Sunday, February 8, 2009


I've been thinking a bit lately about the nature of tradition. After all, under the title for this blog, I state my interest in "traditional carpentry practice, East and West...". I think 'traditional' is one of those words that seems to have a pretty clear-cut meaning, when in fact it is a highly subjective adjective. Start looking into and contemplating the meaning of the word tradition, and it is like going down some sort of rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland". In spite of that, I thought it would be good to attempt to explore this topic in more detail and try to clarify what I mean by that word, as I'm sure some of you are interpreting the word 'traditional' in a wide variety of senses.

Looking the word up in the dictionary, I see that it stems from the Latin traditionem, a form of traditio, meaning "handing over, passing on". The definition then is, "a part of culture that is passed from person to person or generation to generation, possibly differing in detail from family to family (emphasis mine), such as the way to celebrate holidays."

T.S. Elliot wrote in 1920 in an essay in The Sacred Wood, "Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in blind or timid adherence to its successes, "Tradition" should positively be discouraged."

I think I agree with him. I think that if one looks at the natural world, one does not see life existing in some sort of static holding pattern. Those organisms which demonstrate adaptability to changing conditions in the environment, that is, re-interpret the world again and again, are the strongest. In short, adapt or die.

'Tradition', as a buzzword, seems inherently conservative, and associates, in my mind at least, to a fear of change, and a desire for safety that is expressed in a vain attempt to keep the social or technological world frozen, to keep some sense of 'control', or even worse, a return to some earlier 'golden age' which is always viewed in a rosier light than a full historical account would bear out. The other use for 'tradition' is as an instrument of legitimacy - some 'traditions' are deliberately invented, for no other purpose than to highlight or enhance the importance/superiority of a certain institution, be it the church, or the government, or school, or ethnic group.

We exist in a particular time and place, and in association to the past. We can only know the past imperfectly - memory is subjective, vision is subjective, and therefore experience is subjective. We have our beliefs about what constitutes tradition in our culture, and each of us buys into that, to one extent or another, depending upon a number of personal factors. Two hundred years from now, if there are humans and societies still extant, then perhaps some in those societies will wax lyrical about the 'good old days', and have constructed new narratives and 'traditions' about our time, and those quaint ATM's, personal computers, and cars.

For many, "the way I was taught" forms tradition, and often, out of insecurity (what else could it be?) they condemn other people's ways of doing things simply because they are different than their own knowledge path. Often, getting locked into a mindset about what is traditional and 'correct' serves little purpose other than to close off the person to other ways of seeing, thus arresting their development. The 'my way is the right way' because I do things 'traditionally' is a bit of a trap, since deciding what is 'traditional' is largely subjective and imitative.

Conversely, the person who appears to eschew tradition in all forms, and is a junkie for the ever changing present, might lack a certain amount of anchoring, and tend towards a purely short term view of everything. This short term view permeates N. American culture perhaps more than any other, and it has resulted in a society that is extremely wasteful of resources and destructive. I often wonder what legacy the generations of the 20th and 21st centuries will leave for our descendants, other than a denuded planet and a huge pile of garbage, mostly plastic. I don't want to be part of that process if I can help it - I want to build with future generations in mind, so they just might have something to thank us for.

It was an interesting experience for me, to say the least, to live in Japan for 5 years, where both tradition and blinding technological change live side by side. I lived rurally, so I felt that slower pace of life, a mode of living still echoing strongly the ancient agricultural cycles of planting and harvest. It was frankly comforting, as a westerner, to gradually acquaint myself with the rhythm of the seasons and the annual events marking points in the passage. The Japanese are some of the best preservers of tradition anywhere in the world - Sumo, with a 400 year history, is still practiced today much as it was in the past. If you want to learn a traditional art from the past, Japan is a place where you will find people doing just that - preserving in 'perfection' ancient ways of doing.

