Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Shaving Bench & Hand Tools

I did not know who L.P. Hartley was until I searched for the famous dictum "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Hartley wrote a number of books, some very well received; his obscurity now makes a writer pause and think "why bother?"

But why bother at anything? In 100 years, anyone old enough to read this post will, at best, be a half-recalled series of stories told by descendants and an inscription on a stone, somewhere.

Now that I have depressed you thoroughly, let's hop into a time machine and cheer ourselves up a bit. It's one way I find solace as I face, as we all do, the final erasure of ourselves and our accomplishments. I'll use Rod Taylor's gizmo from the George Pal film; I think it best captures the intentions of H.G. Wells. I look forward to teaching the novel in my course on Science Fiction and Fantasy, this Fall. It puts human vanity into perspective.

So did William Faulkner, when he claimed that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I feel that way whenever I visit Colonial Williamsburg. It always gives me a strange hope that whatever our species does in the near future, short of nuclear catastrophe an interesting and more sustainable life for our descendants will be possible.  I am beginning to regard the Past as a foreign country, but one we can visit.

Beyond Williamsburg's occasional theme-park dissonance, as bored or dumb tourists meet very savvy historical reenactors, I find something precious for the future of our civilization going on: the conservation of old-time skills. I've become increasingly obsessive to learn a few, myself, from scything and baling hay by hand to acquiring more skill with hand-tools. These were skills that most rural residents possessed in living memory. As a Williamburg employee, working on a hand-built sawpit and barn, reminded me, you don't have to go back 200+ years to find the skills he used. In 1950, my late father-in-law built structures using most of the same techniques and many of the same tools.

After a recent visit I decided upon a hot-weather project: building a "shaving bench" or "shaving horse." That's not for shaving oneself or anything equine, but it holds wood for smoothing out with either a hand planer or a "spoke shave." This site shows how one can be made easily in a home shop. It should last a lifetime, unlike many modern power tools.

No, it is not as cool-looking than George Pal's rendition of Wells' time machine, but it serves a similar purpose: adventuring into another era. Whereas The Time Traveler went into the dim and grim future of the human race, then, heartbroken, beyond to the end of the Sun, my Shaving Bench will take me back no more than a century, so I can begin using hand tools for more woodworking. I'm learning to be good with our hand-auger and have long been decent at hand-sawing, but it's a journey to unlearn muscle-memory honed with table or chop saws, drill-presses, and jigsaws. I will use some of these power-tools to fashion the shaving bench, in both the interest of time and in order to conserve materials.

There is a focus all tools engender, simply because you can too easily nip off a finger or worse by not paying attention. Hand tools add something to that focus, because the experience is quiet enough to eliminate hearing protection and, depending on the tool, bulky safety glasses.

At times like that, I realize that as hard as our ancestors worked, the experience was less mediated. The world was a wooden one, as ours largely is, but the experiential distance from tree to board to finished good was much shorter. 

I plan to travel back to that foreign country, increasingly.

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