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Going With the Grain: Why We Work With Wood

When a student enters the wood shop, she is welcomed into a space where she can use her hands, mind, imagination, senses of beauty and proportion, will power, and simple tools to create something beautiful.  She is invited to look forward to the pride and satisfaction that her completed project will eventually bring. She is looking forward to success.

Woodworking requires that the maker engage all of his faculties in an integrated manner to transform organic material into something beautiful and useful.  It requires purpose, patience, concentration, and commitment. Woodworking can also be fun! Social interaction is common and welcome, as long as it is not distracting or disruptive.  Tools, especially ones that are cared for and well-maintained such as the ones we use, can be both highly satisfying and dangerous, and we work within clear safety guidelines, conscious of protecting ourselves and the others around us.

When working with the students, Dr. Karnow and I suggest projects that are appropriate for the skill levels of individual children, giving them some freedom to try options that are appealing.   At any point in time, a wide variety of projects are in progress. We work with hand tools - saws, rasps, files, carving gouges, hand-planes, spoke shaves, mallets, hammers, screwdrivers, chisels, sandpaper, oils, and beeswax.  We begin with wood blanks, describing the properties of the wood, paying attention to the direction and figuring of the grain, identifying the annual rings, and examining the relative hardness, strength, and workability of the wood for a given project.  We call attention to the beauty of wood and try to impart a sense of reverence for it. Sometimes the children harvest the wood, such as felling a birch tree and sawing it into parts, allowing them to dry properly. This could become so many things, such as a beautiful garden gateway like we built last year for the Kindergarten.

Having been a teacher of high school mathematics in a Waldorf School, I observe the children in wood shop learning lessons about proportion, geometry, and numbers in ways that sink in.  Finding the center of a rectangular board using diagonal lines, adding fractional numbers using two rulers side-by-side, forming curves, counting the strokes of a saw rhythmically by units, twos, threes, etc., are some of the many ways in which the students integrate knowledge that they will carry forward into the classroom and beyond. 

Moral lessons happen too, without the need to lecture.  “Good enough” is not part of a good woodworker’s vocabulary.  A right angle is precisely 90 degrees. Corner mortices don’t work unless the complementary angles are exact.  Measurement must be correct. Cuts must conform to careful measurement. Design needs to be informed by the skills of the maker, the properties of the material, and principles like integrity, simplicity, and grace.  Each action has a consequence. When wood is removed it cannot be replaced. Mistakes inevitably happen and solutions need to be found without compromising the integrity of the finished product. “Good,” “true,” and “beautiful” are common words in a woodworker’s vocabulary.  


Woodworking is about striving.