Learning to Crawl: A Private Woodworking Introduction in The Unplugged Workshop

IMG_1349If a man is to grow, then he must continue to do for his entire life. If a person is to learn, then he must humble himself before those who offer learning opportunities. While I was not required to kneel before the sacred No. 5 Plane, and there was no secret handshake to learn, I did feel like I was entering a sacred initiation as I descended the steps into Tom Fidgen’s basement workshop. Perhaps it was the three month wait for a session to become available or perhaps it was the calm, honest aura of the man himself, but I truly felt privileged to be taught the most basic essentials of working with hand tools by Tom.

As the two hour session progressed, I gained an inkling of how to read the grain of wood, order wood from a sawmill, set-up a hand plane, make a cross cut on a bench, sharpen a plane blade on a water stone, and make my first real shavings off a piece of wood. I had no expectation to be able to build a Baroque chair by the end of the session. I sought inspiration and wisdom, and that is what I found in a few simple actions led by a master in his studio. Perhaps the sorcerer’s apprentice comes to mind or even the sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci can be seen in the basic jot notes we used to understand the types of wood cuts and planing direction mnemonics.


What I appreciated most about Tom Fidgen was his patience. He was a patient, thoughtful teacher who took the time to answer the questions that followed his explanations, but he was also careful not to go down a rabbit hole for two hours. He made certain that I learned what I came downtown to learn. He ensured that I could take a glint of knowledge back to my tiny basement shop space, even though I was not aware of what that knowledge might even be.


Why learn to work wood without power tools? Technology is a tool, just as a hammer is a tool. Woodworking with hand tools is a way to travel, just as walking, bullet trains and airplanes are a way to get from one point to another. I have a myriad of uses for computers and electronic power in my career life, but in my personal life I want a different paradigm. A luddite is extreme in his or her refusal to engage with the post-modern world; I am not a luddite. What I see, however, is that when I make photographs, cook my food, play my music or build objects my soul demands for those experiences to be analogue. I can write a song in GarageBand that sounds like music, but it is really a collection of audio clips. To play a song on my banjo requires hours of practice. Those hours may be seen as wasted productive time by many, but those hours are what remind me of what is best about being human.

Wood may not be my best medium for self-expression. I may prove to be an awful apprentice. I see no reason to care about that. I see no reason to compare my work to another’s masterful renditions. Perhaps that is why it is worth my time: unlike my other creative expressions and projects, the final products are not about FBook posts and magazine covers. I have other products to post. No, what is worth sharing about this medium is the process of experience and what I philosophically develop from the action. Jesus was a carpenter.

IMG_1350The challenge of writing a blog remains the need to make time to write. Sadly, this past week brought sorrow to the home with the death of our beloved dog, Livii. My intention is to continue to reflect upon the experience before I write. Her death has warped my understanding of life, and I want to make the words I use to describe what it means to lose what is closest to our hearts. I, perhaps, need to share my first intimate experience with death, and what can we do with what remains ahead for those left behind.


5 thoughts on “Learning to Crawl: A Private Woodworking Introduction in The Unplugged Workshop

  1. I bookmarked this post in January and finally made it back to read it. I loved your thoughts on why to use hand tools. I have been following Tom’s An Unplugged Life and get such a sense of calm from just watching.


  2. I know I’ve said this before, but you’re a seriously good writer. I find it to be very… relaxing. Sort of how I envision being in Tom’s workshop for a few hours of personal instruction might be.

    One thing I’ve found with my own hand tool journey, which isn’t very far along just yet, is that I seem to work better with a more deliberate pace. It isn’t necessarily slower, but it might appear to be. It’s more like… I’m trying to make each action – each plane or saw stroke or strike of a chisel – count. I don’t want to waste my energy. And sawing too far off a line can lead to a lot of work to fix. Bruising your baseline can be even more work.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your life and thoughts with us.


    • And thank you…knowing that my writing can give anyone a more relaxed moment in their day makes it worth while to continue. Being deliberate with one’s time is key to finding happiness, I believe. Finding ways to become more deliberate are what this crazy, modern world challenges us with the most. Take care!


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