February 2010

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.

Goodbye to an Old Mentor

Tom died Sunday. He was 70. I knew him about 30 years ago, brother of a dear friend, a housemate of sorts on an old farm in California shared by a dozen or so fellow misfits. A commune I guess. I didn't know him well. He was a mentor to me, though it would be many years before either of us knew it.

He did art and he put The Work first. He would grunt disapprovingly if anyone called him an artist. It wasn't unusual for him to work through the night, fueled by coffee and cigarettes, pulled into the momentum the of the piece as it took form. His work, whether sculpture, pottery, or drawings, had a tangible substance that you could reach out and grab onto, and a strength that made it look as if it would endure for centuries. These qualities seemed to have come from somewhere deep, as if he had reached into himself and pulled them from mud in a bucket somewhere inside, and shaped it into whatever it was to become.

He was the consummate carpenter, bowing to tradition, not taking the easy way out. He told a story of a building inspector who came to see if his work met the code. Upon seeing the Japanese joinery, free of nails, the inspector's jaw dropped as he tried to  figure just what it was he was seeing, then silently signed the permit. He built a castle for a winery, and an elegant dory. He once made a coiled pot in a room he had built, and it grew of its own free will to be so large that it couldn't support its own weight before it was fired. It kept folding in on itself, so for days on end he'd wake up every few minutes to coax it back into shape. When it was completed, it wouldn't fit through a door, so he knocked a hole in a wall to get it out then built a kiln around it to fire it. It is the most beautiful pot, with fleshy curves; it reminds me of a Rubens.

What I learned from Tom was the value of handwork, that it's important, and that it must be done right. Not that it must be perfect, but that it must be right. Working to that standard, at times it brings me great frustration, and at other times relief when finally I know a piece is right. Done by hand, it isn't perfect—we have machines for that—but it is right. He didn't teach it, but in The Work he lived by it. I never conveyed to him what I had learned, but now I am pleased to know that a few months ago, he learned that his principles loom large in what I do, and as my daughter and I build her guitar, we will not strive to make it perfect, but it will be right.

Rest well, Tom. I hope you are at peace. And thanks.

Begin the Beguine

This is the official launch of this little blog, where I hope to write about some things about building guitars, and other handwork, that go beyond the process—whys and wherefores, things like that.

I’ve always been a hands-on type. I think it came from my mother. For as long as I can remember, she sewed: her own clothes, our clothes, clothes for others. I made things from an early age. I think I’m wired for building things. I get great satisfaction from working with my hands. There’s some kind of peace I find in it, and when I don’t do it for a while, I get a little edgy.

A year or so ago, it came to me why it has this appeal. I work at a university, where I run a computer lab for the foreign languages department. I had some of my guitars on display at a folk festival, and a sociologist I know from work stopped by. She said, “This isn’t like computers at all!” My reply was, “That’s why I do it!” The answer had popped into my head without any forethought. But on thinking about it later, I realized that’s exactly why I do it. Because it’s not like computers. A lot of what I do at work is enjoyable, especially interactions with students, but it doesn’t fill the need I have to work with my hands. Building guitars fills that need. When I’m done with one, it makes music. So, I get the satisfaction of the building process, the things I build make music, and my customers have new tools for making their own music. It doesn’t get any better than that.