This has been an insanely busy season for me. This past September, soon after Charpentiers Sans Frontières (CSF) left our place after constructing our hand-hewn blacksmith shop, I hit the ground running to write and organize the book that captured all that was bursting inside my mind. I had been studying and reflecting on the value of manual craft work for a long while before the project, but when this team of carpenters arrived and set to work, I realized that I was witnessing one of the most powerful examples of it I’d ever seen. Watching 35 carpenters from all over the world hew freshly felled logs into timbers, then joining and raising them with nothing more than the strength of their hands, demonstrated for me more vividly than ever the immediate relevance of engaged, joyful handcraft in our digitally dis-connected age.
The main theme of the book sprouted early on in the project. I was standing beside the campfire one evening talking about the beauty of handcraft with Jordan Finch, a timber framer based in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. We shared our appreciation of thinkers such as Wendell Berry and E.F. Schumacher and their vision of work that does not rely on expensive machinery or exploitative industrial practices. We talked about our passion for hand tools and wished that more people used them. The thing is, I couldn’t care less if someone out there gets joy out of running boards through a table saw, but my message, my emphasis to M&T readers has been that you do not have to. Too many people have bought the industrial argument that all creative work ought to be assessed by productivity measures. They’ve learned the factory mentality that all that matters is speed and output.
But efficiency should not be our only consideration. It’s true that every woodworker I’ve ever talked to wants to create solid, durable, and beautiful final products, but it surprises me that there are folks out there that do not believe that the act of making itself can be beautiful. Some seem to think that in order to be realistic, we have to hide behind a facemask and earplugs to complete the job as quick as we can muster. But unless you’re running a furniture business and must keep an eye on the bottom line, why would you hasten the hobby you love by turning it into a process you wince to get through?
I told Jordan that night by the fire that I’ve become convinced that hand-tool technology enables artisans to work efficiently and viably, but not at the cost of their enjoyment. I told him that, at the end of the day, I just want people to know that “another work is possible.”
The expression is my spin on “another world is possible” – a slogan that has been passed around by different people with different missions, with the common theme being pursuit of a solution to the unsatisfying or dysfunctional status quo. I told Jordan that I had been recently mulling over my take on the phrase, and I didn’t know what would come of it.
As that week of work progressed, though, the phrase echoed through my mind. I witnessed a way of working that I previously had a hard time even envisioning. Of course, I should have known better; things have been made by hand for all of human history until only a few hundred years ago. But even though the power-tool myth had been busted for me in relation to furniture making, I still somehow believed that hand hewing buildings must be inordinately slow or required extensive training – impractical for the average Joe and Jane. CSF showed me that I was wrong – this way of working is still attainable. By the day of the raising, I was already convinced that this book needed to be called Another Work is Possible.
So even though this book showcases one particular timber frame project, it does so only as an example of an even greater vision for all kinds of work that uses our hands and engages us with the world in tangible, creative ways. It could be thought of as an argument for carving spoons from tree trimmings, planting a garden where there is currently a lawn, or making furniture with hand tools. Even as the book is laced with discussions of timber framing techniques and processes, in a real sense, it isn’t even about timber framing at all – Another Work is Possible points to a philosophy of being and working in the world that not enough people know is even attainable. This book shows them it is.