All The Trappings

February 22, 2023

When I first started woodworking, I was hyperfocused on what my work area looked like. I started out in the garage under our house with just a circular saw and no real idea what I was doing. Once I figured out how to make “square” cuts with a track saw, my wife bought me a magazine all about workshops. It was filled with gorgeous pictures of impeccably setup shops. Every tool was in it’s place, with lines of chisels or handplanes or blades or custom-designed cabinets lining the walls. I’m a big fan of Philip Morley and his shop is clearly well-stocked:

I wanted a shop like that, and I started thinking about where all of my cool fancy tools would go and how impressed my friends would be when they saw my shop. I had stopped thinking about exactly what I would build with all those tools, but they sure were pretty.

Otherwise wealthy people have for centuries decided to setup farms and get back to growing things. The colloquialism for this - gentleman farmer - is almost right, but not quite. There’s a certain kind of gentleman farmer I’m thinking of. He has the best tools and a beautiful new barn that the Amish raised for him. He sits in the library at his farmhouse with a snifter of brandy admiring the viridescent landscape out his overtall windows. He does not know how to hook his tractor up to a tiller. He does not know how to seed or when to water. He’s expended lots of capital and very little labor on his farm. But when his peers come around, he can walk with them and name every plant in his garden.

He may or may not be a gentleman. But he’s not a farmer, he just plays at one. He’s a fake. A charlatan. And impostor. Worst of all, the person he is fooling the most is himself.

This is how my shop looks now.


Well not quite, there’s a couple new big tools in the way. But the point is, it’s a mess. And that’s the point: it should be. Because I’m still working at it and there are a thousand places where I have no idea what I’m doing. When we see the amazing spaces of craftsmen, we miss the necessity that drove the space to become what it is. Philip Morley’s shop has tools, wood, and jigs everywhere. It didn’t get that way so others could admire it. It got that way because, over thousands of hours of labor, he shaped the space he needed to build.

We get drawn to the trappings that go along with whatever title we’re interested in. I know boaters with beautiful new boats they admire at the dock. Audiophiles with incredible home theater systems that never watch a movie. Car lovers with a garage full of wrenches they never turn. One of the most pernicious effects of social media is that we see the results of amazing people and what they do.. but we don’t see what they do.

Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights. - Ronnie Coleman

The trappings are a distraction. You want the six pack abs, the amazing car, the fancy tools? These things are born out of necessity and passion. You do the work, hit a problem and fix it. Or you do the work, focus on the labor and then get the results.

Stop worrying about being the Noun. Just do the Verb.

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