Past, Present, and Future methods of building…

While studying photography in Philadelphia, I remember taking a class a few quarters in that was meant to bring us back to the basics of photography, allowing us to revisit the rudimentary exercises we learned in the very first Introduction to Photography class we took in our first days at the school. In the first weeks of the class it felt redundant. We had worked so hard to reach a point where our cameras were an extension of ourselves, to be able to start formulating work that got away from the tell tale signs of student assignments. Yet now that we had more than a basic understanding of how to take a proper photograph, these assignments made more sense. We understood their application in a way we did not understand in the introduction class. Looking through the progression of my own work from the first class to the last class I took in Philadelphia it is fun to rediscover old ideas that were forgotten in the whirl wind of assignments and deadlines. It is also comical to see what I felt like I needed to photograph when I was first learning how to manipulate my camera.

My latest studio project was revisiting everything I learned by recreating the first assignment I have ever did in woodworking. By thinking through the basic process of building a table I was able to take my prior understanding of what it meant to build a functional table and push it further, to explore the many different ways one can and has built a table. This idea combined with my fascination with how adamant different people are about how right their way of building is and all of the contradictions it creates, shaped the outline of this project. What if I built the same table, three different ways, to try to understand if there really was a difference in the final result of three very different ways of making? The assignment of Past, Present, and Future was the perfect space to bring this idea to life since the contradicting ideas can be simplified down to past methods, present methods, and future methods of building.

I set about to build the past table, utilizing methods and technology available before the industrial revolution. I quickly realized that I was not advanced enough in all of these techniques to make an argument about which method was the best, that I was still too young of a woodworker to create three equally crafted tables to allow a viewer to look at them and say, “Oh the (______) table is the most structurally and aesthetically pleasing and therefore that is the best method to use ever.” Instead of trying to solve the debate for the public, I began to try to solve the debate for myself. What did I want my studio practice to look like? What method did I want to utilize and why? Does it make sense to cling to a technique that does not reveal itself in the final product? Can the final table reveal enough about the process to allow the viewer to determine which is the best method?

When all three tables are together, all of their surfaces are equally planed. Yet it took three very different planing process, taking various lengths of time to reach the final planed state. So although it was physically rewarding to spend over 20 hours hand-planing the past table, it looks no different then the 30 minute machine planed present table. Other then physical benefits of hand-planing for 8hours a day for a whole week (by the end of the week I had some serious muscle definition in my arms) it is not practical to waste valuable studio time on an outdated method. Conversely there were plenty of methods from the past table that continued through all three tables. Chiseling was the major one. All three tables required some level of chiseling to be done in order to have well fitted joinery. There of course were other tools or techniques that could be used, each taking various lengths of time, but none of them created the sharp and precise cut like the hand chisel.

That could be a completely personal preference, I am sure plenty would argue that it makes the most sense for them to use something else to create the same effect. That is the beauty of craft, the beauty of life really, everyone does it differently. I fully understand how great that fact is now that I have built these tables. How great it is that there is this full spectrum of how to build a simple table, that I can pick and choice which ways of making I like best from various schools of thought, and put them all together in my own hybrid mutated way of making. And that hybrid mutation will continue to shift and change as I continue to absorb as much about this craft as I possibly can.

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As always, thanks for reading.

– r.n.a.

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