One of the first requirements in a shop should be to cut some fragrant wood species – just for the smell to permeate the space and warm up the olfactory senses. A couple of days ago, a few of my students occupied my shop for a few hours, working on their paddles – traditional styled Algonquin and Voyager paddles – carved from western red cedar. So you see, my shop was filled with not only the sweet cedar but also with the energy of youth.
All three students had spent time previously cutting out their paddle blanks on the band saw, so this day they were consumed with hand work – wood planes spokeshaves and sandpaper – slowly shaping the blade, shaft, and grip. Although students have little experience with the tools and woodworking generally, they embrace this new experience. Most show initial trepidation using unfamiliar techniques and tools; but with a little reassurance and guidance soon they immerse themselves into their paddle build.One of the tools of choice is the spokeshave. The narrow sole allows one to change angles quickly and work all portions of the paddle. The most appealing reason though, is that using the spokeshave is a highly tactile endeavor. The sole must lie at just the proper angle to engage the blade and must be held there throughout the cut. The body of the spokeshave is also angled in reference to the path of the cut to more effectively remove the wood.
This process of wood removal is augmented by an understanding of wood grain. Wood is added to the trunk in concentric rings – much like a layer of wax added to a candle as one dips the wick into a vat of molten wax.The layer of wood, however, is not uniform. The cells made early in the growth season are larger and more porous than those made later. This difference in early wood and late wood produces the grain, but also creates potential issues when carving the paddle. The early wood, softer and less dense, is removed more quickly than the adjacent denser late wood. Additionally, wood is milled from a trunk in the most efficient way, which produces rectangular pieces taken from a cone-shaped object. The result is that the wood grain is not always parallel to the edge of the cut surface and the grain “runs out”. The upshot is that wood grain has a direction. To illustrate this, take a soft cover book and bend it into a circle. Each page of the book represents one year’s wood growth. Slide your finger down the exposed page edges. In one direction, your finger moves without resistance, but in the other direction, each page is lifted as your finger moves in opposition to the lay of the pages. Wood chips out if worked against the grain. Finally, wood growth is altered as it is laid down around branches or in response to the leaning of the tree. My intent in all of this is to illustrate for you the dynamic, non-uniform medium of wood that must first must be understood before successfully worked. I take time to ponder this living process as I begin a project. Something as simple as counting the number of growth rings reinforces the concept that the piece of lumber was once living and had been living for a long time before it was harvested. The most recent paddle was taken from a tree which represented 42 years of growth just for the paddle. Undoubtedly the tree was much older. Many decades of life – removing CO2 from the atmosphere and converting that carbon into cellulose and lignin for cell walls that function to move water from the soil into the atmosphere and to give support to the tree. One has to respect that process and find amazement and beauty in its simplicity and complexity. A connection to life, to nature and the natural world requires diligence and purposeful consideration. But why do we need to go to such lengths or why have we made such an effort to disconnect ourselves from nature and an understanding of resource acquisition? Is this a result of determined control of our fate or ignorance? Tough to know and harder to understand.
I doubt my students reflect upon this as they continue to shape their paddles. Nor should they at this time. They are consumed in the process of creating: their minds focused on the present, engaged with their hands, connected to the wood. They too are freed from the mental stimulation of society, of cell phones, deadlines, exams, research papers and class presentations. They create now and though this process they do connect to the living natural world. They are just not aware.