The Ise Shrine in Japan is often touted as a reservoir of tradition, where, through the institution of shikinen-zokan (dismantling the old shrine and rebuilding the new one at an adjacent site at a pre-determined interval), Ise is said to have been rebuilt every 20 years since the 7th century. This, it is said, has enabled a continuity of carpentry tradition to be preserved, master to apprentice, through these rebuilding rituals. Slight problem with that: modern scholarship has show that there was an interruption of 123 years in the medieval period, due to endemic warfare. Thus no continuity, in the master-apprentice sense of the term was possible, and therefore this link was completely severed. So, what did the Japanese do when they rebuilt after such an interruption, after the previous structures had been dismantled or destroyed? They invented a new tradition, making their best guesses as to what had been before, and how it was built. Those 'guesses', as such were also steered by politics, insofar as the establishment of a 'traditional' indigenous architecture was seen as a counterweight to the influence of Buddhism and continental Buddhist architecture. So, tradition, even in Japan, is not always what it seems.

They have a saying in Japan, reinen-dori, which means 'same again as last year'. This permeates the culture utterly. If the office has a staff party on March 25th, from 6:30~9:00, serving three different drinks, a pre-set meal, and a certain flower arrangement upon a table, you can be sure that it was done exactly the same way the year previously, and will be done exactly the same way next year. When a person transfers within a company to a new position in another department, their first thought is to determine what exactly their predecessors had done, and set out to imitate it to the last brass tack. They don't go into the new position bursting with new ideas and agendas, for that is considered disrespectful to your forerunners. The nail that sticks up, in other words, and we all know what happens to that nail.

Doing things each year in exactly the same way, while comforting on one level, is also a form of death. It's stultifying and narrow, and after a while even suffocating. I think many Japanese feel this way about their society as well - at least some shared that with me. I left the country with very mixed feelings in that regard.

In so many areas, the pattern seems to be similar one: there is a maverick or innovator, some sort of genius, who sees through the bull, and creates something fresh and vital. This attracts followers, whom inevitably begin to catalog and organize virtually everything their teacher does or says, in time forming a school and a tradition around the ideas. Long after the teacher has died, his ideas live on, but only in shadow, like a dried flower as compared to a living one. The vitality has been killed, to be replaced by rote patterning after an idea, idea which become more unreal and theoretical as time marches on. I'm sure Buddha or Jesus were not especially interested in houses of worship to be created in their name, or in having people worshipping idols in their likeness. In another vein, Bruce Lee talked about the 'classical mess' in reference to martial arts.

So, in terms of woodworking and carpentry, what then is tradition? Well, to many it probably associates to a time in the past, before machines, where wood was worked by hand tools. Thus, hand tools are seen as 'purist'. Trouble is, it depends upon which time in the past one chooses to go back to - the 1900's? 1800's? 1700's? 1600's - or earlier? Taken to its logical extreme, one would arrive at a pre-tool period, where the technology of rope, weaving, basketry, pit-dwelling, etc, were the norm- with the odd stone scraper or tool perhaps. Some might go back to the era of early iron tools, preferring to use axe, adze, broad-axe. Or maybe a little later, after chisels, planes, and, late in the game, saws came along. It's a matter of choice, where one localizes 'tradition' in time, and nothing more.

According to Hermann Phleps, in his work "The Craft of Log Building", the introduction of the hand saw, while making efficient use of the timber resource, was a setback for the craft:

"It was the saw, however, which we may refer to as the most heartless of tools, which initiated the loosening of the bonds between craftsman and timber"

Later he remarks,

"...the more the worker relies on the tool to do the job for him, the more the bonds between the craftsman and his material begin to slacken. This process, which became apparent even with the introduction of the saw, has a more refined parallel in the replacement of the drawknife by the plane. Every stroke of the drawknife gave new shape to the material; providing ever fresh impetus for innovation. With the plane, however, shaping is pre-determined, ruling out variation as the work progresses."

