Sunday, September 12, 2010

Alan Peters - Lest we forget...

The last issue of Popular Woodworking magazine to pass my way had an interesting perspective from the editor. To paraphrase the editor’s concerns; the average age of woodworkers is increasing at a fairly astonishing rate and the number of young woodworkers is declining. I’ve heard this many times before and the editor’s opinion is nothing new. I’ve noticed it myself as I, a woodworker in my early 40’s, have found myself one of the “younger” woodworkers at The Woodworking Show year after year (xref I believe that the true issue is more about saturation and available financial capitol than about age. I had the personal opportunity to enter into woodworking over a space of time while I was employed in an unrelated profession, so came into the art under the dubious title of “hobbyist”. When the market could no longer provide me with a consistent income, I relied on my hobby to supplement my income. By then, I had most of the tools that granted me speed and quality of production. I was also able to take the opportunity to focus on the nuances of how I wanted to approach the art in reference to power tools vs. hand tools, Japanese method vs. European method, etc.

To bring this around to the ultimate objective of the focus on a specific designer, it is this age that we are living in right now, and the subsequent five to ten decades that I’d like you to consider as woodworkers. Woodworking is about shaping this curious material (wood) in unique and interesting ways with sharp objects (most often metal blades). While a simplification that is the core of what we explore when we consider ourselves woodworkers, not long ago the subject of machine vs. hand transformed the art. If you’ve studied the Craftsman era or Arts and Crafts period in your history class, you should know that this issue was at the heart of the ideals. In the age of machine production, and in the age of machine information, the way which we shape wood is as diverse as the number of ways that we find out about how to shape it. We have begun to reach a new era in woodworking. The information that comes to us is no longer passed from parent to child or from master to apprentice, but from many directions and influences. What was once the “one true way” has given to a blur of methods and approaches that in my opinion have become as daunting as and figuratively louder than the noise that any power tool can make.

In October 2009, one of the last furniture designers in England that could trace his apprenticeship and subsequent mastery to the Arts and Crafts movement passed away at the age of 76. Here in the United States, there wasn’t much notice, even among master craftsmen. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1990 for his contributions to English furniture building techniques and designs, and is considered one of the founding fathers of the British Craft Revival of the 1970’s. A quote from the London Sunday times at the time of his passing speaks deeply to his philosophy: “The simple forms in Japanese vernacular architecture and furniture reinforced his background in the Arts and Crafts movement and nudged him more firmly towards an exploration of the beauty of the material. He began to enjoy and explore the unpredictable and beautiful figure of wood as an important part of the design but continued to make more humble pieces appropriate to production in numbers. One of his simplest pieces, a comfortable chapel chair, was made from pit-prop-grade ash for economy. It was never his motive to make objects of art, simply to produce beautiful pieces of furniture, on which he was happy to stamp his name.”

As furniture designers have come and gone over the last 50 years or so, Peters’ work stands out in that it speaks to the tradtion of Arts and Crafts visual honesty in construction methodology, but also gives a nod to the modern esthetic. Like his, turn of the century, influences in the Craftsman movement, he paid particular attention to the esthetic quality of Japanese joinery, line and form. That attention influenced his later work and to my eye gives both a cleaner and uncluttered line and a visual beauty. Over the course of his career, he traveled to Japan on many occasions to work with traditional Japanese carpenters, study furniture, temples and joinery techniques. The Arts and Crafts, like the Art Deco movement that followed it, combined many different styles and there is often some “Oriental” (as it was often mentioned at the turn of the century) detail or nuance that was added to a more traditional European piece to give it greater character or clarity. In the example above, AlanPeter’s design for a music stool from the late 1970’s, the seat of the stool itself functions to place the musician slightly forward in balance allowing for clearance of a woodwind instrument but also is reminiscent in line of Japanese ceiling beam architecture in the 1860’s.

In the November 2009 article of Popular Woodworking, Peter’s is remembered by his friend Rob Cosman, who also was the American editor of Alan Peter’s master woodworking video series. Peter’s apprenticeship to Arts and Crafts furniture designer Edward Barnsley, not just shaped his career but formed a thoughtful methodolgy and apprach to problem solving that allowed him to use the right tool for the subject at hand. Says Cosman, “He probably did the best job of combining hand tools, power tools, design and business,” Cosman also said, adding that Peters worked “with a precision and speed that nobody else could.” The video series is available at and some samples of his techniques are available in the public domain both there and on Youtube.

One of the many charters that we as students have is to discern the way a process is done, repeat the process such that we understand the peculiar nuances of it, and then modify that process for repeatablity and the eventual possibility that we may someday impart that process to others. As I am sure you have already begun to experience, in both the wood shop and in life, there are many different ways to approach a problem, large amounts of useful and questionable advice, that all things can end up being prey to uncertainty, and that when called upon to teach, the students are only partly engaged if at all. Whenever someone passes away, regardless of if you knew them or not, even the potential knowledge that they had is no longer in reach. Each subtle nuance and technique that the person had is no longer available. Because we can’t exactly catalog the human experience, we accept that the information is just gone with that individual. We have come into an age where the human experience is confrmed by the massive amount of digital reference available to us pretty much on demand. What we are losing is the human connection. The Internet will be there for us whenever we wish. People, are only with us for the shadow of a moment and when they are gone, the knowledge they had, useful and not is gone as well.

While I was in England, I missed an opportunity to study with Alan Peters at an afternoon seminar in Chichester by a few hours due to a miscommunication and bad transit decision. At the time I thought that I would have ample opportunity to return back to England again and catch one of his seminars again. I had a large list of questions in my notebook, one on Donbouri sharpening techniques, one on Japanese handplane choices, another on how to spot a good quality Japenese chisel set. While I can certainly have these questions answered, they will never be answered by him. We learn something when people pass on. Don’t wait to ask. Do not hesitate to ask, even if you feel foolish. Accept that the person that is there to instruct you has likely forgotten more about woodworking than you might ever know and that you might ask a question that will remind them about something that they have forgotten, important or not. This is a human experience, be connected to it for as long as you are able.

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