Wisdom of the Hands | Lost Art Press

Wisdom of the Hands | Lost Art Press

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David Esterly (1944-2019) with his piece Quodlibet #7, 2012. Photo: Bernini Poussin

I never had the privilege of meeting David Esterly (1944-2019), who died last month after a battle with Lou Gerhig’s disease. Esterly was a giant in the world of carving. Not only in his technical skill but in his ability to transmit ideas in a beautiful and lucid manner.

His book “The Lost Carving” is not a woodworking book per se. And it is definitely not a book from the “why we make things” genre, which tries to bridge the gap between people who make things and people with “big thoughts.”

Intead, it’s much more of an autobiography of someone who has utterly devoted his life to a craft and can explain what that feels like from the inside. Even if you don’t carve, I highly recommend you read it.

For me, “The Lost Carving” helped resolve many of the frustrations I experience when trying to communicate about woodworking. On the one hand, woodworking is deeply technical. So you have to deal with that. But the technical nature of the craft (tool steels, wood movement, finishing chemistry etc.) is a tiny part of what I think about every day at the bench. Anyone can learn the technical, tacit stuff. That’s what books, magazines and classes are for.

The important stuff is what Esterly wrote about in “The Lost Carving.” Here are two short excerpts, one of which Joel Moskowitz also referenced in his obituary of Esterly.

In the usual way of thinking, you have ideas, and then you learn technical skill so you can express them. In reality it’s often the reverse: skill gives you ideas. The hand guides the brain nearly as much as the brain guides the hand.

The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them. To carve is to be shaped by the wood even as you’re shaping it.

— “The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making” (2012)

This is the real stuff. This is what it feels like for me when working by hand. One example: Years ago, my hands taught my brain how to flatten a board by hand. Before I’d ever heard of Joseph Moxon or I had met anyone who worked by hand, I had boards that needed to be dressed flat with handplanes.

The instructions I had were from modern books – stuff from the 1980s. And the techniques were woefully complex. I knew the task couldn’t be as difficult as described. So I took my jack plane to a warped piece of work and just messed with it. After some with-the-grain missionary-style planing, I tried things that (I thought) were no-nos – planing diagonally, planing across the grain, pulling the tool, taking short and localized strokes.

Within a few hours my hands had some ideas. Then it was just about getting the ideas into my brain so that I could explain the process to myself. Why did diagonal stokes fix warping? Why is traversing a board so effective on the bark face of the board?

I’m sure that all of this seems obvious to the peanut gallery. But that’s because someone probably offered you a good explanation at some point.

The act of sawing is another example. I have learned more about sawing from listening to my hands than to any person, dead or alive.

After I realized that tacit knowledge – the book stuff – isn’t as important as the deep-tissue stuff, I changed my tack as a workshop writer. Starting with “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I tried to dial down the technical information in my books and replace it with text intended to inspire confidence in the reader and cause him or her to pick up the tools. (Whether I succeeded or not is a thread more suited for LumberJocks than here.)

So you have Esterly to thank for that (or not).

If you wish to learn more about Esterly, here are some great links:

His obituary in The New York Times.
A nice profile in Harvard Magazine.
A sweet piece with a sad ending on CBS Sunday Morning.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. The title of this blog is a hat tip to Doug Stowe’s blog. Doug’s life has been dedicated to preserving skill through teaching children at the Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs, Ark.


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