The saw led to a decline in craftsmanship since the carpenter needed no longer to follow the grain of the wood, as he had when riving the material with mallet and wedges. The plane also led to a decline, since it essentially is a jig to place a blade into a fixed position, leading to a more even and predictable outcome. Yet how many woodworkers out there define their traditionalism today by the use of saw and plane? I would wager most. By Phleps standard, and historical accuracy, using those tools is hardly 'tradition', considering the long history of working wood in various cultures. The iron tools came upon the scene fairly late in the picture, and the 'corruption' of saw and plane are very recent developments indeed, upstarts, or even interlopers! The 'purist' ought to ban such polluting influences from their tool box, no?

I think some woodworkers tend to romanticize a particular point in history, and decide for various reasons, all subjective value judgments, that such a time was an admirable and pure point of development, and therefore seek to emulate their ideal. Some take it so a far as to dress up in period historical costume even, breeches and cap, out there in the woodlot hewing a log with the broad-axe -- others may wish to take it further, out there in a loin cloth, gnawing at tree bark and living in a leaf and branch brush pile. Nothing wrong with that at all - unless said people are trying to tell the rest of use that their way is the only 'traditional' and therefore 'correct' way to work wood. I reject such thinking. I also wonder: were there woodworkers in the 1850's who were also nostalgic for an earlier 'golden age', and who dressed up in earlier-period costume, working only with axe and drawknife? and before them woodworkers who derided iron tools in favor of bronze or stone?

Others who may have worked in a family run woodshop for generations may have a nice collection of grandfather's molding planes on the back shelf of the office, but what is the actual 'traditional' work in their shop, and has been for generations, is gluing veneers to fiberboard and other substrates, edge-banding and biscuit-jointing stuff together and producing boxes of various sorts, cabinets and furniture, made from sheet goods with a little bit of solid wood glued on. This technology has been in existence for nearly 100 years, so it can definitely make a claim to tradition, as any multi-generational practice. Again, that's fine, but it's not my idea of tradition. That's not the tradition I identify with, or strive to follow.

We must each make our own decisions about how we wish to work wood, and they will revolve around various value judgments and perceptions we pick up along the way. If you don't like noise and dust, and seek tranquility in your work, then probably you will avoid most machinery, or make it a minor part of the process. If your world revolves around 'efficiency' and 'output', 'economies of scale' and so forth, it makes perfect sense to have a large factory with CNC programmed saws and multi-axis routers going 24/7, like an Ikea factory. Some timber framers might wish to drag logs out of the bush with a horse, and hand-hew and cut all the joints - others may wish, say out of frustration at finding skilled help, to move towards the Hundegger or other similar computer-controlled and programmed automated timber cutting centers, and hire people expressly to load and unload timber from the machines. This is probably the most common sort of timber crafting shop now in Germany and Japan in fact.

Tradition then, is what you make it, by and large.

What do I mean then, in relation to my own work practice, by 'traditional'? Well, I like working solid wood and joining the pieces with age-proven joinery techniques, as opposed to relying upon glue to hold things together. That doesn't mean I don't use glue at all, or that glue hasn't been around for a while. One could argue that wood fibers are 'glued' together by lignin, after all. I could epoxy everything together, since that's 'forever', right? Well, not if your design intent involves making something which can be conveniently repaired sometime down the line.

Woodworking magazines do tests on various methods of joining wood together, and some of the modern glues provide greater ultimate mechanical strength in breakage tests with sample joints . However I've also observed that glues sometimes fail, sometimes randomly, but especially after being subject to numerous moisture-cycling events, the rise and fall of seasonal humidity levels, causing the wood to shrink or swell. The mortise and tenon, along with other solid wood joints, rely upon mechanical and geometric principles to effect the join, and tolerate moisture cycling well, thus they stand up over time. Biscuits and dowels are common methods of connecting pieces of wood together these days, but again, they rely upon glue. I've seen too many doweled furniture parts on older pieces come apart with age, especially on chairs. It's not a mark of quality construction to me - it's a mark of factory work methods, and economy. I have yet to see a test of these various methods of joining wood which factors in 15 years of moisture cycling.

The greatest elaboration, refinement and development in solid wood joinery methods is found in Japanese practice, so that is the primary well from which I draw.

