(or there is no Command-Z
Immediacy is precisely what architects, who spend their time creating abstracted instructions for others, never achieve. We may create plausible simulacra of our projects relatively quickly (especially with 3D and parametric design software), but the real test is seeing the project finally realized in all 3 or 4 dimensions.
But immediacy is exactly how we spent a few days recently making a table for an Upstate NY home.
There are a few fundamental pieces of furniture that we can imagine constituted even the simplest cave dwelling; Table, Chair, Bed (and possibly the fainting couch for therapist cave dwellers…). My fave is the table.
While chairs can be a rock or tree stump, and the padded ground is essentially a bed, a table is not quite as ubiquitous. Currently chairs are highly technical and are more manufacturing than craft, and beds are essentially ways to prop up standard sized mattresses, limited and predetermined to a large extent. But tables can be virtually anything, making the design both limitless a lot of fun. Add to that the immediacy of actually making a table in a couple of days (with the invaluable help of a very talented good friend who is also a skilled cabinetmaker) and it’s sublime.
Inspired by a friend’s table made for a wallpaper hanger, a long thin table can maximize the view-oriented seats on one side. Plus the wallpaper table could fold up and be carried easily, it was light and had an elemental and clever folding mechanism. Ours needed to withstand the elements, though folding it meant it can be easily stored for the winter. And unusually (for a table) it would be seen from underneath as the land dropped off on three sides and the approach exposed the parts of the table hardly ever seen in full. That was the brief.
Making a Table (or there is no Command-Z in woodworking)
We started at the lumber yard across the road from an utterly monumental maximum security prison. It is essentially a modern walled medieval city (see Aiuges Mortes in southern France) without the great coffee places and charming hotels. It was the home to New York’s execution chamber, when the state did what no state should be permitted to do. It’s a place with serious gravitas set in the most beautiful countryside imaginable, which seems like an extra layer of cruelty for someone only able to see the sky from inside. The lumber yard, just across a small country road, likes to hire ex-convicts and I can’t imagine a better mute reminder NOT to recidivate than passing that gargantuan prison every day on the way to and from work.
This is a serious lumber yard, with nothing other than wood in nearly every species imaginable and every imaginable size. All the domestic ones like oak (red & white), cherry, birch, maple, walnut, ash, beech, poplar, Douglas fir, pine, cedar, basswood and chestnut. Plus the more exotic ones like ipe, holly, sapele, padouk, ebony, cypress, teak, purpleheart, bubinga, cumaru and at least 5 different kinds of mahogany. And we haven’t even gotten to the plywoods. We went with cypress, an inherently rot and water resistant wood, reasonable in cost, available in wide planks and light enough to make a large table manageable.
The design doodled on a few sheets was the most technical thing about the process, drawn on an iPad rather than paper. It included gaps between the planks for water to drain with small ‘stiches’ of walnut to keep the planks aligned with each other; rounded ends for comfort and carrying ease (and a kind of directionality); and a version of the clever, utterly simple folding legs and diagonal braces featured on the original wallpaper table.
Part of the fun of building things with one’s own hands is the lack of detailed drawings. After chatting about them at a local diner (amazing fish and chips) we inadvertently left them on the table and never even realized it. We were working analog not digital, R not VR. At the studio we spend all day crafting comprehensive drawings, but dealing with the material directly has a sense of purity and spontaneity we can never achieve in our professional creations. And it’s just a table. It is unlikely to collapse and hurt anyone, or require emergency evacuation, or need more operational maintenance than the occasional oiling.
Until this table all our woodworking efforts were inherently rustic. Imprecision, limited craft and a lack of all the equipment tends to result in slightly Appalachian style. A full woodworking shop is a thing of beauty. Every imaginable operation one might want to do is possible, and like Photoshop there are usually a few ways to do any given task. It is all 'hardware' but has the functional structure of software, but with collaboration. Operations occur in sequence, requiring decisions at each step, but unlike software are irreversible.
There is no ‘command-z’ in woodworking!
Along the way we cut, surfaced, trimmed, screwed, routed, sanded, glued and clamped the wood building first the top, then the legs and assembling it all as a final step. In two days we had a table and in two more days it was oiled and had it’s first test drive; a dinner for 10 friends, all with July birthdays, celebrated en masse. It’s been rained on, baked in the sun, pooped on by birds and probably scampered over by squirrels, chipmunks and field mice looking for a few morsels.
The table is a reminder that what we do is make things. Big things, smaller things, things with our hands and things with the hands of others. It was slower than making a meal, but way faster than making a building.