Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Draw Knife

 Tool House is a fairly straightforward picture, simple in concept, easy to wrap your mind around. A Victorian house made of hand tools, perfect for the carpenter, contractor, architect.

Not too artsy. Guys like it. It’s a safe purchase on Christmas Eve.

I started out with this drawing like most of the others, with a good joke in mind and a firm conviction that I could find a way to make it work. Most of the time that’s enough to get a drawing from the ‘wouldn't it be funny if’ stage to a finished piece, if I stick with it long enough, keep an open mind, and don't get too distracted by important things.

How hard could it be, anyway? Drawing a proper Victorian house should have been the difficult part. After that, I just had to write up a list of every hand tool I’d ever heard of, and find a place to jigsaw them all into the design of the house. No problem.

Right at the top of the list I wrote ‘Spokeshave’. It was the first thing that popped into my head. Had to put a spokeshave in this picture. Had to. Just writing down the word transported me back to Shop class, seventh grade - sitting for the final exam, hours before we were let out for summer vacation.

One of the questions: “Describe the difference between a spokeshave and a drawknife.”

Shop class was perhaps the last opportunity any of us had to rub elbows with a full cross-section of our peers in that rural Oklahoma community. It was a required course for boys, no exceptions. (Girls took Home Economics.) Jocks, weenies, nerds, rich kids, poor kids, weirdos, no-’counts and troublemakers all had to get along with one another for a whole semester, under the watchful eye of the Shop teacher, Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Anderson was great. Everybody respected him. Even the boys who were too cool to admit it looked up to him, in spite of the fact that he didn't coach anything. Mr. Anderson knew the names of every tool in the Tool Room, and he knew how to use them, too. After school he stayed late and built marvelous things, like corner shelves with scalloped, routered edges, and impossibly ornate grandfather clocks with hand-turned spindle posts and finials. This man was more than a woodworker. He was a magician.

And he pushed us hard. Before we were allowed to touch any of the tools, we had to learn their names and their uses, how to use them properly, and how to clean and care for them. He even made us learn drafting, obliging us to draw out plans for the bird houses and knife holders we were going to build, and take home proudly at the end of the year.

Our first drafting assignment was to take a plain sheet of typing paper and draw a perfect rectangle, one inch from the edge, then mark off the sides in half inches, and use a ruler to make a tidy grid of half-inch squares. Everything had to be straight and clean. No double lines. No cross-overs.

Mr. Anderson graded severely, circling every mistake in red ink. It was either right or it wasn’t, and mine wasn’t right at all.

Good thing I was going to be a doctor some day.

This drawing stuff was not for me.

“A drawknife is a large, heavy blade with bent handles on both sides,” I wrote, “Used for pulling off long splits of wood, mostly along the grain. A spokeshave is a small, two-handled plane used for finishing work, such as shaping an axe handle, or the spoke on a wooden wheel. Both tools are pulled, or drawn toward the user.”

Aced that exam, and I’m still proud of it. 

Drawknife: second tool on the list. Hammer. Screwdriver. Level. Plumb Line. One by one each item found its place on my legal pad, from there up onto the pencil sketch on the drawing board: paint brush for a window pane, drawknife for a sill, this here, that there. The design filled up quickly.  Paint roller for a chimney. Wood clamps for the front doors.

This one was easy, until things started running into one another. Suddenly there was no room for the tape measure. And where will the tool belt go? Gotta have a tool belt. Let’s move the drawknife, sketch in a plane. Or a box cutter. Maybe a chisel… Still need a place for that tool belt. Erase the drawknife. We’ll find a place for it over there near the spokeshave.  Move this. Sketch that. (How do you even begin to draw sandpaper?) Get frustrated. Allow your attention to be drawn elsewhere.

The Tool House picture stayed taped to my drawing board for a good two years. Many times I tried to get back into the rhythm of the drawing, only to be pulled away by the lure of other projects. It’s like that around this studio. I would look over at the House from time to time, erase something, add something else, sketch and erase, until one day I noticed that everything had fallen into place. The design was done. After a week or two of permanent ink, the drawing was finished.

It was a long time before I discovered that somewhere along the way, the drawknife and the spokeshave had both been edged out of the picture. When and why, I couldn't recall, but those oversights remain a  lingering disappointment, evidence of important lessons not quite learned. 

Measure twice, cut once. Always check your work before you proceed. Learn to live with your mistakes.

Sorry, Mr. Anderson. 

At least the wood clamps stayed where I put them.


P.S. A few years ago I was invited to speak at an area middle school. One of the faculty I met happened to be the school’s Shop instructor. Immediately I asked if I could visit his workshop. He proudly escorted me down the hall, and opened the door to a brand new classroom – filled from one end to the other with computers. No workbenches. No sawhorses. No tools at all.

It was part of their ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy regarding weapons in the school, he told me. Saw blades and chisels, screwdrivers – even hammers – were deemed too dangerous for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to handle. Too much risk, too much liability in these troubled times.

Shop class now consisted entirely of pre-packaged computer-aided design programs.

Avoiding the question entirely about how these kids would ever learn how to measure board feet, rip a plank or countersink a nail, I couldn't help but wonder where our children are supposed to learn trust and responsibility, if they are not allowed to practice them in school. 

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