outside your comfort zone. Whatever that is for you, I think we all can relate to the need to challenge ourselves.
For me, the adventure is craft-oriented. Building furniture with hand tools is the right balance of physical exertion and creative action for an art nerd like myself. I’m not much of an athlete and extreme heights give me the willies but when I pick up that saw and begin to break down rough-sawn boards for a project, my heart beats faster. And it not just the physical exertion - The thrill I get from working wood in the way artisans have for thousands of years before me is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. It makes me feel alive to work with my hands and it makes them come to life for me. I’ve found that connecting to a community of artisans that spans all generations is way more fulfilling than trying to get creative energy by ‘looking within’ like I did in my art classes.
Even though the labor involved in planing boards is not even remotely comparable to climbing a mountain, I feel a similar sort of accomplishment as I begin to see furniture take shape. The vivid memory of hand planing every component and handsawing every joint is satisfying to me in a way machining wood isn’t. (For more on this topic, see our Apprenticeship ‘Foundations’ video.)
So maybe that’s not your thing. Maybe you don’t work wood for those reasons. Maybe you’re in the business and need to keep an eye on the bottom line. I won’t deny that machines can free craftsmen from the drudgery of production settings. For me though, I work wood because I seek the adventure and fulfillment of the journey. Every time I look at a piece I made, I remember the process because I can still read it on the surface. The tool marks are like my photos from the summit – they forever testify to the ascent.
Why am I so into hand tools? It’s not purist elitism and it’s not for some zen-like meditation.
I love the adventure of hand tools simply because I find it thrilling to work with my hands. This is a journey machines have never been able to take me on. I’ve discussed this approach in the manifesto in Issue One and time has only confirmed my conviction.