Reaching Flow at the Workbench

Sometimes when working on a guitar, the passage of time becomes imperceptible. I lose track of it. My wife calls on my cell and says, “Patrick, it’s time to come in.”

I’ve heard this frame of mind called flow. In education, it’s used to describe a situation where the student is totally immersed in a learning activity. I’ve seen it in my children’s Montessori classrooms. Kids in those classrooms can often choose their own activities, as long as the choice is within the individualized sequence of their learning. A child in that state is fully engaged and focused on the activity, oblivious to the rest of the class, and often reluctant to stop for lunch or recess.

In building guitars, flow doesn’t come early on. While building the first instruments, the new builder is worried about just how to hold the chisel, or whether the task is being done properly. The tool may not be sharpened well enough to work properly. The work is difficult; the brow is beaded with sweat; the threat of failure looms in a dark cloud overhead. It is a struggle. But after a few instruments—or perhaps many, depending on aptitude or past experiences in woodworking—the builder might reach what my friend Tom called “a state of grace” with the work. The builder has learned how to sharpen a chisel, how the workpiece will be changed as the chisel moves through the cut, what the end result needs to be, when to stop. The work goes smoothly and perhaps even quickly. Flow.

Yesterday I reached flow. It happens only after an hour or more when things go well, the shop is in order, and there are no distractions. It was raining. I could hear large drops falling from the trees over the shop, hitting the roof. It was warm inside. I was preparing the body of the guitar for binding, which is the trim that adorns and protects the edges of the guitar body. It is exacting work in an area that can showcase the tastes and skills of the builder, one of the many parts of a guitar that can be seen as the builder’s signature to a discerning eye. I had bent the wood for the binding, cut the miters for the finer pieces for a perfect fit, and cut the rabbets (channels) that would receive the bindings.

Then my son came in and pulled me out of my reverie. It was 4:00. Three hours had passed and I had barely noticed. I realized I was tired and it was time to take a break. My ten year-old son wanted me to help him make a laser, which actually amounted to a small flashlight. He had two batteries, some aluminum foil, a small plastic tube filched from a marker, but needed a bulb. We went into the house in search of a spare flashlight bulb. I told showed him how it needed to be connected, using the aluminum foil, but suggested some wire which we found in the shop. Off he went to his room. About an hour later, he emerged and calmly handed me a perfectly serviceable flashlight held together with tape and a switch of sorts to turn it on. Flow.