I love the hand-planed finish, despite the myriad difficulties in taming the wooden-block handplane. The handplane, by slicing the cells of the wood, gives you the clearest view of the pure wood. Sanding, while not devoid of technique, is dust producing (the less of that the better from long term health), and, let's face it, a rather mindless activity by comparison to planing. Also, I would never sand my facial hair and expect a nice surface - and wood fibers are a lot like hair, so cutting with a sharp blade is the way to go for me. Anybody out there into sanding their facial hair? I'd like to see that - sorta. Well, maybe not. This not to say I don't employ sandpaper sometimes, but I strive to minimize it's use, and own no sanding equipment.

While I respect the sawyer's work and trade, there was a good reason this trade split off from general carpentry as a distinct specialty quite early on. I have little interest in converting logs to boards or beams by hand or with a sawmill. I've had my time with dragging wood out of the bush which I had felled and worked with a chainsaw mill. I like doing the 'grunt work' by machine, and am happy to use any machinery - stopping short of the CNC programming door. I detest poorly made machines that do not do what they are supposed to, like joint a surface flat, plane in parallel, saw in a straight line, or will not keep their settings for very long. It's doesn't seem like I'm asking much, wanting a machine to do what it is supposed to do, however, experience proves otherwise. I'm a woodworker, and I want to spend my time working wood instead of machine-tinkering or set-up. Thus, I have developed a high appreciation for high quality woodworking machines, usually of German or Japanese origin, that execute the task I wish to perform accurately and reliably.

Since joinery is my main interest, the mechanical connection is of paramount importance, given the influence a perfect fit has upon strength and ultimate durability. Thus any way I can find to cut more accurately-fitted joints is of interest to me. I find the router to be the most helpful and precise tool in this cause, and have developed methods of work which allow me an accuracy significantly finer than 1/100th of an inch in cut-out. More on the subject of accuracy in an upcoming post. Many of the joints I employ however, especially in compound joinery work, thwart the machine: they cannot be tackled except by handtools like saw, plane, and chisel, so I am always keeping those tools close at hand. Hah! Many timber framing joints are too large to work effectively with the router, so other means are necessary -again, mostly hand tools, but also large circular saws, mortisers, portable power planers, groovers, and so forth.

I happily use jigs, and often spend a lot of time developing jigs which allow me to do predictable close-tolerance work. Increasingly, these jigs are more and more finely-crafted, rather than the use-once-and-throw-away variety I used to make. Jig-building is a specialization all by itself with a long history - there's a lot to it, and much that can be learned from the machining trade. I figure that once a woodworker accepts the use of the handplane, a blade jigged in a block, then any further use of jigs is of no essential difference, philosophically-speaking.

Also, by tradition, I refer to older forms of building practice, like timber-frame, like clay plasters, slate roof work. I don't care much for the modern stapled-together, vinyl-sided off-gassing boxes the builders crank out, often at a one a month pace. This has been a disaster for the forest, accelerating consumption of wood (in much the same way as veneers have), and has effectively dumbed-down the carpentry trade, in my view.

As a result of modern practices, now we also have the phenomenon of sick-house syndrome - what an achievement! I don't want to be part of that - my values insist otherwise, so I swim upstream. It's not always easy, but it has its rewards I believe. In light of my earlier statement about 'adapt or die'... well I see the effects of our culture upon the earth - very deathist it seems - and figure the crows are coming home to roost at some point, so my 'adaptation' is to work in a manner un-supportive of the current paradigm and supportive of a long view. I build to last, though I can have no idea if there will be people around to appreciate it later on. My approach doesn't guarantee survival, heck, I'll be dead one day all the same, but it does help with my sanity to have a clear sense of purpose and values in regards to work.


  1. Quite an interesting thoughtful essay.
    Conjured up an image of an Indian chieftain who had learned to have respect for the land and the animals he lived off, and planned for the long term. While the immature get rich quick, invaders had little or no respect for the land they plundered.
    Thought provoking.

  2. Gordon, thanks! I am grateful for your comment and to find that the post resonated with you.



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